House of Lords
Wednesday 6 January 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points? I obviously ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, to ask the first Oral Question.
[Inaudible]—enormous pressure. Despite this unprecedented challenge, I can reassure the House that the whole system has worked together to prioritise support for the most vulnerable. Of course, we acknowledge that there is always more to do, which is why the department continues to work with the advice sector to provide vital support services for litigants.
The Resolution report showed that we are heading for disaster in the family courts, and that 41% of those recently divorced suffered mental health episodes or even had suicidal thoughts. The Nuffield report on remote hearings showed that while the professionals are happy with remote court working, litigants are not. There are technical issues and a lack of privacy. What will the Government do to help those in divorce proceedings? Disputes over financial provision are a major irritant. If mediation is a solution, the law in that area has to be simplified. Will the Minister update the House on progress with a promised review of financial provision law aimed at making it less contentious?
My Lords, Resolution urges early support for separating couples to mitigate the pain of divorce and consequential mental ill health they and their children very frequently experience. The Lord Chancellor committed to join up government family support to mitigate the pain of no-fault divorce. Family hubs, as recommended by Justice Cobb’s Family Solutions Group, are firmly on the Department for Education’s agenda, but how will the Ministry of Justice ensure support for separating families?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to identify the family hubs as a principal part of the Government’s intention to join up government family support as part of the backdrop to implementing no-fault divorce. Ministers and officials from the Ministry of Justice are working closely with their counterparts in the Department for Education and a number of other government departments to share a cross-government agenda for strengthening families. Family hubs are a vital element of this agenda, and work is continuing to further develop the family hub model to ensure that they improve outcomes for children and families with children. This will include those at risk of separating or who have separated, equipping them with the skills to manage issues and decisions independently and effectively so that they do not need to rely on family courts. In addition, and as previously stated in this House, the Government will use the opportunity of revising the online divorce application process to improve the signposting of relevant support services.
My Lords, I think we are all aware that this post-Christmas period is a particularly difficult time for relationships, and the feelings of depression and anxiety among divorcees, which the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred to, are made worse when they are worried about whether they can afford professional or legal advice. So many decide to represent themselves in the divorce court rather than to have professional advice, sometimes with disastrous results. How do the Government intend to ensure that poorer people have access to justice, and what are they doing to relieve the huge burden of overwork for court staff which leads to phones not being answered and cases postponed?
My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord’s first question, legal aid is available for private families where an applicant is a victim of, or at risk of being a victim of, domestic abuse or child abuse, and that is subject to the means and merits criteria. Legal aid is available for the purpose of obtaining urgent protection such as non-molestation orders without any up-front evidence requirements, and the Legal Aid Agency has the power to waive all financial eligibility limits so that a victim may qualify for legal aid even if their income or capital exceeds the eligibility limits. An overall contribution may be required later. Legal aid for matters out of scope of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is available via the exceptional case funding scheme. That is intended to ensure that legal aid is accessible in all cases where there is a risk of breach of human rights, subject to the statutory means and merits test.
[Inaudible.] Can the Minister confirm that, as discussed in the recent GR judicial review case, where a wife subjected to domestic abuse has been assessed as having capital in a jointly owned matrimonial home but is otherwise penniless, and where she can demonstrate that she is unable to access that capital because the violent husband refuses to sell or mortgage the property, the director of legal aid casework has a discretion which he should exercise to treat the applicant as financially eligible for legal aid?
The noble Lord’s question addresses aspects of detail as well as recent case law. I do not have the detail and the material with me to permit me to provide the noble Lord with a satisfactory answer. Again, I shall ensure that I correspond with him and put down in writing the answer to his question.
My Lords, in November, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, Cafcass, triggered its prioritisation protocol in South Yorkshire and the Humber region, which means it is allocating only the highest priority cases there due to severe understaffing. The trade union Napo has described this as a crisis. What steps is the Minister taking to prevent this prioritisation protocol being triggered in other areas, and what estimate has he made of the extra resources necessary to stabilise Cafcass in this region and to prevent a similar protocol being triggered elsewhere?
The question covers some of the ground posed by an earlier question but I am happy to answer it. Approximately £3.5 million of additional funding has assisted Cafcass in increasing staffing levels. Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service has recruited approximately 900 additional support staff across jurisdictions and around 700 further appointments are currently sought. Your Lordships will be aware that Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service has established 17 Nightingale courts across England and Wales. These give 32 additional courtrooms to alleviate the pressure on courts and tribunals. These courts are hearing, as well as family cases, civil, tribunal and non-custodial criminal work. I can advise that judicial sitting days in the family court have been increased. Current projections are that a level of nearly 96,000 sitting days for 2020-21 may be accomplished—5,000 more than allocation—and the courts sat for record numbers of days in June and July 2020.
Green Homes Grant Scheme
The green homes grant voucher scheme opened for applications in September 2020 and so far has received over 58,000 applications. There will be an independent evaluation of the processes and effectiveness of the voucher scheme, including a comprehensive analysis of scheme outcomes and evidence collected from scheme applicants and other stakeholders. This will begin this month and will run until 2023.
My Lords, given that the figures the Minister has given us show that the scheme has achieved less than 10% of its original target, does he recognise that no programme to upgrade the 28 million homes that require it will be successful if it is designed as a short-term stimulus measure, as this scheme was? Rather than downgrading quality requirements, will the Government therefore commit to a long-term sustained scheme over five or 10 years, which would incentivise the building industry to develop the skills base and create the jobs required to deliver such a major programme?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Oates, made a very good point: this needs to be a long-term scheme that gives the supply chain confidence to invest in and expand the workforce and create new green jobs. Can the Minister assure me that, in collecting the data that he says will come from the applicants, he will look at the assessment needed not only of the scheme’s contribution to carbon reduction but of its contribution to reducing fuel poverty in less well-off households? Can he tell us when we will see what proportion of households whose applications have been approved are in receipt of benefits and what proportion are landlords whose applications will benefit their tenants?
We have already listened to feedback and announced the extension of the scheme until March 2022. We will always listen to feedback. I gave the figures earlier for the number of applications that have been received. In due course, we will a provide further breakdown of those figures.
The number of contractors engaged with the scheme appears, not least in the north and the Midlands, to be remarkably low. What will the Government do to incentivise more contractors so that issues such as the replacement of oil heating systems can be delivered through this scheme? There appear to be no contractors doing it anywhere across the whole of the north and the Midlands.
More than 1,300 companies are registered with TrustMark so far, of which 765 are registered with the scheme, including many businesses that operate nationally with substantial capacity to carry out work across the country, but the noble Lord makes a good point. We are well aware that we need to get more contractors and installers signed up to the scheme. We are actively working with TrustMark and the certification bodies to do that, but we need to ensure that the essential quality standards are met.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he has made an excellent start with the Green Homes Grant scheme? I spoke to former constituents. However, just one element causes a problem: the need for an urgent review of the smart meter installation programme, particularly for those who want to take up this green project and have an old smart meter, which means they cannot switch suppliers. Will my noble friend look at this small handicap to those taking part?
I thank my noble friend for his question. The smart meter scheme is not part of the Green Homes Grant scheme. It is a separate scheme, for which I also have responsibility, but I would be happy to talk to him separately about the issues he raises.
On Monday, the Minister announced that building contractors delivering the Green Homes Grant scheme no longer need to be registered with TrustMark, be certified with PAS or be MCS compliant, thus lowering the standard of entry for those undertaking work. This comes at a time when there is also an acute shortage of professional retrofit assessors, who are essential to check and sign off completed projects. That leaves owner-occupiers who are trying to do the right thing and make their homes energy efficient increasingly exposed to undetected bad workmanship or fraud. Exactly how does the Minister propose to increase the number of assessors, safeguard consumers and prevent this vital scheme getting a reputation for dodgy work and becoming a wild west waste of money?
We absolutely want to ensure that that is not the case. The noble Lord is incorrect. Main contractors still need to be registered with TrustMark. They also need PAS certification or be on a pathway to it. We are working with contractors to make sure that more are registered. We are also talking to the certification bodies. I have met a number of them to ensure that more contractors are signed up to the scheme. The noble Lord is absolutely right that the quality of the scheme and the standards of work carried out are of priority importance and we will make sure that that happens.
My Lords, a nationally-focused, directly-funded scheme for installing energy efficiency measures and efficient heating for fuel-poor homeowners and private renters exists in Wales and Scotland. The recently introduced Green Homes Grant scheme obviously provides funding—albeit less generous—in England through local authorities but not through a single, efficient, focused nationwide scheme with high quality standards and an easy customer journey. Will the Minister look to improve the delivery mechanisms of the Green Homes Grant scheme to match the clarity of a single, focused nationwide initiative as part of the review process that he has just announced?
I understand the noble Lord’s point, but we specifically designed the local authority delivery element of the scheme to directly target owner-occupiers in private and social rented sectors but also to allow local authorities themselves to be responsible for the design of those schemes so that they more closely matched the requirements of their area. If we had a national instruction on how to do it, I think that would cause other problems. On balance, it is probably best to allow local authorities to decide how it works best in their areas.
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Sustainable Energy Association. Bearing in mind that there have been delays in issuing the vouchers for Green Homes Grant spending, which are leading to a likely underspend in this financial year, can the Minister confirm that the Government will carry over this phase 1 underspend beyond the end of March into phase 2 spending, so that valuable funding support is not lost?
We announced the extension of the scheme until March 2022, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware. In the 2020 spending review, the Chancellor allocated over £1 billion to make public sector buildings and homes greener, including £320 million for this scheme in 2021-22.
With the initial plan for the Green Homes Grant to last only nine months now extended a further 12 months until March 2022, there must be doubts about the ambition of this scheme against the long-term challenge of making homes more energy efficient. With only 5.6% of applicants having had their applications approved and with only a single household receiving a voucher, can the Minister tell the House what success looks like for this scheme? For example, what maintenance of a set maximum response time for applicants will be achieved and how many of the 19 million homes EPC-rated D or worse will be improved through the scheme?
The noble Lord asks a lot of questions. I think his figures are incorrect. We had 58,000 applications and have issued almost 11,000 vouchers to those applicants. Another 11,000 are being processed and 35,000 have gone back to the applicants for further information or clarification of their quotes, et cetera. We keep all elements of the scheme under review. We announced the extension to March 2022 in response to the feedback we received from the noble Lord and others.
My Lords, the sector that will deliver home energy efficiency measures wants statutory targets, such as those for climate change, to give it confidence to invest in equipment and training. The Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, in the other place has talked specifically of the benefits of statutory targets in driving action. Will the Government enact into legislation the targets for home energy efficiency they have already promised?
My Lords, I thank the Minister and his officials for a very helpful meeting in the autumn on this topic. Can he confirm that the original requirement for applicants to use vouchers for at least one primary measure, before becoming eligible for a secondary measure, has now been removed?
No. At present, we keep the primary and secondary elements of the scheme, because we think that is the best way of delivering the maximum carbon savings that I know the noble Lord is also keen on. We keep the scheme under constant review and listen to suggestions for improvements from him and others on how we can make it more effective. The noble Lord’s feedback is valuable, and I will bear it in mind.
Religious Groups: Financial Support
During the pandemic, faith-based organisations and places of worship have been able to apply for a range of government packages available to support charities and businesses. These include the Coronavirus Community Support Fund, Historic England’s Covid-19 emergency relief fund and the Local Authority Discretionary Grants Fund. We continue to consider how government can effectively support the sustainability of faith groups.
My Lords, as a retired minister, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. Over these long months of the pandemic, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has provided financial aid for people and businesses greatly impacted by Covid, but churches themselves, which provide vital assistance to the isolated, the elderly, the sick and the dying, have received nothing, although their finances have been greatly depleted by the non-attendance of most of their congregations because of government rules and restrictions. What consideration has been given to this matter, and will aid be forthcoming?
I do not recognise that no support has been given. In fact, during the pandemic, there have been 10 schemes available to places of worship, including churches, four of which are still available. I point to the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme from DCMS, the gift aid small donations scheme, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme through BEIS and the Job Support Scheme from HMT, all of which are still running and available.
My Lords, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, in its recent inquiry, received evidence of the specific targeting and blaming of Muslims as a group causing the spread of the coronavirus. Will my noble friend join me in both rejecting this false and bigoted view and paying tribute to the many mosques and community organisations which, despite the Government’s decision to allow communal worship in the latest lockdown, have taken the decision to limit services where it is considered wise to do so, in the interests of public health and safety?
I join my noble friend in condemning those who point the finger at any community, including British Muslims. I absolutely commend the role taken by Muslim charities, such as the Muslim Charities Forum, in supporting people during the pandemic. It is part of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergency Partnership. I commend the work of Muslim charities and mosques in helping the needy and vulnerable at this difficult time.
My Lords, Sikhs from the gurdwara in Gravesend were prominent in organising free hot meals for stranded lorry drivers at Dover, and similar initiatives by Sikhs have been applauded in other parts of the world. Government assistance in making minority communities aware of the perils of Covid-19 on media that they read, watch or listen to would be helpful, but does the Minister agree that the faith communities, in the welfare and volunteering they do, are playing a key role in helping us get through the pandemic?
My Lords, I completely agree on the role of British Sikhs. It is fundamental to their faith to help people in need, and, although I have only 15 followers, I specifically tweeted out my support for Langar Aid in Kent. It is alongside many charities, including the Salvation Army, which provided much needed sustenance at a very difficult time throughout the Christmas period.
My Lords, throughout the pandemic, faith groups have provided comfort, care, guidance and support for people and communities—as we saw in Gravesend with the Sikh community. We should pay tribute to them and thank them for that, but, as the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, said, we should go further. Will the Minister agree to speak to his colleagues in the Treasury to see what could be done through the tax system to provide bespoke levels of support to faith communities? I also join the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, in condemning those who wrongly seek to blame the Muslim community for the pandemic.
At the end of this pandemic, whenever it is, many ordinary chapels and churches will be in difficulties, just like the major churches. In many places, those that have been closed for the pandemic will not open again. I ask the Government to give support in whatever way possible to those people, sometimes very few, who are battling to come to terms with legal or building requirements. I also thank those who have been standing so faithfully over the years in these smaller congregations. Things have changed now, and I know that in my church, the Methodist Church, the Whitechapel mission, for example, has in the past nine months served 277,000 meals. In other places, as already mentioned, drivers of the lorries held up going to Dover were very well supported by people of all faiths and of no faith. Can we also say thank you to them?
My Lords, I declare an interest as the grandson of a Methodist minister, and I commend what Methodists have done, but I am in fact a Roman Catholic. None the less, faith communities have stepped forward and helped considerably during this time, and the Government will continue to think about ways in which we can partner with faith communities.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, as his Question enables me to acknowledge with thanks to the support which has been received by religious groups and charities, not least through the furlough arrangements, which have been a considerable help for many of them. However, in looking to the future, I join others in urging Her Majesty’s Government to keep particularly in mind the needs of smaller charities, which are often religious, community and locally based in character, whose work with young people, the homeless, those in debt, the elderly and other groups has been growing in this time, while their voluntary income has often been diminishing. Perhaps I can tempt the Minister by suggesting that Her Majesty’s Government might consider using their new-found freedoms to exchange the current scheme, whereby VAT is reimbursed on works relating to listed places of worship, for one where it is not charged in the first place.
My Lords, I know that that will be the start of a series of specific, bespoke requests, but it is right that the Government think about how we support small, grassroots charities. I want to commend the efforts of my colleague, my noble friend Lady Barran, for setting up the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergency Partnership during the pandemic, which is trying to do precisely that with a £5 million award, and we are looking to build on that for particular faith communities as well.
My Lords, the second round of the Cultural Recovery Fund will be open for applications from 7 January and will close on 26 January; £36 million of this funding will be allocated to heritage organisations and businesses, administered by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Historic England. Will this fund be open to faith organisations that are based in historic buildings, especially in rural areas?
My Lords, many places of worship are open for people of all faiths and of none as places of refuge and renewal, as are organisations such as the Salvation Army, which has already been mentioned. They provide invaluable help to many people, particularly those who have been rescued from abuse of all kinds, such as human trafficking and domestic violence. As their income has been greatly reduced by the Covid pandemic, will the Government help so that their work can continue? Perhaps, as my friendly colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, suggested, they can have some form of tax relief.
My Lords, I, too, commend the work of the Salvation Army. I now consider Dean Pallant to be a close friend, and the work it does is phenomenal. It is fair to say that it has been able to apply to around 10 schemes, four of which remain open, it is a member of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergency Partnership, and £5 million has been distributed to its members.
My Lords, I am aware of the valuable work that faith organisations do in our community. Temples, gurdwaras and mosques provide food parcels, and religious leaders provide counselling and other services to local communities. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in other government departments to ensure that these services are not curtailed by a lack of financial resources? Any help for these organisations through local authorities would be most welcome.
Law Enforcement: Brexit Impacts
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom of (1) not having access to European Union databases for the purposes of investigating crime, and (2) the replacement being put in place for the European arrest warrant.
My Lords, the safety and security of our citizens is the Government’s top priority. That is why we have secured an agreement delivering a comprehensive package of capabilities that will ensure that we can work with counterparts across Europe to tackle serious crime and terrorism, protecting the public and bringing criminals to justice. Importantly, this agreement includes arrangements facilitating streamlined extradition and the fast and effective exchange of data.
My Lords, on Christmas Day, the Home Secretary issued a statement saying that the new agreement with the EU was “historic” and would
“make the UK safer and more secure”.
Will the Minister tell us precisely in what ways the deal makes us safer and more secure? How will the loss of direct, real-time data-sharing access, and the loss of access to the Schengen database of alerts about wanted or missing people, stolen firearms and vehicles, conceivably help our law enforcement agencies?
My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is absolutely right. This deal is historic and it will keep us safe. In terms of SIS II, to which the noble Lord refers, as he knows, the EU took the position that it was legally impossible for any non-Schengen country to be included. We obviously are using Interpol and bilateral channels to facilitate that. It is important that we get SIS II into perspective, because every time that a UK law enforcement officer checked policing or border systems, it counted as a check against SIS II. That is why there were 572 million checks in 2019. Less than 0.5 per cent of those SIS II records related to persons of law enforcement interest.
My Lords, I first pay tribute to the Minister, who led a very fine debate last night on domestic abuse and domestic violence. I wish to pick up on that in relation to the questions of my noble friend. When protection orders are made on domestic abuse to protect someone who is being victimised and has survived domestic abuse, the order could, until now, be enforced in other parts of Europe. What will happen if, for example, a woman goes with her children to visit family members in Europe but is pursued by her abuser, who assumes that the order will no longer operate beyond our borders? Are we going to create new mutual recognition mechanisms to make sure that any order to protect her will be enforced in other parts of Europe?
As the noble Baroness will know, we will not be seeking membership of Europol but the arrangements that we have in place will allow for the UK’s continued effective co-operation with Europol, including rapid exchange of operational information and data for mutual benefit—in particular, in the type of case that the noble Baroness outlined.
My Lords, the agreed surrender arrangements that replaced the European arrest warrant include a significant number of grounds for withholding surrender and an overall principle of proportionality. All issues raised by a requested person will have to be litigated in the executing state before a surrender decision can be made. Will the Government undertake an audit of the delays and costs involved in the new system arising from our withdrawing from the clear procedures for European arrest warrants?
The noble Lord will be pleased to know that some safeguards regarding human rights would be right for the carrying out of justice. However, in terms of speed, we fully anticipate that the arrangements will be as fast and effective as those under the EAW.
My Lords, I declare my interest as deputy chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Without seamless access to shared intelligence or co-operation both domestically and within Europe, human trafficking here will, I fear, inevitably increase. I heard what my noble friend said earlier, so will she now confirm that the UK will still have access to Europol, Eurojust, the Schengen Information System and passenger name record data?
I can confirm that the arrangements will allow for the UK’s continued co-operation with Europol. In terms of Eurojust, they ensure that UK and EU investigators can continue to share information and evidence, agree strategies and co-ordinate activity to tackle cross-border criminality.
There will be continued scrutiny of the effectiveness of the new arrangements. The noble and learned Lord is right that these things need to be swift and efficient but, as I said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, they also need safeguards built into them. I have every confidence that the new arrangements will work well.
If there has been no weakening of our security arrangements as a result of the new agreement with the EU, why, in the negotiations with the EU, did the Government seek to retain access to all the existing direct real-time data-sharing arrangements, including the Schengen database, that we had as EU members—not all of which we have retained?
The noble Lord is right that we have not retained everything. We have not got everything we wanted, which was always going to happen in a negotiation. But we believe that we have a set of agreements that protect our citizens and keep people safe.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the longest-serving Home Secretary of recent times, Theresa May, gave only qualified support for these arrangements, when she spoke in the House of Commons on 30 December? She expressed particular concern about the timeliness of access to databases of European criminal records, modern slavery and child abduction. Is it not time for the Government to come clean and say that we are weaker now with these protections and to come up with specific policies to plug the knowledge gaps identified by Mrs May?
My right honourable friend Theresa May was probably right to give it qualified support. We have not seen how it will work yet. I am confident it will work well and I am sure that this House will scrutinise any deficiencies in the new arrangements. We have a very good package for the safety and security of the citizens of this country.
My Lords, real-time access to intelligence is crucial in the fight against serious organised crime and terrorism. Can the Minister assure the House that any reduced capability to access such information in a timely manner will not increase the risk level in the United Kingdom, thereby endangering UK citizens from January 2021?
My Lords, timely access and cross-border co-operation benefits not only the UK but the EU. The noble Lord talks about serious and organised crime, which knows no borders and is global. It is incumbent on all of us to work together to stem its flow.
My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, the closest co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána is absolutely crucial in the fight against both terrorism and organised crime. In this context, the European arrest warrant has aided the smooth extradition of suspects between our two jurisdictions. Could my noble friend assure the House that arrangements are in place to ensure that this continues and that there is no going back to the extradition problems that beset us in the past, which so soured UK-Irish relations?
My noble friend is absolutely right to point that out, and I think it will have been foremost in the minds of negotiators, both here and in Ireland. We do not want to go back to those days, and it is very important that arrangements are in place that allow for criminals and terrorists to be dealt with swiftly and efficiently.
Arrangement of Business
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure exams which were originally scheduled to take place in January can take place safely; and when they plan to publish alternative arrangements for exams which were scheduled to take place in the summer.
My Lords, schools and colleges can continue with vocational and technical exams that are scheduled in January where they judge that it is right to do so. Students will not sit GCSE and A-level exams this summer. We are working closely with Ofqual to provide clarity on VTQ exams and assessments that are scheduled for later in the academic year. We and Ofqual will consult on how to award all pupils a grade to ensure that they can progress.
My Lords, the Government could not quite complete yet another 180-degree turn of the sort we have become all too familiar with in education policy, stopping short by leaving it to individual colleges to decide whether BTEC exams should go ahead this week. That inevitably means a patchwork system for BTEC students, who once again seem to be an afterthought for this Government, and is a further example of their lack of leadership. There should have been a plan B for the always-likely scenario now facing school and college exams. How will the Department for Education reassure students who were expecting to sit BTECs that they will not now lose out on university applications or other career opportunities, and how can a repeat of the uncertainty and stress caused to pupils and parents by the changes to last year’s GCSE and A-level exams be avoided?
My Lords, colleges have been given the discretion this month, because most of the content will have been learned. Seven awarding organisations had assessments planned for this month, and many of those assessments are required occupationally for people to progress, even into work, so it was important that colleges were given that discretion. We have encouraged this where career progression is dependent on the assessment. From February, the Ofqual consultation will consider all qualifications so that those who take qualifications other than A-levels and enter higher education will get a fair assessment of their grades. The noble Lord will be aware that UCAS has extended the window for applications this year by two weeks.
My Lords, so exams will not be sat and there will be teacher assessment, presumably with some external moderation. It is important that individual students’ situations are considered in that moderation and that guidance is given to schools. For example, children and young people in vulnerable circumstances, and young people without access to the internet, paid-for wi-fi or a laptop, must be taken into account. As one head teacher put it, there is a huge regional variation between space and peace and support. Can the Minister guarantee that all students will have a level playing field when it comes to their virtual learning? She might be interested to know that the guidance on the government website says that children who are vulnerable can still attend school in person. Hopefully that will be changed or altered.
My Lords, we have made clear that school places are available for children where one parent is a critical worker, and for vulnerable children, because they are best off in school. We have given head teachers the discretion to include in that vulnerable category any children who they identify as being at risk and better off in school. There will be a consultation. Ofqual will have to consult, as the Prime Minister outlined, working with the department on how the assessment exams will take place this summer so that all the factors outlined by the noble Lord can be taken into account. I will ensure that noble Lords who have an interest in this matter get the link to that consultation when it is announced.
My Lords, this latest lockdown and the change to exams is yet again likely to impact disproportionately on the outcomes of already disadvantaged students. The Minister reassured me on 2 September that better-resourced independent schools were keen to engage in supporting these students and that her next meeting with them would focus on how to structure their desire to help. Can she update us on these discussions and say how, at this critical juncture, their support might be accessed and made widely available?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. For disadvantaged students the lockdown and the closure of schools was a last resort. We are keenly aware of the implications for children and families. Regarding the independent schools’ offer, we have made clear to them that if they already have students who are vulnerable or the children of critical care workers, they should make education available to them. I am meeting with the sector at the end of the month and will be able to give the noble Baroness further information then.
My Lords, given that the history of pandemics has shown that there are often many twists and turns, and given that even with the vaccine there may be further disruption for the rest of this year and possibly even next year, can the Minister share some of the plan Bs in the event of future lockdowns pushing out the exams further? For example, are there plans to explore taking exams virtually, where technology allows you to check that the pupil is sitting the exam properly? Also, are measures in place to show employers and universities other evidence beyond the teacher’s perspective on the achievements of a pupil?
The noble Lord is correct that twists and turns can obviously be very quick. Remote education is the most important thing for students at the moment. A direction was issued before Christmas of three hours for primary-school children and four hours for secondary, and the right honourable Member the Secretary of State for Education is currently outlining the strengthening of those requirements. In 2020, we delivered 560,000 laptops to disadvantaged children. We delivered 50,000 on Monday, and there will be another 50,000 by the end of the week. This is key to those students in accessing curriculum that is delivered remotely for them. Regarding the consultation, all perspectives on how exams can be conducted will be able to be put forward.
My Lords, the summer exams were cancelled in Wales on 10 November, allowing time for schools and exam boards to develop robust alternative assessments. In Scotland, they followed suit on 8 December, yet Ministers in England dogmatically held out until Monday. They have catastrophically mishandled the impact of the pandemic on schools, on the digital divide, on free school meals, on last summer’s exams, on the abandoned mass-testing rollout and now in providing some certainty for schools this year. Has the Minister seen today’s statement by Parentkind that 84% of parents say that it is impacting their children’s mental health? Given that Ministers have lost the confidence and trust of teachers, school leaders and parents, is it not time for the Secretary of State and the Schools Minister to resign?
My Lords, obviously education is a devolved matter within the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland is still planning examinations, so there will have been different decisions at different times. In normal circumstances, exams are the best way to assess the education that children have been given, and we held out, as we believed was appropriate. It was a last resort to close our schools. We are keenly aware of the mental health and well-being implications for young people, hence why schools are open for vulnerable children at this time. We have not abandoned mass testing, because there are children in school. This will be a period in which schools can roll that out for students and staff who are there with a view to it being rolled out to primary schools and with a view to reopening as soon as the public health situation allows. That mass testing may be necessary at that point in time. We have closed the schools as a last resort and will reopen them as soon as public health allows.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests and declare another: I have an 18 year-old daughter who was actually set to be taking her exams this year, and I can confirm that, even for somebody like her who was expected to do well, there is stress.
Looking at other groups, students who sometimes overachieve in exams—generally the males of the species and particularly those with special educational needs, and who, for instance, might be able to dictate to somebody for the first time in an assessment—what plans have been made to make sure that these people are allowed to progress? Are we going to make sure that extra places are available in the next stage of their education in the foreseeable future?
My Lords, on the cancellation of exams for this summer, the consultation by Ofqual will include all the factors, including the ones that the noble Lord outlines. We know that although there was generally, percentage-wise, an inflation grade last year over the previous year, there are certain groups—sometimes disadvantaged students, sometimes BAME students—whose predicted grades are less than what they actually achieved. This consultation will enable those factors to be part of that assessment as to how we fairly assess the performance of our young people who will not be sitting exams.
My Lords, one of the groups that lost out last summer was the group of students studying for a GCSE or A-level in a heritage or community language at a supplementary school that was not partnered with a mainstream school, so they were unable to be awarded a centre-assessed grade. Will the Minister assure the House that, if similar or indeed whatever arrangements are made this year, the Government will work in advance with teachers and all types of school to ensure that no students from supplementary schools are so unfairly disadvantaged again?
My Lords, those students at supplementary schools are reviewed as private candidates. That is the same situation that home-educated students found themselves in last year, many of whom took advantage of the autumn series to sit examinations where centres could not, with integrity, give a grade to their work. Again I must point the noble Baroness to the consultation that will take place, but I anticipate that private candidates, including supplementary schools, will be part of what is looked at in the consultation to try to ensure that we can give them a grade through the assessment process in the summer.
My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register. I support the Government’s decision to put teachers at the forefront of grading A-levels and GCSEs this summer. Following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I stress that there must be an external moderating assessment of whatever process is put in place. Can my noble friend shed some detail on the timeframe for the consultation of what this process will be? What assessment has been made of the impact of this timetable on university applications?
My Lords, as I outlined, UCAS has extended the application window for two weeks. I am anticipating that external moderation will be part of what the consultation will include. That will be swift; it needs to be a valid consultation, but we know that we need to give certainty as soon as we can to schools, pupils and families. It may be that as I speak the Secretary of State is in the other place outlining further details. I am obviously not at liberty to give them today but I will be repeating that Statement tomorrow.
The next speaker is the noble Lord, Lord Austin of Dudley.
I apologise. I was saying that many children still do not have a computer, wi-fi or space in which to work. If schools are open for the children of key workers or for vulnerable children, why can space not be found in schools, community centres or libraries for those who cannot learn at home? Why not pay unemployed graduates or retired teachers to support pupils whose parents cannot afford tutors?
My Lords, in addition to the laptops that I outlined, 50,000 4G routers have been given to disadvantaged children. We have worked closely with the mobile phone companies to lift data limits so that children and families can access data on educational sites without limit. I advise noble Lords to look at the “Get help with tech” part of the website. However, in relation to space and the gathering together of people, contacts are what we need to limit at the moment, so those kinds of out-of-school settings are open only for vulnerable children and children of key workers. In relation to graduates, the academic mentors, who are part of the catch-up programme that Teach First has been using, are physical mentors in schools, so I anticipate that some graduates and potentially retired teachers have taken advantage of that.
My Lords, the last time I had occasion to ask about exams, it was to ask the Minister why the Government had not followed the lead of other UK jurisdictions in cancelling 16-plus exams, given that it was clear even at that stage that they could not be held fairly in 2021. Today I ask whether her department will take the opportunity to review the appropriateness of exams at 16-plus going forward, particularly given that, however good online teaching is, current year 10 students will have missed at least a term and a half—and probably more—of face-to-face teaching.
My Lords, as I have outlined, the Government closed schools as a last resort and cancelled exams as the best independent way of assessing students’ performance. The tectonic plate that shifted with the new variant over the Christmas and after-Christmas period has changed things dramatically from the last time that I stood at the Dispatch Box. However, it remains the case in England, as I have outlined—there are different approaches in different parts of the United Kingdom because of different education systems—that most students in England transition at 16, and that is why an examination at 16 is important.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has elapsed.
Medicines and Medical Devices Bill
Order of Consideration Motion
Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill
Order of Consideration Motion
Provisional Local Government Finance Settlement
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on 17 December 2020.
“Today I have written to all local authorities in England thanking their councillors, officers and employees for their exceptional service this year. From carers to teachers to social workers to refuse collectors to council officers, as well as the elected members, they have worked tirelessly over the course of this pandemic to keep us safe, to provide support to the most vulnerable, to assist local businesses and to deliver public services under immense pressure. I think I speak for the whole House in saying a sincere thank you and in wishing them and their families a happy and peaceful Christmas.
From the start of the pandemic, we committed to ensuring that councils had the resources they needed to step up and support their communities. We have provided councils with more than £7.2 billion of additional funding for Covid-19 expenditure. We have ensured that councils receive support to manage associated losses in income, including from sales, fees, charges, leisure centres and local taxes, and that is expected to amount to further billions of pounds of support. That commitment remains undimmed, and the settlement we are announcing today ensures that councils have the resources they need to continue that work next year, to play their part in the recovery of their communities and to deliver first-class public services.
As we look ahead to 2021 and 2022, the annual settlement makes an extra £2.2 billion available to fund the provision of critical public services, including adult and children’s social care. Within that, we are giving authorities access to an additional £1 billion for adult and children’s social care, made up of £300 million of social care grant and the flexibility of a 3% adult social care precept. On average, English councils will see a 4.5% cash-terms increase in core spending power, which is also an increase in real terms. That is testament to the support that our local government deserves, and it comes off the back of three settlements in a row that have increased funding in real terms.
The £1 billion grant announced at last year’s spending review will continue, along with all other existing social care funding. Balancing the contributions of national and local taxpayers, we are giving councils increased flexibility through a 2% council tax referendum limit, with an extra 3% for social care authorities. Councils will, of course, want to take into account the financial circumstances of their residents and to protect households from excessive increases in bills. It is incumbent on councils to balance these competing pressures and reach the right decision for their local areas.
To help councils continue reducing council tax for those least able to pay, including households hit hard financially by the pandemic, I am making £670 million of new grant funding available outside the core settlement for local council tax support. Lower-tier councils, including districts, will benefit from a new one-off £111 million lower-tier services grant, and we are providing certainty and stability by confirming that the main funding allocations for the full range of council services will rise in line with inflation.
Our settlement also addresses the extra costs incurred by councils in rural areas, providing an extra £4 million to the rural services delivery grant—the highest contribution to date, at £85 million. We are also proposing a further £622 million of new homes bonus allocations. We will invite views on how we can reform the scheme next year to ensure that it is focused where homes are needed the most and where councils are ambitious to get on and deliver them.
Despite the arrival of vaccines, we will continue to live with Covid-19 for some months. That is why, alongside the core settlement, I am announcing comprehensive measures, including £1.55 billion of additional, un-ring-fenced grant funding for Covid expenditure. Our measures insure against funding shortfalls, and I am particularly pleased to confirm today the scope of and approach to our very well received scheme to reimburse councils for 75% of irrecoverable lost tax income from 2020-21.
As the cold weather sets in, the protection of those sleeping rough amid the pandemic continues to be one of my priorities. Our world-leading Everyone In initiative was and remains a powerful testament to what local and central government can achieve together. We are building on that work to ensure that as few of the 29,000 people who were helped off the streets under that scheme, and subsequently, return to life on the streets, spending over £750 million next year to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping—a 60% increase on the previous year spending review. In addition, we are providing £165 million of new funding to councils for the troubled families programme, underlining our continued commitment to the most vulnerable in society. Following the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill, we will provide £125 million funding next year to enable councils to meet their duties in full to provide the support that victims of domestic abuse and their children undoubtedly deserve.
Serious challenges remain, but the start of the vaccine rollout last week offers us cause for optimism and allows us to at least begin to glimpse the world beyond the pandemic. We want to work with local councils to build a new country beyond Covid—a country that is more prosperous, greener, safer and more neighbourly. Local government will be integral to the achievement of that shared vision. We will establish a new £4 billion levelling-up fund, building on the success of our £3.6 billion towns and high streets funds. Any local area will be eligible to apply directly to this fund, which will finance the everyday infrastructure, town centre regeneration and culture that communities need and local people want. The UK shared prosperity fund will help to level up and create opportunity across the UK. A UK-wide investment framework for that will be published by my department early next year.
The Government are funding vital local infrastructure, with total capital spending at £100 billion. That will fund once-in-a-generation changes to local communities and deliver the highest sustained levels of public sector net investment since the 1970s, including the biggest hospital building programme in living memory, and £2.2 billion investment in our schools funding programme to rebuild 500 schools over the next decade. In addition, local councils will benefit from £1.7 billion for local roads maintenance and upgrades to tackle potholes, which will improve local connectivity and deliver better roads for our communities.
I want local government to emerge stronger, more sustainable and better able to meet the needs of those it serves. That means greater openness and accountability, and in a minority of cases it means better financial management and regard for taxpayers’ money. To that end, my department is publishing today its response to Sir Tony Redmond’s excellent review of the effectiveness of external audit and transparency. We will provide councils with an additional £15 million next year to implement Sir Tony’s recommendations. We are preserving the ability of local authorities to invest in programmes to power growth by lowering Public Works Loan Board interest rates, but we must also protect taxpayers from unwise risky investments of the kind we have seen, sadly, in some councils in recent years. Those practices must now end.
When there is a clearer path ahead, we will work with the sector and Members across the House to seek a new consensus for broader reforms to local government, including the fair funding review and the business rates reset, and we will ensure that councils are set on a long-term trajectory of sustainable growth and fair resources.
This will, I hope, be viewed as a significant settlement that paves the way for a bright future for our local communities as they seek to bounce back from an exceptionally difficult year. The settlement will deliver £2.2 billion of extra funding, a 4.5% cash and real-terms increase in core spending power, and it will further fund councils to ensure that they steer the course of the remaining months of the Covid-19 pandemic with certainty and confidence. Building on last year’s settlement, which exceptionally received cross-party support, it puts councils, which were at the forefront of our response to the pandemic, at the forefront of our recovery, and I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, first I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Secondly, I place on record my thanks to the whole of local government, including elected mayors, councillors, officers and all staff, for the fantastic job that they have done in the most difficult of circumstances over the past year.
When our communities have been most in need, local authorities and their staff have stepped up and delivered in every field—teachers, social workers, care staff, refuse collectors and all the others doing the important jobs that must be delivered. However, this is a disappointing Statement from the Government. It will lead to job losses and cuts to key front-line services, such as adult social care, which will cause great hardship to people and communities. On top of that, the Government are proposing that councils raise additional revenue through a 5% rise in the council tax, taking money from hard-pressed people who are already struggling.
Council tax is a regressive tax. It hits people and families on lower-than-average incomes much harder than people on higher incomes. In our most deprived areas, people on lower incomes will, as a result of this Statement, see the bills that they pay rise and the services they rely on cut. “Pay more, get less for your money” seems to be the by-line of the Government—not a great deal in my opinion.
So can the noble Lord tell the House what plans the Government have to support local authorities during the year as we seek to get out of the nightmare of the pandemic? It is very likely that Covid costs will outstrip even the revenue that can be raised from the council tax increase.
What plans do the Government have to support hard-pressed families? Is the noble Lord talking to the Treasury to ensure that support packages are available after March this year? Can he say something about the support that will be available for councils to help families who find themselves homeless? Does he think that the funding system for local government is fair and fit for purpose? If he does not, what action is he taking to change it? If he does think it is fair, can he please justify that?
At the start of the pandemic, the Government said that they would provide local authorities with all the support they needed. Sadly, however, I do not think that many in local government would say that that is the case at the start of 2021—that promise has not come to fruition.
Another huge issue for local authorities is the costs associated with people who have no recourse to public funds. How does the noble Lord intend to address that with this settlement? On a more general note, does he see the practical sense, particularly in these extraordinary times, of providing a multi-year settlement for local government? It would seem to be worth considering and would certainly help local government with its long-term financial planning.
I draw the attention of the House to my interests as a member of Kirklees Council and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
This annual announcement of the funding package for vital local government services is never given the attention it merits. In the last year, it has become ever more apparent how dependent our communities are on the services provided by local councils. In March, it was local councils that ensured that nearly all rough sleepers were placed in accommodation. Contact tracing by local council officers has been over 90% successful, as compared with the approximately 60% success rate for the private sector, which has had vast resources to do the task. It is local councils that have encouraged and enabled hundreds of thousands of local volunteers to support their communities by befriending the lonely, and that have provided food and meals for families on the breadline and have continued to provide essential services, carried out by unsung heroes—the key workers in waste collection, social care and children’s services, to name just three.
The Public Services Committee of your Lordships’ House has reported that, in the nation’s efforts to combat the pandemic, it was locally delivered services, provided by local councils and the voluntary sector, that were able to rise effectively to the challenge and respond to new demands in very different circumstances. On behalf of Liberal Democrats in this House, I express thanks for the amazing effort and leadership of councillors and council staff across the country.
That is the context of this funding settlement. It is, then, disappointing to read that those sterling efforts are not to be rewarded by the provision of funding that will enable councils to provide the additional services that their communities will need in the months and years ahead. For example, all predictions are that there will be a considerable rise in unemployment and business closures.
The funding settlement has a top-line figure of an increase in spending of 4.5% in what is described as “core spending power”. However, this is predicated on councils increasing council tax by the maximum amount permitted by the Government before triggering a local referendum. Unpacking this top-line increase reveals that 85% of the increase in funding comes from council tax payers—hard-pressed council tax payers. There will be a 2% council tax increase and, on top of that, a 3% increase in the social care precept, resulting in an expectation by the Government that council tax payers must pay an additional 5% this coming year.
Since the social care precept was first introduced by this Government, it has resulted in council tax payers being required to pay 15% more, over and above the 2% maximum allowed. For an average band D council tax payer, the extra imposed by this could mean a further £260 each year. Do the Government intend to pile the pressure on council tax payers every year via this social care precept? Can the Minister let the House know when proposals for social care funding reform will be published?
It is welcome that the Government have recognised the cost pressures on councils as a result of Covid. Those cost pressures come in the form of lost income for, for example, leisure services teams, but there are additional costs in tackling the pandemic. Unfortunately, the Government appear to be willing to fund only 75% of the losses, which simply puts even greater pressure on service delivery at a time when this is needed as never before. The consequences are, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has just said, inevitable job losses in local government and a reduction in vital services at a time when they are needed as never before.
If the Government’s levelling-up agenda is to be meaningful, it has to include enabling local government to extend its services—for instance, in the regeneration of local economies and improving skills to open up better-paid opportunities for local people. Can the Minister give any assurances to the House that the Government’s thinking on the levelling-up agenda includes a substantial and properly funded role for local government?
Of course, fundamental reform of local government funding and business rates is the basis of a secure future for local government when the role of public services, locally determined and delivered, has been never clearer. Therefore, can the Minister tell the House when the fair funding reform for local government is to be published and determined, and when business rates reform is to be tackled? I look forward to his answers to those questions.
My Lords, unfortunately I do not have the ability to declare an interest in local government as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, despite 16 years as a local councillor, six years as council leader in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and four years in City Hall as Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, but that gives me the ability to talk with some confidence about why I think this settlement by the Government is particularly generous at this time.
Even when you unpack the numbers, as has been done by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the reality is that there is a headline increase in core spending power of 4.5% but we see not a single reduction in grant income. Indeed, in some areas the grant income has increased considerably. Of course, if local town halls want to maximise their core spending power, they have a choice in how much they increase council tax. This coming financial year is not disproportionately different from the previous one in assuming increases of 2% in council tax and 3% for adult social care, as compared with 2% in the previous financial year, but, as a balancing item, that is a choice for council leaders and their Cabinets up and down the country to take, with, in some cases, elections looming. They have a choice in how much they increase council tax for their residents.
The Government have honoured their commitment to support local government through the pandemic. I too pay tribute to the amazing work of people in our town halls, providing services on the front line at a particularly difficult time. I commend them, and I agree with both previous speakers that they have played a phenomenal role in this pandemic. Long may that continue. As we have heard, the Government join both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness in supporting the work of people throughout the country delivering local services to their local communities.
So far the Government have provided—I am sorry to hesitate, but I am not seeing too well at the moment—£6.2 billion in support specifically to meet the pressures of the pandemic. Sorry, I got that figure wrong; it is £7.2 billion. I can add an extra billion for you: there has been £7.2 billion in support through the pandemic. As mentioned in the other place, the estimate of what local councils have spent is £4.4 billion. My maths is not terribly good, but that is less than the £7.2 billion given to councils. Frankly, that is putting our arms round town halls and supporting them through those inevitable pressures during a pandemic.
It is estimated, rightly, by local government itself, that that expenditure will increase and hit £6.2 billion. But again, within this settlement is £1.55 billion for Covid-related pressures. That shows a tremendous commitment from the Government, and tremendous work by my right honourable friend Robert Jenrick in negotiating with the Treasury for a great settlement for local government, and one that honours the support needed for our town halls.
It is fair to say that we face tough times. The economy has contracted, and people may be unable to pay their council tax. I can declare an interest as a council tax payer, and as a director of a business that pays business rates. Yes, businesses are struggling, and people are struggling to pay their bills. But covering 75p in the pound, without knowing the downside, is a pretty good deal from the Treasury, rather than the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, described it.
There is the same commitment to ending rough sleeping, and a 60% increase in funding. There is also the same commitment to people with no recourse to public funds. The derogation for London has been widened to the rest of the country, which is commendable. We have also told local town hall leaders that they have the discretion to support people without recourse to public funds who are not EEA nationals, as they see fit. That is the leadership we need to see in our town halls.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that we need to think about council tax, and about balancing council tax and grants. I will say more about that later, because I want to save some of my ammunition for speakers to come.
My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions, and I call the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton.
The Oxford-Cambridge arc is an economic powerhouse, but we desperately need more new homes for skilled workers if we are to help drive the economic recovery post-Covid. The challenge for local authorities is the up-front funding of vital infrastructure such as roads and schools, given that council tax receipts will not come until after the homes are built. The new homes bonus is most welcome, and although I will not join the chorus for more money, may I simply ask my noble friend whether he thinks it could be better targeted at the areas that need it most?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for mentioning the Oxford-Cambridge arc. Unlike the Prime Minister, I err more towards the Cambridge end of it. My noble friend is absolutely right to draw our attention to the importance of getting the infrastructure right to unlock growth and the prosperity of this country. That is why, as part of planning for the future—we discussed this at length in connection with the Planning for the Future White Paper—we are looking at an infrastructure levy, which would be much more transparent and streamlined, as a way of raising the funds that local areas need to ensure that they have the infrastructure to unlock their potential.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of Cumbria County Council, and I seek the Minister’s advice, because we have a meeting on Monday morning about whether to proceed with the 3% supplement on council tax to fund social care. Does he agree that, in total, a 5% increase in council tax is a very considerable real-terms increase at a time of great economic stress? Secondly, does he agree that council tax is an unfair tax, because it does not make the broadest backs bear the heaviest burden, which should be a fundamental principle of taxation? Thirdly, does he agree that, given the desperate position of social care, made worse by the Covid crisis, local authorities have little real choice in whether to implement the 3%? Finally, will he make a commitment that this will be the last year when this grossly unfair mechanism for funding social care will be applied, and that in 2021 the Government will produce their long-promised plan for putting the funding of social care on a long-term sustainable basis?
My Lords, I have never heard so many questions poured in with such economy, but I refuse to give advice to any council, or any councillor, on how they should tax their local communities. I could point to my own record as the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council. For six years we cut council tax by 3%, and for one year we froze it. That was because I believed that our council tax level was too high. I did not understand why neighbouring boroughs such as Wandsworth and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had substantially lower council tax than Hammersmith and Fulham. I chose the route of being able to tax less and provide better services, through more efficiency and driving greater productivity. So I would say that it is down to local leaders to decide how they set their council tax. My advice would be: what do you think is in the interests of your people? I agree that council tax is a regressive tax—but it is particularly ridiculous to see how some councils have to raise their funds largely through council tax increases, because they receive so little grant as a proportion of their combined budget. I shall give more examples of that later.
My Lords, in the Statement we are discussing, the Secretary of State said:
“I want local government to emerge stronger, more sustainable and better able to meet the needs of those it serves.”
Does my noble friend, with his local government experience, recognise that the current tax base for local government is unsustainable, with domestic rates 30 years out of date—and, as he has just admitted, regressive—and commercial rates killing the high street? Will the White Paper on devolution and local recovery, promised for last autumn, set out a firmer and broader basis for local government, so that it can be empowered as the Secretary of State wishes?
My Lords, I have saved my data, which I carefully put together—although I will not be able to read it very well—for my noble friend’s question, of which he kindly gave me notice. I shall tell a tale of two boroughs—the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, a Liberal Democrat authority, and the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, now, sadly, a Labour borough. It was taken over after I was leader of the council—but that is democracy for you. Things can change back again, I hasten to add, for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Things can swing both ways. For those two boroughs, exactly the same budget base was estimated, through both council tax and grant. Richmond upon Thames had £173 million and Hammersmith and Fulham £174 million—pretty much the same amount. Yet 83% of the money in Richmond upon Thames is raised through council tax, whereas only 31% of the money in Hammersmith and Fulham is raised through council tax. That is patently absurd. Of course we need to think about a more sensible system of local government finance. It is very hard to estimate via complex formulae, and I am sure the devolution White Paper will look into some of the vagaries of local government financing, whereby a river can separate, and thus create such great differences between, two neighbouring authorities.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my interest in the register as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The public health grant for 2020-21 was 22% lower per head in real terms compared to 2015-16. Restoring spending per head to this level would require an additional £1 billion. At a time of a public health crisis, to deal with the local ongoing and long-term effects of Covid-19, and to restart public health services that have had to be paused during this pandemic, does the Minister think the £1 billion should now be reinstated?
My Lords, I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. On the subject of local government finance, I am going back to two answers from the Government on 15 December to questions that I and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, had asked, referring to the £500 self-isolation payment to people who were ordered to self-isolate due to Covid-19 exposure or infection. At that point it was clear that there was a postcode lottery, and some local authorities had run out so people were unable to get payment. On 15 December the Government gave two answers, one of which said there was a fixed envelope of money and implied that no more money would be given, while the other, from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said that this was under review. Has it been reviewed, and has the postcode lottery over the money being paid out by local government been fixed?
My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of Pendle Council. Pendle is a small district in east Lancashire. I speak again from the sunlit uplands of east Lancashire but they are not sunlit from the point of view of local government finance. The Minister talks about a 4.5% increase in core spending power but in my authority, if we did not increase council tax by the 2% that is allowed, we would have a reduction in core spending power, which is grossly unfair. About two-thirds of our council tax payers are in band A, which puts that band up to unsustainable levels. It is getting out of hand. People simply cannot afford the council tax that they are now being asked to pay. What is the Minister doing about that? Will he give an absolute commitment that not only is there the £1.5 billion in the settlement for Covid-related extra costs but there is still a commitment from the Government that all extra costs to local authorities from Covid during the next financial year will be met by government grant?
My Lords, I remind everyone that we have seen a seismic contraction of the economy and that many people have lost their jobs and will need to retrain. This has been a dreadful pandemic and it continues to be extremely tough as we enter another lockdown, but with the glimmer of hope that we have with the vaccine being available. We are providing grant funding that is absolutely flat in cash terms. Baseline funding remains £12.48 billion, the revenue support grant has increased a tad from £2.32 billion to 2.33 billion. Other grants have increased from £4.98 billion to £5.26 billion. That is quite a sizeable increase. There is no reduction at all in cash year on year, with inflation at relatively low levels and, as I mentioned, huge amounts of support for Covid-related pressures. I think that is an excellent financial settlement for local authorities. It really is up to the people in town halls to show some civic leadership and decide what they tax the local residents. If they choose to tax them heavily then they may have to pay the price at the ballot box, but that is democracy for you.
My Lords, I humbly succumb to the Minister’s statistical genius, so I am not going to go into that arena. I welcome all the resources and measures introduced by the Government so far, especially regarding homelessness and commitments towards easing the “no recourse to public funds” rule for families. The Minister will be aware that, in Newham and Tower Hamlets in particular, homelessness issues and overcrowding have contributed in part to the incredibly high numbers of infections and admissions. Yesterday in this Chamber we debated the commitment from the Government, and indeed all of us, regarding housing for families fleeing domestic violence. What consideration is being given to ensuring that that commitment and the Statement encompass and embrace all these very pressing needs and demands? How will we continue to ensure that the Government adhere to their own principles and desires to level up and be fair and equal and just?
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, for raising the issue of homelessness. I know from having visited the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on many occasions and the London Borough of Newham on a number of occasions that homelessness is a real issue. I would point out that this settlement is pretty good news: it is reasonable to put forward £100 million to start planning for move-on accommodation from temporary accommodation, which is not a place where you want families to be. That was provided in the summer. There is a commitment in the financial settlement of £750 million towards supporting people whom we have a statutory duty to house—the homeless—and £430 million of that is for move-on accommodation. I hope that assures the noble Baroness that we take issues of how to tackle homelessness very seriously.
My Lords, largely because of the needs of Covid, the national finances are now in a dire state. Many retailers are experiencing serious financial problems for the same reason. The temporary suspension of business rates, a national policy, is relevant. Is the Minister satisfied that the Government’s policy on business rates is optimal and value for money and that it best deals with the serious problems both within the retail sector and, more generally, the problems of the high street?
I thank my noble friend for raising the issue of the high street. There is support through the high streets fund to ensure that our high streets thrive, but they are places where we need to see significant change. As my noble friend points out, a lot of businesses on the high street are struggling to pay their business rates. I think that, in the longer term, the tax base needs to shift. This is not policy, but self-evidently we are seeing online business take a greater share, and those housed in bricks and mortar are struggling to make a go of their businesses.
We need to see a policy shift over time. The Government cannot do that by waving a magic wand, so we need to make sure that there are policy tweaks to support the high street in the interim. There are a lot of measures to do that in those that my right honourable friend Robert Jenrick has announced. More will be coming to support our high streets, which are the very bedrock of local economies.
My Lords, I too should remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The Minister said earlier that the settlement is particularly generous, but the reality is that the Statement means that council tax could rise for council tax payers by up to 5% in April. At the general election just over a year ago, the Conservative Party manifesto promised not to increase income tax, national insurance or VAT in this Parliament. The consequence is an increased burden on council tax payers for the sixth year in a row, largely to fund adult social care. Why do the Government force up council tax in this way, well above the rate of inflation?
My Lords, all of us who have run local authorities recognise the spending pressures intrinsic to local government, particularly for adult social care but also for social care for children. They form a significant part of any local authority budget, so it is quite right and proper to think about giving the option, as a balancing item, to have the latitude to increase council tax to pay for some of our most needy. The other 2% is very much guidance; it is a balancing item. It is for administrations up and down the country to decide whether they want to increase council tax to achieve the maximum core spending power. That is the situation that we find ourselves in. There is no reduction in grant and significant extra funding to see local councils through the Covid-related pressures. That is a good deal, particularly given the state of our national economy and the rise in national debt.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wei, has withdrawn so all Back-Bench questions have now been asked.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask all Members to respect social distancing. 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. Other than the mover of an amendment or the Minister, Members may speak only once on each group. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are permitted but discouraged. A Member wishing to ask such a question, including the Members in the Chamber, must email the clerk. The groupings are binding, and it is not possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A participant who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in the group to a Division must give notice, either in the debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the Question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group.
Report (3rd Day)
Relevant document: 15th Report from the Constitution Committee
17: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Trade agreement with the EU: compliance with the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland
Any trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union that is subject to sections 20 to 25 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 is not to be ratified unless it fully complies with the requirements of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland as part of the Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, as signed and ratified by Her Majesty’s Government.”
My Lords, I will move Amendment 17 and speak to Amendment 18. Both on the Irish border and have been largely superseded technically, if not in spirit, by the December deal. I will also speak to Amendment 26 on the Irish Sea, on which I will seek leave to divide, with the permission of your Lordships’ House. I am grateful for the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
First, I will address Amendments 17 and 18 on the Good Friday agreement and the Irish border. As I have argued before, both on this Bill and on other Brexit-related Bills, I am profoundly convinced that the objectives of Amendment 18 are absolutely essential to provide for full protection for the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in all its parts, and, as part of that, to prevent a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland. Very importantly, the amendment is also consistent with, and indeed complementary to, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, into which this House placed important text along similar lines to Amendment 18, with the eventual agreement of the Government in the other place at the final stage.
There is now agreement between the UK and the EU on how to implement the Irish protocol, which is fully incorporated in the December deal, but we must help the Government to keep to their word and stated commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, not least—crucially—when negotiating future trade agreements.
The future relationship agreement, negotiated just before Christmas, thin though it is, at least removes the question of tariffs from the long list of barriers that Brexit has put up around this country. Those of us who have served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whether Labour or Conservative, know how politically unique and ever-fragile matters are on the island of Ireland.
Amendment 18 is consistent with our international legal obligations. In fact, it will help with trade negotiations, because our potential trading partners will know where they stand and what the parameters related to the protocol are, and it would therefore be good to hear the Minister uphold the principles within the amendment when he replies, even if technically its drafting is now outdated because of the deal struck in December.
Let us remind ourselves one more time why we have the Northern Ireland protocol. The border is the key sensitive issue: it is 300 miles long, with 300 crossings, unlike almost every other border in the world. Of course, there is more to the protocol than the border. We have the unique arrangements under the Good Friday/Belfast agreement for north-south co-operation: no less than 157 different areas of cross-border work and co-operation in Ireland, north and south.
I have said it before here and will say it again: the work of successive UK and Irish Governments, in helping courageous and visionary leaders in Northern Ireland, was all about taking borders down, not putting them up. It is vital that the United Kingdom and its Government keep in line with that. No new international trade agreement between the United Kingdom and another nation must ever be ratified unless it is compatible with the Good Friday agreement and Northern Ireland Act 1998, is fully compliant with the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, does not negatively affect any form of north-south trade in goods and services, and does not create physical infrastructure related to customs checks, customs or regulatory compliance checks. These are all things that Ministers say they agree with, and they are contained in Amendment 18.
I turn to Amendment 26, on the Irish Sea, on which, as I said, I will seek to divide. It is designed to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom’s internal market, and unfettered market access for services between the two. It is also designed to ensure that there are no tariffs or customs procedures for goods originating in Northern Ireland that are entering Great Britain so that there is no discrimination against Northern Ireland’s businesses.
We had significant progress last month in the meeting of the co-chairs of the UK-EU joint committee, which was most welcome and not before time. That “agreement in principle” was to implement the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in a way that reduces potential friction and burdens on businesses come 1 January. However, the protocol is not an event but the environment or a process in which Northern Ireland’s economy will have to develop, and many uncertainties remain for Northern Ireland’s businesses, which have suffered huge stress because of that over the past year, and in many respects are still suffering.
The conditions of Northern Ireland’s economic development will be directly affected by the UK’s trade deals to be sought and negotiated with other countries beyond the European Union. This is not just by virtue of its access to those free trade agreements; it is also by virtue of the potential consequences of those deals on Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
The protocol that was agreed and ratified as part of the UK’s withdrawal agreement puts Northern Ireland in a wholly new position. It is a unique set-up in terms of global trade, let alone a distinctive arrangement with the European Union. The protocol text makes it clear that there are significant limitations and boundaries to its scope, most particularly when it comes to trade. Article 4 states that
“nothing in this Protocol shall prevent the United Kingdom from including Northern Ireland in the territorial scope of any agreements it may conclude with third countries”.
Article 4 also states that
“nothing in this Protocol shall prevent the United Kingdom from concluding agreements with a third country that grant goods produced in Northern Ireland preferential access to that country’s market on the same terms as goods produced in other parts of the United Kingdom.”
Furthermore, Article 6 of the protocol states that there is nothing in it that would prevent
“the United Kingdom from ensuring unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market”—
as this amendment states. Those restrictions on the scope of the protocol put the onus squarely on the United Kingdom to deliver such things for Northern Ireland—access to the UK’s free trade agreements and unfettered access to the markets in Great Britain.
However, what the protocol does not and cannot do is ensure that there is no discrimination against Northern Ireland, and no knock-on consequences for its place in the UK’s internal market when it comes to the UK’s future trading relationships.
We saw with the recent UK-Japan free trade agreement an acknowledgement that there could be an “inconsistency” between a free trade agreement and the protocol. Thankfully, in the case of the UK-Japanese deal this will be minimal, because—I stress this—of the pre-existing conditions of the Japanese trading partnership with the EU. It was much easier to protect Northern Ireland’s situation in this new Japan-UK deal because the Japan-EU deal meant that Japan could offer “full extended cumulation” in its deal with the UK: it could count all goods with EU origins, and even those part-processed in the EU, as being from the UK. This helps to keep Northern Ireland, which is producing to EU standards, in the ring.
These conditions, however, will not be the same for many future free trade agreements. It is quite conceivable that differences between the UK’s rules and the EU’s rules in trading with any particular country could bring friction for Northern Ireland, both on the entry of its goods into Great Britain and on the entry of goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. Given these risks, it is quite extraordinary that the UK Government’s own impact assessment on the UK-Japan free trade agreement explicitly acknowledges that it did
“not explicitly take account of any impacts arising from the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland”.
Amendment 26 is necessary for four main reasons. The first is the distinctiveness of Northern Ireland’s economic and trading position under the deal. The second is its dependence on the commitment of the UK to delivering on filling the gaps in its trading arrangements. The third is the possibility of tensions between the terms of new UK free trade agreements and Northern Ireland’s position in the protocol. The fourth and final reason is the failure of the UK Government, in their most substantial non-EU free trade agreement to date—with Japan—to give due consideration to this matter.
We can be sure that the economic and trading environment for Northern Ireland—de jure in the UK’s customs territory, but applying the European Union’s customs code—will become only more complicated over time. It is therefore absolutely essential to put protections for Northern Ireland into UK domestic law that ensure that government commitments to this most vulnerable of UK regions are upheld and secured, even as the tough decisions and pay-offs in international trade negotiations become an increasingly familiar reality.
The same applies to services as to goods. Though they were not covered by the protocol—or by the deal struck with the EU before Christmas—and are often not included in free trade agreements, we must ensure that there is no discrimination against services either, because they are a very important part of both the Great Britain and Northern Ireland economies. I therefore urge your Lordships to support Amendment 26, on unfettered access for Northern Ireland, when the House divides.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Hain, who has outlined in a very detailed and expansive way the purpose and remit of these three amendments.
These amendments, to which I am one of the signatories, are very much Northern Ireland-specific. It is important that there is now a trade deal. I was a remainer and I will always be a remainer: I did not vote for Brexit but I recognise that there was a need for a trade deal between the UK and the EU—albeit a thin deal, as this is. Having talked to businesses in Northern Ireland, I know that it is clear that mitigations are still required. As a result of the trade deal—which is totally wedded to the protocol—and the acceptance and acknowledgement of the Northern Ireland protocol between the UK and the EU in the joint committee, Amendments 17 and 18 are largely eclipsed.
Notwithstanding the need to see ongoing commitments that demonstrate the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, all efforts must be made to ensure the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement and the principles of parity of esteem and reconciliation. These are fundamental to our political and peace settlement. Having served as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive when my noble friend Lord Hain was in the later stages of his tenure as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I know that he will be well aware of the importance of parity of esteem, reconciliation, working together and partnership in the process of bringing people together.
Borders are generally anathema to us: we do not want to see borders on the island of Ireland—hence the need for the protocol—or a border in the Irish Sea. Sadly, however, that has happened, because there are now border posts at Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint ports. There have also been some teething difficulties, such as the vacant shelves announced today by Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Can the Minister say that those teething issues will be resolved, if at all possible, and that mitigations will be introduced to assist the business community and keep our local economy buoyant?
So far, analysts and researchers, such as Professor Hayward from Queen’s University Belfast, have indicated that the trade and co-operation agreement did very little to soften the Irish Sea border. But one thing is sure: Amendments 17, 18 and 26 precipitate the need to look out for certain things in relation to the protocol and the trade and co-operation agreement.
The TCA is complicated, and it will take months for experts, lawyers and officials fully to work out its implications, and on many of these we will be reading across to the protocol. The TCA is a work in progress; there are many references in the document to future development or anticipated improvements. There are four overriding concerns for Northern Ireland. How will the evolution of the TCA be connected to that of the protocol? How will the governance of the protocol, including its unique institutions for that purpose, be linked into relevant areas of governance of the TCA in a specialised committee for SPS measures? How will the British-Irish and north-south strands work to develop substantive and serious bilateral arrangements to meet the gaps in the TCA and common travel area? When the real impact of Brexit takes effect on Britain and the EU, how much care and flexibility will either be prepared to show Northern Ireland, which is on the periphery of the UK and of the European Union?
As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, stated, Amendment 26 deals specifically with the need to ensure that there is no discrimination in goods and services from Northern Ireland to Britain. It is important that provision for that unfettered access is placed in the Bill. The amendment would mean that any trade agreement between the UK and any other party that was subject to Sections 20 to 25 of CRaG was not to be ratified if anything in that agreement prevented the UK from ensuring unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK’s internal market and services provided by a service provider in Northern Ireland to customers in other parts of the UK and vice versa. It would also ensure that the Northern Ireland economy was protected and not undermined in any specific or deliberate way and, particularly with the ravages of Covid-19, was allowed to become buoyant again.
I fully support the noble Lord, Lord Hain, in proposing Amendment 26. If he calls for a Division, I shall support him in the virtual Lobbies later this afternoon. It is important that Northern Ireland’s distinct trading position is protected and that any tensions that may arise between the protocol and the internal market are resolved. The one way in which to do that is by accepting Amendment 26.
My Lords, I want to address the terms of Amendment 26, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and others. I do so with a feeling of compulsion, not just for historical reasons but because of the situation as it is now in Northern Ireland. When we talked about this amendment for the first time, it was possible to refer to the fact that the Northern Ireland land border would soon become the border between the United Kingdom and the European Union. As time has passed and we have considered this Bill, the situation is now slightly different. The difference is that the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is the border between the United Kingdom and the EU. Because of that, many would say, “Well, the situation has clarified for Northern Ireland, and many of the worries that you have expressed to the House over the years have resolved themselves to a certain degree of clarity, because the situation is that your border is the border with the EU”.
I refer to a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, on a previous occasion in debate on this Bill. He said that trade was about people—a simplistic remark that it would be very easy to erase from the memory. However, in the light of what we who support this amendment today want to stress to the House, that remark stresses something of great importance. Over the years, I have at some length spoken to your Lordships of the sensitivities in Northern Ireland based on our history, and this is not the occasion to do so again—except to say that nothing in this Bill can be dismissed as having no historical context, because trade is about people. I speak after years of experience of dealing with those problems, and dealing with them on a practical level, as the Anglican primate of the whole of the island.
The wording of Amendment 26 attempts to answer what underlines a great deal of the trouble and worries in Northern Ireland at this moment. Those worries can best be summed up as uncertainty, because uncertainty brings with it stress. The business community is faced with Brexit, with the unknown future lying before us all and with the questions of our relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom which the noble Lord, Lord Hain, painted so clearly just now. All that uncertainty combines to figure dangers for the trade and business prosperity of a part of the United Kingdom—namely, Northern Ireland. If the sense of this amendment is not included on the pages of the statute book, in the light of what else is said about the Trade Bill, its absence will make even more visible the uncertainty and the stress for our local community.
We have spent a long time in this House looking at this Bill. We have had to face its terms not only in what is before us on the Marshalled List but in what is happening in the situation around us, far from Westminster. The plea that I make, coming as I do from Northern Ireland, is that your Lordships realise that we are not playing with words. We are not trying to overdramatise for historical reasons the need for this amendment. We are saying that we represent genuine uncertainty and doubt and, as one businessman put it to me at the weekend, the fear of the uncertainty that lies ahead of us as part of the UK.
I stress one other aspect. One lesson that the debates on this Bill has produced has been a new recognition of the doubts as well as the achievements of the devolved settlement. We have learned a great deal about that relationship and that settlement; we have learned how good it can be, how welcome it can be and how strong it can be for the whole United Kingdom, but we have also recognised its limitations.
Amendment 26, so ably produced by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, shows the need to be clear in those areas of uncertainty where part of the United Kingdom finds itself not as a future border with the European Union, but the border today between two Administrations. I hope the Minister will realise, when he comes to reply, that one of the shortcomings of the way in which we work as a House under our present conditions is that there are often things that cannot be examined in detail. This is very true of matters of trade but even more true of matters to do with people, and because people are a part of trade, I support Amendment 26.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hain, on his tremendous work in the area of Northern Ireland-Great Britain relationships. I was delighted to add my name to Amendments 17 and 18, alongside the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie. I am also happy to congratulate the Minister and our Government for reaching an agreement on trade with the EU that avoided a no-deal Brexit and all its disastrous consequences for every part of the UK. I recognise that this means Amendments 17 and 18 have been superseded, but I want to mention my ongoing concerns about the position of Northern Ireland within the UK and the fact that the UK-EU trade agreement reached in December still means that goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain need a customs declaration, and new border posts have been set up, yet Ministers continue to suggest that there is no Irish Sea border. Will my noble friend just confirm for the House that, indeed, there is one?
I fear that trade experts confirm that there are still unanswered questions on tariffs and trade, even with the deal. Indeed, customs officials with decades of experience have said that post-Brexit Irish Sea border arrangements are cumbersome and complex, and that there is a shortage of customs agents, which is already causing significant problems in Northern Ireland. Will my noble friend tell the House how many agents are expected to be required, how many are in place at the moment, and when the Irish Sea border will be fully staffed? Will my noble friend also explain why the Government refused to accept Amendments 17 and 18 in December and why they reject Amendment 26 now? Surely, the Conservative and Unionist Party would agree with this amendment as it does protect the Northern Ireland protocol. Will my noble friend reassure the House and comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said about the UK-Japan trade deal, which did not contain an impact assessment of its effect on the Northern Ireland protocol?
Clearly, the position of Northern Ireland is a special one, and it is special also to those of us on these Benches who have, for so long, been supportive and concerned about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement and the protocol. I hope my noble friend can explain to the House, reassure us on a number of these issues and explain what reasons the Government have for not accepting Amendment 26.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Altmann. I join her in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hain, on the ingenuity of his important Amendment 26. As he and others have recognised, Amendments 17 and 18 have, to a large degree, been overtaken by events, but I believe that something along the lines of Amendment 26 must be incorporated in the Bill to give reassurance in Northern Ireland. I would go so far as to say that the success of the deal concluded on Christmas Eve, which I welcome, hinges to a large degree upon Northern Ireland.
In his very moving words, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, indicated that the fact that the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is also the border between the United Kingdom and the European Union is a matter of great significance. He also pointed out the sensitivities in Northern Ireland, sensitivities of which I became acutely aware during my five years as chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place and which, for me, were seen at their most acute and most moving at a meeting I had the privilege to address in Crossmaglen village hall in 2009, following the brutal and sadistic murder of Paul Quinn.
Northern Ireland is a precious part of the United Kingdom. The Belfast agreement must not be put at risk. Free passage across that border, with its 300 points of crossing, must remain and anything that can give reassurance where, at the moment, there is uncertainty, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, so graphically outlined, must be to the betterment of our relations not only within the United Kingdom—which I pray remains the United Kingdom—but between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Anything that can give such reassurance must, surely, add strength and purpose to the Bill.
I am not going to attempt to rehearse the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Hain. He put them succinctly and graphically and I believe they should command the support of your Lordships’ House. I therefore have pleasure in supporting these amendments, particularly Amendment 26, and I beg my noble friend on the Front Bench to give a reply that means that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, does not need to divide the House. We should not be divided on an issue that, above all, should unite us—the future of the Belfast agreement. If this amendment cannot be accepted for some technical reason, then I beg the Minister to undertake to introduce an amendment at Third Reading that will encapsulate the fundamental points of this one and underline its purpose. I am glad to give my support to the noble Lord, Lord Hain.
My Lords, I am pleased to offer the Green group’s support to all these amendments, particularly Amendment 26. It is a pleasure to follow the detailed, highly informed expositions of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I do not feel there is a great deal to add, so I will be very brief, but I want to ask two questions of the Minister. First, what assessment have the Government made of the understanding and ability to deal with this of small businesses, particularly in Northern Ireland but also those exporting goods and services to Northern Ireland? How are they dealing with, and how will they be able to deal with, the trading co-operation agreement arrangements? Is the Minister confident that there is sufficient support for those, given the uncertainties that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, just referred to?
Secondly, venturing into a very complex area but one that I know is of great importance to some people, as I understand it there is a hard border down the Irish Sea for seed potatoes and possibly also for fresh potatoes. Can the Minister explain the situation with potatoes going to and fro across the Irish Sea?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and to support very warmly the vital point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who has shown such great commitment to Northern Ireland over the years and continues to do so, particularly in the dimension of the Brexit process. I also warmly support the comments made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Altmann, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. I address these remarks particularly to subsection (1)(b) of the new clause proposed in Amendment 26, relating to goods originating in, or moving from, Northern Ireland and entering Great Britain.
Assurances were given to business in Northern Ireland by the Prime Minster that there would be no bureaucratic hindrances whatever on the goods they trade with other parts of the United Kingdom. It now appears that in some circumstances there can be documentary imposition placed upon them. This has serious implications for those selling such goods and those operating ports such as Holyhead. I remind the House that many of the products from Northern Ireland destined for UK markets have in the recent past been coming via Dublin and Holyhead. This is a matter I have repeatedly raised here in the Chamber. If trade such as this requires documentation, whereas trade directly from Northern Ireland to English ports does not, clearly this represents discrimination against Holyhead whether the goods, or part of them, originated wholly in Northern Ireland or were partly imported from third countries.
Holyhead has already suffered in recent days since the conclusion of the Brexit deal, with shipments that previously would have come from Dublin via Holyhead to English markets or on to continental markets now shipped from other locations in Ireland and not coming via Holyhead. Some, indeed, are going directly to the European mainland. We need clarification, so I hope that the Minister will accept Amendment 26 and can give some assurances, which are needed by those operating the port of Holyhead.
My Lords, I seek clarification on Amendment 26. We were promised unfettered access to the Northern Ireland market. I am privileged to sit on the EU sub-committee on the environment, which has taken a great deal of evidence on food producers, hauliers, and others in connection with trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the run-up to the agreement now in place from 1 January 2021.
This unfettered access is clearly not in place. Although the briefing I was fortunate to receive last week from the Food and Drink Federation says their concerns in this regard are reduced, they certainly remain. One of the difficulties relates to sausages, which seems to cause great hilarity because of the “Yes Minister” sketch that keeps being revived. Sausages and processed foods such as pies, in the short term, are apparently not permitted to enter the Northern Irish market. Are the Government, including the Minister and his department, aware of this? I know that there is a longer-term concern over these goods as well as milling flour, rice, some sugar products, and seed potatoes to the rest of the European Union, but there is the short-term issue of exporting these goods to Northern Ireland. I imagine that this is an unforeseen consequence of the deal which was announced at very short notice. I would be grateful for a commitment from my noble friend to ensure that this will be resolved and that sausages, whether made in north Yorkshire by Heck or other producers across Great Britain, will have access sooner rather than later to Northern Ireland.
What is the position on the time and cost to be taken on issuing export health certificates? Does my noble friend share my concern and that expressed by others, including the British Veterinary Association, of which I am an honorary associate, about the shortage of vets and potential impact on exports and movement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in this regard?
There is a need for a provision along the lines of Amendment 26, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say to allay my fears.
My Lords, I hesitate to speak in connection with Northern Ireland matters and have tended to leave these matters to those with more experience of the Province. Like many noble Lords, I regret that the Northern Ireland protocol introduces uncertainties into the status of the Province as an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Amendment 17 is fair enough, except that it is unnecessary in a trade Bill. It is not necessary to complicate the Bill in this way because it is incumbent on the Government to comply with the requirements of the protocol. This includes, as noble Lords are aware, an affirmation of the place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom customs territory. Furthermore, the Government would not be able to enact any FTA not consistent with our international obligations. I believe that there is a strong case for saying that entering into the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol breached Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. As the noble Lord, Lord of Kerr of Kinlochard, knows well, because he drafted it, the treaty clearly states that the terms of withdrawal of a member state shall be agreed against the background of that state’s future relationship with the European Union. The EU, in my view, wrongly decided to cajole us into negotiating and agreeing the terms of withdrawal separately, and ahead of, agreeing what our future relationship should be. I trust that the Joint Committee will continue to make progress in mitigating the damage the protocol may do to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
Amendment 18 covers only north-south trade. It does not mention east-west trade. Amendment 26 covers east-west trade, but not in precisely the same terms. I believe that neither amendment is relevant or necessary in this Bill, although it is most important that facilitations should be agreed which minimise damage to both north-south and east-west trade.
My Lords, I rise to express my concern at these amendments. They have been presented at length and with much eloquence by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others. However, they ought not to be for this Bill.
This is not a Bill on our future relationship with the EU or the Northern Ireland protocol. We put all that to bed last month; there is another debate on Friday and a great deal of work continues not least in the EU committee on which I have the honour to serve and in the Joint Committee. However, except on procurement, the Trade Remedies Authority and data, this Bill is concerned with existing agreements between the EU and third countries. I take this opportunity of congratulating the Minister and Secretary of State Truss on the 63 agreements concluded with third countries in the last year, a record that will undoubtedly stand. The idea of attaching new conditions to such continuity agreements on other policy areas such as the Good Friday agreement, however strongly felt by those involved, is inappropriate. I will vote against the amendment for that reason, as I hope will others across the House.
The EU deal is behind us, thanks to the Prime Minister, my noble friend Lord Frost and the team, and the time has come to get this Trade Bill, which started as long ago as 2017, on to the statute book. I will not extend proceedings by speaking on other amendments which suffer from the same problem and which will also, no doubt, be presented with an equally eloquent case. We do no good in this House by introducing these kinds of conditions into inappropriate or irrelevant Bills. To my mind, they should be rejected.
Separately, as someone who loves and has historically been involved in investment in Northern Ireland, and in the interests of reducing uncertainty, to which my noble friend Lord Cormack referred, I look forward to the Minister’s comments on the teething problems in supermarkets mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick.
My Lords, it is a somewhat unexpected pleasure to end up following the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, who always brings so much practical business experience to debates, not least on Northern Ireland, given her experience with Tesco.
This has been an interesting short debate, with many powerful speeches. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others have said, these amendments were tabled before a trade deal was reached with the EU and an outcome had been found for many of the remaining unresolved issues on the Northern Ireland protocol. Although Amendments 17 and 18, to which I have added my name, have clearly been passed by events, the anxieties surrounding the Government’s ongoing commitment to the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast agreement remain, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, spelled out so powerfully. It is unfortunate that, as a result of the timings of this Bill, this House was unable to express its view through a vote on Amendments 17 and 18 before the ratification of the UK-EU trade deal.
These cross-party amendments stem from a lack of trust in this Government’s ability to stick to their word. The handling of the Brexit negotiations has done little to increase that confidence. I therefore hope that the Minister can reconfirm to the House in his concluding remarks, for the record, the Government’s total commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement now that the trade deal has been agreed.
Amendment 26 deals with unfettered market access between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom’s internal market and in many ways reiterates the Government’s stated policy. We are now in day six of the post-Brexit world and dealing with the realities rather than debating ideologically based theories. We are now beginning to see the realities of barriers to trade and of what the BBC has described as the “internal UK border”. We are also witnessing the consequences of doing a deal so much at the last minute that proper preparation for the business community in Northern Ireland was not really an option.
Before Christmas, as the Minister will know, Northern Ireland trade groups warned that, in spite of the £200 million trader support service, businesses would not be ready to deal with the new border processes, computer systems and bureaucracy in time for 1 January. We are already seeing significant disruption to deliveries in Northern Ireland from many large retailers, such as Amazon, Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and others. There is a genuine and understandable concern that this is not just a result of teething problems but could mark the beginning of a long-term trend where retailers based in Great Britain cut their services to Northern Ireland because of significant additional red tape and costs.
The introduction of the three-month grace period, while welcome, begs the question of what preparations the Government are making now to ensure that similar problems do not occur after 1 April this year. I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little about what preparations are taking place to prepare for the end of the grace period and what mechanisms the Government are putting in place to minimise barriers to trade. Will he commit to ensuring genuine consultation with Northern Ireland businesses, as well as with businesses based in Great Britain, that are directly affected? Will he also commit to listen, make changes and reduce barriers to trade, where such changes are still possible within the constraints of the EU trade deal?
I end by referring to the very powerful speech of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, quoting my noble friend Lord Fox, saying that trade is ultimately about people. Passing Amendment 26 this afternoon would go some way to removing some of the deep uncertainties currently facing people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Hain for pursuing these issues of such immense importance to the lives and prosperity of the people who live on the island of Ireland. I thank all those who have contributed to this rather good debate on the issues he raised. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, reminded us, successive UK Governments of all political colours have supported the people of Ireland and the peace process.
These amendments speak to that history. The Northern Ireland protocol is now the definitive statement about how trade in goods, but not services, is to be organised going forward. However, as my noble friend Lord Hain said, it must be supported, and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, reminded us, it is really complicated. Amendment 26, which we support, raises how future UK FTAs will impact trade in goods and services in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to any discrimination which might arise, directly or indirectly.
The Minister will almost certainly say that we should not worry and that all the issues raised today are covered. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, urged us to move on. However, as my noble friend Lord Hain said, future free trade agreements may well raise issues, and he is right to insist that this Bill makes the position crystal clear. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, warned us, the absence of such a clause may have a disproportionate impact on the current situation. We should heed carefully his words about fear and uncertainty ahead and do what we can to mitigate it.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that the Government should offer to bring this issue back at Third Reading, but I am not optimistic. If they do not, we will support my noble friend Lord Hain if he decides to divide the House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hain, the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick and Lady Suttie, and my noble friend Lady Altmann for their amendments.
Amendment 17 strives to make the ratification of any future UK-EU trade agreement conditional on compliance with the Northern Ireland protocol. As noble Lords will be aware, and as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, himself has said, we have been overtaken by events—I think the word used by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, was “eclipsed”—and the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement has now been ratified. Noble Lords will also be aware that we remain fully committed to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol.
However, I am happy to provide further reassurances in my remarks today—I hope I will be able to do so. Our commitment is demonstrated by the agreement we have reached with the EU in the withdrawal agreement Joint Committee on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. To reassure my noble friend Lady McIntosh, this upholds unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to their most important market, eliminating any requirement for export declarations for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. It safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory, establishing the platform to preserve tariff-free trade for Northern Ireland businesses, protect internal UK trade and maintain the UK’s VAT area.
On the question raised by my noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lady Neville-Rolfe on supermarkets, the Government acknowledge there are some teething issues and are working closely with the relevant stakeholders to urgently iron them out. The issues are being addressed, to give some reassurance.
Throughout 2020, we worked intensively to ensure that the withdrawal agreement, in particular the Northern Ireland protocol, would be fully operational on 1 January 2021. The noble Lord and the noble Baronesses can be reassured that the agreement we have reached with the EU protects the interests both of the EU single market and, more importantly, the territorial and constitutional integrity of the whole United Kingdom so that both sides can have confidence in the agreement. We remain fully committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and will not allow a hard border to appear between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
My noble friend Lord Trenchard put this more eloquently than me, but, crucially, the Bill we are debating here does not address the UK’s future relationship with the EU. That was dealt with via Parliament’s ratification of the deal agreed with the EU last year. The Bill is concerned with, among other things, the implementation of international trade agreements with trade agreement continuity countries and making provision for establishing the Trade Remedies Authority.
Amendment 18 seeks to make ratification of any future trade agreement between the UK and the EU contingent on, first, compliance with the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, and, secondly, ensuring that there is no negative impact on trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The protection of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is a grave and solemn responsibility for both the UK and Irish Governments as its co-signatories, and both the UK and the EU have affirmed in the protocol that the agreement must be protected in all its parts. The protocol is a practical solution to avoid a hard border with Ireland while ensuring that the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU as a whole, enabling the entire UK to benefit from free trade agreements. As a result, there will be no change in the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That means there will be no new paperwork; no tariffs, quotas or checks on rules of origin; nor any barriers or checks on movement into the Republic of Ireland for goods in free circulation in Northern Ireland.
With the agreement in the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee on the 18 December last year, we have been able to deliver a package which now means that the protocol can be implemented in a pragmatic and proportionate way. It takes account of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. I understand your Lordships’ desire to ensure that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and it is a concern I share. The agreement we reached with the EU both on the protocol and on the UK’s trading relationship with the EU ensures that this is an issue with which we need no longer be concerned.
Finally, Amendment 26 seeks to ensure that the UK’s trade agreements cannot impede the unfettered access of goods and services from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or services from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. I took note of the passionate speech made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, where he said—quoting the noble Lord, Lord Fox—that trade is about people, and, of course, he is right. He went on to say that, therefore, people need certainty, and he is right again. But let me explain why we give this.
As noble Lords will be aware, the Government are already committed to ensuring unfettered access while maintaining and strengthening the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act guarantees UK companies can trade unhindered in every part of the UK by ensuring the free flow of capital, labour, goods and services. It also ensures that Northern Ireland is fully part of the UK’s customs territory by ensuring that there are no tariffs on goods remaining within the UK customs territory and that businesses based in Northern Ireland have true unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom, without paperwork.
Our aim is to ensure that all our international agreements are implemented in a way that takes full account of the Northern Ireland protocol; this includes unfettered access. As set out in the Command Paper on the UK’s approach to the Northern Ireland protocol, unfettered access means no declarations, tariffs, new regulatory checks or customs checks, or additional approvals for Northern Ireland businesses to place goods on the Great Britain market. We recognise that international trade partners will seek full access to the UK market. The UK internal market system provided for in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act will provide a stable, consistent regulatory framework that will support the UK’s exporting and inward investment ambitions. Ensuring regulatory coherence across the UK internal market will help support free trade agreement implementation while maintaining unfettered access.
My noble friend Lady Altmann asked a number of questions. In terms of the focus on customs officers, I reassure her that we have already hired 900 more officers as customs agents, and 1,100 are to be hired by March. The Border Force will have recruited over 2,000 officers by July 2021, so there is urgent work in hand there. May I also attempt to answer her question on what the deal means for goods travelling into Northern Ireland from Great Britain? As she will know, a UK trader scheme will allow authorised businesses to undertake that the goods they are moving into Northern Ireland are not at risk of onward movement to the EU, and therefore not liable to EU tariffs. The scheme will be focused on goods being sold to, or provided for final use by, end consumers located in Northern Ireland. The scheme will be open only to businesses established in Northern Ireland, or businesses that meet certain closely linked criteria, to prevent abuse by letterbox or shell businesses.
As such, I can assure noble Lords that the Government are already fully committed to ensuring that the unfettered access that is the intent of Amendment 26 is maintained and—as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, himself said—that the principle is upheld. I therefore ask that the amendments be withdrawn.
I have received no requests to ask a question of the Minister, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Hain.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all the speakers. Perhaps I could single out my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames for his powerful and passionate exposition of the worries in Northern Ireland at the moment, especially those of its businesses that face a very uncertain, stressful future.
Amendment 26 especially is a very live issue in Northern Ireland, as my noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick emphasised; she quoted the examples of hiccups over supply from Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Northern Ireland’s businesses feel they are left high and dry at present, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, emphasised so compellingly, and as my noble friend Lord Wigley said about Holyhead and the hiccups around that, in terms of trade across the Irish Sea with the Republic of Ireland.
I am afraid that there is a reality gap between ministerial assurances, as we have heard so decently from the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, and what is happening on the ground. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, made it clear that unfettered access is not in place, especially for agri-food products and others. With great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, Amendment 26 is about this Bill. As the Japan deal—a rollover deal—shows, these free trade agreements which will take place in the future could still affect Northern Ireland negatively, regardless of the assurances given. It is important to put this principle of unfettered access in statute in this Bill, which is about future free trade agreements.
I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, for his assurances—absolutely compellingly meant, I am sure—on the Irish border and the Good Friday agreement. But I am extremely disappointed, as many in Northern Ireland and especially in its business community will be, that the Government will not accept what they profess to uphold: the principle of unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses contained in Amendment 26. Although I will withdraw Amendment 17, I will divide the House on Amendment 26 when the time comes.
Amendment 17 withdrawn.
Amendments 18 and 19 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 20. 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 or any other amendment in the group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
20: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Ratification of international trade agreements
(1) An international trade agreement may not be ratified unless it enables the United Kingdom to require imports to meet standards that are equivalent to the principal standards laid down by primary and subordinate legislation in the United Kingdom regarding food safety, the environment and animal welfare.(2) The condition in subsection (1) does not apply if the international trade agreement is with one or more least developed countries and, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, is seeking equivalence on standards which would present an unfair impediment to trade for the country or countries concerned.(3) The Secretary of State must by regulations specify which of the standards laid down by legislation in the United Kingdom regarding food safety, the environment and animal welfare are principal standards for the purpose of subsection (1).(4) Regulations made under subsection (3) are subject to affirmative resolution procedure.(5) In this section “least developed countries” means any country on the United Nations Committee of Development’s List of Least Developed Countries, as amended from time to time.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause ensures that UK standards regarding food safety, the environment and animal welfare cannot be undermined by imports produced to lower standards.
My Lords, I will be brief. I think there are several more exciting amendments coming after mine. My Amendment 20 is about the ratification of international trade agreements. The Government have failed miserably to demonstrate any material benefits from Brexit so far, and now focus almost exclusively on reclaiming our sovereignty, which they do not seem able to do in other arenas.
In the same way that some individuals agree to sacrifice some personal autonomy by forming a contract or association, trade agreements, by design, cede a degree of sovereignty in exchange for streamlined trade. Amendments 20 and 22 are expressions of parliamentary sovereignty and our sovereignty as a so-called newly independent nation.
They say to the Government and our trading partners that there are areas of our sovereignty that we refuse to sacrifice in the name of trade. Those protected areas include food safety, the environment and animal welfare, which we all care about across your Lordships’ House, the general public and, apparently, the Government, who keep telling us how much these issues matter to them but then encourage their Members to vote “Not Content” to any amendments that would put these protections into legislation. At times, it feels rather pointless. The only thing that has cheered me up today is that it looks as if the Democrats have taken back the Senate in the United States of America. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for initiating this group of amendments, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for her support. This opening amendment is on conditions for free trade in relation to environmental obligations. It goes somewhat wider than Amendment 22 in my name and has perhaps a slightly different purpose. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Jones, for adding their names to the amendment to which I shall speak, which is more specifically on the standards that must be maintained across a range of areas of international trade agreements.
The maintenance of food standards within a domestic context was the subject of much debate during the passage of the Agriculture Bill last year. This amendment to the Trade Bill takes the importance of the issue into trade agreements that must abide by those same standards. It would clarify the mechanisms that would ensure that standards were not compromised. I will not replay the many arguments expressed during the passage of the Agriculture Bill, but merely add that legal guarantees on food imports through trade deals should also be laid down in a transparent procedure or code of practice which Ministers must commence in statutory instruments. Such standards on imported food products as appropriate to trade deals must be widened to certain other areas of human rights, public health and labour laws. Should a Minister decide that a change in standards needs to be made, subsection (5) of the new clause proposed by the amendment would specify the transparent steps that would need to be undertaken to effect that change.
Although it was in the Conservative Party manifesto, the Government have been reluctant to commit both to legislative certainty of standards and to public transparency in relation to scrutiny of trade deals. We are all rightly proud of the high agricultural and food standards in this country. Many people believe that trade must be encouraged not to undercut those standards, not only to maintain fair competition across food sectors, including catering and manufacturing, but to maintain and improve health benefits to consumers from transparently-certified production regulations. There are significant doubts over the claim that protections stemming from EU membership have been transferred into UK law. The final EU-UK agreement allows latitude for the UK to diverge from the level playing field in future. The UK will maintain an autonomous sanitary and phytosanitary regime.
We all know the threat posed by potential trade agreements with America and Australia. With this amendment, we want to see Ministers following a strict governance procedure of constant advice and engagement with stakeholders, trade unions, the Food Standards Agency, environmental agencies and businesses, and reports to Parliament with evidence to the relevant committees, all building on Section 42 as inserted into the Agriculture Act. This could lead to a legal review of standards in statute for each relevant area, but Ministers must have a procedure to follow to ensure that standards are maintained.
Where any changes in standards are deemed necessary, they should be undertaken via primary legislation before a trade deal or agreement is laid under the CRaG process. Standards must not be changed through the back door of a trade agreement. This amendment will aid and improve scrutiny of trade deals, drive up international standards and aid countries to increase trade with the UK, while improving environmental conditions, animal welfare, human rights and labour laws. I am likely to press this amendment to a vote.
I support Amendment 22 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and will vote for it. On the previous day of the debate, I spoke at some length about the importance of ensuring that our trade standards are consistent with our high standards of food and animal welfare, and our climate and environmental obligations in particular. I will not repeat those arguments here, because I have bored noble Lords enough by my concerns about public health and food, but this amendment is important and, without it, we run a lot of danger of leaving ourselves open to standards that are below ours and will damage our health, animal health and environment.
More generally, in 2020, we saw a small reduction in emissions globally as a result of the pandemic that we still have. This reduction should not be a blip; we need to see it as a more permanent arrangement and build on it. If we do not have considerations such as those in this amendment brought to the front of trade policy, we risk doubling down on our old ways of trading, increasing global emissions again. We need to use our trade power for good and to encourage others to produce carbon-neutral products. If we do not, even if we reduce emissions at home, we will import them from abroad. The same general principle applies to the food that we import into this country which we expect ourselves and, more importantly, our children to eat.
This amendment is about parliamentary scrutiny, which I am sure will carry favour with many noble Lords. It would not make it illegal to import products that were produced to a lower standard but, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, has so clearly set out, it would require consultation and a vote in Parliament to approve any deviation from existing standards. In essence, it is a compromise that would give our farmers as well as the huge swathes of the population which have made their voices heard in the last few months—about their determination to maintain not just good food standards but transparency in food standards—peace of mind without making trade impossible.
Finally, I specifically ask the Minister what he and his department know—I am sure they are aware of it—about the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability, or ACCTS, as it is called. This is led by New Zealand. Nations are free to sign up to it to show that they are committed to using their trade policy to support action on climate change. As we have now left the EU and the transition period is over, can we join this agreement to show our intent in this hugely important year before COP 26? I will return to ACCTS when I talk about labelling later in the debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, for his amendment and give him my wholehearted support.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. I speak to Amendments 20 and 22 in this group. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, moved Amendment 20, and I fully support her and others in ensuring that imports will meet the current principal standards on food safety, the environment and animal welfare.
We have had numerous direct debates about ensuring that these issues remain at the forefront of the Government’s commitments to the public. It is, however, vital that in order to trade with least developed countries and encourage their entrepreneurial skills, our standards do not act as a blockage to those countries. At the same time, it is important for public confidence that food safety standards are maintained and animal welfare is not compromised. We are, after all, a nation of animal lovers.
Cross-party Amendment 22, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, also mirrors debates that took place during the passage of the Agriculture Bill. It is an extremely important amendment to ensure that Parliament is fully involved in ensuring that standards affected by international trade agreements are maintained at our current high levels.
Members of Parliament are elected to ensure the well-being of their constituents in a wide variety of areas, and it is simply unacceptable for them to be excluded from debating trade agreements that could have a dramatic impact on local businesses and their constituents. Similarly, the upper Chamber, while not currently elected, has a wealth of expertise and knowledge that can be brought to bear to enhance future trade agreements, where necessary.
Issues of food safety, quality, hygiene and traceability are essential not only to protect consumers but to ensure a level playing field for our farmers and food producers. It is important for human rights and equalities to be included, especially women’s and children’s rights along with other classifications under the Human Rights Act of 1998.
The devolved Administrations should not be an afterthought but should be consulted at an early stage and able to express their view on trade agreements that affect them. The relevant committees of both Houses, including the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, will also have a view.
As we move forward with the continuing process of separating ourselves from the rest of Europe and bringing the UK closer to other countries in the world, standards and scrutiny will be important to maintain the confidence of the public, business and our other partners, some remaining in the EU. This amendment gives the reassurance that is required for this to happen. I fully support these two amendments, and I will support Amendment 22 should the House vote in the virtual Lobby.
My Lords, I expect that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, knows what I am about to say about her Amendment 20, which is yet another attempt to hardwire the maintenance of UK standards into statute.
Time and time again the Government have said that they have no intention of lowering standards. The noble Baroness has usually replied that she does not trust the Government. I hope she will accept that amendments to legislation are not customarily made in your Lordships’ House in order to confirm what is already government policy, especially when it has been repeated at the Dispatch Box numerous times.
I can levy the same criticism at Amendment 22, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and others, but my main reason for putting my name down to speak on this group is because I think that Amendment 22 is quite extraordinary. There are certainly examples of codes of practice required by statute, and some also require approval by Parliament, but as far as I am aware, there is no precedent for an Act requiring one Minister to set out how that Minister or any other Minister must behave. The codes of practice that exist are usually intended to complement often complex legislation to guide those who need to implement it. I believe that they have never been used as instructions to Ministers on what to do, and I do not believe that we should start to do that now.
I also remind noble Lords that the negotiation of international treaties is firmly within the royal prerogative. I believe that Amendment 22 would fetter the royal prerogative, and apart from anything else it should not be pursued on those grounds
The Government have said that they will maintain standards, but Amendment 22 just tries to tie Ministers up in knots. We should just let them get on with their jobs. I hope that noble Lords will not support these amendments if the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, or the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, choose to press them.
My Lords, my interests are as listed in the register. It is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who is extremely well informed. I speak to Amendment 22 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and my noble friend Lady Boycott.
I will be brief and reserve most of my comments on the proposed trade and agriculture commission when we debate amendments in the group beginning with Amendment 26. However, I have a straightforward request for clarity, which is linked to this grouping of amendments. How do the Government plan to respond to the report that will be delivered by the existing Trade and Agriculture Commission within the next couple of months, when I assume it will report? We look forward to the conclusion of the crucially important task that the TAC was commissioned to undertake by the Secretary of State. It may well recommend a code of practice, as proposed in the amendment, and will certainly make recommendations that should influence the way we conduct future trade deals.
We must assume that the Trade Bill will have become law before the current TAC reports, so I am concerned that we will not be able to take its recommendations into account. I am interested in what the Minister has to say about how the Government will respond to the TAC’s recommendations retrospectively, having passed the Trade Bill before it delivers the report.
My Lords, I declare my environmental interests in the register and my interest as chairman of the Royal Veterinary College.
I support Amendment 22 in the name of my noble friend Lord Grantchester and other noble Lords across the House. I absolutely agree that there should be parliamentary scrutiny of a code for ensuring standards and of any variation of standards in these highly important areas. My primary areas of interest and expertise are in the environment and animal welfare.
I am sure that the Government may say that provisions such as those in subsection (5) in Amendment 22 would be cumbersome and could delay important free trade agreements which the Government regard as so important to the UK in forging its future place in the world. However, I hope the Minister can reassure us that lowering or abandoning standards will not occur frequently—in fact, that they will be an exception—so the use of the subsection (5) provisions will not prove burdensome at all.
I hope, indeed, that it might be the reverse: that the Minister might welcome this amendment. I am not sure that the Government truly understand the pressure to reduce standards that will come from other countries in some trade negotiations. Having a bulwark in legislation should be a comfort to the Government, so that they can say, “We’re very sorry. We can’t agree to any lowering of standards unless our Parliament approves that”.
I was singularly unpersuaded by the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, against Amendment 22. She described very fully the situations when codes of practice are generally used for guidance on the basis of complex legislation and in negotiations where the legislation needs to be explained by the code of practice, and that is the precisely the situation that we fall into as regards these trade negotiations and the maintenance of standards. I also find it rather staggering that she said that the Government have already promised to maintain the standards and therefore we should not fetter Ministers any further. My memory is that the Government promised us that Covid would be over by Christmastime, so I am not entirely convinced by government assurances on these standards. Let us have it in the legislation.
My Lords, on my way in today I was reflecting on the fact that I started last year, at about this time, discussing a trade Bill on Report, so it is nice to see that some traditions in the House of Lords do not change.
I support Amendment 22, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester indicated. He moved it very well. I do not need to rehearse all the arguments because, as my noble friend indicated, we have had many debates on this issue.
I was grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to what looks to be the news that the Senate of the United States may well be changing hands. That will bring about a direct consequence for the UK’s trade negotiations. This amendment refers to domestic standards, but it also links to who we trade with. Will there be pressure on our domestic standards by the country that we seek to have an agreement with? We know that the discussions with America are ongoing, and they are likely now to be impacted by a Democrat-controlled White House and full Congress—both Houses.
The consequence of that will mean that the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act 2015, which put in place conditions on the US trade representative in negotiations on agriculture, environmental standards and objectives, will be reformed, so the United States will have a new position when it comes to the ongoing discussions with the United Kingdom. That is now inevitable, which means that in our approach to the negotiations it is valid that we discuss what our equivalent legislation in this country will be that set our standards, and what the requirements on Ministers will be.
We know that the Government have accepted in part to enshrine standards obligations in a treaty. The European TCA, for example, has set a three-year standstill on organic standards. That is a guarantee, if ever there was one, that there would be no change over a period. Why three years? The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, indicated that it would be a nonsense to put into any form of legislation a commitment that a Minister has given not to deviate from standards, but why then did we legislate for that exact thing last week in the Act for the European agreement? A standstill for three years on organic standards is a restriction on how this Parliament can now operate standards on organic farming. With that legislation, the Government have bound us for three years. I do not think there is any disagreement about that, because offering some degree of certainty to organic farmers on the standards that will be accepted for trading between the United Kingdom and the European Union is a positive thing. We suggest that under Amendment 22 there are other positive elements that should be highlighted regarding the way that we trade.
I was puzzled by the assertion that Amendment 22 will fetter the prerogative of Ministers and will limit their freedom to bring measures to Parliament for approval by indicating in effect instructions under statute of how they exercise their powers. What puzzles me is that the opposite side supported that with a government amendment to the Agriculture Act. I remind the House that Section 42 is a fettering of the prerogative power that limits the freedoms of Ministers, because it requires them, before they bring forward approval under CRaG, to carry out an exercise whereby they seek an independent body, now a statutory independent body—to emphasise the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, about something that she has already supported—to report before Parliament acts. Therefore it is not we who do not necessarily trust the Government, because clearly the Government do not trust themselves if they brought forward an amendment to their own Bill that required an independent statutory body to report to Parliament before we even had a vote on it.
The noble Baroness’s point is even more reduced by the very quick search I was able to do on the legislation website for “Ministers must have regard to” before they carry out their duties. There are scores of examples in legislation where Ministers “must have regard to” before they exercise their ministerial functions on immigration, the health service, judicial appointments, inquiries. In most large areas where Ministers carry out their duties, such as negotiating trade or carrying out health duties, judicial appointments or whatever, there are many statutory expectations of what they must do before they carry out their functions. Amendment 22 is appropriate, because it puts in a slightly wider set of criteria on Section 42 of the Agriculture Act, which the Government themselves had put forward.
My final point is on standards in particular. I am glad that Amendment 22 references women’s rights. We debated the UK-Japan agreement at length, and there was consensus around the House that one of the deficiencies of that agreement was that it did not expand on the areas for supporting women’s rights and expanding women’s economic empowerment within that agreement. On human rights, we know that the Cotonou agreement is already out of date and has to be replaced, so the extra elements under proposed new subsection (3) of Amendment 22 are appropriate.
I will make one point on food rights that links to developments just three days ago with regard to food imports. We assume that food that comes into the United Kingdom is of the same standard that we would expect our own producers to sell elsewhere, and we have worked very hard through the Fairtrade Foundation, which we have supported, and other organisations to make sure that that is the case. I was very sad to learn that Brexit tariffs were imposed on a shipment of fair-trade goods from Africa that arrived into Portsmouth—£17,500 on shipments of bananas from Ghana—and that tariffs of 16.5% will be imposed on tuna.
I hope very much that the Government will recognise that this should not be the situation and that it can be rectified. As much as we want to promote other countries improving standards on labour rights, environmental standards and food standards, as we do here at home, we must work in partnership and we should not penalise those for whom we seek to have much higher standards. I am very happy to support Amendment 22.
My Lords, it seems very appropriate that we are beginning the new year by welcoming a familiar friend: a debate on standards in the Trade Bill. Yet again, there were most interesting comments from noble Lords in the debate.
I turn first to Amendment 20, so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, which seeks to prevent the ratification of FTAs unless there are provisions that ensure that imports under those FTAs comply with the UK’s domestic standards for food safety, animal welfare and the environment.
As noble Lords know, the Bill is principally concerned with continuity agreements, which we have now signed with 63 partner countries. It is rather cheering that each time I speak from this Dispatch Box that number has crept up. I should emphasise to noble Lords that none of those agreements has led to a lowering of domestic standards. Cheap food is not flooding our market. Workers’ rights are not being undermined. All we have done is deliver on our central objective of providing continuity for businesses and consumers.
The amendment has unintended consequences that its signatories have not addressed. It could, I am afraid, jeopardise the UK’s ability to meet its WTO commitments. WTO rules constrain the ability of the UK to restrict imports based on criteria such as animal welfare and environmental protection. These WTO rules play an important and balanced role in containing disguised protectionism, but inevitably mean that there is a real risk of a WTO dispute if we do not handle these important matters with care.
Establishing the amendment as a negotiating objective has the potential to create great uncertainty and undermine continuity for businesses at an already critical time. I know that noble Lords would not wish this. It may of course jeopardise the implementation of continuity agreements, including those already signed but not yet ratified. Let us not forget that UK businesses have a long history of trading under these agreements and rely on them for stability and certainty. Any delay to implementation will impact the import of goods on which businesses and consumers are dependent. Furthermore, the noble Baroness’s amendment could result in similar measures being deployed by trade partners with regard to UK exports. That could prevent UK producers from being able to export goods overseas until they had demonstrated that they had met the domestic standards of our trade partners.
However, we of course understand the importance of this issue and the Government have established a number of initiatives to ensure that any concerns around agriculture and the environment are addressed at each stage of the negotiation processes. This includes: public consultations ahead of new trade negotiations; increased engagement with agriculture and agri-food stakeholders; establishing the trade advisory groups; and of course passing an amendment to this Bill, placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing.
I now turn to Amendment 22, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord Purvis, alongside the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. As I have explained, our continuity programme maintains high standards in areas including food standards, human rights and environmental obligations. Indeed, in many areas the UK goes much further than the EU. Like the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, I am proud of our standards. Let me give some examples.
When discussing workers’ rights, the UK has led the way and the EU is significantly behind us. The statutory minimum wage in the UK for people aged 25 and over is £8.72 an hour, whereas the EU has no legal minimum. Furthermore, UK workers can get statutory sick pay for up to 28 weeks, whereas the EU has no minimum sick leave or sick pay legislation. Further still—this gets to the crux of our debate—the UK has world-leading standards for animal welfare, while food standards are overseen by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland, which I am sure noble Lords agree are the most independent of experts.
The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. We will continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations. It should also be said that there is no provision within the Trade Bill that could allow amendment of the Human Rights Act.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, asked about the agreement on climate change, trade and sustainability. We very much support this agreement. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has an Oral Question for answer on Monday about this very subject, and I look forward to answering further questions from noble Lords at that time.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry, asked about the report that we shortly expect to receive from the Trade and Agriculture Commission. We are looking forward to the report and we will of course respond when it comes forward and, as appropriate, take it into account in future trade agreements. The horse of future trade agreements has certainly not yet bolted.
In conclusion, the Government have always been clear that we have no intention of lowering standards as part of our trade agenda, through either the front door or, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, feared, the back door. The continuity agreements that we have signed thus far maintain our commitment to vigorously defend and uphold standards. I therefore ask that Amendments 20 and 22 not be pressed.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, made in his usual sincere and emollient way. I had not understood just how devastating the impact of my amendment would be. I think there might have been a tiny bit of scaremongering in that. He also said so far, so good—but we all know that it is early days and we have a long way to go to get the sort of trade deals that we really want. We need the protections that we are asking for. We have had this debate a lot and the Minister knows full well how the majority of the House feels.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I particularly enjoy the interventions of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, whom I very much enjoy clashing with. I should like to say to her that it is absolutely true—I do not trust this Government. I am in awe of her unswerving loyalty to them, especially in view of the fact that in the other place our Prime Minister stands up, makes all sorts of promises and then reneges on them. How she maintains her loyalty is absolutely astonishing.
However, we have had this debate many times. I do feel that the Government just do not understand the depth of feeling on this issue, not just in the House but among the general public, farmers and all sorts of producers. Ignoring this issue is a terrible mistake.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Amendment 21 not moved.
22: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Standards affected by international trade agreements
(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations made by statutory instrument establish a code of practice setting out how a Minister of the Crown should take steps to maintain standards established by any enactment regarding—(a) food, (b) animal welfare,(c) the environment,(d) human rights,(e) welfare, and(f) labour law,if a proposed international trade agreement is likely to affect such standards.(2) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1) may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.(3) The code under subsection (1) may provide that a Minister of the Crown ensures as far as possible that a future trade agreement is consistent with United Kingdom levels of statutory protection regarding, among other things—(a) human, animal or plant life or health;(b) animal welfare;(c) the environment;(d) food safety, quality, hygiene and traceability;(e) employment and labour standards; and(f) human rights and equalities, including but not limited to—(i) women’s rights,(ii) child rights, and(iii) the Human Rights Act 1998.(4) This is in addition to and does not impact on the provisions in section 42 of the Agriculture Act 2020 (reports relating to free trade agreements).(5) Where a Minister of the Crown decides that it is appropriate and necessary to change standards in pursuit of an international trade agreement, a Minister of the Crown must—(a) send a notification of the necessary changes to primary or subordinate legislation to the relevant Committee in each House of Parliament at the earliest opportunity;(b) consult and seek the consent of the devolved authorities; and(c) take steps to ensure that necessary changes to primary or subordinate legislation have completed their parliamentary processes before the final texts of agreed trade agreements, together with full impact assessments which cover the economic impacts and social, environmental, and animal welfare aspects of the agreement, in advance of such agreements being laid before Parliament under section 20 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.(6) In this section, “United Kingdom levels of statutory protection” means levels of protection provided for by or under any—(a) primary legislation,(b) subordinate legislation, or(c) retained direct EU legislation, which has effect in the United Kingdom, or the part of the United Kingdom in which the regulations have effect, on the date on which a draft of the regulations is laid.”
I wish to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who said that she finds this amendment extraordinary. I would merely say that making trade agreements has not been specifically undertaken by the UK while a member of the EU and that this is a new area of competence. Thus, new procedures need to be set up and how these agreements will be scrutinised needs to be fully understood—in this amendment, specifically in relation to food standards and other standards. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for his remarks in reply to the noble Baroness.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry, asked the Minister how the Government may respond to the existing TAC as it moves through its report. There are many and varied anxieties. We must have certainty regarding standards that must be maintained in trade agreements. I am very glad to hear that the Government have maintained continuity in rolling over more deals, yet it is disappointing to repeatedly hear misleading arguments about how WTA commitments will constrain us or be an unintended consequence. They do not seem to have fettered the laying down of our current standards. Let us make sure that these current standards can continue by supporting this amendment and setting a governance procedure in regulations. I beg to move and wish to test the opinion of the House.
We now come to Amendment 23. 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 must make that clear in debate.
23: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Protection of children online
(1) The United Kingdom may only become a signatory to an international trade agreement if the conditions in subsection (2) are satisfied.(2) International trade agreements must be consistent with—(a) other international treaties to which the United Kingdom is a party, and the domestic law of England and Wales (including any changes to the law after the trade agreement is signed), regarding the protection of children and other vulnerable user groups using the internet;(b) the provisions on data protection for children, as set out in the age appropriate design code under section 123 of the Data Protection Act 2018 (age-appropriate design code) and other provisions of that Act which impact children; and(c) online protections provided for children in the United Kingdom that the Secretary of State considers necessary.(3) In this section a “child” means any person under the age of 18.”
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 23 in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Sheikh. This amendment represents the wishes of many colleagues from all sides of the house, and with that in mind I have informed the clerk that we intend to divide the House. I refer noble Lords to my interests in the register, particularly that as chair of the 5Rights Foundation, a charity that works to build the digital world that children deserve.
The amendment has been slightly revised since it was tabled in Committee, to reflect comments made then, but its purpose remains resolutely the same: to ensure that the online safety of children and other vulnerable users is not compromised as a consequence of clauses that appear in future free trade agreements.
Like many colleagues, I would rather that the UK Parliament had, as the US Congress does, a system of parliamentary scrutiny of all aspects of trade deals, but that is not the case. The amendment would offer significant protections for UK children online by protecting UK domestic law, widely regarded as the best in the world, as far as it affects children’s online safety. It would sit after Clause 2 and would therefore pertain to all future UK trade deals.
Proposed new subsection (2)(a) would capture existing UK legislation and treaties. This would allow the Government to cite existing treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK has ratified but the US has not, or domestic legislation that already offers protections for children online. It would also capture any further advances made in UK law between now and the time that any trade agreement is settled.
Proposed new subsection (2)(b) specifically refers to data protections brought into law on 2 September last year in the form of the age-appropriate design code, which will have a profound impact on children’s online safety. That code was an initiative introduced and won in this House by a similar all-party grouping, with support from all sides of the House. It would also ensure that the Data Protection Act 2018 was protected in total, since many of the provisions of the children’s code build on the broader provisions of the DPA.
Proposed new subsection (2)(c) would give the Secretary of State the power to carve out from a trade deal any new or related legislation—for example, the upcoming online harms Bill, or any provisions put forward as the result of inquiries by the Competition and Markets Authority, the Law Commission, Ofcom, the ICO and so on. Digital regulation is a fast-moving area of policy, and the discretion given to the Secretary of State by subsection (2)(c) would ensure his or her ability to reflect the latest commitments on children’s online protection in FTAs.
The amendment would also define children as any person under 18. This is crucial, since the US domestic consumer law, COPPA, has created a de facto age of adulthood online of 13, in the face of all tradition and decades of evidence of child development. Using 13 as a false marker of adulthood has been thoughtlessly mirrored around the world. It fails to offer any protection to those aged 13 to 17, who require protections and freedoms in line with their evolving maturity but are clearly not yet adults.
I am very grateful to both the Minister and the Minister of State for Trade Policy, Greg Hands MP, for taking the time to speak to me since I first tabled this amendment. I am sympathetic to their overall position that the Bill should not tie the hands of UK trade negotiators, but in this case it is imperative that we do so, because some things are simply not for sale.
In the very few weeks since we debated this amendment in Committee, we have seen that the protections outlined in the amendment are entirely absent in the EU-UK deal, and in the same few weeks we have seen suggestions for the inclusion of provisions in the proposed mini-deal with the US that could completely undermine all the advances that we have made to protect children. That is even before we get to a full-blown US-UK FTA. In this context, Ministers can no longer cast doubt on the relevance of the amendment, nor can they suggest that this is an issue that can be dealt with at some indeterminate time in the future. We have set our sights on being a sovereign trading nation and are seeking to do that in short speed. We must make sure from the very beginning that we do not trade away the safety and security of our children.
In closing, I point to the Government’s recent online harms response and say to the Minister, whom I know to be personally committed to the safety of children, that it is simply impossible to balance the promises made to parents and children in the context of the online harms Bill without us also determinedly protecting the advances and commitments that we already have made. Amendment 23 would ensure that the UK domestic attitudes, legislation and guidance that protect children’s safety online could not be traded away. In a trade deal, no one side ever gets everything that it wants. We have to take kids off the table. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and her extremely cogent introduction. I have signed Amendment 23, which we on these Benches strongly support. I pay tribute to her consistent campaigning efforts in the area of online child safety and child protection. Very briefly, I will add why we need this amendment, through some recent media headlines which illustrate the issues involved.
First, on the extent of online harms, here are just a few headlines:
“Social media stalking on rise as harassers dodge identity checks”,
“QAnon is still spreading on Facebook, despite a ban”,
“Facebook’s algorithm a major threat to public health”
“Tech companies continue to provide online infrastructure for contentious Covid-19 websites even after flagging them as fake news, finds new Oxford study”.
Many of these online harms impact heavily on children and other vulnerable groups.
Secondly, here are two headlines on the power of big tech:
“Google told its scientists to ‘strike a positive tone’ in AI research documents”
“Facebook says it may quit Europe over ban on sharing data with US”.
There can be no doubting the sheer global lobbying power of the major platforms and their ability to influence governments.
Thirdly, on the opportunity for change and to retain our laws, the headlines included
“New ‘transformational’ code to protect children’s privacy online”,
which refers to the age-appropriate design code that has now been renamed “the children’s code”, and
“Britain can lead the world in reining in the tech giants if we get the details right”,
which refers to the proposals to introduce a new online duty of care.
“CMA advises government on new regulatory regime for tech giants”
refers to the new digital markets unit, and the CMA is referred to again in:
“Google told to stamp out fraudulent advertising”.
We have started down a crucial road of regulating the behaviour of the big tech companies and preventing harm, particularly to our children and the vulnerable. In any trade deal we want to preserve the protections that our citizens have, and all those that are coming into place, and we do not want to water them down in any way as a result of any trade negotiation.
The trade deal that looms largest is of course with the US, and there are indications that with the new Administration, which so many of us welcome, there will be new attitudes towards privacy rights, especially now that it seems that Congress will have Democrat majority control. I hope that they will vigorously pursue the antitrust cases that have been started, but we have no guarantee that they will go further, for instance in successfully eliminating the all-important safe harbour legal shield for internet companies, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. There is no guarantee that this will go, or that there will not be attempts to enforce this by the US in its future trade deals.
The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, for whom I have the greatest respect, will no doubt say that the Government will have red lines in their negotiations and that there is no way that they will countenance negotiating away the online protections which we currently have. But, as we have seen with the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland, the fishing industry and the UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement, these can be washed away, or blurred, as data protection is in the agreement with Japan. So there is a great degree of uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic. For that reason, without doubting any assurance that the Minister gives, this amendment is essential, and on these Benches we will strongly support it if the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, takes it to a vote.
My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendment 23, to which I have added my name as a supporter. I spoke on this issue in Committee. As we have now left the EU, we must outline our priorities as a nation, and protecting children online must be high on the list.
Amendment 23 would offer significant protections for UK children online by effecting UK laws relating to online safety in future trade deals. I have been impressed by Her Majesty’s Government’s ambitions and efforts to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. I support the regulatory framework outlined in the Government’s response in December 2020 to the Online Harms White Paper, which is ground-breaking in creating a new duty of care that will make companies take responsibility for the safety of their users.
This amendment is an important part of this new strategy and should be supported. As set out in proposed new Clause 2(a) in Amendment 23, international trade agreements must be consistent with other international treaties and domestic laws on the protection of children and other vulnerable groups using the internet. This would refer to treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises the special safeguards that children need in all aspects of their life, including protection from all forms of violence, and the right to privacy.
Proposed new Clause 2(a) could also refer to the Digital Economy Act 2017, which prevents under-18s in the UK accessing pornography on the internet. During the pandemic, digital technologies have helped us to work and connect with loved ones, but they have also opened up greater risks for children. For instance, during the first lockdown, the Internet Watch Foundation and its industry partners blocked at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse. At the same time, research by the British Board of Film Classification shows that 47% of children and teens had, during lockdown, seen content that they wished they had not seen.
The risks to children online are growing by the day, and we need to be proactive in tackling these harms and encouraging others to do so by supporting this amendment. In Committee, I was pleased that my noble friend the Minister said,
“we stand by our online harm commitments, and nothing agreed as part of any trade deal will affect that.”
This is reassuring, and I welcome his support. However, protecting children online is such an important issue it needs to be guaranteed in legislation, so that it is not accidentally traded away. This amendment will make sure this cannot happen by ensuring our online protection is a necessary requirement of any future trade deal.
In Committee, my noble friend also said that
“our continuity programme is consistent with existing international obligations, as it seeks to replicate existing EU agreements, which are themselves fully compliant with such obligations”,—[Official Report, 1/10/2020; col. GC 140.]
to protect young and vulnerable internet users. Although I welcome this continuity, my concern is with countries such as the US, which may not have the same standard of protection as we do in the UK and the EU.
As has been mentioned previously, the trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada has effectively created a legal shield for tech companies in line with US domestic law. In this agreement, service providers are not liable for content on their platforms or the harm it may cause to users. This fails to hold social media companies to account and risks protecting the big tech firms over children online. Rather than just replicating the existing legislation on online harms in future trade agreements, the amendment will also apply to updated or new legislation. For example, proposed new subsection (2)(c) of Amendment 23 refers to
“online protections provided for children in the United Kingdom that the Secretary of State considers necessary.”
This means that future legislation, such as the upcoming online harms Bill, will be protected in international trade agreements.
The digital space is continually changing and growing at a rapid pace. I am sure that, over the next few years, more legislation will be created for new technologies that we may not even know exist at present. With this amendment, we will ensure that protecting children goes hand in hand with technological innovation.
In Committee, my noble friend the Minister reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to international obligations on protecting young and vulnerable internet users. Supporting this amendment is the best way to strengthen this commitment and make it truly enforceable, as it means that children online will be fully protected within future trade deals, regardless of the make-up of the negotiating team of the day.
Data protection is also central to protecting children online, and proposed new subsection (2)(b) will ensure that the age-appropriate design code is also properly honoured. The code came into force in September 2020, and is a code of practice that explains how online service providers can ensure that they appropriately safeguard children’s personal data.
Data is essentially the building block of the digital world and affects how we use it. Although data is important and useful, it can also be dangerous in exposing children to age-inappropriate content, such as material on self-harm, sexual abuse, bullying, misinformation and extremism. As data travels across borders, it is important that future international agreements are consistent with our leading online protections.
In proposed new subsection (3) of the amendment, a child is defined as
“any person under the age of 18.”
This is consistent with existing UK law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is important, as the age of a child differs between countries. For example, US domestic consumer law has created the de facto age of adulthood online as 13. I am sure your Lordships will agree that a 14, 15, 16 or 17 year-old is still as much at risk of sexual exploitation, misinformation, grooming, bullying and harmful content online as a 13 year-old. For instance, in a survey by Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2019, 79% of 12 to 15 year-old internet users claimed that they had had at least one harmful experience in the past 12 months. It is important that this amendment is supported, so that any person under the age of 18 can be protected, as, even at 17, a young person is still developing, and harmful experiences online can impact them for the rest of their life.
I applaud the Government’s use of digital technologies to power economic growth across the UK and abroad. This is exciting, but we must exercise caution. To quote the response to the online harms Bill White Paper:
“we must be able to look parents in the eye and assure them we are doing everything we can to protect their children from harm.”
By supporting this amendment, we are making a true commitment to create a safer digital world for our children.
My Lords, I am an enthusiastic supporter of this cross-party amendment to the Trade Bill.
The Government do not have that much to be proud of right now, but they should be rightly proud of their moves to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, especially for children. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has done great work, both through the 5Rights Foundation and in this House on this issue. Her efforts to persuade the Government to bring in the age-appropriate design code in the Data Protection Act were hugely important and ground-breaking. Ministers should be proud that they listened and acted to ensure that technology platforms put the interests of children first.
Although I have been critical of the delays from the Government in bringing forward the online harms Bill, we are finally seeing movement. Again, Ministers should be proud of what they are doing to make the online world safer for children in the UK through the measures they are bringing forward this year. But we know that the large US tech companies hate the “duty of care” idea at the heart of the Bill and have an equal dislike of age-appropriate design. We know that they have successfully persuaded the US Government to write into trade deals with Japan, Mexico, Korea and others that tech companies should not be liable for the harms they cause. And they do cause harms.
Just this week, I was followed by someone on Twitter. When I checked her Twitter account, I was faced with a highly graphic image of her genitalia. I blocked the user and reported the account, and have heard no more from the user or from Twitter. This is just an everyday example of what we all have to navigate.
Of course, for children, this is much more serious. I was talking yesterday to a leading researcher into children’s mental health. We agreed that, for primary-aged children, it is reasonable—and, I think, desirable—to ban online devices from bedrooms, but she advised me that her research shows that secondary-aged pupils will get a device into their rooms, whether parents like it or not. A study published last year found that 75% of parents did not believe that their children would have watched pornography, and yet the majority of children told researchers that they had.
Of course, we know that this goes way beyond porn to grooming, bullying, radicalisation and so on. We must protect our children as best we can. Parents have a responsibility, and education has some responsibility, but so do we as legislators, and so do the technology companies that profit from our engagement with this content.
Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act 1996 allowed internet companies a free rein to make and break things. This did some good in the early years, but it also allowed unimaginable amounts of child sexual abuse imagery and grooming, and the targeting of teenagers with harmful content.
Especially with the news today from Georgia, we can be hopeful that the US may now want to do more itself to regulate the technology companies, but our responsibility is to the UK, and Amendment 23 would make it impossible for the UK to sign away through trade deals the protections that we in this Parliament are putting in place for children.
I know that the Department for International Trade wants a free hand in negotiation. I imagine that there is a good old row across Whitehall over this issue with DCMS. This House should be on the right side of the argument and back Digital Ministers and, in doing so, safeguard our children by, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said in opening this debate, taking them off the table.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Knight, who clearly has a much more exciting life on Twitter than I do.
In respect of the substance of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, I again say that your Lordships’ House does not need to—and, indeed, should not—seek to write on to the face of legislation that to which the Government are already committed.
The noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have supported this amendment are aware that the Government have recently published their response to the online harms consultation and have announced that they will create a new regulatory framework, overseen by Ofcom, which will apply internationally. Once that is legislated for, it will be the law of the land, as is the Data Protection Act 2018, and cannot be overridden by any international trade agreement. The only way that the law can be overridden is if Parliament chooses to change it. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Grimstone of Boscobel will provide further reassurances in respect of the Government’s position.
I should like to concentrate my remarks on the drafting of the amendment. We all know that amendments for Committee can be somewhat rough and ready because they are often used as probing amendments and are rarely divided on—at least, that is the modern practice, although it was not like that when I first joined your Lordships’ House—but I hope that the House will agree that it is incumbent on those moving amendments at later stages of a Bill, including Report, to ensure that they are well drafted. With that background, I wish to offer three comments on Amendment 23.
First, subsection (1) of the proposed new clause has a misplaced modifier. The word “only” is incorrectly attached to becoming a signatory to trade agreements. I believe that the noble Baroness intended to say that the UK may become a signatory only if certain conditions are met, rather than that the only thing that the UK can do if the conditions are met is become a signatory to a trade agreement.
Secondly, subsection (1) refers to
“the conditions in subsection (2)”,
but subsection (2) is not drafted as conditions to be satisfied; rather, it is just one statement—that trade agreements must be “consistent with” three things. I also remind the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that her concerns are not addressed by whether or not international trade agreements are consistent, because trade agreements do not, and cannot, change UK law, as I have already said. If they were inconsistent, they would have no effect unless and until changes were made to UK law, which would of course require the agreement of Parliament.
Thirdly, proposed new subsection (2)(a) refers to consistency with the domestic law of England and Wales, which rather begs a question about Scotland and Northern Ireland. They may or may not have their own relevant child protection legislation at the moment—I am not an expert on that—but, even if they do not have relevant legislation now, they presumably could have in the future. I am mystified by why paragraph (a) is restricted to English and Welsh law.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, will reflect on those points.