House of Lords
Wednesday 13 January 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points only? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Covid-19: Vaccine Trials
The NHS Covid-19 vaccine research registry has helped to facilitate the rapid recruitment of large numbers of people into trials. The Government have encouraged a diverse pool of people to volunteer to help researchers to better understand the effectiveness of each vaccine candidate. As of 12 January, more than 28,000 individuals from BAME communities have volunteered to take part in clinical trials.
In the first wave of the pandemic and the lockdown a report stated that a high proportion of black, Asian and ethnic-minority people were dying of the virus. In the second and third lockdowns there was no mention of their effect on these communities and on the death rate. With the vaccine being rolled out, I have heard messages from the black community about their mistrust of and lack of confidence in the vaccine. I ask Her Majesty’s Government: what proportion of those taking part in the vaccine trials were black, Asian or from ethnic minorities before the rollout?
I pay tribute to the work the noble Baroness has done on this important subject. It is vital to point out that the vaccines have been deployed only as they have been proven to be safe and effective by our independent medicines regulator. Everyone from all communities can be absolutely confident that no corners have been cut. The Government are sponsoring content on social media channels and on a range of news media outlets to get this message out to provide information and advice to communities, in many different languages. I can tell the noble Baroness that, in the Oxford trial, 830 BAME participants took part out of a total of 9,531, which is just under 9%. That data is from September 2020.
Is it not the case, though, that the key point is the sample profile, not just the raw numbers? In the case of Covid-19, the research looked at efficacy in adults across all ethnic groups, with some skewing for the older age groups. Against that, will the Minister confirm that the regulator would have been party to signing off the research in the first place?
The audio was a little unclear and I did not quite catch all of that question, but I can certainly confirm that the regulator is of course aware of all the information supplied on the research and the trials, and on the participants in the scheme, and signed it off for use by all communities.
My Lords, the Government know that there is deep scepticism and distrust, especially in urban and black youth communities and among the under-40s, over the efficacy of the vaccine. There is profound suspicion. Given the prevalence of this fear over reason and the need to build confidence through very local, trusted community facilities such as fast-food outlets, barbers, local pharmacies, community food shops and tech repair centres, will the Government agree to work with a consortium of black-led research and impact agencies to get the rollout done in a trusted way, and not use the standard hyper-expensive PR firms, which do not know this community?
The noble Lord makes some very good points. Vaccine misinformation is harmful, and the Government are working with developers, manufacturers, industry and communities to present a clear picture of the rollout process. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, we are also sponsoring content on social media channels and a range of news media outlets to provide information and advice to communities in numerous different languages.
Ensuring that participants in Covid-19 research proportionately represent the ethnicity of the wider population is vital to ensure that the new treatments and vaccines being investigated are effective for everybody, including people from different ethnicities. What steps are researchers taking to recruit more clinical trial volunteers from ethnic minority communities to take part in urgent public health studies to help tackle these disparities in health outcomes?
We have set up the vaccine registry, a new NHS service launched in July 2020, to enable people from across the UK to sign up for information on Covid-19 vaccine trials. This research registry is extremely important and we are using all available channels to encourage people from all communities to sign up for these trials.
My Lords, Public Health England published a review last summer which found that people from ethnic minorities were more likely to die from Covid-19. Ministers promised to take steps to reduce disparities and the risk of these outcomes. I raised this point on a number of occasions, but this pledge has not yet been honoured. It is no wonder that there is still mistrust in many communities when apparently no priority has been given to addressing the mistrust that many people from ethnic minorities now have in the vaccine. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that the Government set up a dedicated website with frequently asked questions targeting vulnerable groups, to restore trust and transparency? Also, last June, the Health Secretary indicated that black and ethnic-minority communities could be prioritised when the vaccine was developed. Why has this not happened?
I will certainly take the noble Baroness’s suggestions back to my department and the Department of Health to look at. It is important to point out that there is no strong evidence that ethnicity by itself or genetics are the sole explanation for observed differences in rates of severe illness and death in minority communities. What is clear is that certain health conditions are associated with an increased risk of serious disease, and these conditions are often over- represented in certain black, Asian and minority-ethnic groups. The prioritisation of people with underlying health conditions will also provide for greater vaccination among those in BAME communities who are disproportionately affected by such health outcomes.
Following up on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, there is increasing evidence of hesitancy to take Covid-19 vaccinations, particularly within some minority communities. It is vital that we persuade as many people as possible to take the vaccine for the fight against this pandemic to be won. I am currently involved in a national community-led campaign to be launched to encourage everyone to take the vaccine. Will my noble friend the Minister meet me and members of the group to discuss ways in which the Government can support us in this important initiative?
I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lord is doing. It is through exactly such examples as this, from community leaders and others, that we will help to get that message across. I am very happy to arrange a meeting for him with officials, to see how that work can be taken forward.
I thank my noble friend Lady Lawrence and echo what she has said about the suspicion and lack of confidence within many communities. Can the Minister confirm the numerous health reports from experts who suggest that there are higher numbers of deaths, admissions and infection among the Bangladeshi community in particular? How many of the 830 who took part in vaccine trials were from the Bangladeshi community? What are the Government doing to ensure that that community is continually consulted and considered?
My Lords, can we please keep questions short? The last few have been far too long.
I do not have specific information on the Bangladeshi community and how many took part in the trials. I only have the information on BAME communities as a whole. These distinctions are quite hard to draw sometimes, but certainly if that information is available, I will write to the noble Baroness.
I welcome this Question, because it shows how we are all in this together, without regard to nationality, ethnic group or blood group. The Prime Minister said that the two nurses helping him most when he was in hospital were from Portugal and from New Zealand. The first vaccine came from Belgium. We are all in this together. The virus is no respecter of persons. Neither are we relying on our own people to nurse and to be medics—
I am sorry, my Lords. We have asked people to keep their questions short, so that everyone can ask their question.
My Lords, the Minister will be familiar with the polling which shows that, although BAME communities were initially less likely to accept a Covid vaccine than white communities, when they had the opportunity to discuss their concerns with a healthcare professional, they were more likely than white communities to be persuaded to have the vaccine. Is my noble friend familiar with this polling, and what work is being done in government to follow up?
My noble friend makes some important points. We are indeed working closely with health experts to provide information and advice at every possible opportunity to all communities across the country. The NIHR launched a public campaign to raise awareness among people from BAME back- grounds, partnering with British comedian Omid Djalili, alongside Whoopi Goldberg, Sanjeev Bhaskar and other leaders, who can offer examples to the community of how important it is to take part in research and receive the vaccines when they are available.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I underline the point made by the Leader, that questions should be kept short and confined to two points. It is unfair to everybody else if that rule is not followed. We now go on to the second Oral Question.
My Lords, the second variant is a very serious matter. On 8 December, analysis of all genomes available in Kent showed that a new variant was circulating. Ministers were notified on 11 December. On Monday 14 December, the Health Secretary informed Parliament, PHE released a statement and the Government held a press conference on the new variant.
My Lords, variant B117 was identified in October. From the second week of December, virus cases started to rocket in London and the south-east, yet the Government’s focus was on how to keep people mixing at Christmas, not on dealing with the alarming spread of the virus, ignoring public health experts who said that a tight lockdown was urgently required. What message of apology does the Minister have for those families attending funerals because the Government acted too slowly to help save lives?
My Lords, I am afraid that I just do not recognise the noble Lord’s proposition. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new variants are appearing all the time. Many of them have passed through the process, but identifying those that are threatening, have more transmissibility and are significantly different is extremely complex. As I said very clearly, it was on 8 December that, after analysing all the genomes available in Kent, we showed that an important new variant was circulating.
My Lords, clearly these variants are extremely—[Inaudible]—for all sorts of reasons. Regrettably, the Minister did not answer the question put by my noble friend Lady Thornton yesterday, when she questioned incomplete vaccination. Can the Minister give us clear figures on the risk of mutant varieties of the virus with a longer period between the two injections of the Pfizer vaccine?
My Lords, the noble Lord has more medical expertise than me to be able to answer that question, but the briefing that I have is that the significant mutation in the Kent variant is not of a kind that should affect the efficacy of either a single dose or two doses of the vaccine. This comes as a significant relief to the vaccine programme. We remain on the balls of our feet, looking out for any variations that might affect vaccine deployment, but at this stage we have not found anything that poses a significant threat.
The noble Baroness is entirely right that the EpiData showed that the figures shot up in December; that is exactly why we looked extremely carefully at the genomic data from Kent and other places. As she knows, genomic data takes time to process—the tests can take a week to turn around. Looking at all the variants and matching EpiData figures with genomic data is an enormously complicated mathematical task. We moved as swiftly as possible and far faster than in many other countries.
My Lords, at the Downing Street press conference of 5 January, we were told that people had protection from the new variant if they had already been infected. What is the Government’s estimate of the number of people in the UK who now have antibodies after contracting the virus and are therefore likely to be immune? What is their approach to the large population of such people, estimated by Professor Neil Ferguson to be at 25% to 30% in London, and their need for vaccination?
My Lords, PHE weekly seroprevalence data suggests that antibody prevalence among blood donors aged 16-plus in England is 6.9%, which is consistent with other data that we have. The MHRA has considered this and has decided that vaccinating is just as important for those who have had Covid-19 as it is for those who have not.
How are demographic and NHS outcome data and test results from patients across the UK being collated to identify patterns suggesting further new variants, reinfections, changes in risk factors to severe disease, such as malnutrition, and planning for managing long Covid and modelling ICU provision?
The noble Baroness alludes to a world of analytical complexity, which is very much what we have to look forward to. The way in which this new variant has popped up and has been dramatically more transmissible presents a wholly different level of threat compared with the one that we were dealing with just six weeks ago. It is a matter of grave concern to all of us that this mutation has happened. However, I reassure noble Lords that we have very strong genomic capability in this country. Roughly 5% of all tests are analysed. It is only 5% but that is more than in most other countries, and we are putting in the analytical muscle to be able to process that data.
My Lords, we are of course facing a terrible and very serious infection, so are the Government contemplating further restrictions? If so, when will we know that there are going to be further restrictions? It seems to me that the ones we have right now are not working.
My Lords, the decisions about further restrictions in this country are a cross-departmental matter and are, frankly, above my pay grade. To address the noble Baroness’s point directly, the new variant is a very serious matter. It is as though a turbocharger has been attached to the engine of a high-performance car, which is going round the racetrack faster and faster. This mutation is very similar to ones in South Africa and Brazil, and, experts assess, will happen in many places around the world. We are now dealing with a significantly different virus and we have to adapt our reaction to it accordingly.
As part of the science, mathematicians run numbers on the spread of variants in an attempt to see whether one is getting an edge; these saw the new variant gaining in the east of England and London by November. Why did a significant localised increase in one variant not trigger an immediate precautionary response, rather than prevarication that it might be about behaviour? What evidence is there that behaviour can favour one variant over another?
I am terribly sorry but the noble Baroness is not right about that chronology. Through backward tracing and by looking at historic data, we were able to identify that the variant had been present in Kent as far back as September, but it was only through backward tracing that we were able to figure that out. Further analysis was commissioned on 18 December and NERVTAG concluded that the variant was much more transmissible than others in circulation. Before that, we relied on hunches. When the science changed, so did our decisions.
Andrew Miller, president of the Australian Medical Association in Western Australia, said:
“Until we get more data that shows that AstraZeneca is as good as the others, the scientific and medical risk that you take is that you won’t get herd immunity. The political risk is that you will get a good vaccine for the rich and a not so good vaccine for the poor.”
Is it not just a fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine is better than nothing but it will not stop the pandemic—especially the new variant?
My Lords, my noble friend rightly underlines that new variants are appearing not just here but anywhere in the world. Can he explain the process for notifying such variants worldwide and say how any assessment of their characteristics is passed on?
My noble friend asks a very challenging question. The honest truth is that we have to look at the systems whereby that data is exchanged. CMOs around the world have extremely regular contact with each other, and a lot of the data is exchanged through the formal links of the scientific community. But I think that there is a case for more structured intergovernmental exchange of data about the new variants, because this will be the major challenge of the year ahead.
The Minister mentioned a number of countries. Is there sufficient exchange between all of them or could more be done in that regard? Is there anything that the public could usefully know about the new variant’s transmission traits—whether it is airborne, for example?
The exchange of information between the scientific community has worked extremely well during this pandemic and epidemic, and I pay tribute to it for the open-hearted and transparent way in which it has exchanged data across political, cultural and national boundaries. In terms of transmission, the noble Viscount alludes to something that is very difficult to pin down. It is not clear what proportion of the disease is transmitted through the air and what proportion by touch and manual transmissibility. That is a very frustrating conundrum. The CMO guides us to believe that there is more transmissibility through the air than by touch, but it is absolutely essential that people keep their distance and wash their hands.
Extradition Arrangements: European Union Member States
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what reciprocal extradition arrangements are in place for the surrender of nationals between the United Kingdom and the European Union member states where the surrender of such nationals to a third country is forbidden or restricted by law.
My Lords, some EU member states operate on the fundamental principle that they cannot extradite their citizens outside the EU. We have ensured in our new arrangements that there is a path to justice in each case—for example, by requiring a member state that refuses to refer the case to its own prosecuting authorities.
I thank the Minister for her Answer. We all know about the difficulties with the United States in the tragic Harry Dunn case; despite the pleas of the Foreign Secretary, it refuses to extradite an American lady for serious offences committed on British soil. Is it now the same with Europe? What differences are there between our arrangements today with the 27 EU states in our new status as a third country, so far as they are concerned, and our long-time arrangements with the USA?
The fundamental difference between then and now is the additional safeguards built into the proceedings, which in my view make them a more effective set of arrangements. There is also the notion of proportionality, which is crucial for both accused and victim.
My Lords, the Home Secretary claims that Brexit makes us safer. Is the sharp decrease in extradition cases at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, from about 10 cases a day to about one, a direct result of losing fast access to the European crime DNA databases? Does this reflect the position nationally?
We are on day 14 of the new arrangements so it is probably a bit difficult to give reliable data at this point. The agreement allows UK law enforcement to continue to share DNA and fingerprints so I am slightly confused by the premise of the noble and learned Lord’s question.
The additional safeguards, beyond those in the European arrest warrant framework decision, make clear that a person cannot be surrendered if their fundamental rights are at risk—which might include things such as political views, sexual orientation, race and religion—if extradition would be disproportionate or if they are likely to face long periods of pre-trial detention.
My Lords, the late, lamented European arrest warrant certainly brought benefits in cross-border justice, but there is a presumption that the rule of law is the same in all EU states, which it is not. Could my noble friend look at political interference and corruption in any extradition or asylum case, particularly in the case of Alexander Adamescu, a German national fighting extradition to Romania under some very dubious circumstances?
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the additional cost of trials of those wanted in the UK having to take place in the accused’s home country, and to what extent will that be a consideration in deciding whether to pursue a prosecution?
As I said to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, it is probably quite early to say what those additional costs would be, but the decision on whether to pursue a trial would be based not on costs but on the likelihood of that trial being successful, either for the accused or indeed for the victim.
My Lords, many people felt that the European arrest warrant offered insufficient safeguards for the rights of those accused of crimes overseas. Can the Minister assure us that the replacement arrangements for the European arrest warrant offer solid and reciprocal protection, as far as possible, for the rights of the accused?
I can certainly assure my noble friend that the principle of proportionality is implemented in UK law through Sections 2, 12A and 21A of the Extradition Act 2003. It enshrines the principle of proportionality, which allows the UK to reject warrants where extradition would not be proportionate to the alleged conduct or where other, less intrusive measures could be used to progress an investigation. This is a much-needed improvement on the previous arrangements.
My Lords, what steps have been taken to identify and appoint those persons who are to serve as our representatives on the very important specialised committee to which Article 83 of the “Surrender” part of the trade and co-operation agreement refers?
As the Minister said, our trade and co-operation agreement with the EU makes clear that extradition can be refused where a person’s fundamental rights are at risk or where
“they are likely to face long delays of pretrial detention”.
What are the Government going to do to ensure that delays, particularly in the current situation, and an overreliance on detention do not prevent extradition or the pursuit of justice?
The pursuit of justice is paramount but so are the issues of fundamental rights. There is no reason why the new system should not be as swift but, as my noble friends have outlined, it is very important that some of those fundamental rights are upheld.
My Lords, what are we to rely on in these matters, the Panglossian statements of the Home Secretary or the experience of a former National Security Adviser, the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, who has said publicly that our position now in these matters is one of damage limitation?
By chance, I heard the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, outlining some of his concerns on the radio. I bow to his expertise but there is probably some difference in our interpretation of what he outlined, particularly on access to databases and the sharing of information.
My Lords, together with our departure from the Schengen Information System, there appears to be no replacement for the respective instruments on joint investigative teams, the enforcement of fines, the enforcement of non-custodial measures and prisoner transfer. Please will the Minister tell the House how these gaps will be filled?
The noble Lord will know that the EU maintained that it was legally impossible to offer SIS II to a non-Schengen third country so we have reverted to Interpol, which is a tried and tested mechanism of co-operation. Regarding the joint investigative teams, the UK will be able to continue running and participating in those with EU member states and third countries on a non-EU legal basis. Prisoner transfers are a Ministry of Justice lead. The EU did not want to include arrangements on them in the agreement but we will continue to transfer foreign offenders back to their home states using the existing Council of Europe convention, as well as accepting the repatriation of any British citizen imprisoned by an EU member state who is eligible and wants to return to the UK to serve their sentence.
My Lords, on the day when the United States has executed a woman for the first time in 67 years, it is fitting that we should be addressing the subject of extradition. Even without the death penalty, the plea-bargaining system produces unjust results. Would the Minister feel confident about UK citizens being extradited for a vengeful trial in the US legal system?
The noble Baroness will know that we are against the death penalty in all cases. I have talked about some of the fundamental rights and that may or may not be included in them, but we are against the death penalty. The noble Baroness is talking about the EU; it is important that people are brought to justice but it is also important that their fundamental rights are upheld.
Covid-19: Small Businesses
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of small businesses at risk of permanent closure as a result of the restrictions put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic; and what additional support they plan to provide to such small businesses.
Throughout the pandemic, the Government have recognised the need to support businesses through the impacts of Covid. The Government continue to deliver a comprehensive package of measures to provide that support, including loan guarantees, business grants, tax deferrals and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. We will continue to keep the approach under review and continue to engage with the business community.
My Lords, the ONS’s index of services shows that, despite the Government’s welcome support, all but a few sectors of the economy are significantly down on previous years. The travel, hospitality and creative industries are in deep trouble, registering between 50% and 90% cuts in activity. We have consistently called for a differential approach to sectors with a high level of freelance, seasonal and self-employed workers. Does the Minister agree that it is important to retarget government support going forward?
We keep all these matters under constant review. We are supporting self-employed people with the fourth income support grant. We are providing an extra £4.6 billion to protect UK jobs and businesses. Businesses that are self-employed, freelancers and sole traders can benefit from other measures such as mortgage holidays, VAT relief and business loans with generous repayment terms.
My Lords, many small businesses and retailers say that having an online presence is a major element in creating sustainability for their business in the face of repeated closures. We all want our high streets to succeed and, therefore, the way forward is a mixed click and brick model for small businesses. Can the Government outline what they are doing to help small businesses get online or improve their online presence?
My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. Would my noble friend help me understand what help will be given to our high streets? I am particularly concerned about my own city, Leicester, where so many shops have closed down since the pandemic. Can my noble friend please see what more can be done to help those in the supply chain to the hospitality and leisure sectors, especially those in multi-occupancy buildings? They have not received as much support as they possibly could have.
I will certainly bear the comments made by the noble Baroness in mind. Local authorities across England have been allocated a further £500 million in discretionary funding via the additional restrictions grant to support businesses from 5 January. This could include businesses supplying the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors or businesses outside the current business rates system which have effectively been forced to close
My Lords, are the Government looking at the devolved Administrations? In some cases, they have been more agile in addressing gaps in support for small businesses, such as Northern Ireland’s Covid Restrictions Business Support Scheme which provides grants for supply chain businesses. A similar scheme is operating in Wales. This would certainly give some help to the live music sector, which continues to be hard hit. Technical supply companies have seen a disastrous 95% drop in their revenues.
As I said earlier, we keep all these matters under review. We are conscious that our scheme is one of the most generous in Europe, with £280 billion-worth of support. Of course, we are always willing to learn lessons from the devolved Administrations or other countries.
My Lords, the FSB say that around 70% of small businesses are carrying some form of debt. Almost half of them—some 47%—are using personal loans, family loans, overdrafts, their own credit cards and personal mortgages on their properties to support their businesses. Many, including 710,000 company directors who pay themselves through dividends only when their business is in profit, have been excluded from any form of personal support. This is because the Treasury seems to have put this into the “Too difficult” box. At some point, many of these entrepreneurs will lose not only their businesses but their homes and possessions too—notwithstanding the stress, anxiety and mental health issues. What will the Government do now to stop this happening?
We are aware of the issue of dividends highlighted by the noble Lord. We have looked at that, but it has proved very difficult to separate different kinds of dividends. However, we have amended some of the terms of the bounce-back loans—for example, no repayments are due during the first 12 months of the loan term. This gives businesses the space they need to get through the difficult period without the worry of directly repaying in the immediately following months.
My Lords, large villages and small market towns are dependent on a varied patchwork of small businesses for both their economic and community well-being. Many of these have already closed during lockdown. Whether they provide retail outlets, services such as hairdressers, or are small engineering subcontractors, they all need and deserve support. Can the Minister give reassurances that rural areas will not be forgotten when considering support?
Rural areas are badly affected, as indeed are city areas. Like other SMEs, rural businesses can access support including loan guarantees, business grants and the tax deferrals I referred to. Those needing advice can now access free advice on the right finances from local government-backed growth hubs, which are part of the LEPs. But I totally accept the point made by the noble Baroness.
My Lords, given that the OBR has warned that the UK economy will shrink by 11.3% this year—the biggest fall for 300 years—and that unemployment will peak in the second quarter at 7.5%, and given that the Chancellor said in his recent spending review that we are facing an “economic emergency”, will the Minister agree with me that, as soon as we possibly can, we need to shift the focus from saving lives to saving livelihoods and thereby signal our support to small business people across the UK?
My Lords, SMEs are also destroyed by unfair insolvency laws, which enable secured creditors to walk away with most of the proceeds from the sale of a bankrupt business’s assets, leaving next to nothing for unsecured creditors, including SMEs. The Carillion bankruptcy affected nearly 30,000 SMEs. Will the Government consider legislating so that SMEs have a higher priority in corporate bankruptcies?
The noble Lord makes an important point, and, of course, we constantly review all these numbers. We last looked at the insolvency provisions in recent legislation, and it is always difficult to get the balance between different creditors right when there are insufficient funds available.
My Lords, I return to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma. Will the Minister commit to an empirical evaluation of the impact of Covid-19 on our already embattled high streets—in relation to footfall and spending? As the experience in different parts of the country has been bumpy and uneven, will he spell out how the Government are working with local authorities and chambers of commerce to ensure a tailored response, according to local circumstances?
We are fully committed to supporting businesses that make our high streets and town centres successful. As the nation responds to the impact of Covid-19, I can tell the noble Lord that we are investing £830 million through the future high streets fund in 72 areas across England, helping to renew and reshape high streets in our town centres.
Does my noble friend accept that these constant reviews have not done much to help many of the self-employed, a group that includes some of the hardest-working people in our country? In the creative industries, particularly music, there have been some horrific stories. Can we have an immediate review of the help for the self-employed?
In my earlier answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, I outlined the help that we are giving to self-employed people, with the fourth income support grant. We are providing an extra £4.6 billion to protect UK jobs and businesses. We accept, of course, that a lot of these schemes were put together quickly and in haste, and that we need to keep them under constant review to ensure that as many people as possible are receiving that help and support.
My Lords, we are aware that our diverse communities are substantially and adversely affected by the present pandemic. I have received a large number of complaints about SMEs, including post offices, pharmacies and corner shops, that may go down because of a lack of finances and other resources. I ask the Minister, as I have done before: will he ensure that these businesses are adequately consulted and assisted before they go down, never to recover?
The noble Lord makes a vital point. I and my ministerial colleagues regularly having meetings with all the various business representative organisations to ensure that the support we are able to give is carefully tailored, targeted and available to as many different businesses as possible.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask Members to respect social distancing.
Liaison Committee Report
Motion to Agree
My Lords, I shall speak also to the second Motion in my name on the Order Paper, which deals with the sixth report of the committee.
In July 2019, the Liaison Committee published a report on our 18-month review of House of Lords committee activity. That report followed the most comprehensive review of the House of Lords committees ever undertaken and was the first major review for 25 years. It proposed the start of a significant change in the positioning of our committees to put in place a thematic approach designed to ensure more effective scrutiny of all the major areas of public policy.
During the review, more than 50 proposals for new committee activity were received from Members, many of which reflected gaps in our coverage of key issues at that time. A number of measures to address scrutiny gaps, including the expansion of existing committee remits and the creation of a new Public Services Committee, have been put in place since the report was agreed by the House in October 2019. We have also implemented other important recommendations, such as the establishment of a committee chairs forum, which has already proved to be an important means of communication and exchange of ideas, and the introduction of a regular committees newsletter for Members of the House.
In the 2019 report, we noted that many areas of public policy, including the environment and home affairs, had hitherto engaged EU competence and were addressed principally through our European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees. The review “ring-fenced” the EU Committee and its sub-committees, leaving them unchanged at that point, but acknowledged that further work in this respect would be required in due course.
Noble Lords will be well aware of the excellent reputation of the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees. The scrutiny by the then European Communities Committee was the starting point for House of Lords committee activity in the modern era. Following its establishment in May 1974, the quick success of that committee was built on bit by bit to form the basis of our current EU Committee structure. Many Members and staff over the years have worked tirelessly to support the EU Committee’s success. In the context of the debates on Brexit, that work has increased in intensity. As the work of the EU Committee in its present form comes to an end, I invite the whole House to pay tribute to the outstanding work of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, the current chair, and his colleagues.
Last autumn, the Liaison Committee undertook this final element of the review of committees. As previously, we were keen to seek the views of committee chairs as well as those of Members of the wider House. I am grateful to all those colleagues who contributed their views in response to my invitation. We also had a very successful virtual seminar on 3 September on the Lords committee structure post Brexit and post Covid. It featured presentations from the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, and a further five Members of the House, before moving on to a good discussion in which almost 60 Members participated. This too informed our decisions.
The fifth report from the Liaison Committee includes our final recommendations in relation to the restructuring of the House of Lords committees. Our report recommends the following new, cross-cutting thematic committees: Built Environment Committee; European Affairs Committee, with a European Affairs Committee Sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland; Environment and Climate Change Committee; Industry and Regulators Committee, and Justice and Home Affairs Committee.
We also recommend that the International Agreements Sub-Committee be appointed as a free-standing sessional committee for the remainder of this Parliament and that the current COVID-19 Committee should continue until November 2021, when its work will be further reviewed.
Our recommendations tie in with our decision that the existing EU Committee and the EU sub-committees should continue until 31 March this year to allow for an orderly transition to the new committee structure. The new sessional committees will therefore begin their work in April 2021, with the exception of the International Agreements Committee, which will succeed the current sub-committee later this month. The overall number of committees will remain unchanged. It is likely that, despite all the careful planning, the new committees will take a little while to settle in after Easter. I reassure the committee chairs that, once appointed, we will welcome feedback on the operation of the new committees and that the work of the Liaison Committee and committee chairs forum is there to give systematic support to the new structure. My door is always open too. I am always happy to receive comments and feedback on the operation of our committee structure and suggestions for improvement and enhancement.
The recommendations in our fifth report build on the findings and conclusions developed throughout our work on the review of committees. Taken together, they are a significant step forward in strengthening the thematic structure of House of Lords committees. The new committees will have broad, cross-cutting remits which will enable them to adjust flexibly and swiftly to the many challenges which the country will face in the years ahead.
Turning more briefly to the sixth report, I remind the House that, in the light of the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, in April 2020 the Liaison Committee recommended that the usual special inquiry process be “paused” to allow a degree of re-focusing on Covid-19. The COVID-19 Committee, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox of Soho, was established as a result. In July, we recommended the establishment of two new special inquiry committees, on a national plan for sport and recreation and on risk assessment and risk planning. In a separate report in July, we further recommended the establishment of another new committee to scrutinise common frameworks. All these committees are doing valuable work. In the case of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, which has now been in existence for half a year, the chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, recently wrote to me. Her letter, which I believe is available on the committee’s website, sets out the impressive and wide-ranging work that has already been undertaken and which is likely to develop still further in the months ahead.
Our sixth report recommends the appointment of one further special inquiry committee, on youth unemployment, following a proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. We recommend that, like the special inquiry committees on sport and recreation and on risk, the youth unemployment committee should report by the end of November 2021 to enable the next cycle of special inquiries to proceed smoothly in January 2022.
I am once again very grateful indeed to all Members of the House who put forward proposals for special inquiry committees. We considered them all carefully, and I hope that the House will agree that the successful proposals underline the range and breadth of expertise that exists in your Lordships’ House.
Over the past 25 years, House of Lords committees have become increasingly important in scrutinising matters relating to the EU and on the wider international and domestic agenda. During 2020, the speed with which our committees adjusted to new ways of working was a visible indicator of their flexibility and continuous innovation. In recommending these two reports to the House, I end on a note of gratitude for the work of all committees. I note, too, that the Liaison Committee’s fifth report brings to an end the comprehensive review of committees that began in January 2018. I believe that we were right to proceed carefully and collaboratively, engaging widely within and outside the House in changing the structure that has grown over nearly 47 years and that predates the establishment of the House of Commons departmental Select Committees.
The approach taken by the review is innovative, as it establishes a firm but flexible framework within which our committees will operate. We are now in a position to consider any future adjustments to our committee structure as and when the need arises, particularly during our annual reviews. There is no need for any further set-piece reviews as in the past, since we have succeeded in constructing a built-in continuous review process. In this way, we trust that the comprehensive review will provide committees with a firm foundation for many years to come. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have had one definite request to speak and two potential requests to speak. I call the noble Lord, Lord Newby.
I thank the noble Lord the Senior Deputy Speaker for undertaking an exhaustive review which has produced very sensible proposals. Of all the committees to be created as a result of the review, arguably the new European Affairs Committee is the most important, not least because we have seen within the last week the unilateral decision by the Leader of another place to disband the Commons Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union and put nothing in its place. As we see from the immediate effects of Brexit, not least in Northern Ireland, clearly there will be a lot for this committee and its sub-committee to look at.
What makes all our committee reports of more value than, say, an equivalent think-tank report is, first, that the Government have to respond to them and, secondly, that your Lordships’ House has to debate them. In both those areas, the current practice is far from satisfactory. For the government response to be effective, it needs to be timely, which simply has not happened in many cases. The most egregious example is the Economic Affairs Committee on social care policy, which reported some 589 days ago and still has not had a government response. It really is incumbent on government to do better in that respect.
Furthermore, it is important that these reports have a timely debate in your Lordships’ House. I understand why we have not been doing so in recent months, but it is still unsatisfactory that we now have Select Committee reports that are 22 months out of date, as it were, and have still not had a debate in your Lordships’ House. I hope very much that, as the mass of secondary legislation which we have seen in respect of Brexit and coronavirus dwindles to a trickle, or to a more normal level, it will be possible to reinstate a timely system of debates on Select Committee reports. Certainly, even if we cannot do it literally immediately, I hope that when we start a new Session later in the year we will do so with a new resolve to deal with the valuable work and reports of these committees in a way that really makes best use of them.
With those caveats, I and my colleagues welcome these proposals and look forward to seeing the work of the new committees develop.
For noble Lords’ information, I should say that the Senior Deputy Speaker has the right to reply. I shall take all questions first and we will go to him afterwards, should he wish to return to them.
My Lords, these are extremely welcome proposals, and we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and his colleagues for the review that they have undertaken of the committee system in the House and the proposals that they have made. Rather belatedly—but at long last we are getting there—noble Lords are essentially introducing a proper systematic arrangement of committees in respect of domestic policy. Until now we have had a committee system only really in respect of European affairs. It is my view, which I have expressed in the House before, that we have been overweighted. It was good that we had the European Union Committee, but we gave no scrutiny whatever to the great generality of domestic policy, which is hugely important. As I have noted in the House before, in my five years as a Minister, including a period as Secretary of State, I was never once summoned to appear before a House of Lords committee, even though I am a Member of the House of Lords, which is a pretty serious condemnation of the way in which this House has conducted its scrutiny.
In respect of the proposals themselves, essentially we are playing catch-up with the House of Commons. The noble Lord said that our committee on European affairs was 47 years old, which is somewhat older than the Select Committees of the House of Commons. But of course the House of Commons had all the departmental committees in respect of domestic departments in 1980, and it has taken us 40 years before we finally got to a system which, in a very intelligent way, taking domestic policy areas in a cross-cutting way, has given us the capacity to do the same.
The House of Commons has made two big changes in the past 40 years in respect of its committees. The first was to introduce systematic departmental committees, but the second—and I am surrounded by former Members of the House of Commons who might have views on this, but it seems to me to be just as important a development—is that the chairs of those committees are now elected by the House at large. That great outbreak of internal democracy in the House of Commons has, I am told, had a very beneficial effect, not least that it has given much greater prominence to the MPs who chair those committees, and it has given them a strong mandate on behalf of the House as a whole. Indeed, because they are no longer beholden to the Whips, because they are not appointed by the Whips or through a process that involves the usual channels, they are also likely to be—how can I put this delicately?—less subject to persuasion from Ministers as to what they should say in their reports.
I want to ask something of the noble Lord, Lord McFall, a very distinguished former member of the House of Commons Treasury Committee. Now that we have domestic affairs committees worth the name, I encourage the Liaison Committee to adopt the second of the reforms that the House of Commons has adopted and have the chairs of these new committees elected by the House as a whole, as we elect the Lord Speaker, and not continue to be appointed essentially by the Whips in dark recesses of the House through processes which most of us have no knowledge of or capacity to influence. I ask the noble Lord to tell the House whether that is under consideration by his committee.
I rise very briefly to pay the same tribute as the noble Lord, Lord McFall, not only to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, but to the chairs of our other committees, who do the most extraordinary work. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. Where I disagree with my noble friend Lord Adonis is that I do not think that they do it for prominence. The great shortfall in what he has just said is exactly that MPs do it for their own prominence. One of the many strengths of our system is that our chairs actually do not get prominence; that is not why they do the job—they do it for good hard work and the quality of what they produce.
The funniest thing, though, is the idea that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, would in any way be open to persuasion by Ministers. We have seen him jumping up on almost every occasion to get at his own Government’s Ministers for having done not very much about the report he has produced, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. That is a strength of the sort of people in this House. They do not owe their future to the Whips and they show it. My noble friend of course is a brilliant example of that. He does not owe his future in this House to the Whips and he shows that by his many contributions.
Having mentioned the report from the noble Lord, Lord Forsythe, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said. On page 8 of today’s green pages there is a list of the reports that are yet to be discussed, of which his is not even the oldest; there are some older than that. I do hope that we can take forward the comments that have been made about timely reports from Ministers—I am glad to see some nods—and speedy debates. For the moment, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McFall, for all that he has done in making this report possible.
I thank my colleagues for their comments. In fairness to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, the European Affairs Committee will certainly have a lot to do in the coming months. That is one of the reasons why, in discussions with the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, we decided that the present committees would extend until the end of March, so that we can view how the land lies. At the end of the day, that was quite a wise decision.
The issue of government reports has been raised in the chairs’ forum. I have written to Ministers and engaged with the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip on this in my regular meetings with them; it is a live part of the agenda. This is an issue about which the committee chairs in particular feel strongly. We will continue that process, so that there is maximum engagement with the House. I take the point that there is no use having a report that is not debated in the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, mentioned a “proper, systematic arrangement” for our committees. I am grateful to him for those remarks, but the essence of our committees now is their flexibility, larger footprint and cross-cutting nature. We can respond to challenges as we see them. For example, we established the COVID-19 Committee specifically to look at the issues of Covid-19. We have also established a Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee. Only yesterday, I had a meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, on that point. These committees are working well, and having this systematic arrangement is important.
The issue of the election of chairs was reviewed quite a long time ago, but it was felt by the Liaison Committee, and those who provided evidence to it, that this was not the time to do it. It is still on the agenda and I am happy to receive any representations on such issues as we go forward, not least from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.
That touches on the issue of increased powers. I am in touch with the current House of Commons inquiry into Select Committee powers, along with the Leader of the House, regarding greater government participation and Ministers giving evidence. One feature of the review of committees was that the Liaison Committee of the House of Lords would engage with the Liaison Committee in the House of Commons at an annual meeting. That has not yet taken place, but I have written to the chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin, to make him aware of what we have been doing. I have no doubt that we will shortly be meeting him, and others, to ensure that there is coherence in our approach to this area as we go forward.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, on her participation in the Liaison Committee and her interest in everything that the committee has done, notwithstanding her very heavy workload on the Front Bench. I take her point about the work of all the committee chairs, and I congratulate them and their staff on their work and application. An awful lot of work goes on in the background and there is fantastic staff input to our committees—our work would not be possible without them, so it is important that we congratulate them as well. I will finish on that celebratory note.
Liaison Committee Report
Motion to Agree
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 11 January.
“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the Covid-19 vaccine delivery plan. The plan, published today, sets out the strategies that underpin the development, manufacture and deployment of our vaccines against Covid-19. It represents a staging post in our national mission to vaccinate against the coronavirus, and a culmination of many months of hard work from the NHS, our Armed Forces, Public Health England, and every level of local government in our union. There are many miles to go on this journey, but, armed with this plan, our direction of travel is clear.
We should be buoyed by the progress that we are already making. As of today, in England, 2.33 million vaccinations have been given, with 1.96 million receiving their first dose and 374,613 having already received both doses. We are on track to deliver our commitment of offering a first vaccine to everyone in the most vulnerable groups by the middle of next month. These are groups, it is worth reminding ourselves, that account for more than four out of every five fatalities from the Covid virus, or some 88% of deaths. But of course this is a delivery plan for everyone—a plan that will see us vaccinate all adults by the autumn in what is the largest programme of vaccination of its kind in British history.
The UK vaccines delivery plan sets out how we can achieve that noble, necessary and urgent goal. The plan rests on four key pillars: supply, prioritisation, places and people. On supply, our approach to vaccines has been to move fast and to move early. We had already been heavily investing in the development of new vaccines since 2016, including funding a vaccine against another coronavirus: Middle East respiratory syndrome. At the start of this year, this technology was rapidly repurposed to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, and in April we provided £20 million of further funding so that the Oxford clinical trials could commence immediately. Today, we are the first country to buy, authorise and use that vaccine.
Also in April, we established the UK Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, or VTF for short, and since then it has worked relentlessly to build a wide portfolio of different types of vaccine, signing early deals with the most promising prospects. It is a strategy that has really paid off. As of today, we have secured access to 367 million doses from seven vaccine developers with four different vaccine types, including the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which we were also the first in the world to buy, authorise and use. The VTF has also worked on our homegrown manufacturing capability, including what is referred to as the ‘fill and finish’ process, in collaboration with Wockhardt in Wrexham. Anticipating a potential global shortage early on, we reserved manufacturing capacity to allow for the supply of multiple vaccines to the United Kingdom. Like many capabilities in this pandemic, it is one that we have never had before, but one that we can draw on today. So much of that critical work undertaken early has placed us in a strong position for the weeks and months ahead.
The second pillar of our plan is prioritisation. As I set out earlier, essential work to protect those at the greatest clinical risk is already well under way. The basic principle that sits behind all of this is to save as many lives as possible as quickly as possible. In addition, we are working at speed to protect staff in our health and social care system. All four UK chief medical officers agree with the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to prioritise the first doses for as many people on the priority list as possible and administer second doses towards the end of the recommended vaccine dosing schedule of 12 weeks. That step will ensure the protection of the greatest number of at-risk people in the shortest possible time.
The third pillar of our plan is places. As of yesterday, across the United Kingdom, we have more than 2,700 vaccination sites up and running. There are three types of site. First, we have large vaccination centres that use big venues such as football stadiums; we saw many of those launched today. At these, people will be able to get appointments using our national booking service. The second type is our hospital hubs, working with NHS trusts across the country. The third is our local vaccination services, which are made up of sites led by GPs working in partnership with primary care trusts and, importantly, with community pharmacists.
This mix of different types of site offers the flexibility that we need to reach many different and diverse groups and, importantly, to be able to target as accurately as we can. By the end of January, everyone will be within 10 miles of a vaccination site. In a small number of highly rural areas, the vaccination centre will be a mobile unit. It bears repeating that, when it is their turn, we want as many people as possible to take up the offer of a vaccine against Covid-19.
The fourth and final pillar is, of course, our people. I am grateful to the many thousands who have joined this mission—this national mission. We now have a workforce of some 80,000 people ready to be deployed across the country. This includes staff currently working within the NHS of course, but also volunteers through the NHS Bring Back Staff scheme, such as St John Ambulance personnel, independent nurses and occupational health service providers. There are similar schemes across the devolved Administrations.
Trained vaccinators, non-clinical support staff such as stewards, first aiders, administrators and logistics support will also play their part. We are also drawing on the expertise of our UK Armed Forces, whose operational techniques—brought to life by Brigadier Phil Prosser at the press conference with the Prime Minister a few days ago—have been tried and tested in some of the toughest conditions imaginable. I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking everyone who has played their part in getting us to this point, and all those who will play an important role in the weeks and months ahead.
We recognise that transparency about our vaccine plan will be central to maintaining public trust, and we are committed to publishing clear and simple updates. Since 24 December, we have published weekly UK-wide data on the total number of vaccinations and the breakdown of over and under-80s for England. From today, we are publishing daily data for England showing the total number vaccinated to date. The first daily publication was this afternoon. From Thursday, and then weekly, NHS England will publish a more detailed breakdown of vaccinations in England, including by region.
This continues to be a difficult time for our country, for our NHS and for everyone as we continue to live under tough restrictions, but we have always known that a vaccine would be our best way out of this evil pandemic, and that is the road we are now taking. We are under no illusion as to the scale of the challenge ahead and the distance we still have to travel. In more normal times, the largest vaccination programme in British history would be an epic feat, but against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a new, more transmissible variant, it is a huge challenge. With this House and indeed the whole nation behind this national mission, I have every confidence that it will be a national success. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for allowing this Statement to be taken. This is a challenging moment in the handling of the pandemic. We have growing infection rates; we are in lockdown; businesses are shut; schools are closed. Tragically, more than 80,000 people have already lost their lives to this awful virus. However, the vaccine provides us with a light. It is a glimmer of hope; a way to beat the virus, save lives and get us back to normal. I congratulate the Government on investing in multiple vaccine candidates —that has definitely paid off. But a vaccine alone does not make a vaccination programme. Given the Government’s record with test and trace, and the procurement of PPE, it is right that the Minister will face many questions about the delivery and implementation of the vaccine programme.
The plan that has been launched is quite conventional. Aside from big vaccination centres, it uses traditional delivery mechanisms, operating within traditional opening and access times. If the Secretary of State’s target for the number to be vaccinated is to be reached, exceptional circumstances call for an exceptional response. Why did the Government believe that 24/7 access is something that people would not be interested in? What is that view based on? However, I see that, in a characteristic U-turn, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said today that the coronavirus vaccine programme will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, “as soon as we can”. What does this actually mean? When will the details of the plan to provide this service be published? The Secretary of State has said that the only limiting factor on the immunisation programme will be the speed of supply. Can the Minister confirm that this plan will receive the supply which is needed?
I think we can all see that the logistics of vaccinating a nation are huge, and we now hear many anecdotal stories about the reliability of supply, the organisation of vaccination, cancelled appointments and uncertainty of supply. On 17 December, I asked about the inoculation of our NHS staff, as it seemed obvious to me that, if we did not give vaccines to those dealing with the most sick Covid patients, and given the spike we are now experiencing, we would find many of our precious NHS staff becoming ill—as indeed we have. We are now experiencing the consequences. We are currently missing around 46,000 NHS staff for Covid reasons. When will all our NHS staff have been vaccinated?
What consideration has been given to vaccinating patients who are going to be in hospital? I am thinking, for example, about maternity services. Has it been considered that expectant mothers, and those who have just given birth, should also be vaccinated?
London currently has by far the highest rates of Covid in the UK, yet it is receiving fewer doses of the Pfizer and Oxford vaccines per head of population. Will the Minister commit to providing those desperately needed additional supplies urgently?
We are all reassured to see pharmacies included in the plan. They are at the heart of the communities of our country. They are trusted and are all ready to deliver mass vaccination. It is slightly odd that the number being trailed publicly is of 200 participating pharmacies, given that there are in fact 11,500 community pharmacies in England. Can the Minister clarify whether that is right? Why are not more involved, or is that number wrong? Can the Minister share with us what the number is?
On social care, it seems that about 23% of elderly care home residents have been vaccinated compared with 40%—which is brilliant—of the over-80s. Given their top prioritisation, can the Minister tell us when all care home residents will have been vaccinated? Will it be the end of the month, as has been promised?
When is it likely that our school and nursery staff will be vaccinated? I can see that the prioritisation lists are difficult and demanding—there is huge demand on this vaccine—but if we are to return to any semblance of normality, we need to get our children back to school.
My Lords, I welcome this Statement on the on the vaccine strategy and rollout, which we have been asking for from these Benches, in both Houses, since before the first lockdown. The Government have rightly set themselves stretching targets and we agree with them, especially in the light of the new variant’s high levels of transmission. The news this week of the severe problems that our NHS is facing across the country shows how out of control the virus is at the moment. Individuals must comply with the spirit and the rules of lockdown to help to reduce cases as soon as possible.
The Prime Minister has talked repeatedly about a vaccine signalling the end of the pandemic. I fear that lax messaging about the hope that vaccines bring is hampering the message about lockdown. It is a relief to hear in this Statement a more measured tone about this being a staging post in a long journey. Please can somebody tell the Prime Minister? The Minister will know that epidemiologists repeatedly make the point that we are a long way from life returning to normal. I note, for example, that in the debate about the vaccination priority list, the advice to clinically vulnerable people from government is that, even after their vaccine, they must remain shielding until told that it is safe for them not to shield.
On supply, we remain concerned that the Government will struggle to reach 2 million a week by next week—mid-January—given the numbers of vaccines being delivered this week. We are also receiving reports from GP surgeries of fewer doses arriving than ordered or, worse, short-notice cancellation of orders causing administrative chaos for already hard-pressed administrative surgery staff. While the opening of super vaccine hubs is welcome, can the Minister say why the hubs are vaccinating only during the day? If it is truly a priority to vaccinate as many people as possible, arrangements should be made for close to 24/7 delivery. I hear that, in the last hour, the Prime Minister has announced that the Government will try to start a pilot of some 24/7 hubs as soon as supplies permit—but how soon is soon? What are the vaccine supply pinch points? It is clear that targets are already slipping. This week, the target of 2 million a week has moved from mid-January to the end of January, and it is now the end of March instead of the end of February for the top five priority groups. Is this for the supply of all three approved vaccines, or just the AZ vaccine, where there is a much larger order to be rolled out with more substantial delays if there are supply pinch points? Also, it is because of a shortage of glass vials, or vaccine manufacture and regulation checks?
What are the Government doing to ensure that vaccine hubs are not superspreader locations? There have been worrying reports about people being asked to change masks and sit and wait less than two metres away from other people in the vaccine hubs. Given that the first five priority groups are all high-risk people, the last thing the NHS should be doing is encouraging them to go to areas that do not follow the government guidance on “hands, face, space”. Inevitably, there are glitches with any new process. We are still hearing of problems with the Pinnacle IT system that is being used for vaccinations. Some hubs were resorting to pen and paper in despair, and there are further problems reported with patients being asked to give the same detailed answers to a group of questions about Covid symptoms and allergies as they arrived, as they were registered and then as they were being given their jab. Any effective IT system should enter that information once. IT delays are reported as causing major delays, queues outside centres and daily targets missed at hubs. Can the Minister say what is being done to remedy these problems?
Can the Minister also say whether the vaccine dashboard will separate out the number of care home residents vaccinated? I see that care home cases are increasing again, which we deplore. As earlier this year, we strongly object to Covid patients being sent from hospitals into care homes, unless they are specialist Covid-designated units separated from other non-Covid residents. Even better would be to follow the example of Southampton hospital, which is using local hotels as step-down facilities. Will the Government endorse this and ensure that care home patients are kept safe through this surge until they are vaccinated?
The Government have announced that fewer than 1,300 surgeries and pharmacies are approved to deliver vaccines. The large hubs are all in urban areas. What will the Government do in rural areas, where elderly people do not have access to transport and may have to travel considerably further than the 90-minute journey for vaccinations announced this week? Are there plans as yet unannounced to increase substantially truly local-level provision, at a high-street level, in every rural village and small town—whether at a local surgery, pharmacy or visiting mobile vaccination unit—to ensure that vulnerable people who cannot travel or take the risk of infection will get access to the vaccine? It is not good enough for the Government to say that vaccines have been offered if the patients concerned cannot get to the vaccination delivery point.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the detailed questions from the noble Baronesses. In particular, I endorse the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton: it is indeed a remarkable achievement to have invested in such a broad array of candidates and to have purchased such an enormous quantity of doses—367 million. This is indeed a profoundly important step by the Government and one that we should celebrate and take pride in.
However, I acknowledge the searching questions from the noble Baronesses, so let me try to cover as much ground as I possibly can. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the digital backbone. This is absolutely critical to vaccine delivery. In many ways, injecting it into arms is the simple bit. Capturing the records, getting the invitations out right and the process of establishing identity are absolutely critical; in any project of this scale and complexity, that is where the problems are most likely to happen. That is why I pay tribute to colleagues at NHSX, NHS D, Test and Trace, PHE and elsewhere in the NHS who have done an amazing job of bringing together patient records around the nation to ensure that the invitations are sent out promptly and accurately and that the records are captured correctly. That information will be absolutely essential to both pharmacovigilance and the policy assessment of key issues such as transmissibility and efficacy. It employs the yellow card system to spot adverse incidents, and all data will go straight into the GP record, which is profoundly important when it comes to the research and analysis of the rollout of the vaccine. These may seem like prosaic details, but it is the most enormous digital achievement and one that will have an amazing impact on the health of the nation. I enormously encourage everyone in the country to ensure that they know their GP number, that they are properly registered with their GP and that they respond to any correspondence about the vaccine.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, characterised the vaccine rollout as “traditional”. Can I just push back gently on that suggestion? There is nothing traditional about the sheer scale of this rollout, or about its speed and complexity. Our approach has been to work through the NHS, and from that point of view it might seem traditional, but I reassure noble Lords that not only is the latest technology being used but there is also the complexity of the collaboration between all the different parts of government—the Army, the NHS and PHE. Every single relevant part of government is being employed in this huge task, and it is something we should be enormously proud of.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the supply figures. I am pleased to tell her that AstraZeneca has confirmed that it will be supplying 2 million vaccines a week. That is an enormous sum and it will mean that we can hit some really ambitious targets. Some 14.5 million people will be vaccinated by mid-February. Those are in categories 1 to 4, which includes care home residents and residential care workers, and they represent 88% of the mortalities in hospital. That will be transformational to the resilience of our healthcare system and to our approach to the pandemic. Some 17 million further people from categories 5 to 9 will be vaccinated by the end of spring, and all adults over 18—52 million of them—will be offered the vaccine by the autumn. That is a massive achievement.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, quite rightly emphasised that this does not change absolutely everything overnight. She asked, quite reasonably, about schools and workplaces. I can confirm that there is still a huge amount to do by the entire nation to ensure that we do not have high infection rates, that we still deploy testing in order to break the chains of transmission and that we understand how to keep infection down—because the tragic thing about this awful virus is that it hits the old and infirm, who can be protected by the vaccine, but it also hits the young. It has become very clear from recent hospital admissions and from our growing understanding of long Covid that this disease hits all parts of society, and although we will have the most afflicted vaccinated by the spring, this is still going to be a societal challenge for months to come.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned the letters to those shielding, which suggest that people should still remain shielded. That is a really important point and one we have to resolve, because those who are shielded who may go out into the community can themselves still be vectors of transmission. Those very people who we have done so much to protect may themselves be transmissible. Therefore, people are going from being protected to being potentially dangerous to others, and this is going to be a mind shift that we will all have to go through.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about GP surgeries. I acknowledge her point. There have undoubtedly been stories of GP surgeries which have set up queues of people to be vaccinated and then there has not been a delivery of the vaccine. However, I reassure the Chamber that it has been a very small minority. More than 95% of vaccination deliveries have happened on time, and in the grand scheme of things I take the view that if some GP surgeries have stood people up and asked them to come back another time, that is a small price to pay to ensure that the greatest number of people can be vaccinated as fast as possible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about London. It is true that if we look at the infection rate, London has a relatively small distribution of the vaccine, but we are a young city here in London, so it makes sense that we have a lower proportion of vaccination. There are 2.8 million people who are more than 80 years old in the country. Not many of them are found in London, which is why the London figures look as they do.
On pharmacies, I reassure all noble Lords who have asked me about this that my colleague in the other place, Nadhim Zahawi, is incredibly energetic in engaging pharmacy chains and community pharmacies. It is true that we have a pilot with hundreds of pharmacies already running in it, but it is very much our intention to work closely with pharmacies to deploy the vaccine. As noble Lords know, vaccines come in plates of 1,000. It is much easier to deploy those plates in large centres than in small ones. We are working extremely hard to break those packages down into smaller groups and to get those groups into smaller locations but, quite reasonably, in order to get the vaccine into the most arms possible, we are starting with the big centres.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked me about hygiene management in the distribution of the vaccine. She is entirely right: if you have a small room, such as a GP surgery, and you have a large queue of people, it is going to be extremely difficult to keep them all separated. That is why the development of these seven massive distribution centres in such places as the ExCel and Millennium Point in Birmingham is such an important development, because there is the space to be able to move very large numbers of people safely through the process. They will have a huge impact when they are opened next week.
On 24/7 vaccination, I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister has made an announcement on that. I must share with noble Lords that there has not been an overwhelming consumer demand for vaccinations at 4 am, but we are going to try this out as a process, and if there is indeed a big demand for late-night vaccination, then we will step up to the opportunity.
I was asked about rural distribution. Yes, it is incredibly important to get through to rural communities, particularly as many of the elderly and infirm can be found outside the city centres. I reassure noble Lords that, before very long, we will have vaccination centres within 10 miles of all communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is entirely right to say that there will be some people for whom we have to take the vaccination to them; we cannot expect them all to drive to a vaccine centre. Provisions are being made through local health authorities in order to ensure that that is delivered.
My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, will my noble friend accept my congratulations? The Government have done an absolutely magnificent job on vaccinations. They bought more than enough of the right vaccine, approved it first in the world, injected it first in the world and have vaccinated more people than the whole of Europe put together. I hope the Government will now not be distracted by some of the pathetic media trivia we have heard about how far you can ride a bike, whether a Scotch egg is a meal, whether it is 2 metres or 3 metres, or tier 3 or 4, or whether things have been too fast or too slow. Does my noble friend agree that the only thing that matters now is vaccinating all our people, in the whole of the United Kingdom, as quickly as possible—and 24/7 if vaccine supplies permit—to build on the success we have had so far?
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for my noble friend’s kind words. I think that, as a Government, we would prefer to be judged at the third act of this important performance, so I think it is probably too early to take too much praise, but I would like to say a massive thanks to the British nation.
In three ways, the nation has really stood up. The amount of collaboration between different groups—I alluded to it in my previous answer—between the Army, industry, the NHS and local authorities has been enormous. At the beginning of this pandemic, there were arthritic elements to the way in which Britain is governed that meant that different parts of our political and administrative machinery did grind into action slightly slowly, but, my goodness, over the vaccine deployment it has been absolutely athletic, and I take my hat off to every part of the machinery of government. On the union, this has been such a strong example of a national solution: all of Britain has come together in order to purchase and deploy the vaccine. Lastly, I would observe the resilience of the British public. It makes me enormously proud that the country puts the elderly and the infirm first and stands by and celebrates the weakest and most vulnerable in our society being put first in the queue. That is a national quality we should all be proud of.
My Lords, I congratulate everyone concerned in the progress being made with the vaccinations, while recognising that there are issues to be addressed, not least that of accelerating the whole process. In passing, I note that I would be very happy to be vaccinated at 4 am if it sped things up. I will ask about testing and vaccination for a particularly vulnerable group; children excluded from school are the among the most vulnerable in the country, and I pay tribute to the approved alternative education providers and others working with them during the pandemic. I have been contacted by one of the directors of one of these providers, who tells me that, unlike schools, they are not being provided with lateral flow tests to help them protect children in school and staff. If I write to the Minister, will he take the matter up? Can he ensure that all such approved providers receive the tests and that their staff are given a high priority for vaccination—at least as high as that for teachers?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for flagging this important issue. He is entirely right that those who are sometimes overlooked by society and fall between the cracks are often those who either suffer from the disease or are vectors of infection. It is a public health priority to ensure that people such as those excluded from schools are not overlooked or in any way left behind. I would be very grateful if he could write to me with the details.
My Lords, speaking from these Benches, I think it would be appropriate to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, very much for the amazing amount of work he has been doing on this very difficult issue. I hope he will continue to take our concerns back to the Department of Health and the Government in general, because that seems very important. I join my noble friend Lady Thornton in congratulating the Government on getting vaccines out, but, with all due respect, Israel has already vaccinated over one-fifth of its population with a massive vaccine campaign. On the important issue of dividing the time of the Pfizer vaccine, many of us have given informed consent for a period of three weeks between the two injections; by extending that period, we now risk not obeying the consent issue, and therefore there is an ethical problem. Could the noble Lord address that issue, because it is of considerable importance, certainly increasing the risk of suspicion of the vaccine, already very prevalent in parts of the population?
I am extremely grateful for the noble Lord’s kind words. I know lawyers looked at the question he raises on informed consent; I am afraid I do not have the precise answer at the Dispatch Box right now, but I will be glad to write to him with a clarification.
Up here in the north, the Yorkshire Post is running a “shot in the arm” campaign to get the Government urgently to allow the local community pharmacists who are screaming out to get jabs in people’s arms to do so. Why are the Government using excuses about batches of 1,000 for the AstraZeneca vaccine getting in the way of using these safe places on the high street that will improve access in the take-up of the vaccine?
My Lords, I am not sure we are using excuses; we are observing practical matters. The priority, quite reasonably, is to get the vaccine in as many arms as possible. We are totally committed to comprehensive distribution of the vaccine that reaches into rural communities and will include working with community pharmacies as important distributors. However, be under no illusion: our priority is speed and reach, which is why the deployment has taken the shape it has.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Blencathra hits the nail on the head. I add my thanks for the support of the military—my noble friend the Minister will forgive me if I sound like a pedant, but it is not just the Army but also the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. However, their support is ultimately unsustainable. Yesterday the Defence Secretary suggested that the NHS should create a reserve of its own. We are certainly not short of volunteers, given the response to the call to arms last year, so is the Minister considering it?
My Lords, my noble friend rightly picks me up on my use of words. I profoundly thank all those in the armed services who have made a contribution. They bring particular qualities to such a challenge as the deployment of the vaccine: logistical analysis and project management of the highest level, and the manpower and ability to get things done quickly on the front line. Those are extremely complementary. However, be under no illusion; there are 1.3 million employees in the NHS, and far fewer in the Armed Forces. There is no question of the Armed Forces being able either to replicate or take the role of the NHS in such a large project, though we are enormously grateful for their particular contribution. One lesson of the pandemic has been the remarkable return to work of former NHS workers and the early graduation of some trainees. We should and will look at the use of volunteers in the NHS in months to come.
My Lords, the Government’s action plan for the rollout of the vaccine is commendable, with over 2.5 million doses given to date. One issue now appearing is that there are a good many no-shows at vaccine hubs. In an effort not to waste the vaccine, which has a short shelf life, administrators are finding as many people in close proximity as possible to give the unused doses to. While not wasting valuable doses is admirable, does the Minister agree that some back-up system should be in place to ensure that those who need it most are able to get it first when there are so many no-shows daily? Secondly, does he agree that parliamentarians in both Houses should be on a priority list for vaccination?
My Lords, I am happy to join others in congratulating the Minister on how he has delivered news about the vaccines to your Lordships’ House and to everybody concerned with the rollout. I wish it well in every possible respect. However, I am sure he will agree that, as it will take a little while before the vaccine has the beneficial consequences we want, it is essential that we do not drop our guard now. In that context, I return to a subject I asked him about two weeks ago: the mandatory wearing of face coverings. I asked him then what guidance the Government could give to public-spirited people who try to encourage others who are not wearing face masks in places such as shops and on public transport about whether they are right to do so? Can he give some comfort to those of us who want to intervene but are frankly deterred by the reaction we are likely to get? It is good news that the supermarkets are operating a new policy, and I welcome the announcement by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I would like a bit of a lead from the Government as well.
The noble Lord is entirely right. The advent of the new variant, with its extremely high transmissibility, means that we all have to rethink our approach to the pandemic. We must all adopt habits that are uncomfortable and frustrating, of which mask-wearing is one good example. I know that colleagues in government are looking at ways in which restrictions should be refined. The Government do not take a view on intervening with members of the public; it is the personal responsibility of individuals to make decisions for themselves. The police certainly have very clear guidance on what interventions they should make, and it is best to leave it to them.
My Lords, the scale of this rollout is truly impressive, and I join others in congratulating all those who have actually made it work in such a short time span. I live in a very rural area on the edge of Bodmin Moor. My local satellite surgery has closed because it cannot be made Covid secure, and the vaccination site is 18 miles away with no public transport connections. Would it be possible for older people who cannot get to the vaccination site to be vaccinated by a different practice, which is only five miles away by bus but in the other direction?
The short answer is yes, and absolutely. The noble Baroness makes a point that we understand vividly and extremely well. Many smaller GP surgeries simply are not physically capable of being Covid secure, as she rightly points out. We are taking a panoptic view of health records to ensure that the right GP surgeries which are open can offer the service to those who would not normally be reached.
My Lords, I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister two questions, if I may. Like many others, I first congratulate him and the Government on the progress made so far with the vaccination programme. But what plans do they have to further turbo-charge the vaccine deployment programme? I am, of course, thinking of a 24/7 vaccine centre, as many others have referred to already. Reference has also been made to Israel’s much greater progress, so far. But is the Minister aware of the comment of the highly respected Professor Bell of Oxford, who said that we could vaccinate the whole country “in five days” if we had the will, subject, of course, to supplies of the vaccine? Professor Bell went on to say that this vaccine rollout is a “war” and should be treated as such by the Government. Therefore—in my respectful submission—to refer to consumer demand is not necessarily consistent with that status of war. On my second question, the Government have said that they expect all nine high-risk groups to be vaccinated “by the spring”. Can the Minister tell us what exactly the Government mean by the spring—in other words, months and days or dates?
My Lords, on turbo-charging the vaccine deployment, the two key focuses are: first, on very large centres, which can have a very large throughput of people, as these will make an enormous difference and bring an industrial energy to the process; and, secondly, to extend the reach into the hard-to-reach communities, whether those are rural or where people are not in the mainstream of British life. Regarding the noble Lord’s point on the “war”, while it might seem obvious to him that everyone will step forward for the vaccine that is not, strictly speaking, right. Some people are going to make careful decisions before stepping forward to have it, so we have to think about making it attractive and reasonable to as many people as possible, particularly those who are vulnerable to the disease. I do not think it is right that we cannot have a consumer mentality to this. We have to treat the public with consideration and thoughtfulness, because they will decide whether they are going to step forward or not.
I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Lady Meacher?
Sorry, I could not get myself unmuted. My Lords, as a Covid sufferer, which I am, I too applaud the Government’s amazing vaccination programme. I just have a few points of clarification. First, when the Government talk about offering a vaccination to all four top vulnerability groups by mid-February, do they mean all those groups will have a vaccination by mid-February or an invitation for one, which, of course, could be for a vaccination in March or April? Secondly, is there any progress yet on bringing forward the second vaccination—we are talking about the country here—from the 12-week point, bearing in mind the greater risk of mutations while we have this rather long wait between first and second vaccinations? Thirdly, if I may, can the Minister contradict the anti-vax story, which I regard as very dangerous, that the vaccinations contain polyethylene glycol which could be dangerous for allergic people? These stories just have to be crushed, if we can.
My Lords, the four priority groups that the noble Baroness alludes to are: care home residents; residential care workers; the 80-plus; healthcare workers; social care workers; 75 to 79 year-olds; 70 to 74 year-olds; and the clinically extremely vulnerable. It is a huge proportion of those who are most vulnerable to the disease. We can only offer people a vaccine; we cannot force them to have it. Certainly they will be offered it, but the encouraging news is that a very large proportion of people seem to be stepping forward, and attitudes towards the vaccine so far seem to be extremely positive. I reassure all those who have seen anti-vax messages that this is not something that those with allergies should be frightened of. On the second dose, the MHRA has been clear that there is no evidence that the current round of mutations we have seen has any impact on the vaccine, and that it in no way increases the need for an accelerated second dose.
My Lords, based on the scientific and medical evidence, which undoubtedly will be gathered throughout this vaccination process, can the Minister indicate if there will be annual rollouts of the vaccination programme from 2022 onwards?
My Lords, I cannot look into the future with that much clarity, but the noble Baroness raises a possibility that surely must be accounted for. It is possible that this kind of coronavirus may mutate; it may need to be managed, as we do other flus. It is too early to make that call but that is the kind of thinking that goes into the development of the NIHP—the new National Institute for Health Protection.
My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who is shielding. I too congratulate everybody involved in the vaccine project. The Minister alluded to the targets; I have to assume that we are going to vaccinate 350,000 today, so that we can maintain the target. That is really important. On the rural aspect, I live in Shropshire. Those who run Shropshire live in the north and tend to forget south Shropshire, so the issue of rural vaccination is pretty crucial. But can I make one final point relating to the point that my noble friend Lord Winston raised earlier on? I am in a position to ask the Minister a question today only because I gave my informed consent on three or four occasions in the last 12 months. I did not look on that as a specific performance contract by the NHS; I looked on it as allowing the NHS to do things to my body to help me survive. If they come along and change their opinion about the way they want you to survive, we should go along with their advice.
My Lords, no one is safe until everyone is safe. Does the Minister agree? If so, what thought have the Government given to supporting the temporary TRIPS waiver proposal by South Africa and India, given that it will help the WHO’s efforts to co-ordinate the local supply of vaccines through its C-TAP initiative?
My Lords, I would put the truism slightly differently: the vaccine makes you pretty safe, but it does not mean you are not dangerous to other people. I think we all have to get used to that. Regarding the South African variant and the other variants popping up in Brazil and elsewhere, this is a manifestly different disease that is growing up around the world. It has a huge implication for international travel. We are working with the WHO and other groups to try to understand this, but it is certainly of grave concern to the country.
My Lords, I join many others in applauding the Minister and the Government on their vaccination energy and foresight, and for being leaders in the world, frankly. Given the Minister’s zeal and energy, he informed the House on 30 November that the SIREN and Oxford healthcare workers studies would report on the level of sterilising immunity provided by natural infection before the end of 2020. Have they concluded that antibody protection can be relied upon for at least six months after infection, or longer, and what are the implications for herd immunity?
Further to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Richie, the Minister told your Lordships’ House yesterday that was there was a very real threat that a variant could start escaping the vaccine. In those circumstances, could there not be a need for a massive standing vaccination programme, far beyond the national flu jab scheme, and are the Government therefore making contingency plans for such a challenge?
That is a gruesome prospect and not one that I like to see in a debate like today’s, where there is so much positivity. However, the noble Lord is entirely right that mutations may go that way. The good news is that the current round of mutations that have been seen in Kent, South Africa and Brazil seem to be about transmissibility, not escapology. It is as though the car had driven into the pits and had a turbo attached to it, but not camouflage equipment. But that could happen, and if it did, we would indeed have to look at much more emphatic and systematic long-term vaccination programme.
My Lords, I too congratulate the Government and the Minister on all the tremendous work that has been done, especially on the vaccine. Can he say what the hold-up would be for a 24/7 programme, what the scale of supply is, and when a supply chain might be available that could deliver 24/7 vaccination? The scale of damage to other aspects of the health of our nation as well as to the economy is unsustainable. This is like a war effort but we absolutely need to be rolling out this vaccine as quickly as we possibly can.
My Lords, I completely hear my noble friend’s encouragement, and her advocacy on behalf of business and a return to normal is heard loud and clear. The deployment is happening literally as quickly as we can possibly make it. I suggest to her that even NHS workers have to sleep, they have families, and it is not possible to run operations through the night on a mass scale. You cannot force people to turn up for a vaccine. I am not sure that the idea that millions of people will turn up at 4 o’clock in the morning for a vaccine is entirely realistic. However, my noble friend’s point about scale and whether we can move faster and turn around the situation more quickly is extremely well made. I reassure her that we are doing everything we possibly can.
Will my noble friend join me in congratulating dispensing GPs in rural areas on hitting the main target group of over 80 year-olds? Can he confirm that the latest spike in care homes may be attributable to the fact that a second dose is not being administered within 21 days? Will he revert to that practice as far as possible and ensure that the same vaccine is given for the second dose?
I pay tribute to the role of dispensing GPs, who will play an incredibly important role in the rollout. However, I reject the suggestion that any spike in care homes is in any way related to decisions on the second dose. The new variant has spread throughout society, including care homes, and that is the explanation for the spike.
Can the Minister assure the House that the Government have a co-ordinated plan involving not just vaccination but improved test, trace, self-isolate and support, and flexing controls on commercial and social activity to reduce and control the levels of the virus over the coming weeks and months? Can he tell us when the Government plan to publish such a plan? Obviously, events will have an impact, but now that we have had a year of learning about the virus, surely the Government have an overall vision of how we as a nation will emerge from the pandemic, and it would help us all if that was shared with the nation.
The noble Baroness is right that we have the vaccine today but that does not mean that we will not need to be testing, distancing and washing tomorrow. In fact, there will be a very large number of people—tens of millions—who will not be vaccinated through the summer but who could still catch the disease. We have to make provisions for our public health to protect those people in the workplace, in society and in their homes. The plan is very clear—it is the plan that we have already. However, the noble Baroness is right that we have to be focused on it and ensure it is kept up to date and deployed with energy and enthusiasm.
I thank my noble friend for his assiduous and clear briefing to the House. Can he thank those who have already delivered vaccines to our overseas territories? Perhaps in due course he can let me have details of what has been delivered to individual OTs and the plans for the coming weeks.
I pay tribute to colleagues in the FCDO, which has been a tremendous advocate for overseas territories. We have made considerable provisions to ensure that vaccine supplies are provided to the far-flung territories, where we have strong relationships and a duty of care. I would be glad to write to him with the details of that deployment.
My Lords, anyone questioning the horror of the disease and the pressures on the NHS need look no further than outside their local hospitals, as I did, notwithstanding that questions on efficacy, information and choices are the fundamental right of every patient. The Minister will know that the Bangladeshi community has a very high vaccination compliance rate, but in this case there has been quite a lot of confusion. Can he yet again confirm that sufficient bilingual material is being made available to the community, and will he agree to meet with me and some experts on this issue?
My Lords, the NHS has been put in charge of this and is delivering big time, and everyone I speak to is delighted about the way the rollout is going. When we move into the next phase, will workplaces be targeted, so that they are able to do their own logistics and get thousands done at a time, quickly, cheaply and easily?
My Lords, that is a decision for the NHS deployment team. I do not know the precise answer but frankly, based on experience I would guess that NHS environments are probably the focus for the deployment—that the focus is on where NHS staff can have safe, hygienic environments, rather than on workplaces. However, I will take the noble Lord’s idea back to the department and write to him to see whether that is being considered.
My Lords, all questions have been asked.
Antique Firearms Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, we now come to day 2 of Report on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill. 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 in each group. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are permitted but discouraged. A Member wishing to ask such a question, including Members in the Chamber, must email the clerk.
The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A participant who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in a 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 the 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.
Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill
Report (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 10th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 19th Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 1: Authorisation of criminal conduct
12: Clause 1, page 3, line 2, at end insert—
“( ) A criminal conduct authorisation may not be granted to a covert human intelligence source under the age of 18.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would prohibit the granting of criminal conduct authorisations to children.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 12, which seeks to prohibit the granting of criminal conduct authorisations to children, I wish to speak to Amendment 13, which does the same for vulnerable adults and victims of trafficking. These amendments build on proposals from me and other noble Lords in Committee. I will then say a brief word about Amendment 24 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, to which I have added my name. It does not offer all the protection of my amendments, but it is a useful advance on where we are at the moment and may provide the basis for consensus. The arguments for Amendments 12 and 13 apply with equal force to Amendment 24.
Let me begin by thanking Ministers for the extensive discussions between Committee and Report, and for facilitating a presentation by those in the Met Police who are at the operational end of the policy and a briefing with IPCO. Both were helpful in getting an insight into the reasons for using underage CHIS and the way the regime is supervised. I am also grateful to my noble friend the Minister for recognising the concerns expressed by me and others in Committee, and for tabling amendments with additional safeguards. As always, she has gone the extra mile to try to reach a compromise; it sounds churlish against that background to say that I still believe it wrong to use children.
Let me briefly summarise the argument for banning the use of children as CHIS—a reform whose time will surely come, when what happens now will be regarded as Dickensian. First, we have the clearly stated view of the Children’s Commissioner, who has a statutory role to advance and monitor the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child:
“The Children’s Commissioner remains to be convinced that there is ever an appropriate situation in which a child should be used as a CHIS.”
That is pretty unequivocal.
Secondly, we have the Children Act 2004. Section 11 states that public bodies, including the police and other law enforcement entities, must have
“regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.
This red line is embedded in our legal system. We are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3 of which provides:
“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
How can one promote the welfare of a child or act in its best interests by tasking some of the most vulnerable children in this country—some as young as 15—with infiltrating some of its most dangerous organisations and groups, including drug cartels, sex-trafficking rings and, potentially, terrorist cells? The circle cannot be squared. Either the interests of children are paramount or they are not.
Thirdly, children—often vulnerable, yet to come to terms with adulthood—are unable properly to assess the risk of what they are being asked to do, or even the extent of the mission. Those under 18 are legally children, whom Parliament has decided cannot be entrusted with a vote, get married or, indeed, buy alcohol. How can it be that a child as young as 15 can give their full and informed consent to being placed in a sexually exploitative environment, particularly given the pressures on them to do so from people in authority—and, indeed, the incentives that we have heard are being offered—from people whom they should trust and who might have been expected to save them?
Fourthly, related to that, far from encouraging children to get further entangled in criminal activities, those who have the best interests of children at heart should do precisely the opposite: disengage them from that environment at the earliest opportunity and so help them to rebuild their lives away from crime. The police should be pulling children away from criminality at every turn instead of pushing them further into the arms of serious criminals, often being asked to continue a harmful relationship, commit crimes and penetrate criminal gangs.
Fifthly—and finally—using underage CHIS is risky, as everyone recognises. However careful the authorisation, harm may come to a child. Their cover may be blown; reprisals may be taken. I make one prediction: if, tragically, an underage CHIS were to be killed, the policy would be reversed the next day after a public outcry and incredulity that this was permissible. What is proposed in the Bill is that the state should have immunity for conduct for which it regularly takes parents to court. It is creating a statutory mechanism expressly to permit the harming of children, and Parliament should stop it.
In Committee, there were 14 Back-Bench speakers, a large majority supporting the amendment and others seeking greater justification for the policy before deciding. I mention one or two contributions from among the many remarkable speeches. There was the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who, before the debate, believed that there were circumstances when the policy could be justified but, having listened to the arguments, declared himself in favour of an outright ban. There was the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, who powerfully asked us to consider putting our own 15 or 16 year-old into the role of a CHIS. Unsurprisingly, my noble friend the Minister acknowledged that this would be very difficult indeed for her to imagine.
In her speech, my noble friend pointed to the judgment of Mr Justice Supperstone, in which he considered this very issue of children’s welfare. She also referred to it in the email that we received at 1.58 pm. Understandably, I have not time to absorb that fully, but the Supperstone case does not apply exactly to the question at hand. Because of the scope of the Bill, the amendment cannot, sadly, prohibit the tasking of children as CHIS; it can only prohibit them being granted criminal conduct authorisations. There is a difference between passively observing criminal activity, as in the judgment, and blessing in advance the commission of a crime, as in the Bill. Further, the court recognised:
“The very significant risk of physical and psychological harm to juveniles from being a CHIS in the contact of serious crimes is self-evident”.
The Bill goes above and beyond what courts have previously assessed by enlarging the scope of activity for underage CHIS.
After the debate, the Minister kindly arranged for the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and me to talk to two police officers from the Met with direct experience of handling underage CHIS. I was impressed by their determination to ensure that the law and guidance were properly followed. Records are kept, decisions and reasons are recorded, and alternatives are considered before authorisation.
I make two comments, which are not criticisms. First, once the case has been closed, there is no way that they would know if there had been any long-term impact on the child, who may by then be over 18, or what they had been through—a point well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, in her speech in Committee. We know that trained police officers going undercover suffer from the consequences. Those who are underage will be even more vulnerable.
Secondly, their interpretation of whether the circumstances are so exceptional that an underage CHIS should be used comes from the perspective of the police. Their very mission is the prevention and detection of crime. Their interpretation may be different from that of, say, the Children’s Commissioner, who, as I have said, believes that there are no circumstances where this is justified. The children’s social workers or parents, none of whom have to be consulted or informed, might similarly come to a different view as to whether the circumstances warranted a CHIS. The decision is essentially a subjective one.
I am grateful to the Minister for listening to the debate and for tabling amendments; it is welcome that the Government have come forward with them. However, it is with some regret that I say that those amendments would not make a material difference to the lives of child CHIS. Indeed, they would make no difference at all to vulnerable individuals or victims of trafficking, since they are not contemplated whatever—something my Amendment 13 would put right.
My concerns with the government amendments in this group are threefold. First, the proposals go no way to tightly defining the exceptional circumstances in which a child can be deployed. As I have said, there is an element of subjectivity about this. What level of risk of harm do the Government consider it appropriate for a child or, indeed, a vulnerable adult to endure? Secondly, the additional “protections” provided appear to be minor additions, or mere reflections, of pre-existing measures already found in the code of practice or the order. Thirdly, the supposed safeguards are provided by way of secondary legislation. My preference would be for any provisions to be detailed in the Bill itself, given the lesser amount of scrutiny provided to such instruments, as well as the fact that it is much easier for future Governments to remove, amend or water them down, should they so desire.
Amendment 13 extends the exemptions to vulnerable adults and victims of trafficking and many of the argument are similar, so I will not repeat them.
Finally, I have co-sponsored Amendment 24, along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Baroness Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. While that amendment would not prohibit the practice entirely, it would serve as a marked improvement on the status quo and ensure that the circumstances in which such groups are deployed are truly exceptional. There would be a guarantee that they could be engaged only where such authorisation is necessary and proportionate, considering the welfare of the source. The practice should be compatible with, and not override, the best interests of sources under the age of 18. Deployment could be granted only after all other methods to gain information have been exhausted, and if the source is not at risk of any reasonably foreseeable harm, both physical and psychological, arising from such deployment.
These requirements should make the deployment of children, vulnerable adults and victims of trafficking very difficult indeed, and impossible where there exists any risk to their physical and psychological well-being—risks that are certainly imposed on many of those currently deployed.
Depending on the contributions to this debate, particularly those of the official Opposition, I reserve the right to test the opinion of the House on Amendments 12 and 13, but I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, when the time comes, will press Amendment 24 if it is not accepted by the Government. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young, has spoken passionately and eloquently about protecting children, as he did in Committee. He made an excellent start to this debate.
I shall speak to Amendment 14, which prohibits the authorisation of criminal conduct by children without specific prior judicial approval. I thank the Minister for arranging for my noble friend Lord Dubs and me to meet officials in the Home Office to discuss this amendment. This was useful and informative but my concerns remain about the use of children in criminal circumstances.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, reported on the Bill last November. The government response to the report was published on Monday and makes substantial reference to criminal conduct by children, for which I am grateful. I shall refer to those reports.
I come to the Bill as someone who has worked with children—anyone under the age of 18, as defined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—for many years. I am not sentimental about children, but I believe that they have rights as set out in the UNCRC— not just legal rights, although they are important, but moral and ethical rights such as protection, safety, family life and the right to be heard. Societies that nurture, cherish and attend to the total welfare of children are civilised societies. No society should endanger children. They need protection but also empowerment to take responsibility for themselves and others, and to learn to express opinions constructively. I like to think that the UK aspires to these principles of the UNCRC which it has ratified. We are fortunate in this country in having an articulate, dedicated voluntary sector for children that keeps us vigilant to their needs.
I cannot see how a child could be used to commit a criminal offence without there being a risk of danger, physical or psychological. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, said, I would prefer children not to be working as CHIS at all, but if they do we must make the situation as watertight as possible. I and other noble Lords know of cases where children have been let down and exploited by systems, and fallen through the net to physical and psychological harm, sometimes death. That must be prevented at all costs. It is why my amendment seeks high-level judicial approval before a child can take part in criminal conduct. The organisations Justice, Just for Kids Law and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England call that “meaningful safeguards”.
Amendment 24 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and other noble Lords is very worthy. The noble Lord, Lord Young, referred to it as a useful advancement. I recognise also that she and her co-signatories are people who also care deeply about children’s welfare. That amendment extends additional protection not only to children but to vulnerable adults. That is important but, and this is a big “but”, it does not provide for independent judicial scrutiny of a CCA being made in respect of a child or other vulnerable person. It imposes a requirement that there should be exceptional circumstances before an authorisation is granted and makes it clear that other interests cannot be more primary than the child’s, and that it must have been determined that the child will not be in any danger of foreseeable physical or psychological harm. That amendment also makes compulsory the presence of an appropriate adult for all under-18s when meeting with the investigating authority. It requires any use of a CCA in respect of a child to be reported to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner within 18 days.
Amendment 24 meets most of the concerns of the Joint Committee on Human Rights about the welfare of children under CCAS. However, a major concern is that there is no independent decision-maker—only independent review after the event by the IPC. This system can pick up an abuse of power only when it has happened. Tough, independent assessment of whether a child should be used as a CHIS should be made before the child moves into a dangerous situation. I am sure the people working with these children are caring and professional, but this is such a serious issue for children that a judicial commissioner should look at each case and make the final decision.
I know that the Minister, speaking on different amendments on Monday, said that she could not agree with prior authorisation. I am not sure why. It may be that she can tell me more. There are not that many children in such a position—between 12 and 17 between 2015 and 2018. Undue delay would therefore be unlikely and the children’s cases would have double scrutiny, which is what they deserve, due to the seriousness of what they are being asked to do. If Amendment 24 is accepted by the House, I shall not put my amendment to the test but will suggest further action. The government amendment does not add much to what we have already heard, and we need to go further. That amendment, however, recognises that there are concerns about authorising children as CHIS and makes efforts at reconciliation, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, said.
This issue is not new. The Joint Committee on Human Rights raised concerns in 2018 and 2019 with the Minister for State for Security and Economic Crime and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. In 2019, the High Court assessed whether the scheme in place to regulate the use of children as CHIS provided sufficient safeguards to comply with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court concluded that the scheme was compliant. However, it was accepted that the use of a child as a CHIS was
“liable to interfere with the child’s ‘private life’, which covers the physical and moral integrity of the person. The dangers to the child of acting as a CHIS in the context of serious crimes are self-evident.”
The Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the Bill must be amended to exclude children or to make clear that children may be authorised to commit criminal offences in only the most exceptional circumstances. I suggest that those exceptional circumstances should have independent consideration at the highest level.
The Government’s response to the JCHR report gave considerable space to discussion of these issues in relation to chapter 6 of the report. But they came up with, to me, a rather tenuous argument, stating that
“young people may have unique access to information that is important in preventing and prosecuting gang violence and terrorism. This helps remove from the cycle of crime not only the young person … but other young and vulnerable individuals caught in criminality. We should also acknowledge that by universally prohibiting the authorisation of young people to undertake criminality we are increasing the risks to them and placing them in an even more vulnerable position. If criminal gangs … know that a young person will never be authorised by the state to undertake criminality, such groups will be more likely to force young people to engage in criminality, confident in the knowledge that they could never be a CHIS”.—[Official Report, 3/12/20; cols. 937-8.]
I can see absolutely no logic in that statement.
Indeed, a former undercover police officer, with experience of being a CHIS, has said that
“Children recruited as informants are also highly likely to end up getting drawn back into criminality and feeling trapped in their situation.”
I am aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, knows something about those situations.
A leading and highly respected child psychiatrist has said that
“the deployment of children as a CHIS could incur significant … emotional damage to the child and could in fact engender the creation of new criminals by placing them in criminogenic environments.”
This is not child protection; it is not respecting children’s rights. It is dangerous and potentially destructive. Every care must be taken, and we have a duty to see that that happens.
I have the greatest respect for the Minister and admire her common sense, sensitivity and practicality. Might I suggest that this whole operation needs to be taken away and looked at again very carefully, with an independent review? This should cover: the types of involvement by children; how children are assessed as suitable for such work; how the views of children, parents if appropriate and those accompanying children are taken into account; what psychological support is offered; and how children are assessed and supported after their involvement as CHIS, and for any long-term effects.
This may result in a recommendation not to use children in this fashion—I would welcome that—or in more stringent methods of prior independent authorisation being employed, as suggested by my amendment. The current situation in which children are used as CHIS cannot remain the same. I hope that the Minister will consider this suggestion. This issue is not going to go away; indeed, it is likely to intensify. I look forward to her comments and thank noble Lords for their time.
I speak to Amendment 24 in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. This sets out the safeguards and protections that should exist if we ask a child to commit a crime as a covert human intelligence source. I pay tribute to the work that many have done on this issue, including the noble Lords who support this amendment; the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, who raised these concerns so admirably in Committee; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who has left us with no doubt where right lies; and my noble friend Lord Russell of Liverpool, who has taken time to go through the interlocking amendments and considerations with me.
I also acknowledge the tireless efforts of Stella Creasy MP, in bringing this issue forward in the other place, and the children’s rights advocates Just for Kids Law, which brought the court case on this matter last year. I have taken up the baton for this work at their request. As many of your Lordships know, my time, both in the House and beyond its walls, is spent as an advocate for children’s rights online and offline. I have great sympathy for the other amendments in this group, but I speak to Amendment 24 only and will make some points about government Amendment 26. I note and take to heart the words of both the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham; while I have their support for what I propose, it is the absolute minimum that children require and is not ideal, in their view. I declare my interests set out on the register.
Children do not all have the same circumstances. It is simply a fact that some children will not be as well-loved as others, some not as well-cared-for and some not as well-behaved. None the less, whether they are loved, cared for or well-behaved, any person under the age of 18 is a child. In a context where a person under the age of 18 is being asked to be a covert source and do something illegal, we must ensure that they remain a child in the eyes of all who play a part. In every other interaction with the criminal justice system, we try to remove children from criminal activity to take them away from harm and towards safety, but before us is legislation that formalises our ability to do the opposite.
The Government have said that
“Participation in criminal conduct is an essential and inescapable feature of CHIS use, otherwise they will not be credible or gain the trust of those under investigation.”
If, and it is a big “if”, we make this extraordinary demand of a child, we must set a very high bar for the circumstances in which that happens. Amendment 24 does just that. It writes into the Bill the principle that no child should be asked by the state to commit a crime except in exceptional circumstances. It determines that a child can be asked to do so only when there is no possibility that they will come to harm. It upholds our obligations, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to treat all children under 18 as children. It ensures that all children get the support of an appropriate adult, currently offered only to children under 16.
If a child is arrested for shoplifting at 16 or 17, an appropriate adult would oversee their interactions with the police on the understanding that there is a fundamental power imbalance between the accused and the police, particularly when the accused is a child. Under the Government’s current plans, there is no such obligation to appoint a person for children who are 16 and 17, meaning that they can be recruited by the police with no one knowing—not their parents or a social worker—and then asked to inform on people, even their own parents, and to remain in dangerous situations, at great personal risk. They have no legal advice or independent voice to question or support.
The Government have suggested that this is because
“a child becomes increasingly independent”
“as they get older and that parental authority reduces accordingly.”
It is true that children have an evolving capacity as they approach adulthood, but it would be ludicrous if we determine in law that a child who shoplifts is in need of a guardian when they talk to the police, but that a child, under these most extreme of circumstances, who is asked to commit crimes at the behest of the police is deemed sufficiently mature and in no need of such support. This anomaly flies in the face of our traditions and culture and is a failure to uphold the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory.
Amendment 24 also extends the protection of having a second pair of eyes and the principle of exceptional circumstances to vulnerable adults—victims of trafficking or modern slavery who may be older than 18 but are no less at risk of being placed in harm’s way. It complements the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, which will ensure that the IPCO needs to be notified of a CHIS authorisation, by ensuring that it is also notified about the exceptional circumstances that justify the use of a child or vulnerable person.
Before turning to the government amendment, I will say something about the circumstances of the children who find themselves in this situation. Most of the children of whom we will demand this extraordinary service, on behalf of the state, are already vulnerable: those 46,000 children in the UK that the Children’s Society estimates are in gangs; those in exploitative relationships; those in criminal families; or those like the 17 year-old girl in the tragic story that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, set out previously, who, while being prostituted by her boyfriend, was asked to continue in that situation to provide the police with information, and did not pull out until after she had witnessed a murder. She was a child in a situation spiralling out of control.
It is true that these children are few—reportedly, 17 children over three years—but even one child deserves the protections I have outlined, and the fact is that, in June 2018, the then Security Minister said that there was “increasing scope” for young people to be used as CHIS, since they are increasingly involved in criminal activity, particularly county lines gangs. This unhappy logic means that, as criminals increasingly exploit vulnerable children, we will demand their involvement in crime, on behalf of the state, more frequently. These are not simply covert human intelligence sources; they are also kids and must be treated as such.
I turn to the differences between Amendment 24 and government Amendment 26, which has been brought forward to tackle the same issue. It is a welcome admission that as it stands the legislation does not offer the safeguards that children require, but for the most part Amendment 26 simply repeats the status quo. It relies on amending the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Juveniles) Order 2000. While Ministers may argue that it is better to keep all legislation regarding children and intelligence in one place, it can equally be argued that legislation that authorises criminality should also be in one place.
Where Amendment 24 writes into the Bill the principle of “exceptional circumstances”, Amendment 26 offers only secondary protections via an order that has been amended before without the full scrutiny of Parliament. Where Amendment 24 defines “exceptional circumstances” in a way that ensures that there must be no foreseeable risk of harm to the child, Amendment 26 states only that
“the person granting or renewing the authorisation believes that taking the relevant risks is justified.”
CHIS authorisations should involve only justifiable risks; this is not a sufficient test of exceptional circumstances where the CHIS is a child.
Amendment 26 states that children under the age of 16 cannot be used if they are asked to spy on their parent or someone who has parental responsibility. This is not additional; it already forms part of Article 3 of the existing RIPA order. Equally, the amendment says that the risks should be properly explained and understood by the child and that the best interests of the child should be the primary consideration. As we have already heard, this is also not additional; that we should act in the best interests of children is a right that all UK children already have. I have already pointed out at length the failure to consider the entitlements of 16 and 17 year-olds so I will not reiterate that but, given that the Government’s plans do not offer them their entitlements, perhaps the Minister will say whether a child rights impact assessment has been carried out on the legislation, and why the Home Office feels able to ignore our obligations under the convention when the Department for Education has recently reaffirmed them.
Finally, proposed new Article 11 provides for children to be authorised to commit crimes for four months, but this is already the case. More worryingly, there is no limit to the number of times such an authorisation can be renewed—no maximum time limit that a child can spend undercover.
I do not doubt the good intentions behind Amendment 26, and I recognise that the Minister and her team have been active in trying to meet the concerns that so many noble Lords have outlined but, as I have set out the limitations of the Government’s amendment in some detail, I hope that she will agree that it does not go far enough and undertake to take another look. Nothing would make me and my fellow signatories happier than for the Government to adopt Amendment 24. It would bring clarity and transparency to those who demand such a sacrifice from a child, and it would ensure that children who may be in all sorts of trouble are protected in those rare times when staying in a place of danger may help to tackle the source of danger itself.
I have informed the clerk that I intend to test the opinion of the House. I ask for noble Lords’ support on behalf of children who find themselves in this extraordinary situation—children of all ages, children who are already vulnerable, children let down by so many adults and institutions that should have offered them protection but did not. Let us not be counted among them.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. She spoke movingly, authoritatively and with passionate conviction, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, to whose amendment I added my name, and my noble friend Lord Young, who launched the debate on exactly the right note.
It was quite clear in Committee, when I tabled an amendment on this subject, that there was widespread concern in all parts of the House at the use of children. This is the single most serious aspect of the Bill. We are in fact being asked to pass into law something that in any other circumstance would be illegal. This conundrum was referred to by a number of speakers in the debates we had on Monday. Now we come to the nub of the matter.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford for the attempt she has made with her amendment, but I agree emphatically with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that it just does not go far enough. I am also grateful to my noble friend for affording me the opportunity of discussing this matter and my concerns in two hour-long meetings organised by Mr Arthur Lau in her private office. I am grateful to all those who took part. I was reassured on one or two issues. We will come to those at a later stage.
I was to some degree won over by the arguments of a senior police officer—clearly a man of unimpeachable integrity—who talked about the need to employ occasionally young people in tackling things such as county lines and sexual assault of young girls. He convinced me to some degree to table my Amendment 19, which would in exceptional circumstances allow 17 and 18 year-olds to take part as CHIS, but would draw the line at those aged 16. There are precedents for drawing the line at 16, such as the age of consent et cetera.
I am not sure whether I will put my amendment to the vote. It depends on what is said in this debate, particularly by my noble friend the Minister. There is a logic to the age of 16. It is a very sad fact that a great many crimes, many of them violent, are committed by 16 and 17 year-olds. Many of the stabbings in London and in other parts of the country have involved young people of that age and thereabouts. There is no point denying that county lines depend to a very considerable degree on the exploitation, manipulation and abuse of young people. I can see that there is a certain logic in using 16 and 17 year-olds in exceptional circumstances, much as I deplore and regret it.
However, I believe emphatically that the line has to be drawn somewhere. If it is drawn at 18 by the will of your Lordships’ House I shall be entirely content. If it is drawn at the age of 18 but with very real conditions attached, as they are in the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, I will be tolerably satisfied that we have made a step forward, but there is much to be said for being clear and emphatic, and for having a specific age in the Bill below 18 but not below 16 in any circumstances.
It is a very troubling provision of this Bill. The nation has rather lost its moral compass in the last two or three decades, and I believe very strongly that this is not something that we should gently accept. We have to put back into public and private life the standards that, formerly, when I entered the House of Commons in 1970, were more or less taken for granted. I say to my colleagues on the Front Bench that I cannot support the Bill as it is in this regard. Much as I accept totally her utter sincerity, I cannot accept Amendment 26, put down by my noble friend, as being “adequate and fit for purpose”, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan—a phrase that has now entered the lexicon.
We are contemplating doing something that is completely against the grain for those of us who believe in the rule of law and a law-abiding society. If we are to do it, with the greatest of reluctance, we must heed the words of my noble friend Lord Young, who has put his name to Amendment 24, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who introduced it so passionately and movingly a few minutes ago, and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen. We must not let this Bill leave your Lordships’ House unamended.
The very best solution would be to have no Division at all today, but for my noble friend the Minister to hold a round table with all those who have concerns and to try to put down something in her name which reflects those concerns. If that is not done, I reserve my right to move my amendment. I also declare unequivocally that, if she does not do that, I cannot give my vote to government Amendment 26, or withhold my vote from the amendment that seems to be commanding a consensus within your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I was very pleased to put my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and to be in the company of those who have spoken so far. At a point when I thought that the issues around the granting of criminal conduct authorisations to vulnerable people might be lost because of the detail of our procedures, I tabled Amendment 25, but the point was not lost in the amendments from those of us who are not satisfied by the Government’s proposals.
Many noble Lords have been very clear about what ranges from discomfort to the widely held deep anxiety about using a child as an agent, and the even greater anxiety about authorising—which must often be heard as instructing—a child to commit a crime. We know what we think about grooming: we condemn it and we support measures to prevent or, if need be, respond to it. We are aware of the complexities of the development of a child’s brain—indeed, of its development well into an adult’s 20s. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, was very clear about this at an earlier stage. I am bluntly opposed to involving someone under the age of 18—a child—in such activities. I feel that I would be complicit in something that I abhor by giving conditional approval, and very uncomfortable about applying the art of the possible to assessing what might be agreed by the House in the case of a child. Weighing two moral goods against one another tests anyone.
I understand the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about prior judicial approval—I fear that that ship has sailed, for the moment, at any rate—as distinct from notification, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. It is, as I said, the art of the possible. However, better that there is something rather than nothing. I am not dismissing explanations of the situations in which only someone very young would be credible, nor of steps taken by the authorities now, to which the noble Lord, Lord Young, referred.
Therefore, while supporting the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Young, I have added my name, on behalf of these Benches, to Amendment 24, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. It covers, as it should, people who are vulnerable—in the words of the amendment—who are often involved in county lines, as cuckoos, for instance, and victims of modern slavery or trafficking, about whom the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, has spoken so clearly.
On the one hand, we want to support and protect the people described in the amendment
“against significant harm or exploitation”.
On the other hand, we are prepared to put them in the way of exploitation or mental and emotional harm, which they are not equipped to deal with. On the one hand, we congratulate ourselves on our world-leading legislation and activities to deal with modern slavery and trafficking, and on what we do to support those who have escaped or been rescued from it. On the other hand, we are prepared to make use of them in such a way as to run the risk of further harming survivors, who need to recover, and whose view of authority figures in Britain needs not to be undermined.
The Minister will direct us to the term “proportionate”. That needs the detail of the factors that apply, hence the words “exceptional circumstances” in proposed new Section 29C(7). Our amendment brings the welfare of the child into the requirements of “necessity” and “proportionality”. The criminal conduct authorisation must be compatible with, and not override, the best interests of the child. More than it being “a primary consideration”, in the words of the convention, I wonder whether the convention’s authors contemplated this situation. All other methods must have been exhausted and, most importantly, there must not be a risk of reasonably foreseeable physical or psychological harm.
The Government’s amendment may at first glance seem beguiling. It does more than double the length of the 2000 order, but it does not even put the safeguards of that order, as it is now, on the face of the Bill—it merely amends the order. This is secondary legislation, or secondary protection, to pinch the phrase used by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. The importance of primary legislation is something that we have alluded to a good deal. Essentially, it deals with CCAs under Section 29B, separately from the engagement of a spy or source under Section 29, without materially adding to the limitations. Incidentally, I am amused, given our debate on Monday, to see that a CCA granted to a child is limited to four months.
I note, of course, Amendment 40, which requires the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to keep under review “in particular” whether authorities are complying with requirements in relation to children’s CCAs. Either this is unnecessary—and we should think so, in the light of what we have heard from the Minister regarding review—or it weakens the IPC’s duties regarding adults.
There is nothing in the amendment about the vulnerabilities of those explicitly and rightly included in the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I congratulate the noble Baroness on taking up this baton and arguing the case so powerfully.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and all those who have spoken, but it is a sad one indeed. Before we, to use her words, congratulate ourselves on our caveated, compromised support for children’s rights, I want to be absolutely clear that, during the passage of this Bill, absolutely no one in your Lordships’ House has done more than the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, to truly attempt to protect children’s rights, so my ultimate tribute is to him.
I was also incredibly grateful to my noble friend Lady Massey for her brilliant exposition of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ views on this aspect of the legislation. Its report on the Bill overall is one of the finest I have seen from any committee of either House when it comes to analysing and apply human rights principles. I offer great thanks to her on behalf of the whole committee, which is chaired by Harriet Harman in the other place, of course.
The road to hell is paved not just with good intentions but with “exceptional circumstances” as well. While the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, also made a very passionate speech, I am afraid that even Amendment 24 contains too many caveats and holes to give proper protection to children from what is, ultimately, I am sorry to say, state-sponsored child abuse. To use a child as a CHIS is, I am afraid, just that. The noble Lord, Lord Young, put it very well when he said that, were there to be a scandal involving a child CHIS, the pendulum would swing very quickly. I hope that this time will come sooner rather than later—without such a scandal and the great damage to, or loss of, a child.
Of course, it has to be said that the scope of this Bill never allowed us to do what we really should be doing: banning the use of children as undercover operatives altogether. We were never allowed that opportunity by the Long Title of the Bill. That is the game that those engaged with drafting government legislation play. I was a Home Office lawyer for some years, and I know that the game is to make the Long Title sufficiently narrow to prevent a whole wealth of amendments. However, we should not have been looking at undercover operatives just in relation to criminal conduct without being able to look at the overall scheme, including judicial authorisation, not just of children or criminal conduct but undercover operatives altogether. As such, we start from a very imperfect place.
I am afraid that even Amendment 24 allows a relevant agency to decide whether an adult, including “the parent or guardian” of the child, is “deemed appropriate”. Crucially, in defining “exceptional circumstance”, the amendment uses the words “necessary and proportionate”—not even the higher human rights standard of “strict necessity”. That is very unfortunate indeed.
I will be clear: the best way—although it is still not perfect—to protect children in this group would be to support Amendments 12 and 13, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ Amendment 14. That package is the best we could do to do right by children—but, of course, I heard the signal from the noble Lord, Lord Young. I hope that both Front Benches will get behind his position, the human rights position. If they do not, I will follow his lead and vote for the sticking plaster over the gaping wound of child abuse that is Amendment 24, but I would do so with an incredibly heavy heart and more than a little embarrassment. I do not blame the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, but, as I say, her speech, at its best, was an argument for Amendments 12, 13 and 14.
I will also address the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, his wonderful speech and the principled positions that he has explained throughout the passage of this legislation. He is quite right that, if even 18—the age given in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child —is not good enough, surely 16 would be an absolute line. Is there no absolute when it comes to child protection?
This is a very upsetting part of this debate, and I cannot help but recall that, on an ongoing basis, when it comes to assessing young people in another area of Home Office practice—asylum seekers—the Government take a very different view. When a young person presents as an unaccompanied minor to claim asylum in our country, looking as if they might be under 18 years old, the Government and Home Office take the opposite view to the one they take here: they are very quick to say that, actually, that young person is much older but just looks younger than they are.
When it comes to county lines or any other real and pressing danger to our communities, it would be perfectly possible for state agencies to engage and employ 19, 20 or 21 year-old people who look younger than they are. That would square the circle without doing this terrible injustice—this enormous breach of human rights—and putting our children and young people in danger. So, I urge all Members from across the House to get behind Amendments 12, 13 and 14 and to follow the lead of the noble Lord, Lord Young.
My Lords, it is humbling to follow the passion and wisdom of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the wisdom of the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Cormack, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey of Darwen, Lady Kidron and Lady Hamwee. I associate myself strongly with the points they have made.
I speak in favour of Amendments 12 and 14, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Cormack, to which I have been pleased to add my name. I also speak in favour of Amendment 24, whose sponsoring group, made up of the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Young of Cookham, is wonderfully cross-Bench.
Therefore, it will be clear that my concerns relate to the situation of those who are children in law because they are under 18. My absolute preference lies with Amendment 12, which would make it illegal for anyone under 18 to be used as a CHIS. However, concerned that this will not be agreed, I wish to ensure that full safeguards are in place for those who are children in law. In doing so, I recognise, as we all do, that the number who are so used is very small and are mainly 16 to 17 year-olds.
I apologise to the House that, due to the time taken in Committee, it proved impossible for me to speak on the two amendments to which I had added my name when they were finally taken, and I am very grateful to my right reverend friend the Bishop of Carlisle for speaking for me.
I am here to reiterate the simple, immovable, moral truth that children must be treated as children, as many of my noble friends argued in Committee. It is not a question of ifs, buts or whens. We, as adults, have a moral obligation to protect children and safeguard their care and well-being in all respects: physical, mental, social and spiritual. Knowingly placing a child in harm’s way and encouraging them to remain in harmful situations or with harmful behaviours may be in our interest, but it is not in the child’s best interests. This is exacerbated by the likelihood that the small number of children recruited as CHIS are from a potentially vulnerable background and are already deeply damaged. We should be seeking their healing, not risking damaging them further.
In Committee, my noble friend the Minister said that
“becoming a CHIS can, potentially, offer a way”
for a child
“to extricate themselves from such harm.”
While this sounds like a laudable thing, before being able to extricate the child, are we not potentially exposing them to more harm by encouraging them at times to remain involved in a criminal situation or behaviour? The Minister also argued in Committee that
“appropriate weight is given to a child’s best interests”,
but being a CHIS is surely never in a child’s best interests. The use of child CHIS was justified in Committee through how it can help to remove them and others
“from the cycle of crime”.
However, is the hypocrisy here not evident in first encouraging the child to continue in criminal behaviours and settings? We rightly condemn the use of child soldiers around the globe for the atrocity that it is. Let us not slip into a dangerous grey space where we permit the use of children to fight our battles against criminal gangs and county lines. Let us protect their vulnerabilities.
The various arguments made in Committee conveying how the use of child CHIS has not yet been abused were exactly what we wished to hear; why not ensure that this will always be the case? I note the remarks of the Minister that
“the IPC was satisfied that those who grant such authorisations do so only after very careful consideration of the inherent risks, and that concerns around the safeguarding of children and the public authority’s duty of care to the child are key considerations in the authorisation process.”—[Official Report, 3/12/20; col. 937.]
It is reassuring to hear that that has been the case to date. However, the purpose of this Bill is to put the future use of CHIS on a clear and consistent statutory footing. It seems to me that placing in this Bill the most comprehensive safeguards possible when it comes to children is wholly in keeping with the Bill’s overall purpose. It is a necessary step for keeping the welfare and well-being of children as a primary consideration.
I welcome the Government’s recognition in their Amendment 26 of the need to have authorisation in the Bill and not simply in a code of practice. I also welcome the need to protect those aged under 16 more fully than 16 and 17 year-olds. However, I remain concerned that the proposals in Amendment 26 do not go far enough—as already argued by the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Hamwee. I want to see the independence of a judicial commissioner in place for the authorisation of those aged under 18 as CHIS, with the parameters laid out in Amendment 14.
Amendment 24 has also been very carefully worked through by a wide range of organisations and people involved in concerns around the protection of the child. Therefore, I continue to support both these amendments. They recognise that our first and most important duty is to protect and support children and vulnerable people. If the mind of the House is tested on these amendments, I shall vote in favour of them. If the House supports them, I hope that the Government will undertake to accept them.
In relation to the proper protection of children, I reiterate my preference for Amendment 12. It would prevent the granting of criminal conduct authorisations to any child in clear and unambiguous terms. This is the clearest and simplest way of guaranteeing the protection of children and resisting the temptation to use them as assets in the fight against crime. I recognise that many in this House may see that as too absolute, thus I am also glad to put my name to Amendment 14, which would at least establish more effective safeguards for those aged under 18 in ensuring prior judicial approval that explicitly considers the potential for both physical and psychological distress.
I also support Amendment 24, which lays out specific and clear additional safeguards to ensure that children can be used only when there is no foreseeable risk of physical or psychological harm—or, I wish it also said, spiritual harm. It also lays out that the circumstances should occur only as a last resort and with the oversight of an appropriate adult. Combined, they amount to much better protections than those in Amendment 26. It is inherently wrong for those aged under 18 to be used as CHIS, hence my support for Amendment 12. If not that, we need the amendments that protect children most effectively. Let us keep the best interests of children at the fore.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. His speech was passionate, as was the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. I have raised this issue here in your Lordships’ House several times over the years; it has never caught fire in this way. I do not understand. The noble Lord, Lord Young, spoke about public incredulity. If I ever mention this issue to members of the public, they are astonished that it was allowed to happen. This issue has caught fire because a Tory Lord—an hereditary Baronet—raised it in a very principled way. Suddenly, people heard it. I would welcome comments on why it was not heard from a Green. Why is this? Do people think I am too radical? Do they think I am making it up? I have no idea. I am sure that some noble Lords might like to comment on that.
In a previous day of debate this week, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, corrected my use of “police spies” as being too limited because we are debating spying not only for the police but also for the security services and a host of other organisations. I accept that telling off in good grace. I could just use “spies” in the hope that it does not sound too glamorous.
On the appropriate words to use, the phrase “juvenile CHIS” is a fantastic piece of wordsmithing because it so effectively obscures what we are actually talking about. These are child spies. They are children and young people who have got themselves into some sort of trouble. When they are caught by the authorities, instead of being rescued from that dangerous situation, taken into care and helped to rehabilitate themselves and change their lives, they are being returned to harm’s way. They are put into what could be deadly danger. How is this even conceived of by the Government, the security services and the police? How on earth can they not see, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, that this is state-sponsored child abuse—a phrase I have used before.
After years of probing the Government on the use of child spies, I am yet to see or hear a single example of how the risk to the child is justified. I have heard stories of children being used, especially for county lines policing, where gangs use children and young people to extend their networks into smaller towns and expand their reach. However, we all should know that closing down any drug ring or network is a very temporary hitch in the supply of and demand for drugs. A rival or reconstituted gang will be up and running in days, if not hours. We have to understand that using children in this way is unacceptable because, in addition to everything else, it does not work.
That moves us on to drug policy, which needs drastically changing. I will look to the noble Lord, Lord Young, to pick that up in future. We can work together on amending drugs law because that urgently needs work.
I also deeply regret that the scope of this Bill is limited to prevent us banning the use of child spies entirely, but at least we can prevent them being permitted and encouraged by the authorities to commit further crimes. Obviously, I support Amendments 12 and 13, which have my name on. I also support Amendment 14. I am slightly iffy on Amendment 19, but I can see its value. If the noble Lord, Lord Young, does not push his amendment to a Division, I will vote for Amendment 24 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, because it is of value and it is better than nothing—but it is not as good as Amendment 12. I wish that the Labour Front Bench supported Amendments 12 and 13.
I was brought up in a Labour-loving household. My parents voted Labour all their lives, and their perception of the Labour Party was that it would always fight the big battles for the little people and that we could trust it to do the right thing. I would rather see a Labour Government than a Conservative Government, but, quite honestly, I feel that Labour has failed us here and I am extremely sad about that.
I am very grateful to the broad coalition of noble Lords who are clearly against the use of child spies. All the amendments are cross-party, which should give the Government some pause for thought. If there is so much feeling about this issue among a mixed bunch of Peers, I think they should go a little further than their attempt with Amendment 26. Therefore, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Young, to push his amendment to a vote, but I shall understand if he objects to doing that, in which case I shall support Amendment 24.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in the debate on this amendment, with the many excellent speeches that we have had so far.
First, I thank the Minister for having arranged for my noble friend Lady Massey and me to meet some of her officials and police officers, and for the opportunity to have a long debate about the issues concerning children.
In introducing Amendment 12, the noble Lord, Lord Young, referred to the fact that I changed my mind in Committee, as though that was a very eccentric thing to do. I thought that the point of debates was to persuade other people to change their minds. He is absolutely right: I did change my mind—from a relative position to an absolute position on children not being used as CHIS—so I thank him for referring to that.
My noble friend Lady Massey set out the ground extremely well, competently and coherently. She and I are both members of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and, in a way, she has spoken for me as well, so I shall make only a few brief comments in support. I also welcomed the very powerful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, although her amendment does not go as far as I would like. My preference is to fully support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Young.
I have three points to make. The first concerns the safety and well-being of children, the second is to do with mental health and the third concerns informed consent, and I want to say a brief word about each.
First, it is slightly curious that public authorities whose job it is to protect the welfare, well-being and safety of children should also, in a sense, be complicit in authorising or encouraging them to commit criminal offences. I fear that involving children as CHIS can damage their welfare and safety, and cause them harm in their lives many years later. We are subjecting them to enormous pressures by doing this and I am not happy about it.
Secondly, as an extension of that argument, there is the question of mental health. We are talking about young people who must, in the main, be extremely vulnerable. Very often they have deprived backgrounds, they have not had much going for them and they have suffered physically and emotionally. The mental health considerations seem sufficiently serious for us to say that we do not want to use children in this way.
Thirdly, there is the question of informed consent. My understanding is that, before anybody can become a CHIS, they have to give their informed consent. I just wonder whether a young person who is vulnerable, already involved in criminality, not sure of themselves in life and possibly with mental health problems can give their informed consent to taking part in these activities. How can a young person understand the full implications of going along with this? It seems a crucial step and they could be damaged for many years; indeed, they might never recover. It is a dangerous thing to ask them to do and I would prefer that we did not do so.
That is why my first preference, if I may put it that way, is for the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Young. My second preference is for Amendment 14, in the name of my noble friend Lady Massey. My third preference is to support the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I do not think that we can leave the Bill as it is. It is unacceptable that we should subject young people to such a dangerous situation. It is not a healthy or proper thing to do, and I hope that we will agree to one of the amendments—preferably that of the noble Lord, Lord Young.
My Lords, this is a fascinating debate. I thank the Minister for bringing forward her Amendment 26 and for the opportunity that she gave me to speak to professionals, particularly the police, operating in this field.
My starting point is obviously the same as that of others: Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the protection of the interests of the child. I find myself in agreement with paragraph 63 of the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It concludes:
“The Bill must be amended to exclude children or”—
I agree in particular with this part—
“to make clear that children can only be authorised to commit criminal offences in the most exceptional circumstances.”
Of course, it is entirely regrettable that we might have to rely on children—those below the age of 18 and sometimes, as we heard in Committee and today, over the age of 12—in any shape or form. However, I remember from the limited time I spent in practice at the Scottish Bar that it was impressed on me that there are such circumstances. For the purposes of today’s debate, there are two separate circumstances that we need to focus on.
One is where a child might be asked to put themselves in a situation of risk—a situation that would rely even more on their consent than might otherwise be the case. But the situation that I think we should especially cover is where a child might already be in a situation of great risk to themselves or to their near family, particularly if they are migrants and are at risk of exploitation through trafficking for whatever reason—for example, modern-day slavery and sexual exploitation. I do not believe that currently the voices of those children are always heard. If they seek out a situation where they are prepared to keep themselves in harm’s way for the purposes of bringing evidence to the police and other authorities to enable and facilitate a successful prosecution, it would be absolutely mad for them to extricate themselves from that situation, provided they are given protections. Therefore, reluctantly, I accept that there are situations where children under the age of 18, and sometimes as young as 12, are already at risk but are doing themselves, their immediate peers, who might also be in that position, and indeed the justice system a great service by empowering evidence to be brought forward and to bring a successful prosecution.
I know that my noble friend Lord Young has put an enormous amount of work into his amendments, but the problem that I have—I think he recognises this himself—is that Amendment 12 is simply too prescriptive both on age, as it would remove this cohort of children between 12 and 18 completely, and in that it does not enable them to be used as CHIS in limited circumstances, provided the protections are there. I do not believe that Amendments 12, 13 and 14 lend themselves to the situation that already exists and which I would like to see continue, provided the protections are in place.
That brings me to Amendments 24 and 26. Here, I am entirely in the hands of my noble friend the Minister, who will need to convince me that her Amendment 26 is as good as Amendment 24 in providing protections in the situation which I have set out and which I would like to see put in place in these circumstances. Normally, I would be minded to support Amendment 26, but I will be unable to do so unless she is unable to convince me that the protections clearly set out in Amendment 24 will be in place.
My Lords, I am very pleased to take part in this debate. We have already heard some truly excellent speeches and I am sure there are more to come. I support Amendment 24, which has been so ably proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and am very happy to have added my name to it. I have huge respect for the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. I agree with virtually all the points that he made in proposing Amendment 12. I join him in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, who always engages with the House on issues and seeks to find a way forward. It is important that we do that. However, what we have from the Minister at the moment in government Amendment 26 does not go far enough to address the concerns we have heard from around the House, although I accept that considerable efforts have been made to seek a way forward. I know that those efforts are still going on.
I certainly want to seek an improvement and get something detailed into the Bill that provides further protections for children; that is the most important thing for me. If we are to deploy CHIS then, in the very rare and exceptional circumstances where we need to do that, we must have those protections. That is why I support Amendment 24: I believe it sets out the way to get the right balance and, in those exceptional and rare circumstances, allows for that better oversight to be provided. In a way, I will vote for Amendment 24 to give the Government an opportunity to carry on discussions with people around the House and outside it. If we pass it, I hope that a better amendment will come back from the other place on ping-pong that builds on Amendments 24 and 26, and seeks to address the concerns that the Minister can surely hear from around the House, to get something in the Bill that is better than what we have now.
For that reason, I will not be supporting Amendment 12 by the noble Lord, Lord Young; I just do not believe that the Government are going to support that position, so it is a practical consideration that leaving a little room there for the exceptional circumstance, with the right protections, is the way to go. We need to build on the constructive discussions that we have had outside the House, and the debates we have had on this issue in the House, to find the way forward. I want to apply protections for children and vulnerable adults, and the process outlined in the amendment is the way to get them.
I bring my remarks to a conclusion by paying tribute to the many noble Lords around the House who have been engaged in this issue. I thought my noble friend Lord Haskel raised it on an SI some years ago, so I do not know who started it; maybe it was the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, or the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. Certainly a number of people have raised this issue and everyone has been vitally concerned to protect children, put safeguards in place and get us to a better place, so I thank everyone in the House who has been involved in this. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for tabling her amendment and my honourable friend in the other place, the Member for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, who has been heavily involved.
I believe that this is one of those debates in the House where you can hear the concern on all Benches from numerous highly respected noble Lords. We as a House need to send Amendment 24 to the other place, which will enable us to get something back from the Government that I hope will satisfy all noble Lords and get us to a better place.
My Lords, I support Amendment 25 because it seems essential for us to have safeguards in place if we go down this road at all. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, spoke very convincingly on this matter. I am glad to support her on this and I do not suppose it will be the last time in my parliamentary career that I support her in her initiatives. While we are debating this group, I want to say how much I applaud Amendment 12 by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and Amendment 19 by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. In the operation of our society and our legal systems, we need some clear-cut cornerstones about what is permissible and what is not. I like the forthright language that they use in their amendments because it cuts out all the grounds for rationalising and talking ourselves into situations where we should not be at all. The point is that vulnerable people of the kind described in the amendments, and children, should not be involved in this kind of activity.
We are signatories to the conventions on the rights of children, and we have reaffirmed on many occasions our commitment to them. Are we just sentimentalists or are we real? If we are real, and if we want to give muscle to our expressed sentiments in those directions, that becomes very applicable in this kind of activity. We are also signatories to, and have frequently expressed our adherence to, the European Convention on Human Rights. I would always go further in this context and say that what matters even more is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the reasons why it was put in place. Again, if we are serious and not just sentimentalists, it is in matters of this kind that adhering firmly to the principles set out in those conventions becomes so important.
All these matters become particularly poignant—it is interesting that we have not dwelt much on this—given what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic. All of us, particularly perhaps in this Chamber, operate in the context of a political family in which it is expected and assumed that certain rules of decency, honesty and integrity will apply. We cannot be certain that will always be the case. I have always felt this about legislation: what matters is not just the people who are in place at the time of the legislation is passed, but how firmly that legislation establishes principles that it would be difficult for anyone who comes afterwards to vary. For that reason, it is significant to look at events in the States and wonder, when we talk about the kind of society that we want to be, whether we are really taking seriously our obligations, duties and concern for children and young people who have perhaps been asked to undertake activity that is very much against so much that is established as the norm for behaviour that is required in our society, for all the reasons that we have discussed on many previous occasions on this legislation. If we take those responsibilities seriously, we need the firmness of Amendments 25 and 19.
I am sure that I must be among many Members on all sides of the House who are deeply fearful about the implications of what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic. At moments such as this, where we still have the context of our own society—thank God—we need to be explicitly clear about what is acceptable and what is not. I cannot say more strongly that it is not acceptable for children to be involved in activity of this kind. That is the point: it is not acceptable; it is not something we can rationalise our way out of by saying that there are exceptions in this particular case. There are not; it is a principle that children should not be involved in such activity. Similarly, when we think of what vulnerable people have been through mentally and physically and all the traumas of their life, it is not acceptable to involve them in any way in activities which may have serious implications for their stability and well-being and for their safety.
From these standpoints, I am very glad that we have this group of amendments before us. I again say that the noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Cormack, have been exemplary in stating a principle on which the rest of our activity should be founded.
My Lords, as the speeches that we have been listening to in this debate have made so very clear, this surely is the most difficult part of the Bill and, as we search for a solution, for each of us making up our own minds this group presents a real challenge. The solutions range from an absolute bar—the “clear-cut cornerstones”, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just described it—on granting authorisations to anyone under 18, in Amendment 12, and anyone under 16, in Amendment 19, to which the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Cormack, spoke so movingly, to the more nuanced and carefully worded procedures proposed in Amendments 23, which would require the prior approval by a judicial commissioner, and Amendments 24 and 26, which have no such requirement.
I entirely recognise the force of the principle that the child’s best interests are paramount, and I appreciate the attraction of a clear and simple absolute bar—a red line—by reference only to a person’s age. That is right when dealing with, for example, the age of criminal responsibility, but I am not so sure that it is right here, where we are being asked to balance the protection of the best interests of the child against the need to protect the public against serious crime, such as that perpetrated by county lines where children are, sadly, so much involved. Recognising that a child’s best interests are paramount does not entirely exclude the possibility of looking at all the circumstances and balancing the interests of the child against other interests, as judges have to do from time to time, but of course it has a crucial bearing on how that exercise is carried out.
Looked at from that point of view, I suggest that one can take account of the fact that children do not all have the same circumstances, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has said. Also, the facts and circumstances may differ widely as to nature of the case and the extent of any risk of physical and psychological harm to the particular child who may be involved—I was interested in the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, based on her own experience of the Scottish Bar. The fact is that we are not in possession of all the information that would guide those taking such decisions. I would therefore prefer to leave the door open for the use of children in strictly and most carefully limited circumstances, taking every possible care in full recognition of all the risks, rather than closing it firmly against their use in any case whatever. Had Amendment 12 been qualified in some way, by reference, for example, to “exceptional circumstances”, I would have found it easier to accept, but, of course, as soon as one adds such words, one has to explain what they mean. That is why I am drawn to Amendment 24, to which the noble Lord, Lord Young, has also put his name. It contains that qualification and then defines what such circumstances are. I pay tribute to the clarity with which it is expressed.
Then there is government Amendment 26. It seems to fall short of what is needed, not only because it lacks that qualification about exceptional circumstances but because it lacks the protection which Amendment 24 would give to vulnerable individuals and victims of modern slavery, whom we must also consider. I look forward to listening carefully to what the Minister has to say in support of her amendment, but, for the moment, my preference is for Amendment 24 and for supporting it if the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, presses it to a vote.
Lastly, I am grateful to the Minister for her letter of today’s date about territorial extent. As she may tell us later on, she informs us in it that the Scottish Government have confirmed that they will recommend to the Scottish Parliament that it should withhold its consent to the Bill. It was for the Scottish Government to take that decision and we must respect it. I am sure that the Minister is right, respecting the Sewel convention, to remove from the Bill the ability to authorise participation in criminal activity for devolved purposes in Scotland. It is not for us to question the decision of the Scottish Parliament and she is right to proceed in that way.
My Lords, I want to speak briefly to Amendments 12, 13 and 14. In relation to the first, I have recently done some research on military national service, introduced by a Labour Government with the support of a Conservative and Liberal Opposition in 1947 and lasting for just over 10 years. This recruited at age 18 young men to serve in the forces and possibly to face death. There was an element in that Act which allowed 17 and a half year-olds to be recruited, so it was not a carte blanche cut-off at 18; it actually started at 17 and a half.
Against that background, it seems to me—it is quite a long time ago now, but I was one of those who did my national service—today’s young people are certainly more experienced than we were at that age. Also, there is this great move afoot to give 16 year-olds the vote. That is a conundrum, is it not? If that were to happen—Scotland is in the lead on that—are those who get the vote at 16 still children or are they adults? For my money, on Amendment 13, there should be a cut-off age of 18, but subject to particular exceptions.
I come to Amendment 13. Of course, vulnerable individuals should be exempt; we should not go down that route at all. I am not so sure about victims of modern slavery. I suspect that not too many of your Lordships know very much about that world. I certainly do not claim to know a lot about it. Those who will know a lot about it are some of the 17 year-olds who have one way or another got involved with it. Would not it be better and sounder, in certain exceptional circumstances, to have somebody working there who understands the ropes?
Lastly, Amendment 14 talks about a judicial commissioner. I am none too sure, as we discussed the last time we debated this Bill, whether the judiciary is ideally placed for some of these decisions. At this point, I am going with the Minister. I will listen carefully, but let none of us forget that whatever actions are taken are often taken in the interests of society, given the danger from terrorism and all that area of life.
The noble Lord, Lord Mann, has scratched from the debate, so the next speaker is the noble Baroness, Lady Bull.
I rise principally in support of Amendments 12 and 13. My strong preference would be for these straightforward amendments, which would prevent all use of children and vulnerable adults in the way the Bill proposes to allow. If the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, presses this, I shall vote with him. If the House cannot align behind this absolute position, I shall support Amendment 24, so effectively argued by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron.
I have heard nothing in previous stages of the Bill to convince me to drop my fundamental opposition to the use of children as covert intelligence sources, and certainly nothing to persuade me that this further expansion of their use in authorised criminal activities should be allowed. Encouraging children into criminality to serve the ends of the law stands in direct opposition to what should always be our priority, which is to extract children and other vulnerable people from situations and relationships that promote criminality. It also contravenes existing child protection laws, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, said in his as ever excellent speech, they make it clear that a child’s best interests must be a primary consideration in all decisions regarding that child. As the helpful joint briefing that many of us received from Just for Kids Law, Justice and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England points out, if a parent were knowingly to place a child in a dangerous, criminal situation, the law would rightly take action to remove that child to a place of safety. Yet that is exactly what the Bill authorises the law to do.
We also know, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, so forcefully reminded us, that the children most likely to be recruited as covert sources are already among the most vulnerable, at risk of being targeted by criminal gangs and more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to live in deprived areas, to have fewer opportunities and to have suffered from trauma, substance misuse, mental health issues and learning disabilities. These children need the law to protect them, not to exploit them.
Nor have I heard anything to persuade me that the value of children’s covert activities would be such that it overrides these moral concerns. In fact, there is good evidence to the contrary—that teenagers are not particularly effective covert sources, because of the status of their neurological development. As the brain develops into adulthood, the connections between the rational and emotional parts of the brain grow stronger and more effective. But in teenagers, this process is still under way, and adolescents process information with the part that deals with emotion. That is why teenagers are more likely to act not on the basis of reason but on instinct; it is why they are more likely to engage in risky behaviour and less likely to consider the consequences of their actions.
Added to this, most young people involved in gangs and drug supply are themselves regular users, often because they need to fit in with a prevailing drug culture. Drug use also impacts on brain development, delaying further the development in the connections between the logical and emotional parts of their brains. So alongside the moral question of whether it can ever be right to encourage children into situations of criminality, we have to set an equally serious consideration about the accuracy, consistency and completeness of any information they are likely to provide. In this case, as in so many, the end result does not justify the means.
Amendment 13 would prohibit granting of criminal conduct authorisation to vulnerable individuals, victims of modern slavery or trafficking. I have raised at previous stages the concern of Anti-Slavery International: people who have been trafficked or enslaved are unlikely to be able to give informed consent, because of the experiences of manipulation and control they have endured and the long-term psychological implications of this on their ability to take independent decisions. This amendment would give vulnerable and already traumatised people the protection that they deserve. Alongside this, however, I would welcome a commitment from the Minister to address the omission from the code of practice of any reference to mental capacity and the specific issues to be taken into account when dealing with individuals with impaired decision-making capacity.
The Government’s own Amendment 26 seeks to introduce safeguards to the granting of criminal conduct authorisations to children used as CHIS. However, as we have heard—I shall not repeat the reasons—this amendment falls short of addressing the concerns expressed by this House. It largely reiterates existing safeguards and still fails to ensure that 16 to 17 year-olds and vulnerable adults have access to an appropriate adult at all meetings.
Amendment 24 would place protection for children, victims of modern slavery or trafficking and vulnerable adults on a statutory footing. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Their protection needs to be enshrined in law and, if the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, decides to divide the House, I will be voting with her.
My Lords, I support Amendment 12 in the name of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. It is clear, coherent and consistent. It seems to me that my noble friend’s parliamentary career from the outset has been marked out by two great skills. First, he has the ability of get to the essence of the issue in front of him at the time. His second—and greater—skill is the ability to see where things are going, not least in the near and mid future. In his excellent opening speech, he demonstrated both skills perfectly.
I urge him to press Amendment 12 to a Division. A majority of noble Lords have spoken in favour of it. It is a matter of testing the opinion of the House on what is right, rather than what may fit with a particular day’s parliamentary arithmetic. I cannot improve on any of his words in his introduction, save to say that I agree with every last detail, and I urge him, as have a majority of other noble Lords, to press his amendment to a vote.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 24. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Kidron for taking the lead on this amendment, to Stella Creasy for working with us so effectively from another place, and to a wide range of parliamentarians across all parties in both Houses.
As my noble friend Lady Kidron said in her comprehensive introductory speech, we are dealing with children, a point made forcefully just now by my noble friend Lady Bull—children, physically and mentally; children often abused, vulnerable, confused and frightened; children whose moral compass and sense of what is normal and of what is right and wrong may be tragically awry. Whatever they may have done, and whatever they may have become involved in, they are still children in statute, in international charter and in conscience. They need and deserve protection.
I pay tribute to the Minister, to her colleagues, and in particular to her friend James Brokenshire, who was mentioned on Monday and is in all our thoughts—I reiterate on behalf, I suspect, of everybody speaking today our best wishes for his speedy recovery—to the Bill team, and to the different individuals she has linked many of us up with to deepen our understanding of this complex background. She has made clear from the start that she understands our concerns, is sympathetic in principle and is keen to find ways to build in additional safeguards that will protect the child but also, very importantly, will build greater trust both within and without Parliament. Government Amendment 26 is not a bad start but, for the reasons stated eloquently by my noble friend Lady Kidron and others, I fear it is not good enough. A slightly enhanced re-emphasis of the status quo is not going to make a material difference to these children.
I entirely support the spirit behind Amendment 24 and I am grateful that the Government, even if they feel unable to accept it today, have acknowledged that our concerns are genuine and that there may be further work to be done before the Bill becomes law. In addition to what is stated in Amendment 24, I would like to place on the record four additional ways in which safe- guards and processes might be enhanced and improved. I have already shared these with the Minister. First, I ask the Government to consider involving IPCO from the very inception of the authorisation of a child deployment. I share the confidence of my noble friend Lord Anderson in the capacity of IPCO to oversee these highly sensitive issues, and I suspect that IPCO itself would be broadly receptive to this idea and that it could undertake this using its current resources. This would mean that, with child deployments, IPCO would be being proactive, not primarily reactive.
Secondly, for children in care who may become child CHIS, how can we enable the relevant social worker to be appropriately involved? There are many cases where the social worker is unable to do so for a variety of reasons, personal, organisational or legal, and we have work to do to ensure that there are always effective substitutes to hand. Thirdly, can we commit to a comprehensive audit and review process at the end of every child deployment to assess what went well, what went less well, what we learned and what we are going to do about it? Lastly, do we not have a duty of care to follow up with ex-child CHIS to monitor their welfare, to help and guide as necessary, and to measure the effects, if any, of their experience during deployments? This would truly be putting the interests of the child at the centre of the process and would acknowledge our responsibility to help them ensure a successful transition to adulthood.
I commend Amendment 24 to the House. I applaud the Government for being in listening mode and I urge all noble Lords to agree to this amendment, to send a clear message that we have more to do but that we intend to work with and not against the Government to achieve this.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, for the leading role he has played in achieving consensus around Amendment 24. I start by reminding the House of the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, in his summary of a similar group of amendments in Committee. He used the analogy of torture, where the ends do not justify the means, in the same way that using children as informants or agents is difficult to justify under any circumstances. Regrettably, banning the use of children as covert human intelligence sources is outside the scope of the Bill. He went on to recall the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who suggested as an alternative to using children using people over 18 who look younger, as the acting profession often does, particularly when dealing with adult themes.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee pointed out that there is a very fine line between grooming and persuading children to act as covert human intelligence sources. My noble friend Lady Doocey quite rightly pointed out that these children are already vulnerable and exploited, particularly in the case of county lines, without the need for them to be further exploited by the police. We do not send children into war, so why do we send them into potentially more dangerous situations as CHIS, as a number of noble Lords have asked this afternoon? A very experienced police handler of informants told me that, in his experience, even adult CHIS are open to manipulation, let alone children. If you are a child, a non-documented migrant or a victim of human trafficking caught by the police committing crime, you are likely to look for any available way out. You do not need to be blackmailed in such a situation; you are likely to grab at any opportunity, including being tasked to commit crime as a participating informant, a point made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Young of Hornsey, in Committee. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, we are talking about the power imbalance between the police and these vulnerable people, including children.
The Minister’s response in Committee was to cite a High Court judge, Mr Justice Supperstone, who was convinced by the police that it was okay to use children in this way. They appear to have been less successful in convincing the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. When I was seeking promotion to the most senior ranks in the police service, on a six-month course at the national Police Staff College, we were told that we were moving from superintending ranks, where we had to operate within the existing paradigm, to ACPO ranks, where our responsibility was to change the paradigm. Despite the High Court’s decision, we need to change the paradigm. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, says, the court did not consider the active involvement of children as CHIS in crime.
The Government, in response to our deliberations in Committee, have come up with their own alternative. I am as unimpressed as the noble Lord, Lord Young, with this attempt. First, in relation to authorising the use of children, it amends secondary not primary legislation—much easier for the Government to subsequently change and impossible for us to amend. The only change to primary legislation is on post-event reporting. The government amendments, particularly Amendment 26, prohibit the use of children under 16 to commit crimes against their parent or guardian, but not 17 and 18 year-olds: this is already the case, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said. It creates the position of a “relevant person” who is responsible for the risk assessment and for ensuring that an “appropriate adult” is present if the child is under 16. This risk assessment and the presence of an appropriate adult are already required in legislation. In the case of 17 and 18 year-olds, the appropriate person has only to consider,
“whether an appropriate adult should be present”.
Again, that consideration is already required.
Saying that a child criminal conduct authorisation should be limited to four months instead of 12 is also not a real change. Child CHIS can only be authorised for a maximum of four months and a CCA cannot be granted unless the child has been authorised to be a CHIS, so a review after four months is already inevitable. Overall, I would summarise the proposed alternatives the Government are putting forward as too little, too late.
Amendment 24, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has been a long time in the planning. I join with the noble Baroness in thanking Stella Creasy MP and Just for Kids Law. It covers vulnerable adults as well as children—the case for which was made strongly by my noble friend Lady Hamwee this afternoon—which the government amendment goes nowhere near. The presence of an appropriate adult would be mandatory for all children and vulnerable adults under this amendment, instead of being compulsory only for under-16s, as in the Government’s alternative. It sets out the very limited circumstances when a child could be used, where the best interests of the child must be paramount. The child or vulnerable adult is not to be put at risk of physical or psychological harm, and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner must be informed. The Minister may say that these restrictions are so limiting that it may result in children and vulnerable adults not being used at all. That is a risk we should be willing to take.
In the absence of Amendments 12 and 13, we support Amendment 24 as the best of the available options, though I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, that it does not involve the independent prior authorisation contained in her Amendment 14. However, as I have just said, it does include informing the Investigatory Powers Commissioner as soon as possible. If anyone thinks that 16 might be an appropriate age for drawing the line, I would urge them to watch the film “County Lines”, directed by Henry Blake. It brings out the horror of the impact of county lines drug dealing on teenagers, including older teenagers, and powerfully makes the case for immediately removing children from these circumstances. Important points were made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about the lifelong impact of adverse childhood experiences such as involvement in county lines. Regrettably, contrary to the assertion of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, Amendment 12 does not prevent using a child as a CHIS; it only prohibits tasking them to commit crime. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee pointed out, some adults are at least as vulnerable as some children.
Amendment 24 is a compromise, but it is comprehensive in that covers both vulnerable adults and children, and we support it strongly for the reasons so clearly expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead.