House of Lords
Thursday 14 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. I ask all Members to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded at any point, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them to no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights Commission
My Lords, the Government remain absolutely committed to looking at the broader aspects of the constitution and the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts, as pledged in our manifesto. We are taking forward the work via a range of work- streams, some of which have already been announced, such as the Independent Review of Administrative Law. Others will be announced in due course.
My Lords, our manifesto said:
“In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission.”
This was confirmed on 29 January last year, when the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said:
“We will set up the commission within this Government’s first year. Further announcements will be made in due course.”—[Official Report, 29/1/20; col. 1437.]
Since then, silence. But the Library tells me that the Government have established seven other independent reviews and one public inquiry. So, for the fourth time, I ask the Government for a debate in which they set out their emerging thoughts and your Lordships set out their priorities. We can then move forward on a broad basis of support that commands public confidence.
My Lords, as a very experienced Minister himself, my noble friend knows that debates are matters for the usual channels. He asked about progress with a constitutional review. I have indicated that the Government are determined to pursue this in a range of independent workstreams. That has begun in the first year with the Independent Review of Administrative Law.
I support the words of the noble Lord, Lord Young, and urge a cross-party and non-party approach to these issues; otherwise, what emerges from the Government’s plans will lack credibility. Before we lurch into any more divisive or closely fought referendums, can we please try to have cross-party and wide agreement on when referendums should be used in our parliamentary democracy, perhaps by following some of the recommendations in the report of the House of Lords cross-party Constitution Committee published a few years ago?
My Lords, the Government are not seeking referendums, although I understand that another political party in the kingdom is. We will not go in that direction. I certainly agree that cross-party approaches are desirable. Another constitutional issue that we are addressing is fixed-term Parliaments, which the Government have put forward for pre-legislative scrutiny by a cross-party Joint Committee.
My Lords, I welcome the request from the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the call from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for a cross-party, independent approach to this. Were the commission to make a primary objective strengthening the union and a Parliament working for the whole United Kingdom, does the Minister agree that it should give serious consideration to the devolution of power in England away from Westminster, whether to regional mayors, assemblies or even an English assembly?
My Lords, those concepts are obviously extremely important and are no doubt the subject of continuing discussion in and across all parties. As the right reverend Prelate will know, regional assemblies were proposed by a previous Government and rejected by the electorate.
My Lords, given the sheer scale of the disparate constitutional reforms that have taken place in recent decades and that derive from no intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change, does my noble friend agree that we need a body that can stand back and make sense of where we are, that is grounded in an understanding of our constitution—qua constitution—and that does not rush in with knee-jerk reactions and ill-thought-through proposals for more change?
My Lords, I am not sure about the proposition of a body. I think that, ultimately, authority to determine must reside in Parliament and in part in your Lordships’ House. I hope that we will have debates and discussion. I agree with my noble friend that a lot of change was ill thought through, but I assure noble Lords that the Government intend to proceed cautiously and with independent advice.
My Lords, does the Cabinet Office recognise that more piecemeal changes to the constitution and to electoral law, such as No. 10 taking back control of the Prorogation and Dissolution of Parliament, weakening controls on election spending and attacking the independence and integrity of the Electoral Commission, break the manifesto promise, which has been referred to, of a comprehensive constitution commission, set up to take evidence in the first 12 months of this Government?
No, my Lords. I do not accept the characterisation of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I must say that the Liberal Democrat party has never been slow to come forward with radical changes to the constitution with very little consultation with others.
My Lords, this is a big canvas but, given the enormous impact of the communications revolution and the ever more powerful media platforms’ monopolies on trust in government, on parliamentary constitutional authority, on the unity of the UK itself and on our future national direction, can we be assured that the commission’s remit when it is set up covers these fundamental issues, as many people are asking for, as well as more conventional areas of constitutional reform?
Aside from the question of whether it be under the ambit of a commission, I believe that my noble friend puts his finger on something that is profoundly important about the way in which the context of politics and government is changing. Without treading on anyone’s feet, I would certainly be interested to hear your Lordships’ opinion on that in a future debate.
Please could the noble Lord explain simply to a perplexed audience the relationship between Sir Peter Gross’s review of the Human Rights Act, the review by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, of administrative law and the constitution, democracy and human rights commission being discussed today?
My Lords, those are two separate workstreams as part of the constitutional reform consideration that we are undertaking. As my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, we are eating the elephant in chunks. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act review is another part, so there are already three strands and they each deserve careful and individual attention.
Assuming that the commission will go ahead—although I am not absolutely sure, from what the Minister said, that it will—then, following up on what my noble friend Lady Quin and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham said, it will have public support only if it is truly independent. Will the Government commit that the commission, when it is appointed, will be independent and non-partisan and ensure that its members are not beholden either to the Government or indeed to any other special interest?
My Lords, I have said that the Government are delivering the commitment in the manifesto to look at the broader aspects of the constitution in a range of separate workstreams. Obviously, this and others to be announced in due course will all reflect what the noble Baroness has said and what I have said—indeed, that is the case for those reviews that have been set up already and the cross-party Joint Committee that is looking at the FTPA.
My Lords, I wish to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said in his opening question, which is that any constitutional reform needs to have broad-based support that inspires public confidence. How do the Conservative Party and its associated right-wing think tanks, eating the elephant in chunks and bending the conventions of the constitution in the way that it has in the last year, begin to deal with public alienation from politics and holding the union of Great Britain together?
I think that on reflection the noble Lord will think that he does a disservice to those serving on the Independent Review of Administrative Law, those reviewing under Sir Peter Gross the operation of the Human Rights Act and indeed Members of both Houses on the Joint Committee when he characterises them in that way.
My Lords, the broad and radical mandate of the proposed commission would indeed be better managed in bite sizes, as the Minister has suggested. Do Her Majesty’s Government have plans to expand the deliberative democracy initiatives that they have so far sponsored in Dudley, Cambridge and the Test Valley?
I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s support for the approach that I have outlined. On her specific question, I cannot give a commitment on that at the Dispatch Box now, but I will repeat what I have said to the House: other workstreams on constitutional review will be announced in due course.
Foreign Policy: UK-EU Dialogue
My Lords, we have agreed with the European Union that we shall co-operate on current and emerging global issues of common interest, including co-ordinating positions and maintaining dialogue in multilateral organisations. We do not need overly institutionalised formal arrangements or a treaty framework within the EU to continue to co-operate closely with allies on foreign policy matters, including EU member states. We shall continue to discuss shared foreign policy challenges and threats and we look forward to a future relationship based on constructive co-operation between sovereign and independent allies.
The 2019 political declaration, which the Prime Minister said he supported, proposed a partnership between the UK and the EU on foreign policy, security and defence matters. Why then did the United Kingdom not take forward a formal arrangement despite EU willingness? Will the Government now do so? If not, how do they plan to protect and promote our interests in Hong Kong or on sanctions and other issues?
My Lords, on the practical terms that the noble Baroness mentioned, she will be aware that we are working closely with EU partners and other allies on issues of sanctions and indeed issues relating to Hong Kong. The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement affirms our mutual commitment to democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights. As the noble Baroness will be aware, we are already working closely on many important issues—including issues of human rights, which are part of my portfolio—both bilaterally and through multilateral organisations.
My Lords, an unstable and unruly world needs strong alliances between countries seeking international stability and co-operation rather than competition. The Biden Administration will expect the UK not to behave in a way that weakens the EU. As all but six members of the EU are members of NATO, we have already integrated sufficient elements of our defence. Does the Minister agree that formal arrangements of co-operation between us on security and foreign policy are inevitable? He certainly did so in October 2019, when he strongly supported deep co-operation as set out in the revised UK-EU political declaration.
My Lords, as the noble Lord will know from his own experience as a Minister and as a Defence Secretary, and as he rightly articulated, NATO is the cornerstone of our relationship on the defence of Europe and the democratic values that we stand for. We remain committed to and at the centre of that NATO alliance, working with EU colleagues as well as other nations, most notably the United States. I reiterate our commitment to co-operation with our EU allies and others on important issues that currently confront the world.
My Lords, the Minister reiterates the Government’s commitment to co-operation with the European Union, but now that we no longer have a seat at the table, what mechanisms is the FCDO putting in place to ensure that we have regular contact with our bilateral partners in the EU 27 and individual member states?
My Lords, as I have already alluded to in my original Answer, formality of mechanisms is not a necessity for having close alliances, not least as demonstrated by our alliances with the United States, Canada and Australia in our meetings through the Five Eyes. We will continue to co-operate with our EU colleagues, as we have done on important statements on the JCPOA and on support for human rights issues around the world, including a recent statement in relation to Xinjiang.
My Lords, is it not the case that, for the most part, the whole idea of a common EU foreign policy was always more of an aspiration or a myth than a reality, particularly when one looks at the divisions over EU policy towards Kosovo, Syria, Iraq and Russia, not to mention the shambles of EU policy towards Ukraine? Nevertheless, is it not possible and in our interest—without getting bogged down in the rather impractical bureaucracy of the common security and foreign policy—for there to be some formal mechanism for discussing policy with those with whom, after all, we share certain fundamental values as well as the same geographical space?
My Lords, my noble friend speaks from insight and experience and I listen carefully to his suggestions. Let me assure him that we are already working closely with EU colleagues. As the new relationship evolves, I am sure that we will look at how we can further strengthen co-operation on the very issues that he has outlined for reasons of proximity. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, we want to be the best ally and the closest friend of the EU.
My Lords, of course co-operation is a good thing, but now that we are free, we can diverge for the better and hope to persuade the EU to take a better path; for example, in relation to China. Only yesterday, we heard of the atrocities taking place there from the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, but the EU has signed an investment agreement with China disregarding its crimes. Does the Minister agree that we must form an Anglo-American alliance and other alliances against Chinese atrocities and against buying Chinese-tainted goods and technology?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness’s point about creating alliances against the human rights abuses that we have seen in places such as Xinjiang and the continued suppression of democratic movements within Hong Kong, but it is not just about further strengthening our alliances with the US; it is about building international alliances and co-operation. Let me assure the noble Baroness that we are doing just that.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned the JCPOA, and, of course, with the new US Administration, there is renewed optimism that it could be revived. The Government have been working recently with France and Germany in relation to Iran’s non-compliance. Could this E3 format be extended to other areas of mutual interest and concern?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a practical suggestion. I am sure that in time, as we see the strength of E3 co-operation and with the new Administration in the United States, there will be areas of further co-operation in this respect. We look forward to forging alliances with the E3 and with other European states, both bilaterally and within the context of the European Union, as well as with the new US Administration when it takes charge after President-elect Biden’s inauguration.
My Lords, we liaise closely not just on issues of defence but on other areas. The global human rights sanctions regime that we led on and that is now being taken forward by the European Union is a good practical example of that. We will continue to co-operate on defence and other matters with the EU to ensure non-duplication, as the noble Lord suggests.
My Lords, I have already alluded to that, but I assure the noble Baroness that we engage regularly. As a Minister responsible for human rights, I engage personally with the European Union human rights lead, Eamon Gilmore, and will continue to do so.
My Lords, just before Christmas, and after 16 years, the United Kingdom left the EU-led military mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Separately, there are reports that the FCDO expects to cut expenditure on its western Balkans programme from the current £80 million to under £50 million or possibly even £35 million. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that these reports of cuts are true and, if so, can I urge the Government to reconsider this step, which would have a damaging effect on our influence in the region and with our allies and risk being interpreted as yet further proof that the United Kingdom is turning its back on the EU and the western Balkans?
My Lords, the United Kingdom has one of the finest and largest diplomatic forces in the world, something of which we should be proud. Does the Minister agree that Britain has always been seen as a gateway to the EU and that now is an opportunity, with a new US Administration, for Britain to partner with the United States and the European Union on many areas, including security and foreign policy?
My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord and I look forward to working with him on important priorities in terms both of trade and strengthening relationships, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Looking at the position of global Britain, it is worth reflecting that in under two years we have agreed 63 trade deals, which are valued at £885 billion. No country has done this; this is in less than two years. We still have trade deals being finalised with the United States and Australia to come. The picture for global Britain in terms of the facts on the ground is very positive. We look forward to strengthening our co-operation further with all partners across the world and working with your Lordships’ House, with the experience it brings, on strengthening global Britain and its place on the world stage.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. We now come to the third Oral Question.
Construction Industry: Retention Payments
The Government, in conjunction with the Construction Leadership Council, are working to develop a sustainable strategy on retentions for the whole sector. During the current pandemic we have also provided guidance to the industry on responsible and fair contractual behaviour, including in relation to retentions. We are committed to improving payment practices and working with the construction industry to take this important matter forward.
My Lords, it is three years since the Government’s consultation on retentions ended and, as we have been reminded today, three years since the collapse of Carillion, which led to small construction firms losing hundreds of millions of pounds in retentions. Retentions limit their ability to invest, grow, train staff, take on apprentices and, all too often, survive. The actions mentioned by the Minister are better than nothing but do not go nearly far enough. I have two questions. What are the Government doing now to prevent small construction firms, already under pressure from the pandemic, being crippled because funds properly belonging to them are being used by larger clients to prop up their own cash flows? When will the Government introduce the legislation reform that is recognised as the only way of bringing proper ongoing relief to these small firms?
I know that the noble Lord has been active for many years on this important issue. This has been a slower process than we might have liked, in part due to the complexity of the issues associated with the practice of cash retentions and the wide range of interested parties. While most in the construction industry favour or could accept change, unfortunately no consensus on a preferred solution has emerged from industry to date.
My Lords, what happened to the suggestion in the Murray review of 2017 that retention payments for subcontractors and vendors on major projects should be held in a designated trust account? As far as retention payments are concerned, will it help to develop the system of financial rewards for those who settle accounts earlier?
That is indeed one of the policy suggestions we are looking at, but given the complexity of the policy issues, it is premature to commit to the introduction of a retention deposit scheme. We will continue to seek consensus and work with industry to find a way forward.
Can the Minister estimate the construction payments retained by the public sector, specifying the extent of the payments to Carillion retained by the Government? Given that there were only 55 responses to a consultation that concluded in February 2018, why did it take two years to publish those findings on what he terms an “important matter”?
I do not have figures for the public sector, but not withholding retentions is government policy—although I am aware that some departments and agencies do. Unfortunately, we do not have the power to instruct local authorities in this matter. If there are any figures available, I will of course let her have them.
My Lords, I declare an interest as my wife is a construction lawyer. This issue was raised regularly by the late Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, and I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that we miss him. The consultation referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, is highly critical of current practice. It also stresses that the pandemic raises major insolvency worries. Why do the Government not use their Covid-19 emergency powers either to introduce an RDS or to abolish retention payments and try out this new policy?
I join with the noble Lord in paying tribute to the work of the late Lord O’Neill: as the president of the Specialist Engineering Contractors’ Group, he was active on this issue for many years and instigated an inquiry on it in 2002. As I have said, given the complexity of the policy issues, there remains no consensus on the way forward, but we will continue to examine the issues, to work with industry and to seek a solution to this problem.
The last two paragraphs of the Government’s responses paper lay out only two policy options: the retention deposit scheme or phasing out retentions completely. May I follow the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, in pressing the Minister? He already has the responses and knows the two options before him. Can he tell us when the legislation will come forward to make this happen? It is much needed and will avoid late payments, non-payments and insolvencies.
Those are two of the alternatives that have been suggested as a policy response. Changes in this area would require primary legislation, and there is always pressure on the Government’s legislative timetable. We think that working with the industry to seek a consensus is a good way forward, but there is not yet a consensus: some notable companies are against a deposit retention scheme or the other policy option the noble Lord mentioned.
I would like to thank the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for referring to Lord O’Neill. We miss him and I am sure the industry misses him.
This has been going on for decades. The large construction companies that owe money to subcontractors use it as working capital. Having a retention fund would stabilise the industry and prevent job losses and redundancies. What priority will the Government give to taking long overdue action?
The noble Baroness is right: this has been going on for a long time and under many different Governments. The complexity of the issues is one reason why no action has been taken so far. As I said, we are committed to working with industry to find a consensus, and we are working with the Construction Leadership Council. We are committed to addressing the related issue of late payments, and we will try to find a consensus on a way forward.
My Lords, although the consultation process was quite wide, only seven individuals contributed. Does my noble friend agree that, particularly at this time, any arbitrary or unfair retention of moneys due to individual tradesmen and women—whose skills we must retain in the construction industry—exerts a disproportionate pressure on them and the continuation of their specialist services? Is it not time to alleviate the pressures on these people in particular?
I agree with my noble friend. We understand that the practice of cash retention can create problems for individuals and businesses in the construction supply chain, due to late payment or non-payment. We are committed to improving payment practices and working with the construction industry to try to take this matter forward.
My Lords, I understand the attraction of looking for consensus among all the players, but it is obvious that the current system is unjust and has a particular impact on smaller businesses, which need the money desperately. Why do the Government not just take a lead and govern as they should?
At the risk of repeating myself, it would require primary legislation and there is pressure on the legislative timetable. There are a number of different options to take this forward. We are committed to ending the practice of late payment and we will work with industry to try to find a solution to this problem.
The Minister’s answers so far have been deeply disappointing. Of course there is no consensus within the industry, because there are winners and losers. The winners of the present system are the big companies; the losers are everybody else. The current retention system undermines trust and confidence, destroys capacity and deters long-term investment in training and skills. Having heard noble Lords today, will the Minister agree to come back to your Lordships’ House before the end of this Session and say exactly how and when the Government plan to mitigate the damage caused by the current system? He cannot sit on his hands and say he is waiting for other people to come to their decisions first.
A lot of discussions are taking place between the Government, the Construction Leadership Council and different parts of the industry; we are actively exploring possible solutions and are committed to improving payment practices and working with the construction industry to take this forward. Of course, any solution has to work for the industry and its clients, and it has to be sustainable, addressing all of the issues: the need for surety and fair, prompt payment. As I said earlier, several policy options are being considered, including a possible retention deposit scheme and, of course, phasing out retentions completely. During the current pandemic, the Government, in conjunction with the Construction Leadership Council, have provided guidance to the industry on responsible and fair contractual behaviour, which, of course, includes retentions.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have now been asked, and we move to the fourth Oral Question.
Biodiversity: Impact of Neonicotinoids
The Government considered the impact on biodiversity and the environment posed by the use of the product Cruiser SB on the basis of expert scientific assessment. The Government concluded that, when mitigated by the strict conditions attached to the emergency authorisations, the impacts were outweighed by the benefits of use. The Government remain committed to tight controls on neonicotinoids and have no intention of lifting the restrictions that were put in place in 2018.
I draw attention to my environmental interests, as laid down in the register. My noble friend cannot be unaware of the immense frustration, and even anger, felt by many at this decision. While I understand the plight of beet growers, can he acknowledge that there are no safeguards to prevent this dangerous substance entering watercourses? Even his own department acknowledges that this treatment is massively harmful to wildlife. Will my noble friend commit to publishing the NFU 2020 application and any detailed advice from the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides and English Nature, so that we can have full transparency to understand the decision-making process?
I will certainly convey the noble Lord’s request in relation to the NFU application, but I am afraid that is not a decision I can make here and now. The Government are committed, in the way that they were last month, last year and the year before, to the neonicotinoid restrictions that were put in place in 2018. This emergency authorisation has been approved for a very limited period for one specific crop, sugar beet, which does not flower and is grown only in the east of England. Tight controls are part of the conditions of the authorisation to minimise environmental and biodiversity impacts.
My Lords, this initiative is for England only, of course, but it will certainly have a knock-on effect on Wales. Does the Minister accept that the neonicotinoids used on sugar beet will leach into the soil and water at the base of the crop, contaminating flowering weeds, with implications for other wildlife and pollinators and triggering further pesticide treatment? The Government contend that this will be avoided by ensuring that flowering crops will not be planted in fields previously supporting sugar beet—how will this be enforced?
If Cruiser SB were to be used by everyone who is covered by the emergency authorisation that has been provided, the amount used would be around 6% of the quantity applied in each of the years running up to the ban on neonicotinoids—so we are talking about very specific circumstances. The conditions include a reduced application rate, as well as a 22-month prohibition on any flowering crop being planted after a treated sugar beet crop. For oilseed rape, which, as you know, is particularly attractive to pollinating insects, the prohibition extends to 32 months. No one likes pesticides, but the conditions that Defra has applied will limit whatever potential negatives exist.
My Lords, I refer to my farming interests in the register. Given that the derogation for sugar beet was broadly supported by members of the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides at its meeting in November, will my noble friend confirm that this is in sharp contrast to the emergency derogation granted by Defra earlier in 2020 to spray copper hydroxide as a blight fungicide on organic potato crops, which was opposed by members of the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides because of environmental concerns over acute aquatic toxicity? Would he agree that the way to get both conventional and organic farmers to use less pesticide is to enable innovative breeding technologies?
The noble Lord makes an important point. The Government’s goal and the purpose of our pesticides programme action plan is to minimise the use of pesticides. A big part of this is specified in our 25-year environment plan, which commits us to prioritising integrated pest management to maximise the use of non-chemical control techniques and to minimise the use of chemical pesticides. In plain English, that means increasing the use of nature-friendly methods with the potential to enhance biodiversity, including benefiting pollinators. This approach is laid out in the revised national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides, which is currently out for consultation. I encourage the noble Lord to take part in it.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, whose scientists proved to Syngenta and the world that neonicotinoids did indeed reduce the overwintering and reproduction success of both honey bees and wild bees—and that a decline in pollinators could cost us billions of pounds. Bearing in mind that new breeding techniques could soon solve the issue of virus yellows in sugar beet, I ask the Minister: what are the limitations to this neonicotinoid authorisation, in relation to a sunset clause and whether there are any geographic boundaries drawn around it?
The authorisation that has been provided is for a specific and limited period of time, covering one season, and there are no plans to extend that emergency authorisation. The purpose of this authorisation was to allow time for the industry, as the noble Lord says, to develop alternatives; it is urgently seeking to do so now. As I said in my opening remarks, we have absolutely no intention—and indeed we will not—to go back on the restrictions and bans that were brought in in 2018, which have been translated into UK law.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter.
My Lords, how is this decision compliant with the Aarhus convention on environmental justice, given that the application documents and the chief scientist’s advice to the Government are being kept secret, and that, while the NFU lobbied undercover, the public could not participate in the process?
The ability to consider this emergency authorisation comes from EU legislation. It is not a case of reducing our standards after leaving the EU, since 10 EU countries including Belgium, Denmark and Spain granted emergency authorisations for neonicotinoid seed treatments used on sugar beet in 2020, just as we have done this year. Our position on these pesticides remains exactly the same; there is no divergence. We supported restrictions in 2018 and this is a narrow emergency authorisation, which has been made on the merits of the case.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a rather poor amateur beekeeper, for environmental reasons. Give that the evidence is that neonics are highly toxic to bees—5,000 to 10,000 times more than DDT—the importance of pollinators, and that we know that the residue which is lethal to bees will lie on leaves for several days, is it really sensible to even consider opening the door to the use of this lethal material? I appreciate that there is no evidence that the bee colony collapse is entirely related to this material but, given the pressures on bee populations, is it not rather irresponsible to consider making a derogation even as limited as this?
Pollinators have an almost unimaginable and incalculable importance. They are an essential part of our environment; they play a crucial role in food production and have suffered huge decline. There have been some promising signs over the last two or three years. Nevertheless, the news for pollinators in this country is bad. We have a national pollinator strategy with a 10-year plan, which involves significant ramping up of our efforts to create habitat for pollinators, strengthening the monitoring and management of honey bee diseases and threats from invasive non-native species such as the Asian hornet. The decision we are discussing was assessed by the Health and Safety Executive, Defra scientists and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. They all considered that evidence, and the view was that the conditions placed were sufficient to remove the threat that noble Lords are concerned about.
My Lords, I declare an interest through my involvement at Rothamsted. Can I follow up the question put to the Minister by the noble Lord, Lord Randall, which I do not think he fully answered? Given the direct negative consequences of this policy on bees, which as we know are already in serious decline in the UK, will the Government commit to publishing urgently the full scientific assessment by the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides of this policy change on our natural environment, so that there is transparency about how the decision was made?
I declare my interest as recorded on the register. I thank the Minister but can he confirm that standards of production, including constraints on pesticide use, will apply to imported crops, including sugar, so that UK producers are not disadvantaged?
The noble Lord makes an extremely important point. The Government are guided, as they pursue new free trade agreements and seek to expand our trading relationships around the world, by a commitment to ensuring that imports do not compromise or undermine the standards that we are proud to apply here in the United Kingdom, whether in environmental or animal welfare standards.
Free School Meals: Food Parcels
Private Notice Question
My Lords, the images circulating of poor-quality food parcels are unacceptable. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education has met leading suppliers to insist on urgent action to ensure that parcels meet standards expected. We have guidance in place allowing schools to decide the best approach for supporting free school meal pupils; this can be through lunch parcels, locally arranged vouchers or the national voucher scheme, which will be up and running next week.
My Lords, it is a case of another week, another U-turn, this time resulting from the scandal of companies that supply free school meals parcels being exposed as profiteering. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the jointly prepared DfE guidance for the contents of food parcels, which is strikingly similar to the meagre items in parcels described as “disgraceful” by the Prime Minister, is still online. National food vouchers are to be reintroduced next week, two weeks after schools moved to remote learning. It seems that the Government’s own lockdown took them by surprise. It will be at least a week from today before parents can actually use the vouchers, so why will the Government not put their trust in families and give them the money for free school meals? Children are going hungry now, and any decent Government would know that they cannot wait.
My Lords, the voucher scheme that the noble Lord outlines is one option that has been given to schools so that they can meet the needs of pupils who require food. It has been quite clear—my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Children and Families met the particular supplier and made it clear that those standards were not acceptable. We have given these options to schools so they can best meet the needs of their pupils, as they know them best. In fact, schools can re-register this week for the national voucher scheme, and vouchers will be redeemable as of Monday. We have left it to schools to choose the best means to deliver free school meals to their pupils.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the company providing these meals will not get compensated for the cancellation of the contract, thereby getting money for nothing on top of money for little food? Furthermore, does she agree with Marcus Rashford that now is the time for a full review of the free school meals system?
My Lords, as I have outlined, views were made clear about the quality of the food parcels. I make it clear that the department does not enter into contracts with any of these suppliers—it is done at local level. The standards that food needs to meet are outlined in statute, and the guidance is under that, so it is quite clear what should be provided. I must pay tribute to school staff and catering staff who are delivering meals to those free school meals pupils who are in school. Often the option of delivering food parcels to the door is the best way to meet the needs of a vulnerable child, particularly because it keeps the school in contact with them directly.
My Lords, government figures show that more than 4 million children in the UK live in poverty, and many of them will be living with food insecurity. However, there are no official figures. Therefore, could the Minister tell us when the Government will publish their assessment of how many children in the UK are living without enough healthy food, and could she tell us what policies they will implement to tackle the problem in both the short and the long term?
My Lords, the Government are awaiting the second part of the national food strategy, and we have said that we will respond with a White Paper within six weeks of that strategy being published. We have expanded the entitlement to free school meals; at the moment, 1.4 million children receive free school meals. We have given the undertaking that any family that moves from legacy benefits on to universal credit will have an entitlement to free school meals. So we are meeting the needs of children. In addition to that, there are the holiday activity clubs that we have expanded, as of the Easter holidays of this year. So we are looking to meet the needs of those in our society who need food.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. One key reason why the Government gave schools the choice was that they were aware of the operation of their own school catering staff—but also, certain suppliers had already purchased food and they had already paid for it so, obviously, moving to a voucher system immediately could have resulted in food waste. Giving the flexibility to schools in terms of local vouchers enables them to use local suppliers and to support their local economy.
My Lords, the Prime Minister has said that Marcus Rashford is doing a better job at holding the Government to account than the Official Opposition. Does that mean that the Prime Minister is now prepared to accept Mr Rashford’s advice that a major review of free school meals and, indeed, child poverty, might be undertaken by them as a result of mistakes recently made? While on my feet, I point out that the Government add insult to injury by handing out these disgraceful bags, which would have been an insult to those receiving them. Whenever policies are directed towards those trapped in poverty, they should never forget the dignity of those receiving them and to treat them with respect.
My Lords, I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the work of Marcus Rashford, which was recognised in the latest honours that he was given. In relation to the flexibility that we have given to schools here, it is important to remember that schools know their children best; they know whether food parcels are best. Obviously, receipt of a food parcel can be vital if the parent at home at the moment is extremely clinically vulnerable, so a voucher perhaps would not be best. Schools generally do not want to deal in cash. Yet we have also seen the use of food parcels that are not necessarily synonymous with a lack of dignity in terms of the clinically vulnerable people in the first stage of the pandemic—and also businesses have sprung up during the pandemic using food that was potentially to supply restaurants and delivering it door to door. So although there needs to be sensitivity in each situation, it is not synonymous with a lack of dignity to offer actual food to people.
I call the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. The noble Lord is muted.
Well, I unmuted myself, as agreed, and somebody muted me again, so I have unmuted again. It needs sorting out.
My Lords, there does not appear to be a major problem in Lancashire, because Lancashire County Council—and I congratulate it on this—set up a county-wide voucher scheme for schools when the schools closed again, after the first day. If Lancashire could do this on a county-wide basis, why could the Government not do it straightaway nationally?
My Lords, I applaud the example that the noble Lord has given, and I have outlined why it is important that these three options are open to schools. As I have said, schools can re-register this week for the national voucher system and reactivate their accounts, and vouchers will be redeemable and available from Monday. Also, of course, where there is a free school meal entitlement for those who also qualify for the breakfast club, that food should also be provided. This has been stood up as soon as we can. In the last phase of the pandemic we distributed more than £380 million through a national voucher scheme. Noble Lords made it clear that there were downsides to that, because it meant that the business was given only to supermarkets. So it is important that we use the food and do food parcels, local vouchers and national vouchers.
My Lords, I commend the Government’s decision to provide lunches to school- children. However, sadly, due to the carelessness of caterers, there has been a great deal of variation in the contents of the food parcels. What steps are the Government taking to tighten this up and be more specific, to stop this happening again? Alternatively, would they consider a voucher scheme again? That would go some way to alleviating this problem, as some schools still prefer to use their own caterers, which also helps save jobs.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for outlining the role that school caterers have at the moment. Some of them obviously want to be involved in the delivery of free school meals to qualifying children who are at home. It is clear that the standard of food that should be provided is based on a statutory requirement. The association of school food and caterers was part of putting that together. The provision of food should obviously be sensitive to dietary requirements and allergies, and to religious and cultural sensitivities, so that the food provided, whether in school or by way of delivery, is appropriate for the children.
My Lords, this recent episode has, once again, highlighted the importance of an effective free school meals programme. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm whether the Government are considering the recommendation, outlined in the National Food Strategy: Part One, to expand eligibility for the free school meals scheme to include every child from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit?
My Lords, we are indeed considering the first part of the national food strategy. We expect part two to be with us, potentially, later this month and the Government have made a commitment to respond to it. We will be carefully considering that suggestion, but it must be borne in mind that there is a long taper for benefits with the universal credit system, rather than a cliff edge. There is data available that suggests that half the school population would then be eligible for free school meals, including some from households in receipt of income in excess of £40,000 a year. We need to consider carefully whether those suggestions are the best use of public funds.
My Lords, returning to my noble friend’s Question, one parent described their treatment as “humiliating”. They asked: “Why should you decide for us? Why not give us the money?” That, in the words of an academic expert, is the best way of ensuring that families are supported with dignity, respect and freedom of choice. Why not give parents the money? Do the Government not trust them?
My Lords, of course the Government trust parents. That is why we have given schools these options of how to deliver this. If there is any complaint about their treatment, parents should raise that with the school. There are also further avenues for them to make representations. However, as I have outlined, schools do not want to deal with distributing cash to parents, particularly during the pandemic. That is why a local or national voucher system is by far the best option for monetary support, rather than cash.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the national voucher scheme will be operating through the same private company as last time? Can she also reassure me that its computer system will be adequate, and that school staff or parents will not find themselves having to log on at 3 am or 4 am as the only time it is possible to get into the system? Given that it is a for-profit company, what does the Minister consider a reasonable profit for it to be making on the scheme: 5%, 10% or more?
My Lords, I can assure noble Lords that, as I have outlined, from Monday e-codes will be issued that can be redeemed against supermarket vouchers. The department is closely monitoring the logistics of the scheme being set up. We anticipate thousands of schools wanting to access that portal as soon as they can, but we are monitoring this properly. In the emergency of the pandemic, we stood up a system that delivered vouchers worth £380 million last time.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision to issue families with food vouchers, allowing them to choose the food to feed their children with a daily main meal. The quantity of food eaten by a six year-old girl is not the same as that eaten by a 14 year-old boy. Can the Minister reassure the House that the value of the vouchers will take account of the age of the child and the quantity of the food they require?
My Lords, the value of the voucher has actually been raised from the normal £11.50—a free school meal—to £15, recognising that schools and catering suppliers have economies of scale that a family would not have. I asked about this just this morning and, in terms of food supplied through a food parcel, we would expect schools to deliver appropriate food. A primary school food parcel would look very different from a secondary school one.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has elapsed.
Protocol on Northern Ireland: Disruption to Trade
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 January.
“I am grateful for the chance to update the House on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol exists to recognise Northern Ireland’s unique position as the only part of our United Kingdom to have a land border with the EU. It was designed to ensure that no customs infrastructure is needed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, while protecting unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the UK market, and the gains of the peace process, and, of course, respecting Northern Ireland’s position as an absolutely integral part of the United Kingdom.
As with any new trading arrangement, the protocol undoubtedly generates challenges as well as providing solutions. The Government are committed to addressing those challenges by providing pragmatic solutions to any problems that arise and to working with the Northern Ireland Executive in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.
UK Government Ministers are in daily contact with Ministers in the Executive, and with businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, to ensure the effective operation of the protocol. Inevitably, the impact of Covid and the steps taken by the French Government at their border have affected retail businesses across the United Kingdom, but it is important to stress that freight volumes into Northern Ireland’s ports are at normal levels for this time of year. There have been no significant queues, and supermarkets are now generally reporting healthy deliveries of supplies into Northern Ireland.
None the less, the new processes that the protocol asks of businesses that are moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland require the Government to do more. We are working with companies across Great Britain to help them understand the new requirements for moving goods, and the extensive government support includes the trader support service, to which more than 25,000 businesses are now signed up, yet we know that still more needs to be done.
That is why we are stepping up direct engagement with suppliers to ensure they have access to the real-time guidance they need, and we are also working closely with industry to address specific problems of moving mixed food loads from Great Britain to Northern Ireland through the process known as groupage. In the coming days, the Government will issue new guidance on the practical mitigations that have been developed with industry to enable this important practice to continue and to support hauliers and suppliers.
We also recognise that a number of hauliers have been affected by significant issues at Dublin Port. We welcome the easements that have been introduced by the Irish Government, but movements via Dublin are substantially lower than normal, so we have to intensify our engagement with the Irish authorities.
More broadly, the grace periods for supermarkets and their suppliers are now working well, but we are already planning for the streamlined replacements that will follow. A dedicated team within Defra, working with the Cabinet Office, is also in touch with the industry to promote readiness, supported by new specific government funding.
Ultimately, the future of the protocol is in the hands of Northern Ireland’s people, and its renewal is a question of democratic consent. The responsibility of this Government is to ensure that it operates in an effective, legal and pragmatic way, and that is the spirit in which we approach its implementation.”
My Lords, shoppers in Northern Ireland supermarkets were surprised to find competitors’ products on the shelves. Of greater concern, some products have disappeared entirely, with the Government saying that
“the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.”
This is unacceptable. Michael Gove admitted yesterday that mistakes had been made, but that is not good enough and it fails to explain why the Government did not prepare for something that they had been warned about for more than a year. It is just shambolic. The protocol is not perfect, but it needs to be made to work. I have two questions for the Minister. Why did Ministers spend so much of last year denying the challenges, leaving it to business to make contingency plans? I also ask him to explain what urgent steps the Government are taking to get shelves stocked and trade moving today.
My Lords, it is important that we are clear about the overall picture. One must not overstate individual anecdotes into a systemic picture. I acknowledge that there have been issues—that was never denied—but, overall, goods are continuing to flow effectively. Supermarkets are able to move their lorries into Northern Ireland. There are some specific issues, as we have seen with individual suppliers, but it is holding up well overall. The UK Government will continue to work with supermarkets, retailers and suppliers to move in the longer run to end-to-end digital systems that enable goods to be moved in accordance with the protocol in the most streamlined way possible.
My Lords, the Government, led by the Prime Minister, put ideology over practicality and deception over honesty in the pursuit of Brexit. The claim made by the noble Lord, Lord True, in last Friday’s debate that,
“the flow of goods under the Northern Ireland protocol is smooth overall”—[Official Report, 8/1/21; col. 442.]—
an answer he has just repeated—is contested by seven supermarket bosses. The Answer to this UQ is somewhat of an improvement on those rather complacent claims, but only when the Government are totally honest about the fact that there is a border within the UK can they start to resolve the practical difficulties of the protocol. When will that total honesty appear?
My Lords, the Government have been honest and have not been ideological. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister simply implemented the instructions of the British people—some noble Lords have not yet caught up with that. Goods are flowing effectively between Great Britain and Northern Ireland overall, with more than 1,000 trucks a day. I have acknowledged that there are certain difficulties and issues, but we must not overstate them and we are working pragmatically to address them.
Can the Minister reassure the House that nothing in the Northern Ireland protocol will prevent Northern Ireland businesses taking advantage of the UK’s new trade agreements? Can he also confirm that its businesses will not suffer any harm resulting from possible tariff retaliation against the EU by states such as the US?
My Lords, I can confirm for my noble friend that Northern Ireland exporters will, as will those in the rest of the United Kingdom, be able to take full advantage of trade deals we strike with third countries. Certainly, we will not be participating in trade wars between third countries.
One of the key lessons I took when briefly a Minister in Northern Ireland was the vital importance of attention to detail. Is not the Prime Minister’s lack of attention to detail the cause of chucking the Falklands to the Argentine, Gibraltar to Spain and Northern Ireland to the Republic? What is the Cabinet Office doing about the effect of Annexe 7 on the operation of Article 16 of the protocol?
My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord in his overall characterisation of the position. This Government are absolutely resolute that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom and will remain so as long as its people determine. As I have acknowledged to the House, certain practical issues have arisen; these are being addressed maturely and sensibly by the Government, suppliers and business, and I believe that that is the way we should proceed, without, at this stage, talking about Article 16.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s efforts to iron out what we all hope are teething troubles, and also the commitments made yesterday by the Prime Minister that they will do whatever is necessary to ensure that goods can move freely from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Whatever one’s view of the protocol, can my noble friend assure the House that it does not in any way change Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, which, under the terms of the Acts of Union and the consent provisions of the Belfast agreement, remains a full and integral part of our United Kingdom?
Yes, my noble friend is right: the protocol and our implementation of it fully protects Northern Ireland’s status as an integral part of our United Kingdom. That must remain the case. As I have said, there are teething problems and we have to address these, but if they ever become disproportionate, then that is the time, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, when further action would have to be considered.
The Minister has acknowledged that there are problems and difficulties at the ports and elsewhere, and it is reported that some freight companies are losing tens of thousands of pounds per week because of the confusion that reigns there. We also have a problem with a Secretary of State who refuses to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a border at all. Will the Minister give his assessment today of the impact that the protocol and the sea border will have on the Northern Ireland economy? In light of the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday, will he clarify the specific conditions in which the Government would act to invoke Article 16 of the protocol and restore unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market?
My Lords, I can certainly give the noble Lord the assurance that we will work extremely hard to overcome difficulties. As I just said in reply to my noble friend Lord Caine, the Prime Minister stated the position on the record in the House of Commons yesterday as far as Article 16 is concerned. Obviously, I stand by his words. As for movement of traffic, everybody should feel that they can and must send goods to every part of our kingdom normally. Flows of trucks into Belfast are now normal. There have been issues at Holyhead, but movements there are increasing and we hope to see that trend continue.
I apologise for leap-frogging over the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Lilley.
Will my noble friend remind the House that the Northern Ireland protocol, as was made clear by our Attorney-General and the EU itself, is intrinsically temporary because the EU, under Article 50, was unable to enter into permanent trade agreements? This is why it could not even start negotiating a trade agreement with us until after we had left. However, as we resolve, by patches and devices, the structural problems that will grow because of the differences between EU legislation and our own, to avoid a barrier in the Irish Sea we will develop means that will enable us to apply the same mechanisms to avoid having a barrier or any infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic when the Northern Ireland protocol fades away.
My Lords, we are addressing specific issues—for example, steel announcements and groupage announcements are imminent—and there will be what my noble friend calls “patches”. Obviously, in the longer run the protocol’s existence will be determined by the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, can my noble friend explain what will happen at the end of the three-month grace period if there is no rollover of the EU’s decision not to apply its rules in full? Does he accept that this situation is already arising, when our standards have not yet diverged from those of the EU, and will accelerate after any divergence? I reiterate my apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the fact that the implications of Brexit were never fully and openly explained, although they must have been obvious right at the start.
My Lords, I am not following any further the comment that people did not understand where they were when decisions were taken on whether to leave. I believe that we should all leave that behind us. On the specific question, at the end of the grace period, as I said in an earlier reply, the UK will continue to work with supermarkets and retailers. We have a dedicated group of officials working on this. We are seeking new end-to-end digital systems that will enable goods to be moved in accordance with the protocol in the most streamlined way, and this will be backed by a major injection of UK government funding as part of a broader support package. However, it behoves all sides under this agreement, including the EU, to behave in a proportionate manner.
Elections: May 2021
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 January.
“Safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy, and Parliament’s decision, as set out in primary legislation, is that these polls should go ahead in May. Due to the pandemic, many of these elections have already been delayed by a year, but voters have a right to be heard and to decide who governs them. During the pandemic, local authorities will have taken many serious decisions impacting directly on residents, on matters from council tax to road closures, and those are important issues on which elected representatives should be held to account.
Given the situation, however, we are, as the Prime Minister set out last week, keeping this position under review. Any change would require very careful consideration, including by this House, and would need to be based on robust evidence. There should be a high bar for any delay.
I remind the House that we have already seen polls go ahead despite coronavirus, in this country—for example, council elections in Edinburgh and Aberdeen—and internationally, with other countries holding general elections. Since the announcement of the postponement of the 2020 elections, we have been working towards holding them in a Covid-secure manner, and we will put in place a strong set of measures to support this. Voters have a choice as to how they participate in elections—at the polling station, by proxy or by post. We want to maintain that choice, but we recognise that the pandemic may change people’s needs and preferences. We actively encourage anybody who is shielding or who would prefer not to attend a polling station to apply for an absent vote instead of going in person. We will bring forward additional measures to support absent voting, including extending the ability to appoint a proxy, so that anybody who might be affected by Covid-19 in the days before the poll is still able to make their voice heard. The Government this week set out our plan to roll out vaccines at pace, which will ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and provide a route map towards relaxing the restrictions when safe to do so.
We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission on the production of guidance to aid all involved. This guidance is based on the latest public health advice and will be updated as necessary ahead of the polls. We have been working across government to ensure that any activity required for participation in and the delivery of the polls is technically allowed under Covid regulations. I thank local government officials, who have stepped up to the mark enormously in dealing with new and challenging issues, in many cases since last March. That should be recognised. We are grateful to them for all the work they have done, and we will continue to work closely with them and all involved in elections to support them in delivering the elections successfully.
Finally, honourable and right honourable Members will know very well the importance of campaigning and providing information to voters. As well as the technical aspects of elections, voters rightly expect that campaigning activity should only be carried out safely. I can confirm that the Government have also worked with the parliamentary parties panel to ensure that we are aware of the views from political parties, and we will continue to do that. We recognise the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of this area. We will continue to keep the House updated on the preparations for the safe holding of these elections, which are an important upcoming moment in our shared civic life.”
My Lords, this May has a record number of polls, involving every elector in the country. If America can organise its massive ballot, surely we can also vote, especially since some of these elections are now a year overdue. I therefore ask the Government to assure the House that they will not run away from these votes. Will they also ensure that we use all the normal polling stations and not reduce their number, as I hear is happening in some places? That would not only produce dangerous crowds but would also disfranchise those who could not travel further to polling stations, particularly, of course, people with a disability.
My Lords, I certainly assure the noble Baroness that the Government believe that safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy. The law is that these elections should go ahead on this date. The Prime Minister said that all matters are always under review, as they are in a pandemic. People then seemed to ride away and say that that was an indication that they would be postponed, but, as the Minister for the Constitution said in the other place yesterday, a very high bar would have to be set to not proceed with these elections. As far as her comments about returning officers, they obviously look at polling stations, but I will take note of the points the noble Baroness made. Certainly, voting should be easy.
I hope I can get the Minister to add that local democracy is absolutely part of the foundation to any effective constitutional democracy, which is one of the reasons why we have to be very careful about postponing these elections further. I thank the Minister for the Statement and I thank Bradford Council for the very extensive briefing it gave me this morning on the difficulties. Can the Minister assure us that, since elections are so fundamental to democracy, as such, any decision will be taken not by the Government alone but in full consultation with all other parties contesting the elections? Given the difficulty of campaigning under current circumstances, will the Government be prepared to consider providing, for example, two pieces of free post to every nominated candidate, to make sure that parties which have more easy access to funds do not get disproportionate benefits from being able to pay for post?
As the noble Lord knew I would, I thoroughly endorse the first remark he made. I believe local democracy is the cornerstone, and I wish that were more widely recognised. The Government will continue to engage with political parties to ensure that people are able to campaign safely and securely and to secure information. As far as his specific proposal is concerned, I will certainly make sure that that is fed into consideration.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s response to the Urgent Question yesterday—both the commitment to having elections on 6 May and to minimising unnecessary face-to-face campaigning. In that spirit, may I ask a question similar to one asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in a Written Question, a few weeks ago? Will the Government urgently introduce changes to the requirement for registered parties to seek large numbers of nomination signatures for each campaign? We already have election campaigns where signatures are not necessary, and I request that similar procedures are introduced for all elections on 6 May.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his remarks. There are no plans to change the number of signatures required for nomination in May 2021, or to allow nominations to be accepted by email. Although returning officers may allow parts of the nominations process to be carried out online, such as the arrangement of necessary documents, final nomination papers have to be delivered in person. The Government have considered these issues with the electoral sector and Public Health England, and they are of the view that the current process can be carried out in a Covid-secure way.
My Lords, I suspect that we have another definite maybe from the Prime Minister, who says “We will go ahead”. And yet, if the Government proceed with the elections in May in the normal fashion, in the midst of a pandemic, with half the electorate not yet vaccinated, unlike what the Minister said yesterday—
“the very idea that somebody would be forced to choose between their health and their vote is simply not an issue”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/1/21; col. 314.]
there will be precisely that issue. Can the Government give us a definite answer—for once—and get ahead of the curve and make a definite decision now whether they are to proceed or to put alternative arrangements in place in good time? Another late U-turn will cause great anger and great confusion.
I certainly agree with the noble Lord that clarity is important. The planning assumption in the law is that we are proceeding with these elections. I take the point that he makes about people who are shielding or unable to go to the polling station. That is why, under the current considerations, we are looking at, for example, enhanced arrangements for proxy voting for those affected by Covid. We believe, in concert with those authorities involved, that it would be possible to proceed safely.
Further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Reid, it must be right to encourage as many people as possible to vote by post, as Covid will still be with us and many people will not have been vaccinated. When local authorities send out the council tax demand at the beginning of March, should they not include details of how to register for postal votes, and perhaps even include a form?
My Lords, characteristically, my noble friend makes an interesting and novel suggestion, which I will certainly ensure is passed on to those involved. But I repeat: we must have a high bar for even a short postponement of democracy, and any such decision would certainly never be taken lightly or rushed into. The Government will continue to work with the electoral community on the matter.
My Lords, since health conditions are likely to be similar throughout the whole of the United Kingdom in May, and there are parliamentary elections planned for Wales and Scotland, what discussions are Her Majesty’s Government having with the devolved Administrations to make sure that there is a uniform decision throughout the United Kingdom as far as elections are concerned?
As the noble Lord knows, there have been by-elections in Scotland. But it is for the Scottish and Welsh Governments to take decisions around polls which are within their competence. I can assure him that, in line with our approach elsewhere, all three Governments will try to co-ordinate our work, where possible. The UK Government continue to have regular discussions with counterparts in Scotland and Wales on delivering the polls in May.
My Lords, following on from the last question, in the interests of public health, what consideration has been given to holding the elections in May this year in England and Wales over a period of days, as opposed to on a single day, as is being proposed in Scotland?
My local GP surgery is not allowed to give the Covid vaccine under NHS England guidelines because it has only one door in and the same door out. The building next to it is the local polling station, with exactly the same entrance and exit situation. Why have returning officers not been given the same guidance that GP practices have about which buildings are safe for polling using the NHS criteria?
My Lords, the electoral authorities are in contact with those in local government who are involved in delivering places for the vote, which ultimately is returning officers. They will take a number of factors into account in considering the safety of premises, and I am sure that they will secure safety.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that returning officers and political parties need the maximum notice to prepare for elections? The Minister used the expression “the planning assumption”. That seems to be bureaucratic gobbledegook for saying “We have not quite made up our minds”. Does the Minister agree that it is essential that we have a clear indication for local authorities and political parties as soon as possible, so we all know where we are in preparation for the campaign?
My Lords, I apologise for being guilty of bureaucratic gobbledegook. At the risk of repeating an earlier answer, the most unprecedented pandemic for generations is raging in this country. Occasionally, the Government are taken to task for not being cautious and advisory, but—I repeat—the Government’s position is that the elections can go ahead in a safe and secure way; there would have to be a very high bar for that not to happen. But I accept the noble Lord’s point that total clarity is always the ideal.
Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Regulated Activities) (Amendment) Order 2020
Motion to Approve
Arrangement of Business
We come to day 2 of Report on the Medicines and Medical Devices 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 on each group. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are permitted but discouraged. A Member wishing to ask such a question, including Members in the Chamber, must email the clerk. The groupings are binding and it is not possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A participant who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in 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 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 a group.
Medicines and Medical Devices Bill
Report (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 19th and 33rd Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee, 10th Report from the Constitution Committee
16: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Strategy for tackling vaccination disinformation
(1) Within one month of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must prepare and publish a strategy outlining plans to prevent the promotion of disinformation related to human vaccines.(2) The overarching objective of the strategy must be safe- guarding public health.(3) The strategy must be laid before Parliament.(4) In formulating the strategy under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must include proposals to—(a) build public trust and encourage uptake of vaccines;(b) require social media companies to promptly remove disinformation related to vaccines that has been reported to them by an appropriate authority, employees or other social media users, including financial and criminal penalties if they fail to act; and(c) prohibit social media users or companies from directly profiting from vaccine disinformation through advertising revenue.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for tackling anti-vaccination disinformation within one month of the Bill passing.
My Lords, this amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for tackling anti-vax disinformation within one month of the Bill passing, to safeguard public health. The strategy should include proposals to build public trust and encourage uptake of vaccines, require social media platforms and companies to promptly remove anti-vax disinformation, and prevent profiting from vaccine disinformation through advertising revenue. The context to this amendment is the problem that lies designed to erode trust in vaccines and persuade people not to protect themselves and their families are being broadcast to millions of people online every day.
Covid-19 has been a “growth opportunity” for anti-vaxxers, according to research by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which estimates that the largest English-language social media accounts promoting vaccine scepticism have increased their followers by nearly a fifth over the past year. Intelligence assessments suggest that while the majority of anti-vax propaganda seen by UK internet users comes from within Britain, a small proportion of it is being amplified or initiated by hostile states, notably Russia.
Whereas the normal vaccine debate is largely limited to the parents of young children and teenagers, the Covid-19 pandemic is a rare instance where the entirety of a society has to choose whether they wish to be vaccinated. The spread of disinformation online presents a “real and present danger” to vaccination efforts. This is why action must urgently be taken to tackle anti-vax campaigns and build public confidence to save lives.
Disinformation is distinct from legitimate scientific questions and scrutiny, although valid concerns can be and often are manipulated. Disinformation encompasses the full spectrum of—
My Lords, I think I am back now. I apologise: I have no idea what happened then, but the trusty old iPad is coming in useful. I think that when I lost my link I was talking about media companies, so I will pick up with that.
Despite the Government’s and social media companies’ announcement last week of new measures to tackle the issue, dedicated anti-vaccine groups with hundreds of thousands of members on social media are still churning out disinformation—100,000 Facebook users and 180,000 on TikTok. Although the Government have talked about online harms for a long time, it is unlikely that that legislation will have Royal Assent in time to help with this.
Finally, the situation was made clear in the Question in the House yesterday from my noble friend Lady Lawrence about the BAME community and the vaccine being rolled out. She said:
“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?”—[Official Report, 13/1/21; col. 725.]
That was amplified by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who made the point 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 healthcare professionals, they were more likely than white communities to be persuaded to have the vaccine. Is the noble Lord familiar with that polling, and will he follow it up? I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I apologise to the House because this is the first time I have spoken on this Bill, so I will not detain the House long. However, I support the aims of the amendment. This is something I have felt strongly about for some years.
Tackling anti-vax disinformation can be life-saving, and continuing to promote anti-vax messaging can be so damaging to public health as well as individual health. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, rightly said in her excellent introduction—I am grateful to her for tabling the amendment—the online anti-vax messaging problem is growing. It is not just from a tiny minority in any one country; there could be systemic efforts to damage public health in our country and others. Given that those minority views can be spread, potentially to the severe detriment of the public and those who perhaps tend to support those views, believe them or be convinced by them, I should be very grateful if my noble friend would explain to the House the Government’s position. What do they believe they can do to combat the anti-vax messaging, not least as we are in the middle of this dreadful pandemic, for which the way out seems to me and many others to be to vaccinate as much of the population as we can, as soon as we can, to enhance their protection? Therefore, this is a very important and live issue, given the dreadful consequences that the pandemic is having not only on health through the virus itself, but on other aspects of public health and the country’s wider ability to support our beloved NHS.
My Lords, I am speaking on the telephone, as something went wrong with my iPad.
I support Amendment 16, which is tackles anti-vaccination disinformation. For some years, this has created a problem. For example, there has been an epidemic of measles in many countries because many people, including the growing number of vegans, mistrust vaccines. Clear messages should go out about the benefits of vaccines and how they work. Some vaccines are very complicated and difficult to develop, but they are desperately needed for diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria.
Regarding these important coronavirus vaccines, I hope that the Government will be very careful that disinformation is not going out to the public about the Pfizer vaccine. Many health workers and elderly vulnerable people have had one dose, and the second dose should be given in three weeks’ time. People have signed up to that, as there are written instructions to do so, but the Government are trying to delay the second dose by up to three months, which is not recommended by Pfizer-BioNTech or the regulator.
There is a risk that with only one dose, people may become carriers and the virus may become resistant to the vaccine. The Doctors’ Association is not happy about the Government’s idea of a three-month delay. More careful monitoring and research is needed, but these mixed messages are extremely unhelpful. I hope that the Government will realise that people need to trust the information they receive.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on her comprehensive introduction, expressing the urgency of the situation, which was also stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, in another interesting contribution for which I thank her. This is a difficult and hugely important issue, and it needs serious consideration on two counts. We have to look beyond the present situation with anti-vaccine campaigners and decide very carefully what is information and how we should combat damaging information being spread. Secondly, how do we reserve the right of the individual to use social media to express their personal views?
I spent six years on the Press Council, dealing with complaints. It was taxing, but today the print media is regulated to a greater extent. Even then, accountability for what should be published and what should not lay with not only the journalist who had written the article but with the editor and, in some newspapers, the owner.
However, social media is not regulated. A Private Member’s Bill by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was introduced and had its First Reading exactly a year ago today, 14 January 2020. It never received a Second Reading or reached further stages in either the Lords or Commons. He was prescient. Perhaps if we had enacted that Bill we would be in a better place than we are today.
Not all is lost, however. As I understand it, a government Bill is to be introduced in the next Session of Parliament. There is an ongoing debate as to whether there should be pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope that there will be. The Government have also produced their response to the consultation carried out on the dilemmas we face. They clearly understand how difficult it is to get this right.
Social media has democratised communication, and that is a good thing. News and opinions are not the sole province of those who are well educated or articulate but are for any individual who wishes to express views or opinions. Some are, of course, deeply harmful—for example, children who are bullied by others and so on. Some are simply irritating. Others express views of great value. What do we do about social media?
It was interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, raised the issue of measles. I was a Health Minister and responsible for infectious diseases. When I left that post in 1997, there were no cases of home-grown measles. That was before Andrew Wakefield started his anti-vax campaign, which was hugely damaging. Today, not only do we have many cases of measles but in 2019 there were 810 cases. We also have had deaths.
I therefore share the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, but we are into the debate we had on Tuesday. This is about benefits versus risks and whether we should uphold the freedom of the press in all its different forms, or whether it should be controlled. That needs a lot of thought. We need legislation and that will take time. The problem is urgent and I accept that but, much as I would like to support the amendment, it is difficult to find a quick solution. The risk of agreeing to it in the Bill is that we are in danger of doing more harm than good because this is a big issue that needs a lot of clever minds and thought in deciding how we go forward.
We should not rush on this. We have to get it right. However, I am disappointed, not only not to be able to support the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, because she has been so generous in supporting my amendments, but because this subject is truly difficult. We need to concentrate minds and the amendment is a way to do that. It is a good initiative but we have to be careful to ensure that the Government give their proposed Bill priority, which they say they will do in the next Session. We should do all we can to ensure that that happens.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, and I join her and other speakers in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for tabling the amendment, which I think is largely intended to start a debate and get some focus on this terribly important issue.
My approach to the whole issue of disinformation about harmful content on the internet is slightly different from those of some of the other speakers. We need to take the same approach as we do with the vaccine, which is to think about vaccination being better than treatment—prevention being better than cure. Ensuring good public communication, information and education about Covid and many other issues is the best possible way in which to take on misinformation, rather than after the fact—after the infection—and then trying to treat it. As soon as one starts trying to combat such messages, it is difficult to avoid repeating them. As any communications professional will tell you, you are then trapped in a difficult cycle of raising the issue up the agenda and raising it up the hashtags.
When we are talking about problems on the internet more generally, we need much broader education on media literacy and critical thinking throughout our education system. That will not help us in the immediate future but, when we are talking about Covid, we can think about the nature of the Government’s communications and public information campaigns that will, in effect, inoculate people against the disinformation so prevalent in cyberspace. We need calm, factual, often quite detailed information that will educate the public about what is going on.
It is telling that we have seen a great deal of hunger among the public for briefings involving senior scientific officers and advisers. Some of them now have their own fan clubs and T-shirts. There is a real hunger for that kind of quality of information with clear scientific facts. That needs to come from all levels of the Government, including the politicians, not just the technical people. Let us trust the public with more information, data and facts, and with more of the difficulties and uncertainties, than we do now.
If one looks at the messaging in countries such as New Zealand and Germany, one can see that the level of detail and facts, and the quality of the information, given to their publics is much better than ours. Nearly every time there is a major government announcement or bit of advice, I see good technical people, senior professors and consultants on social media screaming in frustration about the quality of the presentation, data and messaging. I am talking not just about the shape of the graphs being wrong or whatever; we need to get the whole of government communications much better. That is the best way in which to tackle all these issues.
We all, even those of us with a scientific background, have learned a great deal more about IgG versus IgM versus IgA antibodies. A huge amount of information is out there, as is a hunger among people to find it. We must make sure that the good sources are there. That is the best way to tackle this problem when it comes to Covid and, indeed, much more broadly.
My Lords, this is an interesting debate and I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Thornton. We know that there is a problem with vaccine uptake, which is linked to anti-vaccine sentiment—though not necessarily always.
Looking back over the past few months, I note that there was in November a survey by Savanta ComRes on behalf of ITV News that found that almost 70% of people in the UK would like to receive a vaccination. More recently, in December, the Royal Society for Public Health published a poll showing that 76% of people would take the vaccine but, significantly, that only 57% of people from BAME backgrounds would do so. There was also a lower response among lower-income groups.
No doubt the Minister will give us figures, but my understanding is that the initial results on vaccine uptake are encouraging. However, we cannot be complacent in the face of the pernicious anti-vaccine sentiment around. Even before the pandemic, vaccine hesitancy was described by the WHO as one of the top 10 threats to global health.
We are interested in what the Government are doing. Last month, we debated this issue and the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, the Leader of the House, referred to the work of a central government unit on it. I should like to hear from the Minister about what is happening. We clearly need strong pro-vaccination campaigns, and the majority of people who may be described as vaccine hesitant are not necessarily anti-vaccine. Most people who are hesitant can be persuaded by good public health messages.
However, as my noble friend and other noble Lords have said, there has been a huge amount of misinformation across social media in the past few months. This is obviously cited by survey respondents as an area of concern when it comes to levels of trust in those delivering public health messages. As Scientists for Labour pointed out, since the recovery from the false findings around the MMR vaccine and autism from Mr Andrew Wakefield, the UK overall now ought to be in a good place when it comes to routine vaccine uptake. For example, the HPV vaccine has a consistent uptake of between 80% and 85%, which is an excellent return for a vaccine that is not part of early childhood schedules.
We do not have too much in the way of well-organised anti-vaccine groups, unlike the USA or, indeed, even the Republic of Ireland, so the likelihood is that the UK population will show less hesitancy about recently introduced vaccines compared with other countries. But the level of misinformation out there is high and we have to learn lessons from other recent vaccine scares. Clearly the Government have a huge challenge in making sure that the uptake of the vaccine is as high as possible—which is why I welcome this debate and the amendment, and very much look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am married to a retired general practitioner.
I congratulate the noble Baroness on her proposed new clause. Whether the detail is correct is another matter, but the principle that she is promoting is absolutely right. I make my observations as someone who, before he came into politics, was a senior director in the fifth-largest advertising agency in the world. I was actually handling the UK Government’s COI account—that is, the general one for specific purposes.
I have four observations. First, all misinformation must be refuted immediately, wherever it occurs—whether it is in the main media or other media. That is not just social media; it includes radio, TV, print, posters, et cetera. Secondly, every medical professional body must make it unequivocally clear that disinformation must be refuted. Thirdly, I suggest that all medical outlets should provide a clear statement, in poster format, for hospitals, surgeries, clinics and pharmacies. Fourthly, consideration should be given to how best to communicate with schools, universities and colleges.
In conclusion, we must all remember the terrible harm that was done to the MMR—measles, mumps and rubella—programme, largely by one pioneering rogue doctor. Against that background, I plead with the Minister to ensure that we have a robust new clause and a plan, worked on now so that it can be communicated instantly, if possible.
My Lords, I support this amendment to require
“the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for tackling antivaccination disinformation within one month of the Bill passing.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has picked a fascinating, current topic, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, posed some pointed questions about the quality and effectiveness of the messages. I look forward to the Minister summing up on these points.
Misinformation is not new. I remember websites being used many years ago to persuade parents to ensure that their children had their childhood vaccinations at the appropriate time, and it is paramount that the Government take a robust stance against anti-vaccination disinformation. Research from Oxford University suggests that 12% of the UK population is “strongly hesitant” about taking the vaccine, with a further 16% unsure. Together, that makes 28%, a very significant proportion of the population—over a quarter. We are putting all our efforts into stopping the spread of this virus. This means that if the 28% avoid vaccination, they will run the real and severe risk of catching the virus; not only that, we will run the risk of catching it from them, so undoing all the benefits of the programme.
When I was doing my research, I was astounded by the volume of anti-vax propaganda undermining public trust. Social media of course carries a large amount of the extreme views. While not the majority, the minority is not insignificant, and with the Government putting their efforts into the rollout of the vaccine as their strategy for exiting the crisis, strong action is needed to counter the threat of anti-vax disinformation. The Government were quick to adopt our mobile phones as a tool to fight the virus. Are they as willing to counter this misinformation via those phones that have the Covid-19 app installed? In summing up, will the Minister tell us whether there is a plan to do this?
My Lords, what a helpful and instructive debate, and I thank all noble Lords who were involved.
In December 2020, we witnessed a landmark moment in our battle against Covid: the launch of an effective and safe vaccination programme, which has yielded great results. Thankfully, confidence in vaccines remains very high across the UK. None the less, some citizens have questions and there is a prevalence of misinformation. It is therefore absolutely and entirely right that we should answer those questions in the spirit of constructive dialogue, which is exactly what we seek to do.
I completely share the aspiration of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for Covid to be an inflection point in a business model moving away from late-stage acute medicine toward prevention. Vaccines play an absolutely critical role in that, and this could be a profound legacy of this awful disease.
Despite all this, I completely recognise that we have also seen a range of baseless and sometimes absurd narratives being shared, particularly through social media platforms. It is completely unacceptable that a minority of people seek to exploit legitimate questions about vaccines and spread dangerous lies about vaccines for their own malicious reasons and profit.
Noble Lords will agree that it is vital that both misinformation and disinformation about vaccines are tackled. Before I address the Government’s response on how we will handle these two challenges, I pay tribute to the cross-party alignment on this issue and the spirit in which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, moved her amendment. Noble Lords from all sides of the House have shown a strong commitment to tackling anti-vax conspiracies and I express profound thanks for this tremendous collective effort, of which we can all be proud.
Throughout this pandemic, we have remained committed to transparency around the vaccine and to ensuring that people have access to accurate information about the virus and vaccines. DHSC is leading extensive cross-government communications activity, providing advice and information to anyone who has questions about the vaccine.
I do not think it would be helpful for me to run through our efforts in this area in detail, but I reassure noble Lords that we have worked, and continue to work, extremely hard to rebut false information online. In March 2020, we stood up the Counter Disinformation Unit, bringing together cross-government monitoring and analysis capabilities to tackle misinformation and disinformation. The Government have worked tirelessly to act wherever false and harmful content appears on social media platforms, either by flagging the content to the platforms or through direct rebuttal on social media via our Rapid Response Unit.
We are particularly committed to dialogue with and the protection of communities that might be particularly susceptible to disinformation and which, coincidentally, are particularly vulnerable to the virus. I thank all those involved in those efforts, including ministerial colleagues and noble Lords. I note the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, to my noble friend Lady Warsi’s optimistic update in this area.
I turn to the point the noble Baroness’s amendment makes about requiring social media platforms to remove and demonetise anti-vaccination content. My noble friend Lady Cumberlege’s points on this are extremely valid. The Government have already secured commitments from platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to the principle that no company should profit from or promote anti-vaccine misinformation and disinformation, and to respond to that content much more swiftly. We are holding platforms to these commitments and have set a series of policy forums in motion, bringing together platforms, academia and civil society organisations to better develop responses to online misinformation and disinformation. These forums are chaired by my ministerial colleagues in DCMS, to whom I give thanks. I attend them and can report back that they have a constructive and thorough approach.
I understand the concern that noble Lords have about anti-vaccination content and the harm it causes. I stress that the Government are totally committed to working with the platforms and other key stakeholders to combat that content and to build public trust in our vaccination programme. I point noble Lords to the continued high rates of Covid-19 vaccine uptake that we see, which have been achieved in part by our effective approach to tackling vaccine misinformation and disinformation. We are not complacent; we are on the case. Therefore, for that reason, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, sees the Government’s efforts in this area and feels able to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that comprehensive answer. I particularly thank what I can describe only as a bouquet of Baronesses—the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann, Lady Bennett, Lady Masham and Lady Cumberlege—for their support. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, fear not: if I had intended to have a Division on this I would have given her pre-warning, do not worry. I also thank my noble friend Lord Hunt for his pertinent questions and the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, for his four action points, which were instructive and useful.
This has been a useful debate that has been worth having, because we have so few opportunities to knock around issues that we all agree on and really want to support the Government to get right. That is why I tabled the amendment. I am very happy with the response to it and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 16 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 17. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 7: Disclosure of information in accordance with international agreements
17: Clause 7, page 4, line 36, after “a” insert “relevant”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the amendment in the Minister’s name to add a definition of “relevant person” to Clause 7 restrict the persons to whom information may be disclosed in reliance on Clause 7(2).
My Lords, in moving Amendment 17 I will speak also to Amendments 19, 22, 23, 25, 35, 37, 38, 55, 56 and 58 to 62. All amendments in the group deal with the sharing of information outside the UK where this is required to give effect to an international agreement or arrangement.
I have listened to the concerns raised by noble Lords as to further safeguards that could be provided in relation to Clauses 7, 12 and 37(5), and the amendments made in Grand Committee. I am enormously grateful to noble Lords who have met and spoken to me and my team over the weeks between Grand Committee and Christmas. Their further explanations and collaborative spirit have been enormously valuable. I can say confidently that this collaboration has definitely improved the drafting of the Bill.
It is worth saying first that the Bill introduces powers for international information sharing only where it is pursuant to international agreements or arrangements concerning the regulation of human medicines, medical devices or veterinary medicines. As such, we are starting from a place where it is in the public interest for data to be shared to support the safety of human medicines, medical devices and veterinary medicines in the UK and globally.
As I explained in earlier debates, information sharing with other regulators plays an absolutely critical role in the work of the MHRA and the VMD to protect patient safety and to support international collaboration. For example, in medical device safety investigations, international information sharing allows for better signal detection and gathering of evidence to support the safety of medical devices available on the UK market. It is worth saying that failure to share that data has been one of the contributing factors to many patient safety issues. However, it is right that we ensure that when the MHRA and the VMD share information they do so with the appropriate persons. These amendments will ensure that.
Nevertheless, I have heard the concerns about the use of the term “persons” and whether this may be subject to broad interpretation. Noble Lords will agree that including in the Bill an exhaustive list of named organisations we share data with is not practical. Therefore, we have amended Clauses 7, 12 and 37 to include a definition of “relevant person”. These amendments clarify the types of persons outside the UK that information may be shared with. In short, they make it clear that these clauses do not offer a “blank cheque”.
We also heard concerns from noble Lords in Committee about the sharing of patient-identifiable information internationally. Clauses 7 and 37 already include safeguards to protect personal and commercially sensitive information, and there are additional safeguards in data protection legislation. However, we are keen to provide additional reassurance. That is why we have tabled further amendments that ensure that patient-identifiable information can be shared only if patients have provided consent.
In the vast majority of cases patient information is anonymised before being shared. These amendments account for the rare instances where it is necessary to share patient-identifiable data internationally to support our commitment to uphold patient safety; for example, in sharing patients’ concerns with an international regulator about a clinical trial they are taking part in in another country.
Finally, Amendments 22, 37 and 59 seek to clarify that the information-sharing powers in the Bill do not limit the circumstances in which information can be shared under any other enactment or rule of law. Such housekeeping amendments can be found as standard in many Acts and will ensure that the powers in the Bill cannot be construed as replacing existing statutory, prerogative or common laws of disclosure, which is not the intention. In introducing these amendments we seek simply to remove any potential confusion over what the powers in the Bill are intended to deliver.
I say again that I am enormously grateful to all noble Lords for their constructive challenge and thoughtful contributions on this subject. International information sharing is fundamental to the effective functioning of the MHRA and the VMD, but it is of vital importance that data is shared with care and that the appropriate safeguards are in place. I believe that our amendments deliver this balance. I beg to move.
My Lords, before I address the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, I reciprocate by thanking the Minister enormously for the many meetings he and his colleagues have had with all of us who are trying better to understand what the Government are trying to do with the Bill, particularly with these amendments. I agree that there are times, including in clinical trials—I have done this—when there is a need to share information with people involved in trials not only in the United Kingdom but overseas. I will come back to that in a minute.
I will start by saying that I support the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, which address the broadly drafted government amendments that were introduced in Committee. Those amendments allow information held in connection with medicines and medical devices to be shared with relevant persons outside the UK, to give effect to international agreements in relation to the regulation of medicines and medical devices.
The original wording of these clauses was worrying due to the use of vague terms. It was not clear, for example, whether any information held by the relevant authority could cover all information contained in patient records relating to medicines and medical devices, including any information in medical records relating to the use of medicines for patients. As highlighted in Committee debates, there was also no definition of
“persons outside the United Kingdom”,
which left it open to broad interpretation, placing no limits on the category of persons to whom information may be disclosed.
The purposes of information disclosure are also broad, relating to the fulfilment of the requirements of any potential international agreement concerning the regulation of medicines and medical devices. In fact, a letter which the Minister sent to us all explaining these amendments in Committee argued that any such information disclosure would be related to the purposes of promoting public safety. There was and still is no mention of public safety in the purposes of information disclosure in the Government’s amendments, although I accept that, in presenting his amendments, the Minister did mention it in his introductory remarks.
The purposes are left to be determined by any international agreement, and thus this power is exceptionally broad. The Government’s own amendments to these clauses are welcome. They narrow the powers slightly by providing a definition of “relevant persons” to whom such information may be disclosed, and add new subsections requiring that no patient information be disclosed without consent. However, it is not clear to me what mechanism or form of consent is required.
Some may well remember that the care.data scandal evolved from the lack of a requirement for opt-in consent to the use of medical and healthcare data. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, addresses this issue by requiring that consent be “opt-in” in these situations. This is a sensible addition to ensure greater safeguards for patients. It is also worth highlighting that patient information is defined in government Amendment 22, in a new subsection relating to
“physical and mental … diagnosis … care or treatment”,
and information that
“identifies the individual or enables the individual to be identified (whether by itself or in combination with other information)”.
This means that information pertaining to patients can be shared where it has been rendered non-identifiable. This is in line with current data protection principles.
The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, strengthens this protection further, through the addition of the word “could”, so that any information which might lead to reidentification is also captured in this definition. These protections are necessary as aggregate data can reveal patterns which may allow for reidentification, especially for small patient clusters, such as in rare diseases and conditions, and even in cancers, and where patients with common diseases are stratified for particular medicines.
Regardless of the need for consent to disclose patient data, consent is not required where data has been anonymised. Decisions on the use of public health data represent a substantive area of policy that should be subject to scrutiny and debate, and not relegated to the discretion of the Government alone. Data can be of high commercial value, so this power would essentially be used to allow the sharing of such data with interested parties as part of their trade deals. It has “international agreements” within the meaning of this clause, and the Minister may wish to comment on whether trade deals are included in international agreements.
This comes back to the issue of scrutiny at the heart of the Bill. It may be that information sharing and disclosure is necessary to allow smooth functioning and support internationally on pharmacovigilance and medical device monitoring, but there is an issue that patient/NHS data could also be bought as part of commercial interests in trade deals which the operation of information disclosure clauses may still allow for. The clauses as they stand, and as the Government now intend to amend them, still potentially allow for sharing of anonymised data with commercial partners for undefined—and therefore unknown—purposes, to be settled as part of an international agreement or trade deal that would probably not be scrutinised by Parliament.
While it may be conceded that international agreements may require the sharing of information to allow for proper international co-operation for pharmacovigilance and monitoring of safety, as the Minister himself mentioned, in their current form the government amendments may allow sharing for broader purposes that we are currently unable to scrutinise. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, requiring that any information disclosure to relevant persons outside the UK be permissible only to aid pharmacovigilance and device safety, and for purposes that are in the public interest, represents an acceptable compromise in narrowing the purposes for which information can be shared. The public interest principle at least requires consideration by the Government of substantial ethical issues in sharing information, yet it still allows significant flexibility when contemplating future agreements post Brexit.
There can surely be no objection to this minimal protection being required when contemplating the broad power being taken by the Government in decisions on the international sharing of valuable public data.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Patel. I support and will speak to Amendments 18, 36 and 57, which have been so well introduced and explained by him, and which I have signed, and will speak to my own Amendment 20.
We have had discussions on this Bill and the Trade Bill about health data and trade issues. The two Bills are intimately connected, and this amendment is very complementary to Amendment 11, passed on Report of the Trade Bill on 7 December. There was no debate or discussion about the new Clauses 7 and 12 and the new subsection in Clause 37 when they were introduced in Grand Committee. On both counts it is therefore vital that we get to grips with them today. I welcome the Minister’s new amendments, which he has spoken to and which take us a step further in terms of patient consent, definition of information and relevant persons. But I have signed, and these Benches support, the additional amendments to those clauses and subsection put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, to ensure that we further tighten these provisions. Specifically, we want to tie this to international co-operation on pharmacovigilance or in monitoring the performance and safety of medical devices, and a public interest test put around the disclosure of health data, for all the reasons put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Patel.
As I said when the House debated these issues on Report of the Trade Bill and later passed the amendment, NHS data is a precious commodity, especially given the many transactions between technology, telecoms and pharma companies concerned with NHS data. I cited a recent report in which EY estimated that the value of NHS data could be around £10 billion a year in the benefit delivered, and the fact that the Department of Health and Social Care is preparing to publish its national health and care data strategy shortly, in which it is expected to prioritise the
“safe, effective and ethical use of data-driven technologies, such as artificial intelligence, to deliver fairer health outcomes.”
I mentioned too that, while acknowledging that the UK is a leading player in the fields of life sciences and biosciences, health professionals have strongly argued that free trade deals risk compromising the safe storage and processing of NHS data in much the way that the noble Lord, Lord Patel, has mentioned.
Through the amendment to the Trade Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and likewise this amendment, the objective is to ensure that it is the NHS, not US big tech companies and drug giants, that reaps the benefit of all this data. This is especially important given what the Ada Lovelace Institute called in its report, The Data Will See You Now, the “datafication” of health, which, it says, has profound consequences for who can access data about health, how we practically and legally define health data, and our relationship with our own well-being and the healthcare system. Health information can now be inferred from non-health data, and data about health can be used for purposes beyond healthcare. Harnessing the value of healthcare data must therefore be allied with ensuring that adequate protections are put in place in trade agreements, if that value is not to be given or traded away.
At the time, I raised questions about the provisions of the UK-Japan trade agreement, and there is no doubt that these questions will linger unless an amendment of this kind, to both this Bill and the Trade Bill, goes forward.
There have been many shortcomings in the sharing of data between various parts of the health service, care sector and Civil Service. The development of the Covid-19 app and the way that the Government have procured contracts for data management with the private sector have not improved public trust in their approach to data use. That is why clear safeguards are needed to ensure that, in trade deals and international agreements, our publicly held data is safe from exploitation where it is not for public benefit.
On Tuesday, the Minister heavily emphasised the public interest test that he wanted to see applied to the sharing and use of Clause 3 information. The data covered by Clauses 7, 12 and 37 is even more important. He used the same language today and in correspondence, so I hope he can accept these amendments. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, has said, we also want to see the aspect of patient consent clarified.
I turn briefly to Amendment 20. I welcome the Minister’s Amendment 19, but Amendment 20 is designed to get the Minister to further clarify what is meant by “consent” in Clause 7. Informed consent is very much a familiar concept in healthcare, especially in treatment and trials, and, indeed, that is effectively the definition on the NHS website. It depends on capacity, explanation, understanding and it being voluntary. That is why my amendment would insert the word “informed”, to make it abundantly clear that, at the very least, that is what is intended here. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and I welcome the opportunity to debate this important group of amendments. I welcome the government amendments, but feel that my noble friend Lady Thornton’s amendment is very important, as indeed are some of the others in this group.
I have always been strongly in favour of using patient information. It is a rich source of data for scientists to pursue in the search for medical advances. We all benefit, and I am sure that the great majority of the public see this and are agreeable to information being shared. But we must have appropriate safeguards, and that is why the government amendments to restrict the persons to whom information may be disclosed, and the addition of a definition of patient information and the need for individual patient consent, are all very welcome.
My understanding, however, is that information pertaining to patients can be shared where it has been rendered non-identifiable. As the University of Birmingham has commented, this may be in line with current data protection principles but there is still a danger of a care.data-type problem, in that the provisions might allow the Government to share with “relevant persons”—as they are now called—outside the UK information they hold on patient data through NHS bodies without consent when anonymised. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, referred to some of the issues with care.data. The stricter definition of patient information may address some of the concerns that the definition of patient data—being restricted to identifiable data—left anonymised data open for use or barter as part of international agreements. Part of this broader concern is that aggregate data can reveal patterns that may allow for re-identification, especially for small patient clusters in respect of rare diseases and conditions.
The points that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, made about the interrelationship between this Bill and the Trade Bill are therefore hugely important. We know that data can be of high commercial value, and the power could in essence be used to allow the sharing of such data to interested parties as part of trade deals and international agreements, which certainly has implications for concerns about consent.
I just say to the Minister that the NHS has form in giving away data to American companies without enough care being taken over the conditions under which the data can be used, and certainly without adequate resource compensation. This makes it all the more important to ensure that we beef up the safeguards. The amendments from my noble friend Lady Thornton and those from the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Patel, all deserve support for seeking to do that.
My Lords, I was privileged to speak at some length about the provisions of this Bill in Grand Committee, and I thank those who supported the amendments in my name, which concerned the role of cutting-edge, data-driven medical devices. The Minister has since reassured me of his intention to further explore their implications in the course of a consultation exercise about their definition and regulation over the coming year. Like the noble Lord, Lord Patel, I want to put on record my gratitude for the way that he has facilitated these discussions.
The amendments that I rise to support today seek to protect patient information, including what is properly “special category data” in the Data Protection Act 2018, which is crucial in the development of new pharmaceutical products and medical devices.
Of course, it goes without saying that efforts to facilitate the flow of data in the context of the ongoing health emergency are vitally important. These are extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves. Today, however, we must take steps with an eye to the long term; steps that will introduce legal provisions to prevent a situation that might give rise to undue concern or restrict scrutiny of matters pertaining to patient safety in the future, both at home and overseas.
I am certain that the Minister is well aware of public sentiment concerning privacy and data protection, which are, of course, not limited to the healthcare domain. Maintaining the trustworthiness of organisations that function as stewards of the nation’s healthcare data is paramount, and a carefully considered approach to patient safety is needed to preserve that trustworthiness, as the Government move to improve upon and forge new international arrangements.
The Minister’s amendments make it mandatory for consent to be provided where patient information is being shared with territories outside the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has tabled clarifying amendments to ensure that the purpose for which patient information is being shared is limited to patient safety and its scrutiny. For these reasons, I support Amendments 18, 36 and 57, to which I have added my name.
My Lords, I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, who has made some very cogent points, both in that speech and when we discussed these clauses in Grand Committee.
I want to make two points. The first is about the structure of Amendment 18. I am not entirely sure that I understand why pharmacovigilance has been singled out in the amendment as a reason why disclosure should be made, as distinct from, for example, public health co-operation or the pursuit of research. Indeed, the Minister referred to the sharing of information in relation to international clinical trials as a very good example. If one were to legislate in this form, it would be inevitable that the reference to pharmacovigilance would be regarded as having additional weight, and the absence of reference to other purposes for which information would be shared would be regarded as less important. I am not sure that that would be at all helpful to have in statute.
My other point is in relation to Clause 7(5). Government Amendment 22 refers to and introduces a provision that assists in understanding the relationship between this legislation and other enactments concerning the disclosure of information. Clause 7(5) states:
“Nothing in this section authorises a disclosure of information which … contravenes the data protection legislation (but in determining whether a disclosure would do so, take into account the powers conferred by this section)”.
Noble Lords may recall the Trade Bill and, in particular, the debate we had on the Trade (Disclosure of Information) Act just before Christmas and new year. We passed legislation the purpose of which was, among other things, to ensure that we clarified the relationship between that enactment and others that authorise disclosures of information or, in some circumstances, prohibit such disclosures. The particular basis for the structure of that Bill was to clarify a situation where there is a statutory gateway and other enactments that put constraints on the disclosure of information.
In subsection (5) it is clear that if someone is considering a disclosure that might contravene the data protection legislation, that legislation must be considered alongside the powers in this legislation. That enables them to satisfy the test in the Christian Institute and others v The Lord Advocate 2016 Supreme Court decision, as referred to in my noble friend Lord Grimstone’s letter to us about the Trade Bill. In the Trade Bill, though, as is the case in this Bill, we have reference both to the data protection legislation and to the Investigatory Powers Act. In the Trade Bill, amendments were introduced on Report to ensure that the saving reference—that is, when determining whether a disclosure would contravene the legislation, it takes into account the powers in this section—was applied to both the data protection legislation and the Investigatory Powers Act. However, in this legislation—Clause 7(5)(b) —the saving reference is applied to the data protection legislation but not to the Investigatory Powers Act.
My question, which I am sorry I have not had an opportunity to give the Minister notice of, as I have started working through these issues only very recently, is this. Having dealt with this matter on the Trade Bill, I would have thought that both these subsections should have the saving reference that allows the question of the contravention of those Acts to be considered, including reference to the powers in this Bill. I wonder if he would agree.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend, who speaks with such great authority both as a former Secretary of State for Health and as someone who has followed the Trade Bill and the Trade (Disclosure of Information) Act so closely.
At the risk of dancing on the head of a pin, the amendments in this group are quite close, and the Minister set out every reason why we should support his Amendment 17. He said that information would be shared only in the circumstances where there is perceived to be a public need. The amendments and explanatory statement of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, refine that by saying that, in the context of giving effect to an international agreement or arrangement concerning the regulation of human medicines, it should be disclosed only provided that it is in the public interest to do so. A number of noble Lords have spoken with great eloquence and passion on these issues, including the noble Lords, Lord Patel, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Freyberg, and my noble friend Lord Lansley. I have to say that I personally would draw the line at disclosing information for a commercial need as opposed to a public one.
I have a particular question about Amendment 19, which clearly states that patient information cannot be disclosed where the patient could be identified and that that information cannot be given without their consent. I remember that I was once asked to participate in a study; I signed the form and was delighted to do so, and never heard any more about it. I would just like to know how Amendment 19 would work in practice. At what point, and by whom, would the patient be contacted if that information was about to be disclosed and their consent sought?
I have reservations about this group. I remember the important debate that we had on the Trade Bill in this regard, and I am delighted to see that those issues are being considered in the context of this Bill as well. I have two concerns that I hope can be allayed. The first is that public need should not be deemed to collude with commercial need where it might not be in the interests of the patient. The second is about informed consent: how will the patient be consulted within the provisions of Amendment 19?
My Lords, this has been an interesting and well-informed debate, and I am quite reluctant to enter into it. I support government Amendment 19 and particularly Amendment 20 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. I hope I have got this right, although I am very happy to be put right if I have not. As I understand it, Amendments 19 to 25 concern consent, relating very specifically to the disclosure of information in accordance with international agreements. This is information that I think a relevant authority such as the MHRA holds in connection with human medicines.
As I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, he raised a question in my mind about devices. We know that pharmaceuticals are much more closely regulated than devices have been, so can the Minister tell us a bit more about instances where there is a comparable agreement, and perhaps an amendment, for medical devices? I want to know whether they are on all fours with pharmaceuticals. I suspect not. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, I think that there is more to hear on this.
The Minister’s Amendment 19 makes it very clear that:
“Nothing in this section authorises a disclosure of … information”
that would include patient-identifiable information without the patient’s consent. I warmly welcome that, but Amendment 20 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, goes further. It seeks to ensure that such consent is informed. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, informed consent is very well recognised within the NHS but sadly not always adhered to. To me, Amendment 20 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is preferable to Amendment 21, which states that
“‘consent’ means that an individual has given notice of their willingness for an appropriate authority to disclose patient information”
by explicitly opting in. That is not good enough.
I fully support Amendment 20, with the proviso that gaining informed consent can never be just a tick-box exercise. The information, of course, pertains to patients and their state of health, the diagnosis they have received, the treatments they have had and the outcomes from those interventions. That information, rightly, belongs to the patient. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned care.data, and we know what a terrible debacle that was, when not enough care was given to the rights of patients over their information.
We know from the reams of evidence that we received during our review that “informed consent”, albeit usually in the context of a patient/clinician consultation, was often anything but informed. However, as I understand it, this debate is not about that; it is about the information that will be passed on through international agreements. I hope I have that right.
If we are to change how the healthcare system manages, interprets and responds to informed consent, we must ensure that it does not just pay lip service. Whenever informed consent matters, we should ensure, through this Bill and elsewhere, that it really does matter and is fully protected.
I support these amendments but ask the Minister to give an assurance that, in relying on informed consent, where disclosure of information can enable a patient to be identified, the relevant authority will have evidence on four issues: first, that consent was indeed properly informed; secondly, that the patient concerned understood how their information might be used; thirdly, that any specific concerns they might have had had been addressed; and, lastly, that the patient was made fully aware that they could withdraw consent at any time. I should perhaps add to that last point that they could withdraw either via an intermediary or directly. There must be a mechanism in place to ensure that the relevant authority is made aware of this change—that the patient has withdrawn consent—and that the authority can be seen to have acted on it.
There is much in all these amendments. It has been a good debate and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
It is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, who has gone into great detail on these amendments. As far as I can see, these are mainly government amendments, plus some from other parties, and they are all broadly to be welcomed. The question I ask myself is: where are the boundaries to be set?
Very helpfully, the Minister, in his opening statement, explained in some detail the extent of information-sharing outside the UK and gave the example of the safety of medical devices. Having listened to my noble friend and the others who have contributed, I am still not quite sure about Amendments 18 and 20. I can see where they are coming from and can understand what is behind them but on this occasion I will have to listen to the Minister. These are sensitive areas and certainly we in the upper House should listen. I am also not entirely clear from the Minister’s statement at the beginning what the implications of Amendment 22 are. There has already been a good deal of coverage and I will not add to it further.
These amendments relate to the use of data and information sharing. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, my noble friend Lord Clement- Jones and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, have put their names to some of them. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, outlined clearly in the context of trade and health the power and value of data. Data is a hugely rich source for research but also a hugely valuable commodity, so we need safeguards.
Concern was raised in Committee about the level of protection in the Bill for patient information, as regulations are able to make provision about the disclosure of such information. I am grateful to the Minister for being so willing to look at this again.
The Government have responded in two main ways: with the introduction of a definition of “relevant person”, thereby narrowing the definition of whom data can be shared with, and by defining what is meant by patient information. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, explained, Amendment 24 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, strengthens the definition of patient information to protect information that could identify a patient, rather than just information that does.
Amendments 18, 36 and 57, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and supported by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and others, would allow a relevant authority to disclose information to a person outside the UK only where required for the purpose of giving effect to an international agreement or an arrangement concerning the regulation of human medicine, provided it was within the public interest so to do. Those three amendments all pass the test put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, concerning public good.
Amendment 20, from my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, would take the Government’s amendment on patient consent further by ensuring that consent given in relation to identifiable information was informed consent. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, has just raised the issue. We should not need this. Informed consent should be the default but, as it clearly is not, I support my noble friend’s Amendment 20.
Similarly, Amendment 21, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, would ensure that patient information could be shared by an appropriate authority only if the individual to whom it related had given their explicit consent.
These amendments strengthen the Bill and therefore patient outcomes. I will listen to the Minister to see what plans the Government have to satisfy noble Lords on this group.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I will speak to the amendments in my name, and give notice that I will test the opinion of the House on Amendment 18, along with Amendments 36 and 57, all of which are supported by the noble Lords, Lord Patel, Lord Freyberg and Lord Clement-Jones. This is unless—of course, I always live in hope—they are agreed to by the Minister.
Turning to the other amendments in my name in this group, I just want to put on record how grateful we are on our Benches for the way that the Minister and the Bill team have worked on these important issues, and how much we support the amendments that he has tabled. We do not see these amendments as in opposition; we see them as amplification and clarification.
Amendment 24 is a probing test for whether aggregate data could identify individuals through de-identification or de-anonymisation practices. The Government’s amendments define patient information as data that
“identifies the individual or enables the individual to be identified (whether by itself or in combination with other information)”.
This represents a welcome tightening up of the definition to include scenarios where contextual information might allow de-identified data to become identifiable. This is very important given that aggregate data can reveal patterns which allow for reidentification, especially for small patient clusters as in rare diseases and conditions. Given the rapid development of sophisticated technology, my Amendment 24 probes the test for whether anonymised aggregate data could identify individuals through this. I hope the Minister will be able to assure the House that the appropriate safeguards and checks are in place.
Amendment 21 would ensure that patient information
“can only be shared by an appropriate authority if the individual to whom it relates has given their explicit (‘opt-in’) consent.”
We welcome the Government’s requirement for consent to share patient information. However, they have not specified how this consent mechanism will work in practice. This amendment in my name would ensure that important distinction, which has been mentioned by many noble Lords across the House. Other noble Lords have also mentioned care.data, which, because of a lack of clarity about the use of data, did not work. I hope the Government will be able to assure us that explicitly informed consent will be sought and secured.
Under Amendment 18, followed by Amendments 36 and 57, data would be disclosed to persons under international agreements or arrangements only for pharmacovigilance or if “in the public interest”. I hope the public interest bit answers the question from the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Patel, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Freyberg, my noble friend Lord Hunt and other noble Lords for their support for this suite of amendments.
Overall, the government amendments narrow discretion and set out in more detail the purposes for the information-sharing powers. However, in our view they still potentially allow for the disclosure of patient data without consent to commercial partners for undefined, and therefore unknown, purposes to be settled as part of international agreements or trade deals. That is why the helpful read-across to the Trade Bill by the noble Lords, Lord Freyberg, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Patel, is so important. We recognise that information-sharing and disclosure may be necessary to allow smooth functioning and support internationally on pharmacovigilance, for example, but remain concerned that NHS data—which has been described as a treasure trove, worth perhaps £9.6 billion—could be bartered as part of commercial interests in trade deals.
Amendment 18, along with Amendments 36 and 57 in my name, would allow the Secretary of State to disclose NHS data only under the terms of an international agreement or trade deal for pharmacovigilance, of if it is otherwise in the public interest. We believe “the public interest” is a legitimate test that would offer reassurance that substantive and ethical issues relating to the sharing of data would at least be considered. I hope the Minister will recognise the value of this amendment; otherwise, as I say, I would like to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, we are enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for their Amendments 20 and 24 to one of my own amendments to Clause 7. These amendments seek to ensure that patient information can be shared by an appropriate authority only if the individual has given their explicit or informed consent, respectively. I completely recognise the commendable intent behind both amendments to safeguard and protect patient safety. Their intentions are benign but they are absolutely not necessary.
My lived experience for the past year has been completely aligned with the words of the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Freyberg. Data is absolutely key. I have spent my time outside the Chamber working on little else: clearing the path for patient recruitment to clinical trials, so that therapies can be designed to save lives; getting data on long Covid patients from primary care to those researchers and clinicians who are trying to help them, which is an extremely complex and onerous task; getting central tracing data to local infections teams, which means transferring it between various jurisdictions; getting people to record the tests they take, which is a legal requirement but legally and technically difficult to implement; and getting test results from those who have taken them into their GP records. Most bizarrely, to me at least, I have been getting data-sharing agreements in place so that local authorities, which are crying out for the data—as their representatives here in this very Chamber cry out to me at the Dispatch Box for it—can access the dashboards with those legal agreements; or getting the data on those who may need support isolating into the hands of those charities and local authorities which are keen to support them.
Every step of the way, there has been an onerous set of legal, ethical and bureaucratic barriers. Speaking on the back of that experience, I wonder whether scientific deduction and patient safety are sometimes sidelined by other considerations. I therefore warn about measures that are driven by prejudice or secondary principles, rather than the priorities of trying to save lives and pursue science. Their unintended consequences can have a profound, stifling effect on patient safety, medical research and innovation, and on the effective running of a modern healthcare system. I can think of so many incidents where the need for data-sharing agreements, legally obtuse patient consents and all sorts of rarefied ethical reviews have caused major life-threatening obstacles and troubling issues in our response to Covid.
I know that the measures in these amendments are well intended, but I assure noble Lords that they are not necessary. For instance, Clause 7 accounts for the rare instances where it is necessary for the MHRA to share identifiable patient information internationally to support our commitment to upholding patient safety. I take this opportunity to assure noble Lords not only that this will be done only with the informed consent of the patient but that the practical implementation of some of the very measures in this Bill, such as the medical information system, will require these kinds of measures. It seems counterproductive for us to be undoing the benefits of our own information system.
Amendment 21 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, seeks to broaden the definition of patient information to include information that could enable identification. I reassure the noble Baroness that the MHRA absolutely follows the Information Commissioner’s gold standard practices on patient data anonymisation. In order to be truly anonymised under GDPR, sufficient personal data is always stripped out so that, not only can the individual not be identified, but reasonably available means could also not enable the recipient to re-identify the individual. As such, if patient information to be shared still enables the patient to be identified, for example due to the unique nature of their condition, the amendment in my name will provide sufficient protection by requiring that patient’s consent be sought before sharing their information. The MHRA keep anonymisation processes under review in line with the ICO’s guidelines and continue to monitor advances in data technology.
We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Clement-Jones, on their Amendments 18, 36 and 57, which seek to limit the purpose for which information can be shared internationally under the powers. It is important to highlight that we could only disclose information under this power where disclosure is required in order to give effect to an international agreement or arrangement concerning the regulation of human medicines, medical devices or veterinary medicines. In that regard, the clause already allows disclosure only for a particular purpose. As international co-operation in this area is important and a good, even necessary, thing, such agreements or arrangements would be in the public interest by default. The UK meeting its international obligations under these agreements and arrangements would be even more so. Furthermore, the MHRA and VMD do not share information for commercial gain—on that point I want to be absolutely categoric. Therefore, I am persuaded that these amendments are accordingly unnecessary.
We have introduced a number of amendments to these powers to clarify the types of person with whom information can be shared and, for those instances when it is necessary to share identifiable patient data internationally, introduced a lock that ensures that data can be shared only with consent. These amendments are, of course, in addition to existing data protection legislation and ICO guidance. I can assure the noble Lords that we are not complacent when it comes to the safe and appropriate use of patient data. We understand that, as technology advances, we will need to continually review the way in which we anonymise data to ensure that it remains just that.
I hope this provides noble Lords with assurance that the Bill and the additional amendments in my name provide robust safeguards to protect patient information, alongside long-standing data protection legislation already in place, and that they will not press their amendments.
Amendment 17 agreed.
18: Clause 7, page 4, line 38, at end insert—
“( ) Where information is disclosed in accordance with subsection (2) such disclosure will only be permitted where—(a) it is required as part of international cooperation for pharmacovigilance; or(b) it is in the public interest.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would allow a relevant authority to disclose information to a person outside the UK where required for the purpose of giving effect to an international agreement or arrangement concerning the regulation of human medicine provided it is within the public interest to do so.
19: Clause 7, page 5, line 8, at end insert—
“(4A) Nothing in this section authorises a disclosure of patient information without the consent of the individual to whom that information relates.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the amendment in the Minister’s name to add a definition of “patient information” to Clause 7 prevent Clause 7 authorising the disclosure of information from which patients can be identified without their consent.
Does the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, wish to move Amendment 20, as an amendment to Amendment 19?
Amendment 20 (to Amendment 19) not moved.
Amendment 21 (to Amendment 19) not moved.
Amendment 19 agreed.
22: Clause 7, page 5, line 14, at end insert—
“(5A) This section does not limit the circumstances in which information may be disclosed under any other enactment or rule of law.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that Clause 7 does not limit the circumstances in which information may be disclosed under any other enactment or rule of law.
Amendment 22 agreed.
23: Clause 7, page 5, line 21, at end insert—
““patient information” means information (however recorded) which—(a) relates to—(i) the physical or mental health or condition of an individual, (ii) the diagnosis of an individual’s condition, or(iii) an individual’s care or treatment,or is (to any extent) derived directly or indirectly from information relating to any of those matters, and(b) identifies the individual or enables the individual to be identified (whether by itself or in combination with other information);”Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement for the amendment in the Minister’s name adding a new subsection (4A) to Clause 7.
Amendment 24 (to Amendment 23) not moved.
Amendment 23 agreed.
25: Clause 7, page 5, line 24, at end insert—
““relevant person” means—(a) the government of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom;(b) a person who exercises functions on behalf of such a government;(c) any other person who exercises functions or provides services relating to human medicines in a country or territory outside the United Kingdom;(d) an international organisation that exercises functions or provides services relating to human medicines.”Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the first amendment to Clause 7 in the Minister’s name.
Amendment 25 agreed.
Does the noble Lord, Lord Patel, wish to move Amendment 26?