House of Lords
Tuesday 2 February 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.
Introduction: Lord Benyon
The right honourable Richard Henry Ronald Benyon, having been created Baron Benyon, of Englefield in the Royal County of Berkshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Strathclyde and Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Cruddas
Peter Andrew Cruddas, having been created Baron Cruddas, of Shoreditch in the London Borough of Hackney, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Leigh of Hurley and Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
The Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. I am sure that we all wish the Lord Speaker a very happy birthday. Some Members are here in the Chamber, while 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, 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 no more than two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Schools: Online Learning
My Lords, given the critical importance of ensuring that all children and young people continue to learn during the national lockdown, we have strengthened our expectations for remote education. We are investing more than £400 million to support access to remote education, including securing 1.3 million laptops and tablets and delivering 4G wireless routers for disadvantaged children. As of 1 February, 927,000 laptops and tablets had been delivered to schools, trusts and local authorities.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister agrees that all pupils must have access to broadband and laptops to enable them to learn remotely. Can she give us the exact position on the provision of laptops and broadband in schools? It appears that 800,000 computers have been delivered, the majority of them last year, from the 1.3 million promised—little more than the 750,000 that the Minister claimed on 7 January. Is she saying that those 1.3 million laptops are now in schools and available for children? What plans do the Government have for the future provision of laptops? The rollout is very slow, which can be a disaster for children.
My Lords, I outlined the number that had been delivered as of Monday: 927,000. That is in addition to the 2.9 million laptops and tablets that were already in schools before the pandemic began. Of course, we are supporting the rollout of gigabyte broadband with an investment of £5 billion through DCMS to ensure connectivity for schools.
My Lords, in summer 2020 the National Education Union published a plan, point 1 of which said:
“Disadvantaged children and young people and their families must be a key priority.”
We know that child poverty and inequality limits life chances and is a significant factor in school achievement. Will the Government now speedily draw up and consult on a long-term national plan for children’s education and well-being? It must be fully funded and draw on expertise in education, health, mental health and local authorities’ children’s services—a plan to avoid a generation being lost to the pandemic. Schools are doing a great job but they cannot do it alone.
My Lords, I am pleased to say that as of 21 January 41% of children who are in contact with a social worker were indeed in school. Having a school place is one of the best protective factors for vulnerable children during the pandemic. We have also announced as of last Wednesday another £300 million in catch-up for the national tutoring programme, and catch-up will be a focus during the remainder of this Parliament.
My Lords, what specific guidance has the department given to schools and developers, and what standards has it set, for the design, procurement and operation of remote online learning services in terms of ethics, transparency and the sharing and use of sensitive personal data? This appears not to be covered at all in the review guidance of January. Does the DfE understand at all many of the issues involved with the digital world?
My Lords, we have given comprehensive guidance in Get Help with Remote Education for teachers and the workforce. Yes, cybercrime issues are a focus for the Department for Education. We are aware that that is part of what we must help schools to procure in future to ensure that the networks are secure.
My Lords, while I very much welcome the contribution that the Government are making to online learning and indeed to internet access, the Minister will be aware of the great mental pressures on families and young people in this regard. Does she have any plans to support supplementary strengthening services for young people, such as the National Citizen Service or indeed any other schemes specifically aimed at supporting young people?
My Lord, as well as the priority of getting children back into school as soon as possible, obviously, we want them to be taking part in those kinds of activities, and physical education was a key part of the guidance. DCMS has given £16.5 million to a Youth Covid-19 Support Fund to support grass-roots and national youth organisations at this time.
My Lords, while open discussion in the classroom motivates the majority of pupils, it can also induce reticence in slower learners. Does the Minister agree that, given the necessary resources, remote learning without the pressure of competition can help slower learners and SEN pupils to progress at their own pace? Does she also agree that, despite best efforts, tailored classes will be necessary after the lockdown to meet the catch-up needs of those who have not had full access to resources and support?
My Lords, in relation to SEND pupils, we have given additional funding to the national Star Academies to make sure that through the peer-to-peer support for schools they have the best practice to share. Yes, the effects of remote learning are quite disparate, and there are certain pupils who may have been distracted by pupils in the classroom whom teachers report are engaging better, but it is not a standard picture. We recognise that catch-up will have to be individualised for pupils. Schools know those pupils best, which is why £650 million is going out to schools.
My Lords, based on the figures just given by the Minister, of the 1.3 million laptops promised by the Government, one-quarter are yet to be delivered. At the current rollout pace of some 75,000 a week, many schools face having to wait for their laptops to be delivered until the second week of March—ironically, when the Prime Minister has said that he hopes schools will begin to reopen. The chair of the Education Select Committee has echoed the call by the Education Policy Institute for resources to be provided direct to schools to enable them to source IT equipment themselves. What consideration have the Government given to the feasibility of adopting that approach in order to reduce the amount of lost learning time?
My Lords, at a time when supply was massively disrupted, for the department’s commercial team to procure this number of laptops was actually quite a feat, in this climate where everyone wants a laptop. Some 350,000 were delivered in January alone. Yes, schools have been using additional resources to purchase laptops as well, which they can do from their Covid catch-up money.
My Lords, for those with the capacity, parental support and infrastructure, online learning is great, typically at home. What technical support will be available for families who struggle? Is there a standardised support offer, or does it vary from school to school and from pupil to pupil?
My Lords, the temporary continuity direction makes clear to parents the number of hours a day that should be delivered by their school. However, we recognise that it is not just about devices, as the noble Baroness outlines; it is parental supervision of the education that is important. If a school is aware that for whatever reason, a child is struggling to engage with their education, it has the discretion and the guidance to classify the child as vulnerable and accept them back into the school setting. It is schools’ professional judgment that we trust.
My Lords, Sutton Trust research shows that poorer children are half as likely to take part in online lessons. Only half of middle-class children and just one-third from poorer families spend four hours on schoolwork a day, while 40% of state schoolchildren are not completing their work. This is a disaster for children, particularly those from poor or overcrowded homes or with special needs. It will affect the rest of their lives, so the Government must make education the country’s number one priority for public spending after the pandemic.
My Lords, we made it part of the continuity direction that schools must monitor daily whether children are engaging with education. In addition to devices, we have given the connectivity that children need. We have also set up the national tutoring programme, which is aimed at just the children the noble Lord outlines. The Government have announced a further £300 million for that programme in this financial year. He is right, and catch-up will be a priority for the rest of this Parliament.
My Lords, the Government are providing further laptops for more than a million schoolchildren, but how are they working with other organisations such as Deloitte, which has donated 5,000 laptops, Raspberry Pi, which has gifted to Catch22 250 kits for its most in-need students, and Mail Force, the Daily Mail’s charitable arm, which is providing new laptops and helping companies to recycle old computers for school use? This seems to be an area where government and business really can work hand in hand to help improve children’s life chances.
My Lords, we welcome these initiatives because obviously, this is a time of a national pandemic when we all need to work together. I was pleased to learn that the Daily Mail campaign, through which businesses donate a minimum of 50 computers to be recycled, is being done by Computacenter, which is the department’s commercial procurement partner. It was a pleasure to meet, along with the noble Lord, Lord Watson, representatives of Catch22, who highlighted individuals who may have fallen through cracks and how we can get those devices to the children who need them most.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Curry of Kirkharle and Lord Blunkett, that there was not time to take their questions.
My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. In 2019 the Government made a manifesto commitment to maintain the current annual budget to UK farmers of £3.6 billion. This was honoured in the 2021-22 spending review. The commitment is being achieved through a combination of Exchequer funding and remaining EU funding.
My Lords, could the Minister give a commitment that there will be adequate and sufficient funding for farmers to develop their enterprises for the purposes of economic and environmental sustainability over the next five to 10 years, way beyond the 2021-22 financial year, thus allowing farmers to adapt and plan for the future?
That is very important. We seek in the agriculture transitional plan to ensure that there is certainty and a vibrant future. Our manifesto commitment takes us up to 2024; obviously, we cannot bind further Parliaments but that is a sign of our bona fides. I think any incoming Government would clearly want to continue to enable that important agricultural production, as well as environmental enhancement.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the National Farmers’ Union. For many years, the delivery of single farm payments has been fraught with problems. Is my noble friend able to provide an assurance to British farmers that, having left the bungling bureaucracy of the EU, every opportunity and effort will be taken to maximise the efficiency and punctual delivery of support payments to farmers?
Yes, my Lords, punctuality is very important, which is why I am very pleased that the RPA achieved a 98% payment last December. Going forward, it is important to codesign the schemes with farmers so that there is a modern approach to assurance and regulation with streamlining but no undue bureaucracy.
My Lords, there is not only considerable dialogue between Defra Ministers and devolved Administration Ministers as part of the regular inter-ministerial group for EFRA meetings but, on funding matters, there is consideration by the devolved Administrations’ Finance Ministers and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. These matters have been on the agenda at the recent Finance Ministers quadrilateral meetings.
My Lords, can I try again to get a little more clarity on the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie? We all agree with the statement behind “public money for public good” with regards to farming. Planting trees and nurturing wildlife should be commended, but surely the Government’s primary duty must be our ability to feed our nation and to do that healthily. These are not mutually exclusive, so can the Minister outline Her Majesty’s Government’s plan to ensure that, at the end of the transition period, there is proper balance between those two priorities?
Not only at the end of the transition period but throughout this process, it is essential that farmers in this country produce very good food for the nation and for abroad, while working in collaboration to enhance the environment. That is our purpose throughout the transition and beyond.
My Lords, biodiversity is key to ensuring the success of ELMS and the Government’s whole strategy, as set out in the 25-year environment plan. There is, however, no clear rationale for how ELMS will provide financial recompense for those farmers changing from the countryside stewardship scheme to that scheme. Can the Minister now provide some badly needed clarity to reassure farmers?
I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to provide that certainty. For instance, the national pilot on ELM will be available for applications during this year. Information on payments and supporting guidance will be a key part of that because, clearly, we want eventually to have a very considerable number of farmers engaged in agri- environmental schemes, and for those farmers to be paid properly, adequately and punctually for them.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s new approach to sustainable farming. Does the Minister agree that it is quite possible to farm in a way that produces good food and protects welfare? Will he look at the Countryside Restoration Trust, which has successfully pioneered farming for food and wildlife over the last 27 years? Perhaps he could use his influence to ask the Secretary of State to visit Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire to see for himself just how easy it is to make that happen.
My Lords, what has been done on that farm in Cambridgeshire, where Robin Page has been so strongly engaged for such a long time, is about the essential nature of the harmony between farming and the environment. I am very pleased that, as part of our forward plans, we are establishing an animal health and welfare pathway so that we improve the husbandry and welfare of our farm animals. That is a key part of our reforms.
My Lords, the common agricultural policy is an extraordinary testament to waste and inefficiency. However, there are plenty of challenges facing British farmers after Brexit. We encourage —we almost insist—that our farmers become more competitive and productive, squeezing more out of the land, yet at the same time they are supposed to protect and enhance our environment, so we need to square that circle. May I pursue some of the questions we heard earlier and ask whether my noble friend is satisfied that we already have an advisory and support system that is fit for purpose in this area, or whether there is more work to be done? Can he tell us what specific help might be available to older farmers, who may decide the time has come to step aside and make way for the next generation?
My Lords, it is important that we have new entrants coming into farming. That is why we will consult and work on plans to introduce exit schemes for farmers who wish to retire, along with schemes to support new entrants. As part of the much wider advice and guidance, we will enhance the support to farmers, particularly as we champion skills and innovation. Many schemes are coming forward and it is very important that farmers understand what is available.
My Lords, when launching the sustainable farming statement in December, the Government said:
“The changes will be designed to ensure that by 2028, farmers in England can sustainably produce healthy food profitably without subsidy”.
Is it this Government’s intention that 2028 will mark the end of subsidies for English farming, to be replaced by reliance on the market?
What we said was that that would be the end of the direct payments system. We are now concentrating on a system of agri-environment and other support mechanisms, which we think are value for money. They will reward farmers for the provision of public goods.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register. I am comforted by the Minister’s response but, sadly, the world does not stand still as we await details. Bearing in mind the topical issue of flooding, I am concerned that, without specific government support, farming profitability will be insufficient to finance the renewal of field drains that are reaching the end of their life. These are so important to flood prevention and farm productivity. Please can the Minister confirm that this necessary expenditure will be covered by ELMS?
I call the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.
I do not think we have the noble Earl, in which case the time allowed for this Question has—ah, he is there.
Yes, please continue.
That is an interesting point. We decided that we would use the 2019 exchange rates; against the 2015 exchange rates, there is a 22% advantage in using the 2019 exchange rates and I suggest that that is a very good thing for our farmers. I would also say that my noble friend is absolutely right: the EU CAP budget for 2021 to 2027 is going to be cut by 10%. Our manifesto pledge was to maintain £3.6 billion for UK farmers. That is our commitment and we continue with that.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, that we did not have time for his question.
Covid-19: Youth Unemployment
Let me assure the House and the noble Lord that the Government are committed to providing support to help young people move into work in these difficult times. Such support will help avoid the scarring effects of unemployment, and our £30 billion plan for jobs includes specific interventions targeted at young people. The Youth Offer and Kickstart schemes have been designed to move young people towards meaningful and sustained employment.
I thank the Minister for her reply. The unemployment rate for young people aged between 16 and 24 is, at 14.2%, almost three times higher than the general rate of 5%. I applaud the Government for their Kickstart and apprenticeship programmes, which will, I hope, supported by industry, provide work-based learning and experience to give our young people the skills and confidence necessary to be successful in gaining work. Will the Minister join me in applauding the Fashion Retail Academy? Also supported by industry, it provides employer-led training and qualifications relevant to the current and future needs of our beleaguered retail sector.
I agree with the noble Lord that young people today face an unprecedented challenge in accessing the world of work, as well as the skills they need to help them succeed. We are working closely with DfE to clarify the relationship between skills and employment provision. The DWP and DfE have put guidance in place to ensure that young apprentices made redundant due to Covid-19 can continue their learning. I thank the noble Lord for raising the excellent work of the Fashion Retail Academy. There are many other sector work-based academies doing great work to help young people in these difficult times.
I declare an interest as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society. Just 15 in every 100 people with autism get a job, so good education is vitally important. Since the Covid outbreak, seven in 10 autistic children are having difficulty understanding or completing schoolwork and around half—half, my Lords—will see their academic progress suffer. Can the Minister say something about what the Government are doing to mitigate this, so that in the years ahead we do not see even fewer people with autism getting a job?
The noble Lord is well-known and well-respected for his commitment to this particular difficulty that people face. I would like to assure the House that we are committed to helping everyone into work, including those who need extra and intensive support due to autism. In respect of educational input, I will speak to my noble friend Lady Berridge, and we will jointly come back to him to answer the specifics of that question. However, I can tell noble Lords this: we have recruited 150 employability coaches across Great Britain, and I have heard a number of success stories. These work coaches work particularly with vulnerable people. I can tell noble Lords that a youth employability coach in Dartford has supported a claimant with Asperger’s syndrome, helping him to secure an apprenticeship in tech support. We understand the challenge and we are on the case.
My Lords, in a recent survey by the Prince’s Trust, 21% of those aged 16 to 24 said that they felt their skills and training were no longer useful as a result of the pandemic. Given that about only 2,000 young people secured roles out of 120,000 approved placements in the Kickstart scheme, can the Minister say what action Her Majesty’s Government are taking to increase the numbers enrolled on placements and to ensure that they are all high quality?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question, which is really valid. We have over 100,000 vacancies in Kickstart and I can assure him that everyone in the department is working at pace to secure good-quality outlets for young people. We are doing everything we can. We are working with the Prince’s Trust and all sorts of other organisations, and noble Lords will see Kickstart come into its own in the near future.
My Lords, businesses in the creative, media and digital industries are typically very small and do not have the resources to support apprentices, internships and work experience. What plans do the Government have to support and enable these businesses to provide skills, training and experience to young people in this essential area?
The creative industries are very important to our economy. I was in a meeting only yesterday with some people who are very significant in the industry and they told us about the number of jobs they need to fill, which is quite significant. We were talking about getting people skilled, not just in the big cities but across the board, so that we can meet our levelling-up agenda. This is another thing that we are focusing on.
My Lords, while our focus has been rightly on trying to save the lives of those most vulnerable in our society, we are in danger of forgetting the huge sacrifices we have asked from young people. They have been shut up at home, had exams cancelled and missed out on precious university experiences. Now they face a grim economic outlook as they look to start their working lives. I first commend the Government on their Kickstart initiative and echo other questions in asking why the rate of take-up has been so low. Also, while we support existing jobs through the furlough scheme, I wonder if we could be doing more to encourage businesses not to press cancel on a generation of young recruits. These are relatively low-cost hires who are nevertheless the future of their businesses and our country.
I have already referred to Kickstart and the progress we have made. Another point I will make is that there is a very intensive quality assurance programme for the vacancies to go through, but employers are doing their bit and falling into line with the programme, and we have great hopes for it. I agree with the noble Baroness that, as a country, we need to do all we can to help the younger generation to progress. I would be delighted to see business continue to work alongside government to achieve this aim, particularly in relation to internships.
Is the Minister aware that youth unemployment was discovered to be at 20% by the Resolution Foundation last September? The Sutton Trust has said that graduate unemployment is at 45% and that the number of apprenticeships this year has been reduced by 70% or postponed. A recent government White Paper never mentioned youth unemployment. When will the Government realise that this is a major crisis that is rising and is going to get much worse, and that measures are needed?
The noble Lord is right to point out the level of unemployment among young people and graduates; I take no argument with that. But he asks when the Government will recognise this: we are working flat out to ensure that young people get the help they need to get a meaningful job and the skills they need to compete effectively in the job market. I can assure the noble Lord and the whole House that we are working at pace to achieve this.
My Lords, one thing that has become apparent during Covid is that initiatives work best when they are local rather than national. Needs for skills and therefore for training are also often local rather national. For instance, the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, referred to the creative industries. In this country film production is thriving in Yorkshire, while Leamington Spa is the capital of video games. So can the Minister reassure me that local authorities will have much more say in what training schemes are made available and how they will be funded locally?
My noble friend raises a number of relevant points. As I have said, we are working with local authorities and businesses. There is absolute mileage in all my noble friend says about things being done locally, because people know one another best in their local community. My strapline for all that we are doing is “To be known nationally but felt locally”.
[Inaudible]—about the scale of the crisis. The Government want 250,000 placements but, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out, not even 2,000 young people are in place and, by November, nearly 600,000 young people were claiming unemployment benefits. So when will 250,000 young people actually be in jobs and what are the Government doing to help the other 350,000 young people who cannot access Kickstart?
Let me be clear again that we are working at pace with employers to get the vacancies we need in Kickstart. We have started people, and that take-up will accelerate in the coming days. There is no lessening of effort on that. In terms of our offer, we have the youth unemployment programme; we have youth hubs—which are helping people; and we have our youth employability coaches as well as work coaches in jobcentres. With all those efforts combined we will do as much as we can to get as many as possible of the young people referred to by the noble Baroness back into work.
Schools: Exam-year Pupils
My Lords, the department and Ofqual are working at pace to provide clarity to the sector on how grades will be fairly awarded to all pupils following the decision that exams will not go ahead as planned. The Government will also collaborate with the education sector to develop specific initiatives for summer schools and a Covid premium, alongside developing a long-term plan to support pupils to catch up during this Parliament.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that everybody has experienced disruption in their schooling and that it has been worst, as was referred to in the first Question today, for those on the lowest incomes, who often have least access to online capacity? If there is a need for people to retake the year, will the Government make sure that such pupils can access the help that they would have got—for instance, from the state through child benefit and other methods? Will they make sure that such help is available for those groups who have the lowest economic status and who will probably need the help most?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. That is why part of the catch-up premium will be made available to all schools, recognising that all children will be affected. However, the effects are disparate, and some vulnerable children have been in school for the entirety of the school year. Under the system at the moment, head teachers in exceptional circumstances can allow a child to repeat a year and that remains the position. I am sure that noble Lords will be aware of the complexity that would arise if cohorts were to repeat an academic year.
My Lords, retaking a year is a good idea in principle, but the practicalities would be difficult to work out. One of the many questions would be: what provision would be made for individual schools hoping to have a normal intake and have students repeating a year?
My Lords, my noble friend outlines one of the implications. We are also expecting a population bulge through secondary schools, which will be another consideration, as well as the fact that any repetition of a year when children in England transition at 16 would have implications for FE, while, at 18, it would have implications for higher education. This is not a simple proposal to consider.
My Lords, we are aware that children suffered greatly last year due to the school closures that were necessary to contain Covid-19. However, it is likely to have increased further the educational divide between children of richer and educated parents, who are likely to have had better-quality home schooling, and children in deprived areas. What steps are the Government taking to help these unfortunate children catch up before the next school year?
My Lords, the Government have given some £650 million to the national tutoring programme, which is for disadvantaged pupils. Within that, for the cohorts of the most disadvantaged pupils and schools in the most disadvantaged areas, Teach First is leading on academic mentors—that is, a full-time employee for the school. Some 700 of the 1,000 mentors that we are anticipating are now in schools, supporting catch-up provision.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Covid-19 crisis is itself a highly exceptional circumstance and therefore that there may be many occasions where it would be in the interest of the pupil to repeat a year? The job of the Government is to make that possible, including putting in place the logistical and funding arrangements that are necessary. Does she not accept that, for pupils who drop out and do not get the exam grades and qualifications they need, the long-term impact, including the impact on society and the direct costs that we will have to bear in due course, may be much greater than those of making arrangements for pupils to repeat another year?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. Catch-up is for this Parliament, as I have outlined. We are looking at summer schools and at the immediate catch-up that pupils need, but the necessary arrangements are longer-term and for the duration for this Parliament. Yes, we also need to look at individual cases. No idea is ruled out and off the table but, as I have outlined, there are very serious implications if whole cohorts of pupils repeat an academic year.
My Lords, it is not just in schools where studies have been disrupted. What discussions have the Government had with universities about offering a free additional term or terms to enable students to experience face-to-face teaching and other aspects of student life that have been denied them in lockdown?
My Lords, there is close collaboration between Minister Donelan and the higher education sector. That sector is offering remote learning until at least 8 March, except for critical care workers. But of course arrangements for the experience that university students are given is a matter for students and their providers.
My Lords, by half-term next week, the total loss in face-to-time in school will amount to around half a normal school year. The Government urgently need to provide exceptional support to these students. Allowing a limited number to repeat the school year if it is in their best interest should be considered, together with extending the school year, lengthening the school day, and the widespread use of summer schools. In the current circumstances, thinking outside the box is not a luxury; it is an essential. So are the Government up for that?
My Lords, the department welcomes all out-of-the-box or in-the-box ideas. It is a national priority to help these children catch up, which is why we are looking to stand up summer schools and at some form of Covid premium as well. The consultation in relation to the exams had more than 1,000 responses; by the end of February we will be informing the sector —or Ofqual will inform the sector—about the arrangement for examinations this year. All ideas are being considered but, of course, when it comes to lengthening the school day, with the workforce working flat out at the moment, we have to consider all those issues when looking at initiatives to catch up.
My Lords, the JCVI has asked government to look at occupational roles in the next phase of the rollout. We are working across government to make the case for the teaching and education workforce generally; advice will be produced and then it will be for Ministers to decide on the next phase of vaccination.
Both the UK and Scottish Governments failed to prepare last spring for the end of the first long period of lockdown and the need immediately to catch up with flexible solutions inside the school environment. Will the Government be better prepared now for the post-Easter period? I recognise that there are uncertainties between February and Easter but, for after Easter, can the sorts of solutions mentioned by other noble Lords today, including flexible school days and school weeks, the opportunity for more tutors to be inside schools helping with catch-up, and so on, be planned for in April rather than scraped at afterwards?
My Lords, some of the solutions that have been outlined by noble Lords, such as extending the school day, are possible for schools now. Many schools use certain tools that the department has made available so that they can deploy their workforce most efficiently and extend the school day—but of course there are also contractual implications if we were to require more from a teaching workforce that is flat out. Yes, we are planning, which is why we are focusing on summer schools at the moment because we can deliver that. The national tutoring programme has shown its flexibility as well, in that most of the providers could move online straightaway. We are looking at the more structural solutions as well as more immediate catch-up solutions.
With the exception of three weeks of relative respite last July, Greater Manchester has known some of the tightest restrictions in the country for more than 10 months, resulting in significantly greater disruption to young people’s learning, which will impact on not only this exam cohort but next year’s. The differential regional Covid and Covid restrictions have been mitigated with a differentiated regional policy. This consultation must ensure that children and young people are not disadvantaged by the lost learning time that they have experienced in comparison with their peers nationally.
My Lords, one of the matters in the consultation was around teacher assessment, which is why this year, for these exceptional circumstances, some form of teacher assessment will assess the performance of students. However, we are aware of the differential impact of Covid and are trying our best to train and support the teaching workforce to be able to deliver a fair qualification for students this year, for GCSEs, A-levels and technical qualifications as well.
My Lords, seven vice-chancellors this morning signed a letter to the Government highlighting unprecedented pressures on our students. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Government will look to help those in need of financial support in exceptional circumstances, which may require resitting a year—for example, where there is limited access to digital devices and for those with special educational needs, and where this has the support of universities or school heads, depending on the cohort of students?
My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Lord in relation to the department’s response to that specific letter, but we have asked the Office for Students to make significant funds available for those students who are suffering hardship. Many providers have been excellent at providing for students who have had to remain on campus, because that is the only place they have to live and stay.
Burma: Military Coup
Private Notice Question
My Lords, we wholeheartedly condemn this coup. The military seizure of power, detention of the State Counsellor and other political and civil society leaders, and attempts to undermine the legitimacy of recent election results are totally unacceptable. We are pressing for confirmation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s safety, the urgent release of civilian leaders and the peaceful reconvening of the national assembly. The results of the 2020 election must be respected.
My Lords, I welcome the statement that the Minister has just made to the House. He is right robustly to condemn the military coup in Burma and the incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi. However, will he go further? What steps have Her Majesty’s Government taken to make it clear to the military that, unless it reverses course, respects the election result, releases those who have been arrested, reinstates Ministers and returns to a constitutional parliamentary system, engaging in dialogue with the National League for Democracy to chart a peaceful course towards political progress in Burma, the UK will impose robust targeted sanctions not only on military leaders but on military enterprises and assets?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, he will be aware that the UK, along with other European partners, led on the sanctions that were imposed. Indeed, the current head of the military and his deputy have sanctions against them. Let me assure the noble Lord that we are looking at all actions. Later this afternoon we are convening, as president of the UN Security Council, an emergency meeting on the situation in Myanmar, and we are also talking to allies quite directly about further steps that can be taken.
My Lords, the Burma Campaign UK, in which I declare an interest as a board member, has received many messages from within Burma for concerted and robust international action. The Minister will know that the Magnitsky sanctions do not target the financial interests of the military but are, effectively, a holiday ban for 16 generals during the pandemic. Will the British Government join the new Biden Administration in the US and review our policy on economic sanctions as well as supporting a ban on all, but especially British, companies doing business with companies owned by the military, and work towards a coalition on a global arms embargo?
My Lords, let me assure the noble Baroness that we are working closely with our allies, including the United States, in this respect. I have already outlined the first action that we have taken as president of the UN Security Council. On the issue of the international arms embargo in Myanmar, let me also assure the noble Baroness that, at the end of the transition period, the specific restrictions that applied as part of our membership of the EU were rolled forward into domestic law. Of course we will consider any further action that needs to be taken in this respect.
My Lords, the military coup in Myanmar is hugely worrying, so can the noble Lord say more about how the Government are building a coalition of countries willing to impose embargos, as others have mentioned, and sanctions, and also protection for the Rohingya, who will now be in even greater danger, including by joining the genocide case at the International Court of Justice?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s final point, of course we are very supportive of the action at the ICJ, and we are looking at the situation of a formal intervention. Myanmar was supposed to come back in January, I believe, with its challenge to the action. We have not yet been formally been told of that, but I understand that it has been put in by Myanmar. In terms of international coalitions and actions, as I have already alluded to, we are working with international partners and directly with the Myanmar Government—yesterday my honourable friend the Minister for Asia summoned the Myanmar ambassador to convey the sentiments that I expressed in my original Answer.
My Lords, I have spoken to several people in Myanmar who are now terrified of what lies ahead. Could my noble friend reassure the House that Her Majesty’s Government will use all the tools at their disposal and keep all options on the table to ensure that the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar are adequately protected? These include the ongoing ICJ action but also the ICC action, the universal jurisdiction case and working constructively with those countries that have influence over Myanmar’s military.
My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that we are working as he has suggested. Among those that exert the greatest control over the military authorities in Myanmar is China, and it is important that China, as an important member of the international community, also recognises the election and that the civilian Government should be restored to their position of government as soon as possible. On the issue of the Rohingya, which the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, mentioned, we will of course keep that at the forefront of our considerations as penholders, and I am looking to engage with Bangladesh on this important issue hopefully later this week.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that I visited Burma many times to provide aid and advocacy for ethnic minorities suffering offences by the Burmese army? Just today, I have spoken to colleagues inside Burma, who report continuing attacks by the Burmese army in Kachin, northern Shan and Kayin states, with thousands of displaced people. My colleagues’ urgent requests are for the international community to engage directly with leaders of ethnic groups and for aid to be sent across borders to them and to NGOs working with them, as aid sent to the Government will not reach those in greatest need. Will the Minister give some reassurance regarding these urgent and serious requests?
My Lords, the noble Baroness and I have often spoken about these important issues. In light of the coup, the Foreign Secretary has today announced a review of all support, including that sent to the Myanmar Government, with a view to suspend it unless, as the noble Baroness has suggested, there is direct exceptional humanitarian reasons not to do so. We will be working with people and NGOs on the ground to ensure that vital humanitarian access.
My Lords, many of us have spoken out over recent months for the protection of Rohingya Muslims. There is a deep worry at the moment that the Government of Bangladesh may continue their repatriation of the refugees. Are Her Majesty’s Government talking with Bangladesh? Also, what are the prospects for freedom of religion or belief, not least for the Christian minorities in the country, who are under threat at the moment?
My Lords, on the issue that the right reverend Prelate raises of freedom of religion or belief in Myanmar, the situation is, frankly and very candidly, dire—there is no other word that I can use for that. On the situation with Bangladesh, as I have already alluded to, we are looking to engage directly with the Bangladeshi authorities, but equally they have stated their support for the democratically elected civilian Government.
My Lords, the Government’s decision to bring forward a UN Security Council meeting is very much welcome, and so is the announcement by President Biden that his Administration are considering sanctions. Obviously, I hope that we will be working closely with the US and other allies on this matter. It is vital that the international community imposes the toughest kind of sanctions, including on the enterprises owned by the generals and their families, because it is that network that will have the real big impact. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that we will do that and get collective international action.
My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we are working closely with our allies in this respect. We will look at a range of measures, with the aim of ensuring that the wishes of the Myanmar people are fully respected, including for the release of civil society leaders. We also want to consider measures that move us towards that end. It is a fluid situation, but we are establishing the exact facts on the ground. I assure the noble Lord that we are working very quickly, as demonstrated by our convening of the UN Security Council.
My Lords, the Minister has rightly mentioned our term in the rolling presidentship of the UN Security Council, where it is possible that the matter will be discussed today. While there is hardly any good word to say about Aung San Suu Kyi, given the way that she has behaved on the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims, there is hardly likely to be any co-operation from the countries of the Pacific zone; China and some neighbouring countries have already made comments that are not very helpful. Has the Minister had any discussion with the countries of the European Union about whether a targeted action can be taken at this time, as with the two generals?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s last point, there is already concerted European action—specific sanctions on both the general and his deputy. On the wider point on Aung San Suu Kyi, he is quite right that we have had challenges and we have expressed deep regrets, through interactions by the current Foreign Secretary and his predecessors, about her lack of condemnation of the situation of the Rohingya. Nevertheless, she is the civilian elected leader, and she should be restored. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was due to speak to her on that very issue later this week, but, of course, that is not taking place at the current time.
My Lords, I was working in Burma in 1962 when General Ne Win took over the Government. At that time, the Burmese military were completely naive; they asked a friend of mine in Rangoon University to draft them a manifesto, which he called The Burmese Way to Socialism, but we ended up with more than 40 years of what was, in fact, fascism. Does the Minister recognise that that is the danger now, and will he try to get the United Nations Security Council to recognise this in approving an appropriate resolution? Normally, Russia and China might be hesitant to support it.
My Lords, my noble friend’s personal insights are valuable. Indeed, I recall visiting Myanmar just after the first election and what he talks about—the lack of governance, the inexperience of state institutions and the inability to govern effectively—was very clear to me. I take note of what my noble friend says and, of course, today’s meeting is focused specifically on Myanmar.
My Lords, first, is not the failure of the Chinese Government to criticise and condemn the military takeover in Myanmar shameful, and a warning to neighbouring nations, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, about China’s attitude towards democratic nations? Secondly, in most elections there are external observers. Were there external observers for this election in Myanmar? The army is using the excuse that it was an unfair election. If there were external observers, was their report favourable or unfavourable?
My Lords, I note what the noble Lord said about China. We appeal to China, as a member of the international community, to ensure that the democratically elected Government are restored to their position of governing the people. The 2020 elections were an important milestone on Myanmar’s path and were monitored by international and local observer groups.
My Lords, following the questions of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and several others, can the Minister confirm that the Government of Bangladesh have definitely undertaken not to send Rohingya people back to Myanmar while they are at risk?
My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness and the whole House that in all my interactions as Minister for South Asia with the Bangladeshi Government I stress that the voluntary, safe and dignified return of the Rohingya community is paramount on any ask that they make. They have again been reassuring on that point. I have not spoken to them specifically over the last day or so, but I am seeking urgent engagement on this very point.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his robust response to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. This outrage is rightly condemned and the world should unite in calling it out. Is there any point in raising this assault on democracy in the Security Council, as has been said, given the lukewarm response so far from China and Russia? Listening to the reports of the overthrow of this democratically elected Government in Burma, the reason given was that the election last November was rigged. I racked my brains to remember when I had last heard this reason and, of course, I recalled that in the United States, the symbolic seat of power was attacked. Does the Minister share the thought that, facing a clear defeat, the tactic of alleging a fraudulent election comes straight from the playbook of the former President of the United States in exactly the same month of 2020?
My Lords, on an additional, very serious point, I visited Myanmar just before the previous set of elections, and there was deep worry on the ground that, should there be uncertainty and instability after the election at that time, the people who would suffer most would be those who need, for example, international supplies of HIV medication and that sort of humanitarian support. So, will the Government, in their discussions at the UN Security Council, look not just at the democratic and constitutional issues at stake here but ensure that the UN agencies that provide humanitarian support inside Myanmar are able to continue to do so during this crisis?
My Lords, first, in terms of direct financial aid to the Myanmar Government, as the noble Lord will know, we do not provide any such support. We do provide, as he is aware and rightly articulates, targeted support, working through international organisations and multilateral bodies. As I said earlier, in light of the coup the Foreign Secretary has today announced a review of all indirect support involving the Myanmar Government. However, we retain the importance, as I said earlier, of humanitarian aid getting through and will continue to work on that basis.
My Lords, despite it being a near-run thing, noble Lords managed to ask all the questions in this allocated slot. We are not going to adjourn, but we will take a small breather to allow people to move in and out of the Chamber.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask Members to respect social distancing. The time limit for the following debate is one and a half hours.
Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) Regulations 2021
Motion to Approve
My Lords, this draft instrument prevents enforcement agents—bailiffs—attending residential premises in England to execute a writ or warrant of possession except in the most serious circumstances. The instrument applies to enforcement action in England. It has been in force since 11 January and will expire at the end of 21 February. I refer to my interest as set out in the register.
The instrument renews the restrictions on enforcement agents carrying out evictions that were in place between 17 November 2020 and 11 January 2021. This will ensure that we continue to protect public health during this national lockdown, at a time when the risk of virus transmission is very high, and avoid placing an additional burden on the NHS and local authorities. The instrument continues to provide for exemptions from the ban in cases where we consider that the competing interests of preventing harm to third parties or taking action against egregious behaviour are sufficient to outweigh the public health risks.
The exemptions are as follows. The first is where the claim is against trespassers who are persons unknown. The second is where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of: anti-social behaviour or nuisance; false statements; domestic abuse in social tenancies; substantial rent arrears, equivalent to six months’ rent; or where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of the death of the tenant and the enforcement agent attending the property is satisfied that the property is unoccupied. The instrument contains a requirement for the court to be satisfied that an exemption applies on a case-by-case basis. This will ensure that there is a clear, uniform and transparent process for establishing whether an exemption to the ban applies.
As noble Lords will appreciate, this legislation is an extension of the previous ban on the enforcement of evictions in all but two respects. The first difference is that we have redefined the exemption for “substantial rent arrears” to mean arrears of more than six months. The definition in the previous instrument was arrears of more than nine months, not including any arrears that had accrued since March 2020. We have made this change to balance the impact of the ongoing restrictions on landlords with the need to continue to protect tenants. Because of action that the Government have taken as a result of the pandemic to protect renters, we expect that most cases that will fall within this exemption will relate to possession claims that began before the six-month stay on possession proceedings commenced in March 2020. In those cases, landlords may have been waiting for more than a year without rent being paid.
The second difference between this instrument and the one it replaces is that it permits writs and warrants of restitution to be enforced. These orders are issued in cases where a person who has been evicted from premises re-enters those premises illegally. It is therefore appropriate that they be excluded from the ban.
The regulations will be in place until the end of 21 February. We are considering whether and, if so, how to extend them, including how long any such further extension should be in place, and will provide more details as soon as possible.
It is important to ensure that our approach remains proportionate and strikes the right balance between continuing to protect tenants and ensuring that landlords can access justice. On 8 December last year, during the debate on the previous statutory instrument, concern was raised that the Government had not gone further to protect renters and support landlords, many of whom are individuals. The Government believe the best way to support landlords at this time is to provide support to tenants to enable them to continue to pay their rent, and have provided an unprecedented package of financial support which is available to tenants. This includes the fact that, in April 2020, we increased the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of local market rents in each area to help prevent people getting into financial hardship. It also includes an increase of nearly £1 billion in additional support for private renters claiming universal credit or housing benefit in 2020-21, which will benefit over 1 million households, including those in work. Claimants will gain on average an additional £600 this year in increased housing support.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions recently announced that the increase to local housing allowance rates in April this year will be maintained in cash terms in 2021-22, even in the large number of cases where the 30th percentile of local rents has gone down. The continued investment in local housing allowance will support claimants in the private rented sector to manage housing costs. That is on top of the other provisions in place, which the House will know of, to help businesses pay salaries, with the furlough scheme extended to April and the welfare safety net boosted by billions of pounds. In this context, the Government have made £180 million available to local authorities and discretionary housing payments to help renters with their housing costs. All that is critical factual background when considering this statutory instrument.
We continue to require landlords to provide tenants with six months’ notice before eviction in all but the most serious cases until the end of March. That means that most renters served notice now can stay in their homes until June 2021, with time to find alternative accommodation. The six-month stay on possession proceedings put in place at the start of the pandemic could only ever be temporary.
The new court rules also respond to the pandemic and will be reviewed. These include a requirement for cases from before 3 August last year to be reactivated by the landlord and subject to a new review hearing at least four weeks before the substantive hearing. There is a need for landlords to provide courts and judges with information on how tenants have been affected by the pandemic—if that information is not provided, an adjournment will be made. There is a new review stage at least 28 days before the substantive hearing so that tenants can access legal advice, and all enforcement agents must provide a minimum of 14 days’ notice before enforcing an eviction. That is on top of new listing prioritisation arrangements which have been introduced by the judiciary.
Further, we are piloting from early this month a new mediation service to support landlords and tenants in seeking to resolve disputes before a formal hearing takes place. That will be free to use for both landlords and tenants, if it is considered at a review that the case would benefit from mediation and the parties so agree.
Our approach strikes the right balance between prioritising public health and supporting the most vulnerable renters, while at the same time ensuring that landlords can access and exercise their rights to justice. Landlords can action possession claims through the courts, but evictions will not be enforced except in the most serious cases. This SI strikes the right balance, and I therefore commend the regulations to the House.
Amendment to the Motion
As an amendment to the motion in the name of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, at end to insert “but that this House regrets that the Regulations only provide protection from eviction for residential tenancies until the end of 21 February, and regrets that the Regulations permit evictions for arrears that have built up since the start of the pandemic, and that a case is deemed to involve substantial rent arrears if the amount of unpaid arrears outstanding is at least equivalent to six months’ rent, which contravenes Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment that nobody would lose their home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
My Lords, I have several declarations to make: I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of Heart of Medway Housing Association and a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd. Noble Lords will be further aware that my wife is my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley, who is the director of Generation Rent.
In moving this regret amendment today, I make it clear that I do so as the official Opposition spokesperson for housing and local government, and not in a personal or any other capacity. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson; I have not had a chance to speak to him yet, but I have seen him in the Chamber and I am sure we will speak outside. I wish him well in his responsibilities.
From the start of the pandemic, the Government have made numerous announcements and promises. One such area is the private rented sector, where the Government’s mishandling of the situation has failed tenants and landlords. On 26 March last year, the right honourable Member for Newark in the other place, Mr Robert Jenrick, went on record saying
“no one should lose their home as a result of the coronavirus epidemic”.
These regulations confirm that that promise is broken: tenants across the UK are struggling to make ends meet right now; certain sections of the economy have had no help whatever; redundancies will be at record levels across huge sections of the economy when the furlough scheme ends; we are in the worst recession for 300 years and the economy is expected to shrink by 11.3%. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is on record as saying that the fiscal damage will be “lasting”, and the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that unemployment will rise in 2021 to 7.6% of the entire workforce, or 2.6 million people.
These regulations satisfy no one. On the one hand, they extend the ban on enforcement of eviction orders which has been granted by the courts until 21 February, but they also expand the exemptions from the ban, meaning that tenants with more than six months’ arrears could be evicted. Citizens advice bureaux estimate that close to 500,000 renters are in arrears and are now at risk of a Covid-19 eviction because of the ban being lifted. Already, more than 174,000 private tenants have been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agent. Even at the start of the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of private tenants had no savings, on top of the 45% of private renters who have lost income since March.
We are asking the Government to stick to their word: that no one will lose their home because of coronavirus. In the months that preceded this debate, the right measures could have been put in place to ensure that the Government’s promise was honoured. They could have brought in the right support for struggling tenants that would have benefited both tenants and landlords, with changes to the universal credit system and an uplifted local housing allowance. They could also have announced a credible plan to deal with rent arrears. Instead, they leapt from crisis to crisis and wasted months, and tenants now face the same predicament they faced at the beginning of the pandemic.
Measures that could have been looked at include the setting up of a Covid-19 hardship fund to help support those in receipt of benefits who are struggling, or an increase in local housing allowance, but instead the Government proposed a freeze in cash terms from April 2021. All that achieves is that tenants in higher-rent areas get less support than those in lower-rent areas. The shared accommodation rate should have been suspended for at least 12 months, as called for by the Social Security Advisory Committee. The housing benefit cap should be scrapped and the £20 monthly uplift to universal credit kept. Those measures and similar ones would in most cases have the support of both landlords and tenants. Neither good landlords nor good tenants who find themselves in real difficulties should be penalised because of the pandemic.
Looking at the measures called for by landlord trade bodies and by tenant organisations, what is striking is the similarities between them. It is also worth noting that the BMA and others have warned of a potential rise in Covid infections if the Government force people into homelessness or overcrowded accommodation, the consequences of which would extend far beyond those directly involved. Look at the tragedy that lifting the lockdown measures over Christmas brought to families—this is a deadly virus, and measures that do not respect that fact and protect people accordingly will have deadly consequences.
I intend to test the opinion of the House on the regret amendment in my name. It is another plea to the Government to get a grip on the situation. People are really suffering, both landlords and tenants. They are really scared about their future. Landlords and tenants need help to get through this nightmare. We all need to get back on our feet and on the road to recovery. We all desperately want to see that.
There is a second regret amendment, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. I have great respect for her. She has considerable knowledge and experience of these matters. The House would do well to listen to her. I make it clear that I would have no problem voting for her amendment and fully endorse its aims.
My Lords, I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to his new role. We welcome the extension to 21 February but, for well-being, security and public health arguments, we believe that extensions of these measures should be linked to extensions of lockdowns. We regret that, unlike the first lockdown, eviction notices can still be served under these rules.
Given the UK and South African variants, the last thing we want is more families homeless, and the greatest cause of homelessness is the end of a private tenancy. I urge the Minister to agree to speak with and understand the plight of families who have had to find a new home to rent during the lockdown. I am sure that Citizens Advice would be willing to arrange this if he is amenable.
The Minister has been asked to deliver a highly significant change from the previous version of this statutory instrument—a change which suggests that there is a minimal understanding of what is happening to private renters. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has already said—this bears repetition—the Secretary of State promised on 18 March that
“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”.
This change in the statutory instrument breaks that promise, by changing eviction guidance from a nine-month threshold to now ensuring that renters can be evicted with more than six months of arrears, including the period of this pandemic.
Last week in Oral Questions, I asked for the data behind this extraordinary decision. It was puzzling to me that the Minister kept resorting to the latest Citizens Advice report, New Year, Same Arrears, and using that as the rationale behind this change. Citizens Advice had revealed that tenants were £360 million behind in rent. But if they are behind in rent, surely they need support, not a change to include arrears during the period of the pandemic.
Sadly, this change is only too transparent. It suggests that, when it comes to tenants, the Government’s assumption is that they are in some way irresponsible—but most evidence suggests that before this pandemic, well over 90% of tenants were not in arrears. Should not the assumption be that these are responsible people, the vast majority of whom until this moment paid rent in full on time, who are now often in the worst- case scenarios? Indeed, according to the Resolution Foundation, twice as many private renters have reported job losses as homeowners. The Government’s own Household Resilience Survey: Wave 1 found that private renters were by far the hardest hit by the pandemic.
When the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pushes his amendment to the Motion to test the opinion of the House, we will fully support him. I thank the noble Lord for his words of support. We feel that one vote is enough on this, and I will not push my amendment to a vote today.
When the Minister responds, I ask him to tell us what risk assessment has been conducted regarding the likelihood of families losing their home as a result of this substantive change.
The amendment to the Motion I have tabled explains the context in which so many private renters entered this pandemic and the devastating impact it has had on them. The Minister has already referred to the levels of support given. But, as my own amendment to the Motion makes clear, this support is given without an understanding of the context for most private renters at the start of this pandemic.
Renters had an average of £500 in savings at the start, and 60% had no savings at all. The average short- fall in support each month under the local housing allowance scheme, because it is only the bottom 30% of rents, is about £100—you do the maths. The benefit cap has also reduced allowances. So any savings—if renters did have them—are already gone, and many started with no savings at all.
Citizens Advice found that most tenants have accrued arrears of less than £600, but the people they help will take, on average, seven years to pay that back. The cost to the public purse right now to help those tenants through a support package of targeted loans and grants—a one-off financial boost that would pull them out of debt, so that they in turn can pay their landlord and stay in their home—would be less than the projected £360 million debt.
The final part of my amendment to the Motion refers to the need for just such a package of support to keep people in their home, proposed by the National Residential Landlords Association, Generation Rent, Citizens Advice and others. It is really important to note that, when we are talking about this balance issue with landlords, the NRLA is very clear that the real need is to tackle the rent debt crisis.
Let us put that £360 million debt in context. It is far less than the highly questionable £1 billion spent on lateral flow tests, devised by US firm Innova but made in China, and a tiny fraction of the staggering £15 billion spent in four months on test and trace, much of it on lateral flow tests. Let us think just for a second about the hurdles private sector tenants have to go through right now for support, and then compare it with the fact that only 1% of this massive test and trace expenditure has gone through any competitive tender, according to the National Audit Office. How different it is for renters, choosing between food, heat and rent.
For public heath safety, for security of a family home, and for mental health reasons alone, we should keep renters in their home. These measures fall far short of those aims.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, for whom I have the greatest respect and who knows a great deal, about this area. I welcome my noble friend to the Front Bench and thank him very much for setting out these regulations. I declare my interests as set out in the register, and I thank the National Residential Landlords Association and Generation Rent for their helpful briefings.
I am in support of these regulations, but I have some concerns. I see the need to protect public health and the risk of virus transmission—I am sure that we all do. We go through this bimonthly ritual of renewing these regulations, and I have to say to my noble friend, who seemed to indicate that there was as yet no certainty about renewing them, that we are only three weeks away from them running out. It seems to me that we should provide some certainty for both landlords and tenants.
I hope that we will renew the regulations, but that we will take a more strategic look at how we approach this situation. Here we are, many renewals in, with a very fundamental problem: the gradual accumulation of rent arrears, which is now substantial. That affects tenants and, of course, landlords, because we are not doing anything about the debt which is building up over time. There is a very real concern about credit ratings for tenants who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in this situation. Their credit rating is affected, and that will have a long-term effect on the tenancy market, which is a very important part of our housing area. We will need to take a much more strategic approach, rather than looking simply at the very important protection of tenants from eviction—that is, as it were, a given. I have great sympathy with looking at this on a wider scale rather than every two months, because I do not see this problem going away by 21 February. Surely we should take a longer look at this.
Could my noble friend give some thought, and perhaps some preliminary thoughts to the House, on how we might move forward, at least with hardship loans or funds to help tenants, and thus landlords and the sector? Otherwise, this will be a long-term problem that is building up over time. I sympathise with the situation that my noble friend finds himself in, and I can appreciate the great pressure that the Government are under on so many fronts. However, I think we need to take a step back and look at this not just in tactical terms of what we need to do for the immediate problem but at the situation that is building up.
I know my noble friend said something on this in opening, but I am not quite clear why we have moved from nine months’ arrears to six months’ arrears. What is the reason for that? The problem is more serious now, so I cannot quite square that with the fact that we seem to be bearing down with six months of debt accrued rather than nine months. However, it may be that I missed something there.
As my noble friend said, we have provided unprecedented help, but on the other hand, we are in a unprecedented situation, and it looks to me as if it will last for some time. Even as we come out of the public health hazards, as I am sure we will this year, the long-term economic position will have an effect on tenancies. I look forward to my noble friend saying something on that but, in the meantime, I support the necessity of these regulations.
We have had two speakers scratch, so I hope it does not come as a surprise that the next speaker is the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
My Lords, thank you, it does not. I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, said in March 2020 that
“no one should lose their home as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.”
That sounds like a promise, which the Government are breaking by cutting the rent arrears minimum to six months—only half the period for which the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been raging. I will also quote Shelter chief executive Polly Neate on this statutory instrument, which she described as
“the minimum required to keep … people safe in their homes”,
as the very useful briefing from Generation Rent on this SI notes. Eviction notices can still be served and possession notices are being granted, while the Government are asking people not to leave their homes—and all of this runs only until 21 February. To complete my trio of quotes, I will go to the Green Member of the London Assembly, Siân Berry: “Everyone has the right to a home.”
The Government doing the minimum here is really not enough. In Scotland and Wales more is being done. Both nations have loan schemes. Wales has a five-year loan with an APR of 1%, while in Scotland the loans are interest free, and there is also an increase in direct support to tenants. That is better than in England, although of course the problem with loans is that they still have to be paid back. For many households who were living permanently on the edge, even pre-Covid, in a society with a minimum wage well below the real living wage, and the horrendous insecurity of zero-hours contracts, it is hardly any relief from the massive pressure of poverty and inequality under which so many live to say, “Here, have a loan”. Clearly, what is needed are grants—support for the poorest, who have been utterly failed by our massively expensive, exploitative, privatised housing system, to lift them at least to ground level out of the massive financial hole they find themselves in through no fault of their own.
Progressively, over decades, under Governments of various political colours, we have destroyed a system that provided genuinely affordable, generally decent homes for all. Let us not forget that in 1979 nearly half the British population lived in secure council homes. Some of those were not as well built or maintained as they should have been, or were in areas with inadequate facilities and opportunities, but they were secure. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, has just said, we replaced that with a market, and that is not a successful model for housing.
As noble Lords might predict from those remarks, the Green group supports both of the regret amendments, particularly that in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, with its focus on the need to provide long-term security for tenants. However, looking at that longer term, we have to move away from regarding houses primarily as financial assets and instead focus on providing everyone with a secure, genuinely affordable home that meets their needs—although of course I acknowledge that that is beyond the immediate scope of this SI. I note research last month from Aldermore Bank showing that half of renters now regard their circumstances as unstable, with one in 10 struggling to pay the rent since March. Clearly, we have a broken housing system.
Coincidentally, I spent this morning chairing a Westminster Forum session about our broken food system. That is two basics of human existence—food and housing —on this planet, with a climate emergency and a nature crisis, where as a species we are smashing through multiple planetary limits while failing miserably to meet even basic human needs in a collectively wealthy country such as the United Kingdom. I have to say that we have a broken economic, social and political system. We have to rescue people in the immediate future, but we also have to think longer term about massive transformational change.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I too welcome my noble friend to his role and thank him for setting out this SI so clearly. I also thank Generation Rent and the NRLA for their briefings and their constructive work on these issues. It is absolutely right that tenants need to be protected against unreasonable behaviour by their landlords, and public health concerns absolutely mean that homelessness is really problematic and must be avoided wherever possible. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, rightly says, the vast majority of tenants are responsible, but the vast majority of landlords are, too. The majority in fact own just one or two properties and look after their tenants with care. Some are pensioners, relying on rental income for their retirement security. Private landlords cannot be expected to continue to effectively pay to house people for free. That is a government role, and I agree with other noble Lords that there are important issues that we must address to support tenants who, through no fault of their own, and perhaps as a result of the pandemic, have found themselves in rent arrears.
This SI, which focuses mostly on tenants with large arrears who have engaged in egregious behaviour, anti-social behaviour, abusive behaviour or trespass, for example, does seek to balance the interests of landlords, who may indeed have suffered more than a year without any rental payments at all, and those of tenants who need a home. Of course, supporting tenants to help them continue to pay rent is a very effective way to help landlords, but there are cases where landlords will need to have their property back. That is what the Government are seeking and I agree that this is a very delicate and difficult issue that they are seeking to achieve.
The measures that the Minister outlined show that, even with the six months’ arrears and notice of eviction, tenants will be secure until June at the very least and, indeed, with the review stages being extended, it is likely to be quite significantly beyond that. They have time to either find new accommodation themselves or for social housing to be assigned to them if possible. I recognise that this is difficult and that in some cases we will be dealing with tenants who will find it difficult to be housed. However, I support the Government in their efforts to balance the interests of innocent landlords with the needs of good tenants, who also must be protected.
My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister how an individual who has been evicted will be traced—for example, there is tracing currently for the South African virus variants—or how they will be contacted for an appointment for their jab if they have been evicted.
I know that the Minister, his predecessor and his officials will have been involved in detailed discussions and research looking at this issue, which is obviously fundamental to getting out of the current health crisis. All my experience suggests that there is a direct correlation between the ability to interact with the NHS and the stability of housing. Therefore, the more that people are evicted and moved, the less their interaction with the health service will be, and the more vulnerable they and society will be—either by not being traced when there is an emergency requirement or by not being contacted when there is an opportunity for them to receive the vaccine.
What is the propensity for someone not to be registered with a GP who is trying to communicate with someone, having lost the address when that person has been evicted? It is a big issue for NHS business planning and is not new. What discussions have taken place over the past year between the Minister’s department and the department of health to clarify that matter? It is an important consideration now and in the future.
A second issue is a microcosm of a problem that I have raised previously but not with any success, relating to the Traveller community. It is more vulnerable to eviction under the criteria that the Minister has set out, yet it is by definition more likely then to move to another area. Given the context in which these regulations are made—the health pandemic—what specific attention has been given to the requirements of the Traveller community and its danger of being evicted, either from a fixed location or from within the community? Some Travellers are evicted by others in that community from less-fixed accommodation. How does that issue fit into the strategy?
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend to the Front Bench. I have been involved in housing matters of a political nature for half a century. I was housing chairman for the London Borough of Islington, which at that time—the 1960s—was difficult for tenants and the economy under Harold Wilson. I have been deeply involved with the mutual movement and social housing. I am sure that my noble friend knows this but there are rogue, bad landlords around. We had Rachman and De Lusignan. Their equivalents are there today. There are also rogue tenants, who were a problem then and now.
The kernel of this SI is about normal tenancies and normal tenants who face particular difficulties due to the pandemic. I say to my noble friend, who is enormously welcome to the Front Bench: can we please plan ahead? Why did we not review this issue at least 10 days earlier? February 21 is two and a half weeks away, not even three. That is not long.
I have looked at the four categories and I am comfortable with three of them, but not with the category of substantial rent arrears. Questions arise. We—my Government—have done a good job on the homeless but, if we now find ourselves in another crunch period whereby people are made homeless, that will fall on the local authorities just when they have been working tremendously hard to make things operate as normally as possible. What are we going to do? I suggest two things. One should be to quickly announce that the scheme, whatever it may be—some revisions may be needed after this debate—will run until Easter. Secondly, I have looked at the schemes run in Wales and Scotland. I do not find much in favour of the one in Scotland but the tenant hardship loan in Wales has a lot going for it. It might need a bit of fine tuning to English conditions; nevertheless, it may be the way forward.
Frankly, I do not understand why there has to be a 1% charge. Are we not hoping that we are beginning to come to the end of the pandemic? There should be no interest charge but a hardship loan, with people implementing it who understand how it works and how tenants can ensure that they play their roles.
Finally, my dear and noble friend Lord Bourne asked a valid question about the change from nine months’ to six months’ arrears. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that housing was never an easy job but, at this point in time, the middle category of people who are genuinely good tenants in normal times are those who need this help.
My Lords, I welcome these discussions and particularly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to this place and congratulate him. The last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, is important, although I do not agree with tenants having to be forced to take loans out. If the Government are considering that at all, there should be no interest charged whatever. We should not get into the circle of providing further opportunities to put vulnerable people into more debt.
The Housing Secretary made a statement that no one should lose their homes as a result of this health crisis. However, the legislation on eviction precisely allows that for arrears accrued since the start of this pandemic. The Minister will be aware that, between April and November 2020, a staggering number of some 207,500 households sought help with homelessness from their local council. Surely it is evident that families are suffering extreme hardship, and extending the ban on eviction until the end of February or even June will not resolve any of the grave consequences for particularly vulnerable families. That requires long-term and sustainable policy and action.
As a number of noble Lords have eloquently pointed out, families are facing the most serious job and financial crisis, and six months’ exemption is not good enough. I therefore support the regret amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and ask the Government to extend the ban on evictions and repossession until we are out of this health pandemic.
Housing reform, alongside all the associated safety nets, is required even more urgently now as more families become reliant on public housing. These regret amendments seek to prevent the enforcement of eviction and repossessions until such time as the pandemic eases. Unless we do so, such inhumane responses will make families prey to further stress and inevitably dire health consequences. Housing is a basic fundamental right. Therefore, the Government’s response is intrinsically, in effect, in breach of those basic rights. These matters go beyond any party-political ideology. They are about safety and preventing further stress on the NHS.
I support these regret amendments and ask the Government to commit to protect all those who are facing eviction, and to ensure that all families who need homes are provided with safe, secure and good-quality accommodation for the most vulnerable of our society.
I welcome my noble friend back to the Front Bench after his positive responses when the Domestic Abuse Bill was in Committee yesterday. I declare an interest, as I lease a property. As part of my training for the Scottish bar, I did an apprenticeship with Simpson & Marwick. One of the benefits of the Scottish training is that we work with solicitors first hand. One of my duties was as a debt collector. It impressed on me that people fall into debt not necessarily through any responsibility of their own but through misfortune. That has been compounded in the present environment and climate that we find ourselves in through Covid, with the dreadful consequences that other noble Lords have set out.
I welcome the regulations before us today, and I thank my noble friend for setting out the changes that they introduce from previous ones. I welcome them, as far as they go. In preparing for today, I am grateful to briefings from, among others, Generation Rent and the National Residential Landlords Association. The degree to which they agree on the way forward is stark. While I welcome the positive steps taken in the regulations before us, I share the misgivings of other noble Lords about the reduction in protection from nine to six months. It would be helpful to understand the reasoning behind that.
I also think it is important to recognise the generosity of support that the Government have given so far, but I hope that my noble friend urges the Government and department to look kindly on two proposals, in particular. The first is the tenant hardship loans, which we have seen work so effectively with similar schemes in Scotland and Wales. This measure has the support of, among others, the debt charity StepChange and Citizens Advice. The scheme has a proven track record in two other parts of the kingdom, and it bears further investigation. The second, as other noble Lords have suggested, is a Covid-19 hardship fund to be administered by local authorities. This could be boosted to support those in receipt of benefits.
Finally, I focus on the expiry of the regulations in three weeks. As the furlough scheme has been extended, it would help if the schemes before us could be extended at least to reflect the same deadline as the furlough scheme. It is important to realise that tenants have fallen on hard times, not necessarily through any fault of their own. Many shops, retail businesses and others have closed at very short notice, in very short order. For example, many would not have been able to benefit from the extension to the furlough scheme in October, because they did not realise what was intended. We do not know what is going to happen when the furlough scheme expires, if that is the case, at the end of April.
I hope that my noble friend shows his benevolent nature and seeks to extend these regulations at the first available opportunity, and looks at schemes such as the tenant hardship loans and Covid-19 hardship funds, as others have suggested. Also, the deadlines set out in these regulations should be revised to reflect those in other regulations, such as the extension to universal credit and the furlough scheme. With these few words, I support the regulations before us, but urge my noble friend to look favourably on my suggestions.
The Government have extended protections against the enforcement of residential evictions until at least 21 February 2021, because of the third national lockdown in England. These measures have been criticised by Labour and others for not going far enough to prevent renters losing their homes during the pandemic. On 8 January 2021, the Government announced that, in view of the new national lockdown, they would extend the ban on bailiff-enforced evictions in England for at least six weeks. The regulations came into force on 11 January 2021. Both Houses of Parliament must approve them by 3 February 2021 for them to continue in force.
The regulations prevent enforcement of evictions through bailiffs attending residential premises in England to execute a writ or warrant of possession or to deliver a notice of eviction. However, evictions and repossessions can continue to take place where a court is satisfied of an exemption, such as a claim against a trespasser, or that the order of possession was made, wholly or partly, on the grounds of anti-social behaviour, nuisance, false statements, domestic abuse in social tenancies or substantial rent arrears for six months, or on the death of the tenant, or when the property is unoccupied when the person attends.
The Government have said that restricting the enforcement of evictions would help control the spread of infection and prevent additional burdens falling on the NHS. These regulations will expire on 21 February 2021. They are necessary, but stopping evictions for a few weeks and reviewing the regulations again must cause considerable anxiety and mental health problems for those who are genuinely in arrears because they have lost their jobs. The processes described will benefit only lawyers and are an unnecessary waste of court time. Will the Minister confirm whether he will reconsider the regulations, as there is evidence that the pandemic will surge, again and again, until over 70% of the population has been vaccinated?
My Lords, I believe that, in these Covid times, these regulations are important for relieving anxiety and giving tenants the peace of mind that they will continue to have a roof over their heads, while ensuring a balance that allows landlords to repossess a property where the tenant is in significant breach of their lease—for example, due to their anti-social behaviour or a six-month backlog of unpaid rent.
I am a landlord myself, as disclosed in the register of interests. While I recognise that many landlords will think that some of these regulations are unfair and costly to them, there will be many tenants who think that they still favour the landlord too much. It is key to strike the right balance, and it is important that the Government consider a package of financial assistance to help tenants in arrears and landlords who currently have to bear those arrears.
In addition, I question the provision to allow repossession on the grounds that
“the dwelling house is unoccupied”
at the time of attendance. Given all the restrictions on international and local travel, and the possibility that the landlord may find it impossible to return to their property, should international tenants be given more protection from repossession, subject to paying their rent, when they are unable to return to the UK?
My Lords, I have previously queried whole swathes of illiberal legislation that have been put on the statute books, such as that which makes it illegal to leave your own house without an explanation or to mingle with friends in your own back garden. When I pressed for a date about when lockdown will end and asked if we can know exactly when these things will happen, my queries were met with great irritation and government Ministers saying, “We are following the evidence, don’t you know there’s a pandemic on?” This is one statutory instrument where I would actually like to see that kind of approach. Instead, here we have very specific dates, which are always time-limited, on-the-dot and short-term. I do not understand, especially given that homes are so important in this pandemic, why the Government are being so mean-spirited on this question.
That dreaded lockdown phrase, “Stay home”, resonates differently across society. For some, “Stay home” means saving money on the commute, or thinking about where to place the home-school workspace for the children or what bookcases are on display during business Zoom calls. But for many people, “Stay home” means how to rota the kids’ laptops on the dining room table in the cramped, gardenless flat. With this SI, it is about the fear and dread of whether or not being able to stay in the same home will be feasible once lockdown ends. This is one of the greatest causes of anxiety, with parents lying in bed at night worrying about debt and eviction. Many private renters are worrying about how to stave off homelessness for themselves and their families.
I of course welcome this temporary ban on eviction—I welcome it again, as it was only a few weeks ago that we renewed it for a further few weeks—but it feels too short-term and shallow to deal with the challenges of the continual closure of society. Surely the Government realise that this is storing up huge problems for the future. Tenants’ debts are mounting up, and, as other noble Lords have mentioned vividly, this is not their fault. Many of them would never have got into debt before. They are using their rent money to pay fuel bills because they are not allowed to leave the house with their families. As the months drag on, furlough, which was at first welcomed, now means a one-fifth cut in wages. This is unemployment delayed. In the past, those who managed to juggle their finances often had a number of part-time jobs to make do, but you can no longer have an evening bar job or a shift in Debenhams to make up the money because we have locked down.
As tenants’ debts mount up, they do not stand a chance of paying them off. It is now clear that when lockdown measures end there will not be a land of milk and honey but a serious economic depression with mass unemployment. If furlough is just redundancy deferred, then the inadequacy of this SI means that it is, I am afraid, eviction deferred. There is just no need; I genuinely do not understand why the Government— for whom money seems to be no object during this pandemic—cannot see that targeted loans and grants will get them out of this and help tenants and landlords alike. Why do they not write off the debt and have a debt amnesty? Remember that so many landlords, who are also suffering, are not property tycoons—almost half of them own only one property. They have spent their life savings or redundancy money on prudently investing in a buy-to-let for their income and pensions, and they too are now desperate.
I finish by saying that the Government have proved, through the magnificent vaccine rollout, that they can be impressive and swift, think in the long-term and solve problems. But, unfortunately, they also have the problem of making a mess of less challenging issues, from the cladding scandal and the throwing of leaseholders under the bus, to the home-school meals saga. I welcome the noble Lord to the Chamber, but I appeal to him to not follow in the same suit of making a mess of this, because it is easy to solve. Just solve it, and do not keep coming back with SIs for another few months.
My Lords, in this short debate I feel I have been assailed from all sides. I have been attacked for not giving enough protection to renters and challenged for not giving sufficient thought to landlords. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, said that I would satisfy no one—that may be the story of my life. I bear in mind the point made by my noble friend Lord Naseby that housing never was an easy job. It is certainly less easy when you are in the middle of a global pandemic and even more difficult when you are actually a Minister in the Ministry of Justice.
The experience of being castigated from all sides, however, has been ameliorated by the cogency, force and evident passion of many of the contributions to this debate. But the fact that I have been challenged from all sides is important. I am not making the simple, perhaps simplistic, point—attractive though it would be to do so—that the fact that both renters and landlords consider they have cause for complaint shows that we have got it about right. That would be superficially attractive, but it would not necessarily follow.
What does follow is the point that this is not a simple issue. It is not just a question of focusing on the position of renters or landlords, or even a question of focusing on renters and landlords. We also need to bear in mind the position of others, including neighbours, for example, who have a right to be protected from anti-social behaviour or nuisance. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, who said that this is not a matter of ideology. It is rather, as my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes said, a matter of balance. This statutory instrument, as I have explained, seeks to balance those interests against an ongoing pandemic and, as I said in my opening remarks, in the light of the various financial support mechanisms that the Government have provided both for renters specifically and for people more generally.
It is against that background that I turn to the regret amendment put down by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. I sincerely thank him for his warm words and I am sure that we will work together, both in and out of the Chamber, on this and other matters.
However, there have been no broken promises. On the point made by the noble Lord, and repeated by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Uddin, because of measures taken in response to the pandemic, we calculated that it would be unlikely that a case would have yet reached the enforcement stage where a landlord had initiated possession proceedings as a result of rent arrears that had begun to accrue since the start of the pandemic.
First, the Coronavirus Act 2020 provides that landlords must give tenants longer notice periods before starting possession proceedings in the courts, apart from in the most egregious cases. Previously, two weeks’ notice was required, and between 26 March and 28 August last year, three months’ notice was required. Since then, landlords have been required to give six months’ notice where arrears are less than six months, and four weeks’ notice where the arrears are at least six months. We also take into account the amount of time it takes possession proceedings to progress through the courts, and the new arrangements that are in place to deal with the resumption of cases following the resumption of possession proceedings at the end of September.
Importantly, at each stage of the process the tenant is provided with time in which to seek advice or make alternative arrangements. If we were to consider a hypothetical case, where a tenant has rent arrears that only started to accrue since the pandemic began, that case will have been affected by the requirement for longer notice periods, the six-month stay on possession proceedings and then the need to follow due process in the courts. When we assess it, it is unlikely that such a case would yet have reached the enforcement stage.
There could, however, be cases where landlords have been waiting to recover possession orders where the rent arrears began to accrue before March 2020. In such cases, where there are very significant rent arrears, we consider that those landlords ought to be able to enforce those orders. But even in those extreme cases, where a court decides that an exemption to this instrument applies, and taking into account one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, bailiffs will not carry out an eviction if they are made aware that anyone living in the property has Covid-19 symptoms, is self-isolating or has been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable.
I now turn to the regret amendment put down by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, whose experience and knowledge in this area must be acknowledged by everyone in this debate; they are certainly acknowledged by me. Despite the fact that she is not pushing her amendment to a vote, I have to say that, with respect, the terms of the amendment do not meet the issue which faces the Government, and which the statutory instrument seeks to deal with.
The terms of the noble Baroness’s amendment state that it is regrettable that the statutory instrument does not
“link protection from evictions automatically to the extension of restrictions in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic”,
which is a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. It would be wrong to make such an “automatic” link—to use the word in the amendment—because policy in this area should not operate on an automatic basis. It would be wrong for a number of reasons. When assessing the issue of protection from evictions, it would mean that we would look only at the existence of restrictions resulting from the pandemic, which would be to look at only half the picture. It would mean that we would not consider that those restrictions have changed, and no doubt will change further over time. It would mean that we would overlook the help that has been made available and remains available to renters specifically and to people generally. It would also mean ignoring the protections that we have built into the system, and, as my noble friend Lady Altmann reminded us, taking no account of the interests of landlords, who also deserve consideration. Many landlords depend on the rent that they receive for their sole income; if no rent comes in, they can be placed in a precarious financial situation. Over and above all of that, linking protection from evictions automatically to the existence of Covid-19 restrictions assumes a correlation, and indeed a causation, where neither might exist. By contrast, the statutory instrument seeks to find and maintain a balanced approach, taking all matters into account.
I will write to noble Lords whose comments I have not been able to refer to specifically. In the time that I have left, I will pick up on a couple of the main points which were put to me during the debate, beginning with the limited-time nature of this statutory instrument and what my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth called the “bi-monthly ritual” of this SI. I would always be grateful for any opportunities to come to your Lordships’ House for an interesting debate, but I accept in principle that we may wish to raise our eyes and look for a longer period. That is difficult in the midst of a continually changing pandemic, but we will do our best. We are looking at the future and, if we can, we certainly will.
As to the loans scheme, which was put to me by a number of noble Lords, the problem is that any loan scheme must have affordability criteria, which may make it tricky for those most in need to access. With a loan, you must be able to get it and then you must be able to pay it back. We believe, therefore, that the best way to support people in need is through the existing welfare system that provides ongoing support, and that is what the extensive pack of economic support is doing. In that context, the increasing of the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile is extremely important.
My noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and other noble Lords asked about the change from nine months to six months. The rent arrears exception has been redefined to cases with rent arrears that are greater than six months because that is proportionate, given where we are in the pandemic, given the other protections in place and given the support that has been put in place for renters specifically and for people more generally. It is a question of balance, and that is where we consider the balance is best struck. We anticipate that most of the cases in which an exemption applies will involve a significant level of rent arrears that predate the pandemic and where landlords may have been waiting over a year without rent being paid.
I hope that I have replied to the main points that were put to me in this debate. I am conscious of the limited time that I have had to reply. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, asked a very specific question about the Traveller community. I hope that he will forgive me for not dealing with it now, but it would perhaps be more appropriate for a housing Minister to respond on that point.
We consider that the balance that this statutory instrument has struck is the appropriate one. It provides tenants with protection from eviction and provides landlords in appropriate cases with the ability to recover sums due. Therefore, I commend this instrument to the House.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, and the Minister for his considered response to the points raised. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, that we need a much more strategic solution to the crisis, a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby.
As I and other noble Lords have said, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, made clear, it is striking how much agreement there is between landlord and tenant organisations as to the solution to these problems. I thank both the National Residential Landlords Association and Generation Rent for their very helpful briefings, and mention has been made of the similarity in the solutions that each has put forward to the Government. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, that there are good landlords and good tenants, and both need our support. The tragedy is that much more could be done to help landlords and tenants, but the Government are just failing to get this right. I hope that passing this regret amendment will encourage the Government to look again at the welcome proposals being put forward; they very much need to do so.
I also think that it is worth reflecting on the very short extension of this order, a point that many noble Lords have made. Landlords and tenants must be treated a bit better in this regard by the Government. An extension of less than three weeks, frankly, is no way to behave. We can do much better than that.
The Minister made the point about hypothetical cases. We can all draw them up to support our own positions. The problems is that it will be of little comfort to a tenant who has lost their job or who has little work due to being a freelancer, and on top of all that, they have the fear of sitting in their home waiting to be evicted in the next few weeks. They have all the legal papers there and are very worried. It is of little comfort to them. There is also very little comfort to the landlord, as the rent arrears accrue at the same time and they can see no end to that. The Government should take away the proposals put forward by the landlords and the tenants, look at them carefully and come up with a proper strategic plan for this crisis. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Amendment to the Motion
As an amendment to the motion in the name of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, at end to insert “but that this House regrets that the Regulations do not link protection from evictions automatically to the extension of restrictions in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic and so do not provide long-term security to tenants; further regrets that the Regulations do not take into account factors such as (1) the shortfall between support from Her Majesty’s Government and median rents, (2) the level of personal savings held by renters at the start of the pandemic, (3) the loss of income and jobs experienced by private renters during the pandemic compared to mortgage holders, and (4) the high proportion of income spent by renters on housing compared to other tenures, and that these factors have led to renters missing bill payments or reducing spending on food due to their level of debt; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to bring forward a support package that will ensure that private tenants are housed and landlords paid during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
I thank all noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in his new role as Minister. I congratulate him on the extensive use of the word “balance”; it was used more times than I have ever heard it used in a speech in my lifetime. “Balance” suggests that the opposite is somehow division, but I strongly stress that there is a lot of unity within the sector, in that landlords’ and tenants’ organisations alike say that some kind of support package is desperately needed.
The Minister made a very coherent argument against loans but most noble Lords were talking about the use of grants. When he writes to noble Lords, I look forward to him writing to me about that and about taking up the invitation set up by Citizens Advice to sit down with some of the affected family groups.
The House has already given a view on this and therefore I will not move my amendment.
Baroness Grender’s amendment to the Motion not moved.
Motion, as amended, agreed.
Medicines and Medical Devices Bill
Relevant documents: 19th and 33rd Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee, 10th Report from the Constitution Committee
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. There are no counter-propositions, so the only speakers are those listed and the Minister’s Motion may not be opposed. Short questions of elucidation from listed speakers after the Minister’s response are permitted but discouraged. A Member wishing to ask such a question must email the clerk. We will now begin.
50A: Clause 42 page 24, line 36, leave out subsections (3) to (9) and insert—
“(3) The procedure for making regulations under Part A1, 1, 2 or 3 is to be determined in accordance with this table and subsection (4)—
If the regulations contain provision madein reliance on the regulations are subject to section 5(1)(a) the negative procedure section 10(1)(a) the negative procedure section 14(1)(a) the negative procedure paragraph 9 of Schedule 1 the negative procedure section 6 (a) the made affirmative procedure, where the regulations contain a declaration that the person making them considers that they need to be made urgently to protect the public from an imminent risk of serious harm to health (b) the draft affirmative procedure in any other case section 15 (a) the made affirmative procedure, where the regulations contain a declaration that the person making them considers that they need to be made urgently to protect the public from an imminent risk of serious harm to health (b) the draft affirmative procedure in any other case any other provision of Part A1, 1, 2 or 3 the draft affirmative procedure
If the regulations contain provision madein reliance on
the regulations are subject to
the negative procedure
the negative procedure
the negative procedure
paragraph 9 of Schedule 1
the negative procedure
(a) the made affirmative procedure, where the regulations contain a declaration that the person making them considers that they need to be made urgently to protect the public from an imminent risk of serious harm to health
(b) the draft affirmative procedure in any other case
(b) the draft affirmative procedure in any other case
any other provision of Part A1, 1, 2 or 3
the draft affirmative procedure
(5) Where regulations are subject to “the negative procedure”—
(a) in the case of regulations made by the Secretary of State acting alone, the statutory instrument containing the regulations is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament,
(b) in the case of regulations made by a Northern Ireland department acting alone, they are subject to negative resolution within the meaning given by section 41(6) of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954, and
(c) in the case of regulations made by the Secretary of State and a Northern Ireland department acting jointly, the statutory instrument containing the regulations is subject to—
(i) annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament, and
(ii) negative resolution within the meaning given by section 41(6) of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954.
(6) Where regulations are subject to the “draft affirmative procedure”—
(a) in the case of regulations made by the Secretary of State acting alone, the statutory instrument containing the regulations may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament,
(b) in the case of regulations made by a Northern Ireland department acting alone, they may not be made unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and
(c) in the case of regulations made by the Secretary of State and a Northern Ireland department acting jointly, the statutory instrument containing the regulations may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of—
(i) each House of Parliament, and
(ii) the Northern Ireland Assembly.
(7) Where regulations are subject to the “made affirmative procedure”—
(a) in the case of regulations made by the Secretary of State acting alone, the statutory instrument containing the regulations—
(i) must be laid before Parliament after being made, and
(ii) ceases to have effect at the end of the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which the instrument is made unless, during that period, the instrument is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament,
(b) in the case of regulations made by a Northern Ireland department acting alone, they—
(i) must be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly after being made, and
(ii) cease to have effect at the end of the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which they are made unless, during that period, the regulations are approved by a resolution of the Assembly, and
(c) in the case of regulations made by the Secretary of State and a Northern Ireland department acting jointly, the statutory instrument containing the regulations—
(i) must be laid before Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly after being made, and
(ii) ceases to have effect at the end of the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which the instrument is made unless, during that period, the instrument is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament and by a resolution of the Assembly.
(8) In calculating the period of 40 days for the purposes of subsection (7)(a)(ii) or (c)(ii) in relation to Parliament, no account is to be taken of any time during which—
(a) Parliament is dissolved or prorogued, or
(b) either House of Parliament is adjourned for more than 4 days.
(9) In calculating the period of 40 days for the purposes of subsection (7)(b)(ii) or (c)(ii) in relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly, no account is to be taken of any time during which the Assembly is—
(b) in recess for more than 4 days, or (c) adjourned for more than 6 days.
(10) If regulations cease to have effect as a result of subsection (7) that—
(a) does not affect the validity of anything previously done under the regulations, and
(b) does not prevent the making of new regulations.”
50B: After Clause 42, insert the following new Clause—
Report on Operation of Medicines and Medical Devices Legislation
Report on operation of medicines and medical devices legislation
(1) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the relevant period, publish a report on the operation of medicines and medical devices legislation.
(2) The report must, in particular, include an assessment of whether—
(a) some or all medicines and medical devices legislation should be consolidated or otherwise restructured,
(b) provisions of medicines and medical devices legislation should be included in regulations or Acts of Parliament, and
(c) powers to make regulations should be modified or repealed.
(3) In preparing the report, the Secretary of State must take into account any report relating to the operation of medicines and medical devices legislation made by a Parliamentary Committee.
(4) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the report before Parliament.
(5) In this section—
“medicines and medical devices legislation” means—
(a) the law relating to human medicines within the meaning of section 7 (interpretation);
(b) the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013 (S.I. 2013/2033);
(c) the Medical Devices Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002/618);
(d) Parts 1 to 4 of this Act; (e) regulations made under those Parts;
“Parliamentary Committee” means a committee of the House of Commons or of the House of Lords or a joint committee of both Houses;
“relevant period” means the period of 5 years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”
50C: Clause 44, page 26, line 8, at end insert—
“(ha) Part 4A.”
11A: After Clause 6, line 6, after “where” insert “—
(a) the disclosure is”
11B: Line 8, at end insert “, and
(b) the relevant authority considers that the disclosure is in the public interest.”
11C: Line 9, leave out subsection (3)
11D: Line 20, leave out “subsection (7)” and insert “subsections (6) and (7)”
22A: After Clause 10, line 6, after “where” insert “—
(a) the disclosure is”
22B: Line 8, at end insert “, and
(b) the relevant authority considers that the disclosure is in the public interest.”
22C: Line 9, leave out subsection (3)
32A: Clause 35, line 3, after “where” insert “—
(a) the disclosure is”
32B: Clause 35, line 5, at end insert “, and
(b) the relevant authority considers that the disclosure is in the public interest.”
32C: Clause 35, line 8, leave out subsection (4C)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 11A to 11D, 22A to 22C, 32A to 32C, and 50A to 50C en bloc. I pay tribute to noble Lords on all sides of the House in reaching consensus on the issues dealt with in these amendments. They were put down in the other place after cross-party discussions and I believe they reflect the aims and agreement of the House.
Amendments 11A to 11D, 22A to 22C and 32A to 32C all make minor amendments to Lords Amendments 11, 22 and 32. These amendments, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, made further changes to the clauses allowing the MHRA and the VMD to share information with relevant persons, such as regulators, outside the UK. Lords Amendments 11, 22 and 32 create a new safeguard that information could be shared only when in the public interest or for pharmacovigilance. I thank the noble Baroness very much for her remarks on Report. She made it very clear that the reference to pharmacovigilance was illustrative. Pharmacovigilance is very important, but it is also very much in the public interest and so does not need to be included outside the reference to the public interest. It is already captured. The Commons amendments therefore remove the reference to pharmacovigilance and the purpose of the amendments remains.
The majority of the Commons amendments deal with the variety of ways that noble Lords sought to create means to bring the Bill, and the principles of the Bill, back before Parliament in the future. Three methods were put forward and, in fact, noble Lords eloquently pressed the point on all of them. Lords Amendments 2, 13 and 24, which were tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, put forward a sunset on delegated powers. Lords Amendments 3, 14, 25, 30, 48 and 49, which were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, put in the super-affirmative procedure. Lords Amendments 12, 23 and 40, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, put forward the idea of bringing forward consolidated draft legislation within three years. I do not intend to repeat my arguments against all three; I have said throughout this Bill that we have been listening carefully to all noble Lords who have put forward very clearly their continued concerns.
Commons Amendments 50A, 50B and 50C are an alternative, which I believe we can agree avoids the issue of introducing a “cliff edge” for legislation—and potentially patient safety—but importantly provides the reassurances that noble Lords quite reasonably sought. They collectively create an obligation for the Secretary of State to prepare a report on the operation of the legislation within five years of Royal Assent, and the amendments specify the considerations that must be addressed in that report: first, whether the legislation should be consolidated or restructured; secondly, whether legislation ought to be in regulations or in Acts of Parliament; and, thirdly, whether any of the powers to make regulations should be modified or repealed.
This would mean actively considering all the questions raised by noble Lords. It would give the time needed for making changes to the current legislation governing medicines and medical devices using the Bill’s powers, and allow for those changes to bed down and for those complex areas of law to reach a steady state, before considering these important issues.
The Secretary of State must also take into account any report of a parliamentary committee in preparing that report. This would mean that if any committee—whether your Lordships’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee or the Health Select Committee in the other place—decided to take a view on the operation of the legislation in the intervening time, its conclusions and considerations would have to be taken into account. If any committee should choose to do so, perhaps on the basis of the post-legislative memorandum that must be prepared within three to five years of the Bill being enacted, Parliament will have expressed a view before being presented with the Secretary of State’s report.
I think this is a satisfactory compromise. It meets the principle of parliamentary review without the practical impact on patient safety of powers lapsing. It ensures that Parliament has the ability to express a view and for that view to be heard, without asking for review before it is practicable. Amendment 50A makes the necessary changes to reinstitute the parliamentary procedure changes made at Lords Committee stage, in place of the super-affirmative.
I hope that noble Lords will be content to accept the amendments from the House of Commons. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the amendments that the Government have brought from the Commons. I am grateful to the Minister and his team for working so diligently with the rest of us, and to all noble Lords who supported my amendments. It is not unusual—but it is infrequent—for the votes that the Government did not get through in the Lords to be reconsidered in the Commons and brought back as government amendments. I am very content that the amendments that the Government have brought are very satisfactory and I congratulate them. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the legal team for working with us throughout the Bill. That is all I am going to say.
My Lords, I too shall be brief and I too am grateful to the Minister and his team for giving Peers an opportunity to see the Commons amendments to the Bill before they were tabled, so that we might give some feedback. One of the things that has made this Bill a pleasure to work on is the open way in which political parties and Cross-Benchers have worked together, as well as the way that the Minister and his team have worked with us. We particularly welcome the clauses that have come to us from the Commons; they make the Bill a more explicit and effective piece of legislation than when it was debated either in Committee or on Report in this House.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister and his team for the manner in which they have engaged and worked with us throughout the passage of this Bill, particularly at this final stage. The amendment in lieu is a good compromise that reflects the need for scrutiny to be at the heart of the Bill. It provides a mechanism to examine the powers of the Act in five years’ time and will open the door for the restructuring and consolidation of the post-Brexit medicines and medical devices regulatory regime. We believe that this will prove both desirable and necessary, and look forward to working with the Minister on such issues when the time comes.
We welcome the requirement that the Secretary of State must specifically consider whether this should be in the form of primary or secondary legislation and hope that this will lead to policy being put into a future Bill rather than scrolled away in regulations. The Secretary of State will also have to take account of all parliamentary committee reports. This would include post-legislative scrutiny undertaken by a Select Committee, as well as the DPRRC and Constitution Committee, whose oversight played a crucial role in reshaping a skeleton Bill into a framework Bill; I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, for explaining that to us all. I hope the Minister can assure me that stakeholders will also be consulted. I am sure that that will be the case. It is very important, given that they are the end users of the legislation, and for the report to have value and credibility it must reflect the experience of regulators, industry, patients and medical professionals.
Finally, the tidying-up amendment that retains the requirement to share information in the public interest is an important provision because it will allow for substantive and ethical issues relating to the sharing of public data to be considered. This is of the utmost importance, given the role that the NHS and patient data may have in future trade deals.
My Lords, I do not intend to repeat much of what I said at Third Reading. Many thanks to the noble Lords who have contributed to the changing shape of the Bill. From Committee to ping-pong, we have listened, heard proposals for change and brought workable, practicable compromises forward.
I wish to repeat the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. She congratulated all of us on the effective communication that has made it possible to make considered progress on this Bill, despite all the challenges that Covid-19 has presented us with. This a very fair assessment; I agree with it completely. From the report of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege to the demonstrated expertise of our medicines regulator, the MHRA, we have seen the importance of patient safety, clinical trials, our life sciences sector and effective regulation bear out in our hospitals, clinical trials and patient community.
I look forward to the debates ahead of us on the regulations that will be made under the Bill. They will be important, as we set forward on our course for the best possible regulatory regime for the UK, with the patient at its heart.
Noble Lords will be pleased to know that no one has requested to speak after the Minister.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, I have put my glasses on as there is a lot to read. The following proceedings will follow guidance issued by the Procedure and Privileges Committee. When there are no counterpropositions, as for Motion G, the only speakers are those listed, who may be in the Chamber or remote. When there are counterpropositions, any Member in the Chamber may speak, subject to the usual seating arrangements and the capacity of the Chamber. Any Member intending to do so should email the clerk or indicate when asked. Members not intending to speak on a group should make room for Members who do. All speakers will be called by the Chair.
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. Leave should be given to withdraw.
When putting the question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. Where there is no counterproposition, the Minister’s Motion may not be opposed. A participant, whether present or remote, who might wish to press a proposition other than the lead counterproposition to a Division must give notice to the Chair either in the debate or by emailing the clerk. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the question is put, they must make that clear when speaking on the group. Noble Lords following proceedings remotely but not speaking may submit their voice, content or not content, to the collection of the voices by emailing the clerk during the debate. Members cannot vote by email. The way to vote will be via the remote voting system.
Relevant document: 15th Report from the Constitution Committee
1A: Because Parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements is ensured by existing measures and UK standards cannot be changed without further implementing legislation (itself subject to Parliamentary scrutiny).
5A: Because Parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements is ensured by existing measures and UK standards cannot be changed without further implementing legislation (itself subject to Parliamentary scrutiny).
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will also speak to Motion A1. For those noble Lords present in the Chamber, I apologise for my discourtesy in not being at the Dispatch Box. I was travelling overseas on ministerial business last week, but while I was away my exemption was withdrawn so I am presently in quarantine. I apologise for my absence from the Chamber today.
The Bill has been returned to our House from the other place, and we are moving ever closer to getting this crucial piece of legislation on to the statute book. As my ministerial colleague the Minister of State for Trade Policy so eloquently put it during the last debate on the Bill in the other place, the Bill is this Parliament’s first opportunity to define the UK’s approach towards international trade as an independent trading nation, no longer a member of the EU and out of the transition period. The passage of the Bill will be a boon to the UK economy, giving certainty to business with regard to our continuity trade agreements, which we have now signed with no fewer than 63 partner countries, confirming the UK’s access to the £1.3 trillion global procurement markets, providing protection for businesses and consumers from unfair trading practices, and ensuring that we have the appropriate data to support traders at the borders.
The other place has resolved against non-government amendments to the Bill. It is my hope that this House concurs with the opinion of the other place and chooses not to further amend the Bill. I say with the greatest respect that we must be mindful of the role of this House within Parliament. We are not the democratically elected House and we do not express the will of the people in the same way as the other place does. Our primary role is to scrutinise and, where appropriate, ask the other place to reconsider an issue. The other place has done this, so we must think long and hard before disregarding its clear pronouncements.
I turn to the revised amendment, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lansley, on parliamentary scrutiny. It is of course only right and proper, now that we have left the EU, that Parliament should have the powers to effectively scrutinise the Government’s ambitious free trade agreement programme. However, the amendment has significant deficiencies that we believe are inappropriate for our Westminster style of government and would limit the Government’s ability to negotiate the best deals for the UK.
That is not to say that the Government have ignored the concerns of noble Lords and the other place. Quite the contrary: the Government have significantly enhanced their transparency and scrutiny arrangements because of the scrutiny that your Lordships’ House has given to the Bill. I point noble Lords to my Written Ministerial Statement of 7 December last year and the progress that we have made, for example, in putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing as evidence of that.
The enhanced arrangements that we have set out are as strong as and, in several areas, stronger than those of comparable Westminster-style advanced democracies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Several of the areas covered in the amendment duplicate things that the Government are already doing or are established precedent of the UK as a dualist state. This includes the statutory requirement to produce an Explanatory Memorandum when a treaty is laid in Parliament; it is through that Explanatory Memorandum that we outline the legislation needed to implement the agreement, as illustrated through the Explanatory Memorandum for the Japan agreement. Consequently, the Government already undertake what my noble friend is seeking in his amendment. As I said on Report, and I am happy to repeat it again, I remain open to discussing with noble Lords how we could improve the presentation of this information.
In addition, if the domestic implementing legislation were not passed before the FTA entered into force, the UK would be in breach of its treaty obligations. For that reason, implementing legislation is normally put in place before ratification of a treaty. I believe that there is no sense in changing that process. The Government have continued to stand by their commitments to accommodate debates on their trade agenda, subject to available time, and I am happy to confirm that that will not change.
Last week I met my noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Purvis, to discuss the scrutiny amendment. At that meeting I said I would provide some additional information on the ministerial forum for trade, which I know has been of interest to your Lordships. The forum has been warmly welcomed by the devolved Administrations and has now met four times, most recently in December. As part of the Government’s commitment to improved transparency of intergovernmental relationships, I am pleased to say that there will be a new dedicated page on the GOV.UK website for the ministerial forum for trade. It will be used to publish communiques following future meetings, as well as other relevant documents such as the forum’s terms of reference.
To enable discussions on FTAs between the UK and devolved Ministers, we have shared negotiating objectives with the devolved Administrations for all our rest-of-world FTAs. We have also shared text concerning devolved matters during negotiations and stable text once we reach agreement in principle. I confirm that we intend to continue that approach in future.
In summing up on this amendment, it is already the case that if Parliament is not satisfied with an FTA that we have negotiated, the powers in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010—CRaG—give Parliament the power to make its views clear by resolving against ratification. In the other place this process can of course be repeated indefinitely, effectively acting as a veto. Your Lordships will also know that we do not have the powers in this Bill to implement any FTA with the United States or any other country which we had no agreement with through our EU membership. The House will therefore have the opportunity to scrutinise any future legislation needed to implement these agreements.
I am sure that noble Lords will scrutinise these future agreements just as forensically as they did the continuity agreements which are the subject of the Bill. As I mentioned earlier, failure to pass any necessary implementing legislation for these future FTAs would prevent ratification of the agreement taking place.
Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)
1B: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“Parliamentary approval of international trade agreements and treaties(1) If a decision has been made by the Secretary of State to commence negotiations towards a free trade agreement, a statement must be made to both Houses of Parliament.(2) Negotiations for that trade agreement may not proceed until the Secretary of State has laid draft negotiating objectives in respect of that agreement before Parliament, and an amendable motion endorsing the draft negotiating objectives has been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons.(3) Prior to the draft negotiating objectives being laid, the Secretary of State must consult each devolved authority on the content of the draft negotiating objectives, and seek their consent.(4) The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 is amended as follows.(5) In section 20 (treaties to be laid before Parliament before ratification), after subsection (1)(b) insert—“(ba) where the treaty is an international trade agreement as defined in the Trade Act 2021, a Minister of the Crown has published an analysis of the requirement for the treaty to be implemented through changes to domestic legislation, and(bb) where the treaty is an international trade agreement as defined in the Trade Act 2021, the House of Commons has resolved, within period A, that the treaty should be ratified, and”(6) In section 21 (extension of 21 sitting day period), after subsection (2) insert—“(2A) Where a relevant Committee of either House of Parliament has recommended that a treaty constituting an international trade agreement as defined by the Trade Act 2021 should be debated in that House, the Minister of the Crown must ensure that the period does not expire before that debate has taken place.”””
My Lords, it is Groundhog Day and we are debating the Trade Bill. We have nearly concluded it, I hope, but it is in fact more than four years since we first debated the original trade Bill. I earnestly share my noble friend the Minister’s hope that we will bring it on to the statute book soon.
Your Lordships sent two amendments to the other place concerning the parliamentary scrutiny of international trade agreements, and the other place disagreed to them both. I am therefore grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Purvis of Tweed and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, who have enabled us to combine and somewhat simplify those two amendments, and to focus their provisions in one amendment in lieu. Noble Lords will find it as Amendment 1B on the Marshalled List. It shows clearly that we wish to find common ground with the Government on the issue. As my noble friend the Minister has said on a number of occasions, we are not far apart, as demonstrated in our positive discussions last week, for which I am grateful to him.
Amendment 1B would provide that prior to entering the negotiations on a trade agreement, Ministers would be required to lay the negotiating objectives and that those would need to be approved by a resolution in the House of Commons. In preparing those objectives, Ministers would have to consult the devolved Administrations and seek their consent. Also, when the Government have signed a trade agreement and it is to be scrutinised under the CRaG process, Ministers would have to publish an analysis of the changes required to domestic legislation; and if a committee in either House called a debate on the treaty, Ministers would not be able to ratify it until that debate had taken place.
The House will be aware that the Government are now moving ahead with negotiations on new trade deals, not just continuity agreements. That is very welcome but it means that now is the time, and this is the legislative opportunity, to strengthen Parliament’s role. The amendment does not impinge on the prerogative power. The Executive can still determine whether to enter a trade negotiation and the Government can propose the objectives. They conduct the negotiations and sign the agreement; only then does the Commons—not this House—have the power under the existing CRaG statute to stop ratification, or, technically speaking, to delay it.
The amendment would ensure that the Government consult the devolved Administrations. Given the breadth of trade issues, who could seriously argue that they should not, and that they take the Commons with them on their objectives? Many trade experts argue that this explicit support from Parliament, and occasionally Parliament’s explicit red lines, give force to the trade negotiators’ position.
The debate on our amendments in the other place was interesting. The Government’s argument came down to two things: a debate before the negotiations would bind their hands, and they already provide the information in time for scrutiny. I am afraid that neither point is persuasive. For government to enter negotiations with objectives which the House of Commons could not support is asking for trouble. The suggestion made yesterday by the Government in relation to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on genocide, for example, is presumably recognition of the reality of this fact, whichever Government are in power.
On the 21-day period, the CRaG process has a clear loophole. If time is not found for debate within 21 days, the Government can go ahead and ratify, giving the other place no final say. That simply should never happen. The loophole must be closed, and the wording of the amendment has been chosen quite carefully. The onus is on Ministers not to ratify an international trade agreement unless and until a requested debate has taken place. There is no statutory obligation or restraint being placed on business managers. If they have to ratify it urgently without a debate or scrutiny, Section 22 of the CRaG statute allows them to do that, citing exceptional circumstances.
In the other place a fortnight ago today, 11 Conservative Members of Parliament voted for what was Amendment 1 to strengthen parliamentary scrutiny. More than that were sympathetic. One Member who spoke in that debate was Liam Fox, who said that when he was Secretary of State his preference
“was for us to have a meaningful debate on a motion that was amendable at the outset for the mandate of trade discussions. That would have enabled the House to set the ethical parameters within which we would operate, and then the Government would have gone ahead and carried out the negotiation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/1/21; col. 811.]
That was the former Secretary of State speaking. This amendment in lieu provides for that; it is a reasonable accommodation between the royal prerogative and parliamentary scrutiny. We in this place have not had the responsibility for scrutiny of trade agreements for over 40 years. They are a new and substantial responsibility, and Parliament must have its say.
The existing CRaG process will continue to apply to treaties that are not international trade agreements, so the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office can be content. But the CRaG structure is insufficient to carry the weight of the trade deals in prospect and the expectations of public and Parliament, so it has to be strengthened. The business managers—I was formerly one of them—are not required to provide time for a debate but Ministers are not able to go ahead and ratify unless such a debate has taken place. As a former leader of the Commons, I think that they too have no grounds to object.
As noble Lords can see, this is not a party issue but a parliamentary issue. I urge my noble friend the Minister to acknowledge this and accept the principles at stake—and give Parliament its say. I beg to move.
Two Members have requested to speak in the Chamber, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.
My Lords, I support Motion A1. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, on his introduction, because I thought it was very calm, considered and thorough—and, above all, it was reasonable, which is something I care very much about. The Government’s attempt to throw out all our amendments epitomises the problem that we have. This is not a democracy. The Minister is very well respected and extremely honourable, but his speech made me laugh out loud. The Government have enhanced their transparency, he said. In what world have they done that? He was good enough to remind us of the rule that we should not overrule the elected Chamber and so on, and the will of the other place. But let us face it, with an 80-plus majority the Government just decide what is going to happen and stamp on those Members of the other place who choose not to follow the party line. What the Government are trying to do is to limit scrutiny of this.
There was something else—oh yes, the Minister said that this Motion would limit the Government in getting the best deals. Judging by the way in which they have handled the deals that they have done so far, I would argue that they are not very good at getting the best deals anyway. Perhaps they would benefit from your Lordships’ House getting involved in giving scrutiny to their so far abysmal deal-making.
I strongly support this Motion and hope that the Government can see sense about it. It is not a democracy when you have two Chambers but the second Chamber is left not to comment when, let us face it, the other place does not have the time to scrutinise in the same way as your Lordships’ House does. We have the time and the expertise to scrutinise things, and that is what we should be allowed to get on with.
My Lords, before I comment on the amendment, I join the growing list of people who are very concerned about the procedures of the House. In the last week, we received a letter from the Clerk of the Parliaments, telling us to stay at home, and we had another missive from the Lord Speaker telling us to stay at home, yet the Procedure Committee insists that we break all the rules that the Government want us to obey to come here to speak on an occasion like this. I hope that the Lord Speaker, when he returns tomorrow after his birthday—and I wish him many happy returns of the day—comes back reinvigorated, with the determination to persuade the chairman of the Procedure Committee to bring the rules up to date, although I know that he himself is not in charge of that committee. It is ludicrous that we are put in this position.
I am very happy to support my noble friend Lord Lansley. Modern trade deals are much more complicated than they used to be and cover huge areas of public policy—areas of concern to all of us. It is a different world from when we used to do trade deals, before we went into the EU. My noble friend the Minister, in typically emollient fashion, put forward a good case, but it was not good enough. He said that it was the first opportunity for the UK to decide its own trade deals for 45 years. Yes, that is true, but it is not the first opportunity for Parliament to have a guaranteed say in what is going on. Surely my noble friend the Minister has absolutely nothing to fear from Parliament. I take a different view from my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I think that the Government’s trade deals are very good, and I am confident that they will get even better, so my noble friend has nothing to fear, if he continues to produce good trade deals.
It is perplexing to many of us that there is no guaranteed vote by the House of Commons on a trade deal, whereas there is for the Parliaments of America, Japan and the European Union. We are portrayed as undemocratic, which is a sadness. This is a great opportunity to enhance the role of Parliament and the House of Commons, and one that ought to be seized with both hands. As I said, my noble friend the Minister has nothing to fear.
My noble friend Lord Lansley has moved considerably to try to meet the Government’s concerns on this issue. He has listened and adapted his amendment and I hope that your Lordships will support him, to give the other place a chance to look at a different amendment and a hugely important one for the way in which our constitution works.
Does anyone else in the Chamber wish to speak? No—good. That is that “name that Peer” round over, so that is excellent. I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl. On this issue we share a great deal of common ground, although on other issues perhaps not, and I agree with his remarks about the procedures on these stages.
It has been a pleasure to work with the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, who suggested that this was like “Groundhog Day”. That fantastic film had an element of things changing in each of the days that the character relived. If that was the equivalent of the Trade Bill, we would see the incremental changes that make for a happy ending at the end of the movie. If the Government see sense and accept the noble Lord’s wise words, we will see that incremental change with a happy ending, as in “Groundhog Day”.
The noble Lord referenced previous stages, and I quote from a previous stage in Hansard, where it says:
“We talk about taking back control, but Parliament has got to stop giving its decision-making powers away. If we want to be respected in this Parliament, we have to be the ultimate arbiters of the decisions and direction of travel of our country. We can have those powers. I say to the Minister for Trade Policy that we have had these discussions. I hope that the Government will bring forward mechanisms that allow the House to have much greater scrutiny at the outset of a trade negotiation to set those ethical parameters”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/1/21; col. 812.]
That was not from me, although I have called for similar during previous stages in the Trade Bill. That was from Dr Liam Fox on 19 January, when the Government rejected Lords Amendments 1 and 5 and gave the same reasons for rejecting both. I hope that, as there is growing consensus on this issue, the Government can at least listen to Dr Fox, if not to myself or to the noble Lord, Lord Lansley.
Dr Fox also said:
“Those who had discussions with me when I was Trade Secretary will know that my preference … was for us to have a meaningful debate on a motion that was amendable at the outset for the mandate of trade discussions. That would have enabled the House to set the ethical parameters within which we would operate, and then the Government would have gone ahead and carried out the negotiation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/1/21; col. 811.]
That is very interesting to have learned. There has clearly been a position within the Government whereby they look to see how open they are at the stage of setting the parameters or mandates for opening negotiations. So I hope that the noble Lord’s amendment is not that far from a great deal of thinking within the Government, if that had been the position of the Trade Secretary then.
It is not just Dr Fox—yesterday, on the very good and open Zoom meeting that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, hosted on the amendments that we will discuss in the next group, Sir Iain Duncan Smith said that Parliament should give the go ahead on a trade deal. He made it clear that it would not affect the prerogative power. So I think that there is cross-party support in this area, on a greater setting of the mandate. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Dr Liam Fox and many Members of this House during the passage of this Bill have expressed a belief that it is in the Government’s and our country’s interest, so that these negotiations are stronger.
On the next element of the consultation, I welcome what the Minister said about the new page on GOV.UK on the ministerial forum, which we have debated during previous stages of this Bill. What the Minister mentioned is to be welcomed, but I think that the Government could still, in looking at legislation for international trading agreements, move the same mechanism that they put in place in the internal market Bill for our domestic trading relationships. In that Bill, there was a time-limited period of consultation with the devolved Administrations for regulations for the implementation of trading arrangements. However, I hear what the Minister said, and I hope that aspect is something on which, at this late hour, the Government could still think again.
I turn to the final stage, which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, referred to very well, with regard to debating agreements that have been negotiated by the Government. The Government believe that the prerogative power to start, negotiate and conclude trade agreements is a restricted prerogative power. This is the Government’s policy, not mine or anyone else’s, because they support the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. They are not set to amend it. They believe that there is a restriction on the prerogative power. The Minister referred to that restriction in his speech today and in the letter regarding genocide that he sent to noble Lords this afternoon, which says that the Commons are capable of
“effectively acting as a veto”
under the power in the CRaG Act. That power is beyond that which exists in other Westminster-style democracies. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been cited. They do not have this power, so the UK has decided to be different from other Westminster-style democracies. I think the Minister referred to it as a UK proposition. So this is our starting point, not a new position.
The issue then becomes operability—as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, indicated, whether there are loopholes now that we are operating the CRaG Act for trade agreements, which we had never done. When Jack Straw, then Leader of the House of Commons—one of the noble Lord’s predecessors—was introducing that Bill, he indicated that there were separate procedures for EU agreements, so it has never been tested for trade agreements. So how operable is this veto power, as the Government say? Incidentally, I never said that the House of Commons has a “veto power” over trade agreements; I simply asked for a resolution in the Commons for a vote. I have never used that term but this is the Government’s language so I will accept it.
The Minister said that that power operates subject to available time, so how operable is a veto if it is subject to available time? It is not an operable veto if it is up to the business managers to make time available for it. That is clearly a loophole. I think that is an unintended consequence which the noble Lord’s amendment is seeking to resolve. I believe that it would resolve it because his amendment states that if a committee has asked for there to be time it has to be provided and, in effect, the clock cannot be run out on any of the agreements. The mechanism is for the agreement to be debated on a Motion—not a take-note Motion or a neutral Motion, but a Motion on which there can be a Division so that MPs can decide.
It is interesting that from information from the International Agreements Committee and its predecessor committee I have found out how many times trade agreements have been drawn to the attention of the House and are still awaiting debate. It happened on the Japan agreement and we debated it. The Motion was neutral and we took note. On the agreement with the United States on spaceports, no debate has been granted yet. On Norway and the Faeroe Islands on fish, no debate has been granted yet. On Canada and the FTA, no debate has been granted yet. On Singapore, no debate has been granted yet. On Kenya, no debate has been granted yet. There is a bit of a backlog. Given that we debated the International Relations Committee report in Grand Committee yesterday, 18 months after the committee published it, we are justified in considering the mechanism proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, to make the CRaG veto operable.
There is one final aspect. As the noble Lord indicated, in extreme and exceptional circumstances Ministers would be able to ratify outwith this situation, which we would fully support because ultimately there may have to be exceptional circumstances.
I want to close on one element which the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, mentioned. He said that there was a further parliamentary power, which was, in effect, not to bring forward implementing legislation for an agreement the Government had signed. If our amendment had given an indication that we would block legislation implementing an agreement that a British Government had signed in the international arena, it would be scandalous that we would seek to use that as a mechanism. None of us wish to be in that situation. I hope that the cross-party consensus is that there is a greater voice for Parliament at the outset, that during negotiations there is greater input, that once those agreements have been reached we guarantee time, and that ultimately the House of Commons, as the elected Chamber, is able to form a view. I hope that this House sends a signal that we ask the House of Commons to consider this very carefully.
My Lords, first, we are sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, is not able to be present for the debate, but we know that he is following his Government’s rules by self-isolating.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, for introducing the amendment, which, as he very kindly said, is the result of discussions and debates among Members of the House from all sides, but most closely with the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, who has just spoken, and me, in order to try to reach out to the Government with a corporate approach which is not party political but tries to reflect what this House has a responsibility for, which is to ensure that we have good governance.
We have moved considerably if we consider our starting position, which was set out in the Bill that left your Lordships’ House in March 2019, as has already been said. It had a detailed and lengthy description of the sorts of processes which could underpin the approval of international trade agreements. It was done largely in a vacuum because the Government decided not to play. They had published a Command Paper but they were not interested in detailed discussions at that stage. It was very much a product of a “What if?” mentality in the sense of putting to the other place a proposal which we confidently expected to come back and on which we hoped there would then be discussions, which have indeed transpired, albeit at a year’s distance from that time.
I want to put on record that we recognise that the Government, particularly under the Minister, have moved, but I point out that it has been mainly on the practicalities of scrutiny, not on the principles, and this amendment before your Lordships’ House today is about the principles that should underpin the approval of trade deals on behalf of the United Kingdom. The changes that have been made constitute primarily a huge increase in the information provided to the committee set up to look at trade deals, and the engagement there seems to be going well. We took the view that since that was a work in progress it probably needs more time to bed down. It certainly needs more time in discussion with Ministers and the Government about exactly what information is going to be provided and how it is going to be disseminated and discussed. It was probably not appropriate to seek primary legislation at this stage, but we do not rule out the idea that it is something that should be codified properly as we go forward.
Again for the record, it is important to say that we have agreed, perhaps reluctantly, to accept the Government’s red lines in relation to any constitutional changes that might be envisaged in relation to trade deals. We are not challenging the Government’s power to initiate and carry on their trade negotiations under the royal prerogative. Many would argue that that is outdated and should be changed and that Parliament should have a role in that, but we have not chosen to engage with that at this stage. We are not challenging the relationship between international trade agreements and the CRaG Act 2010. Again, the point has been made very well already that it does not seem fit for purpose, but in the meantime it is the mechanism we have. The changes proposed in our amendment are appropriate for where we want to go. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, just talked about that and I agree with what he said. As I have said already, we will leave the committees to work through the procedures and processes to cover all the elements of a trade deal because there are many different styles of trade deal, many of which have not yet surfaced in terms of scrutiny, and we need to learn lessons from that. Time will tell, but in the interests of making progress we have framed an amendment within the Government’s red lines.
We are not the elected Chamber but, as I have said already, we have a responsibility to look at the constitutional proprieties. I am very confident that this proposal before your Lordships’ House, while I recognise that it is a major shift from where we started in 2019 and earlier on in the progress of this Bill, is an appropriate way of carrying on the dialogue with the other place in the hope of persuading them that there are issues here.
The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, did an excellent job of summarising the amendment in lieu, but I want to put on record again that this is not just something that has been dreamed up by a few of us in the confines of your Lordships’ House. Everybody in your Lordships’ House knows that there is an outside group of people—many organisations, individuals and companies—who would like to see a change in the way in which the scrutiny of trade deals is carried out. They want open and transparent procedures and they want scrutiny to apply to all our trade policy—not just the rollover deals, but for the future as well. They include, as has already been mentioned, the former Secretary of State Liam Fox, and indeed—not that much reference has been made to it—there was a very powerful speech in Committee in your Lordships’ House by the former Trade Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Fairhead. They both urged the Government to seek a way forward by engaging with the proposals before your Lordships’ House today.
I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for their comments. They were very supportive, and I think they take exactly the tone that we want. This is a reasonable, measured and appropriate proposal which builds on the work that has been done in committees and gives Parliament its appropriate place. Parliament needs to have its say. What on earth are the Government afraid of? In closing, I just want to say that we do not regard this conversation as being closed. Should your Lordships’ House agree with this proposal today, we will be very happy to engage in further discussions with the Government, because we are not far apart on this.
My Lords, I would like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate. I have listened carefully to my noble friend Lord Lansley displaying his normal forensic skills and to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and his references to Dr Liam Fox. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, who I think courteously acknowledged the progress we have made in scrutiny, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. At least I made the noble Baroness laugh out loud, even if she does not think much of our negotiating skills. I have to say I think that was rather unfair to the officials who have been conducting the negotiations. Last, but certainly not least, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, displayed his normal wisdom.
As I mentioned, the Government have significantly strengthened the scrutiny and transparency arrangements in place. I fully acknowledge the pressure from noble Lords which led us to do that. I am sure that, over time as we consider more free trade agreements, there will be a continued strengthening of scrutiny and transparency. I am very pleased that the Government have undertaken to publish objectives and scoping assessments at the outset of negotiations for new free trade agreements with Japan, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and in due course—if the admissions process triggered by my right honourable friend the Trade Secretary is successful—the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Additionally, the Government will continue to keep Parliament and the public informed of progress on these negotiations through the publication of “round reports” as we call them, alongside regular briefings for parliamentarians so that they are kept informed and can ask questions of Ministers. I confirm that the Government will continue to work with the International Trade Committee and the International Agreements Committee to ensure that they have treaty text and other related documents or reports, on a confidential basis, a reasonable time prior to them being laid or deposited in Parliament under the CRaG procedure.
I would respectfully remind this House that your Lordships’ Constitution Committee recommended in its 2019 report Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties that
“existing parliamentary mechanisms, supplemented by the work of the proposed treaty committee, should be sufficient to provide effective scrutiny”
and that mandates for treaties should not be subject to parliamentary approval. Now we are not talking about a report that I am dredging up from the long-distant past. This was a report as recently as 2019. On the first point, as I have just set out, we have comprehensive engagement with the relevant Select Committees and, on the second point, we do respect the recommendations of the Constitution Committee, and the Government have ensured that comprehensive information is published ahead of negotiations, including our negotiating objectives and the initial scoping assessment—and I say yet again that of course we will be continuing to do this.
When a signed text is laid in Parliament, it will be accompanied by an Explanatory Memorandum. The Government will publish an independently scrutinised impact assessment covering the economic and environmental impacts of the deal, which I know are so important to noble Lords. Parliament will then have 21 sitting days to scrutinise the deal. Should the International Trade Committee or the International Agreements Committee recommend a debate on the deal, the Government will seek to accommodate such a request, subject to parliamentary time. Personally, I would find it disappointing if parliamentary time was not found for these debates.
It is also important to restate that it is not “one size fits all” in relation to the scrutiny of FTAs. All countries must tailor their processes to their own constitutional systems. The UK has done that as well, and our scrutiny arrangements are as strong as—and I do believe in several areas stronger than—those of comparable western- style democracies. I will also come back to the fact that Parliament already has the ability to veto the implementation of any FTA that the Government sign.
The other place has considered scrutiny amendments during the course of this Bill and its predecessor, and it has been consistent in its view that such amendments are not appropriate for this legislation. So, in light of the views expressed by the other place, and of the steps the Government have already taken, I ask that this House does not insist on this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I see that there have been no requests to ask a question of the Minister, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Lansley.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate, which illustrated the issues well. I am grateful in particular to my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for their support.
The noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Purvis, and I have worked together. We are not insisting on the previous amendment sent. I want to be clear that we are looking for a reasonable compromise, but one which gives Parliament its say.
I make no criticism of the way in which the Government have gone about the processes of scrutiny and partnership with both Houses in relation to the continuity agreements, but we are about to enter the process of negotiating wholly new deals. That brings one forcibly to the question: should the Government enter negotiations with the confidence that at least the House of Commons has approved the negotiating objectives? On that, the quoted remarks of the former Secretary of State, who launched the previous Trade Bill four years ago, are relevant—he did not vote for Amendment 1 in the other place because there were other parts of it he did not agree with—so I think we can find a compromise that recognises that there is a democratic deficit which is best met by giving the two Houses a debate but, certainly, by giving a role in approving negotiating objectives to the elected House. That would strengthen the negotiating hand of government rather than bind it.
My noble friend Lord Grimstone was clear about all the ways in which the Government will work with the House, but by at one point saying “personally” I think he recognised the loophole that exists; namely, that if Ministers want to ratify a treaty without scrutiny and debate in the House, they can do it by laying a Statement under Section 22 of CRaG. If, however, they do not want to do that explicitly, they can allow 21 days to pass without a debate and ratify anyway. There is nothing in CRaG to stop them doing so. The purpose of this amendment is simply to close that loophole. If the International Agreements Committee in this House, of which I am privileged to be a member, or the International Trade Committee in the other place were to seek a debate, this amendment would provide that Ministers could not ratify the treaty prior to such a debate. If Ministers agree that there is such a loophole, I am afraid to say that they should agree with the amendment. Disagreeing with the amendment and leaving the loophole open simply affords the possibility for mischief at some point in the future—maybe not by this Government but by another Government at another time.
The need for the other place to have an opportunity to look at this issue on the basis of a new, more restricted amendment on which we can reach a reasonable compromise gives us a basis for asking the other place to think again. I therefore seek to test the opinion of the House on Motion A1.
2A: Because it is unnecessary in light of existing international obligations.
My Lords, I beg to move Motion B. With the leave of the House, I will speak also to Motions C, C1, C2 and C3.
First, I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. While this amendment does not focus solely on China, it is clear that a primary concern of noble Lords and our colleagues in the other place are the deplorable actions of the Chinese Government towards the Uighur population in Xinjiang province. With that mind, I recall the Foreign Secretary’s Statement of a few weeks ago, which set out a number of measures the Government are taking in this area, including the introduction of financial penalties for organisations that fail to comply with the Modern Slavery Act 2015, a review of export controls as they apply to Xinjiang, and strengthened overseas business risk guidance for businesses. These actions show clearly how seriously the Government take human rights violations and abuses across the world, including in China. The UK has long been committed to the promotion of our values across the world. Trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights.
The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, seeks to impose a duty on the Government to bring a Motion for debate before both Houses of Parliament in the event that the High Court makes a preliminary determination that a trading partner, existing or potential, of the UK has committed genocide.
It has been the Government’s long-standing policy that any determination of genocide should be made only by a competent court, rather than a Government or a non-judicial body. It has been argued that international courts such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice have not been effective and that it should be up to UK courts to make determinations on state genocide.
UK courts already have a role where a person is charged with the crime of genocide. Under the International Criminal Court Act 2001, domestic criminal courts in the UK are competent to find individuals guilty of genocide where the case is proved to the criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”. UK courts can determine whether a genocide has taken place when a person is charged with the crime of genocide, wherever the alleged genocide took place. Both UK nationals and UK residents can be prosecuted, including those who became resident in the UK after the alleged offence took place.
Genocide, the greatest of all international crimes, is notoriously hard to prove. It requires not only the commission of a constitutive act—normally killing, but also rape, forced sterilisation and a number of other heinous measures—but
“intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.
To prove that any Government have “genocidal intent” under the very specific terms of the genocide convention can be extremely difficult to achieve in practice due to the inherent difficulty of proving genocidal intent and the potential difficulty of obtaining reliable information from overseas regions.
Any case would also entail significant practical and procedural difficulties for the UK courts charged with making a preliminary determination. On the procedural side, the proceedings will be formal court procedures with all the associated disadvantages; for example, relevant evidence might not be admissible under the stringent applicable rules.
Moreover, although the proceedings contemplated under the amendment seem to be ex parte, other countries could make an application saying that the High Court should not hear the claim on the ground that this would contravene sovereign immunity principles. If the High Court were then still to hear the claim, they could say that the process was illegitimate, as the court had no jurisdiction to judge their behaviour.
Given the procedural and evidentiary difficulties, as well as the extremely restrictive nature of the international law regarding genocide, I must say that there is a substantial likelihood that any judge could find him or herself unable to make a preliminary determination on the facts before the court. Such a result would be a substantial propaganda boon for any foreign Government accused, who could portray the outcome as vindication for their policies and undermine broader diplomatic efforts to hold them to account. Dwell on that fact for a moment, my Lords.
In a more general sense, the amendment seeks to force the Government to stop and debate their trading arrangements in the event that UK courts make a finding of genocide relevant to a partner country where the UK either has a trade agreement or is negotiating one. But it would frankly be absurd for any Government to wait for the human rights situation in a country to reach the level of genocide—the most egregious international crime—before halting free trade agreement negotiations. Any responsible Government, and certainly this one, would have acted well before then.
In the event of a finding by a competent court that an existing trading partner had committed genocide, we would of course consider the available range of policy options across government. Such responses would, of course, not be restricted to trade. The Government do not just have a responsibility in these matters, they have a duty to take tough decisions and to chart a course of action when faced with egregious crimes that may be perpetrated in the international community.
On the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office publishes annually its Human Rights and Democracy report, which touches on relevant issues, including on matters concerning human rights in the context of business and the private sector. In the light of this existing government activity, I respectfully suggest that a legislative requirement to produce a report is not required.
The Government are committed to working with Parliament on the most heinous crime of genocide and to exploring options with Parliament in this regard as it relates to trade. Our minds are certainly not, as they should not be, closed on that matter, but we must proceed without amending the delicate balance in the constitution and the role of the courts, and, on this most serious of issues, genocide, minimise the risk of undermining the very aims of those seeking justice.
For all the reasons I have set out, I strongly encourage noble Lords to set aside this unnecessary amendment—powerful although it is—and to continue to work with the Government on this most crucial issue.
Motion B1 (as an amendment to Motion B)
2B: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Free trade agreements: determination on state actions
(1) Before a trade agreement can be laid before Parliament under section 20(1) of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, Ministers of the Crown must determine whether another signatory to the relevant agreement has committed crimes against humanity, or if the agreement is compliant with the United Kingdom’s human rights and international obligations. Such a determination must be published and made available to the relevant Committees in both Houses of Parliament at the same time as they are requested to consider a signed trade agreement.
(2) The Government must present an annual report to the relevant Committees in both Houses of Parliament which examines any crimes against humanity committed or alleged to have been committed by another signatory to the relevant agreement since it was signed. If such crimes have taken place, Ministers of the Crown must make a determination on the continuation of a trade agreement.””
My Lords, first, I welcome and support all the amendments in this group. There is no difference between us on the issue of human rights and, in particular, on ensuring that those people who commit genocide are held to account. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his work on human rights. We have a long record of working together on this, and I am sure we will continue that co-operative approach this afternoon.
The amendment in my name is fundamentally about ministerial accountability and parliamentary scrutiny, which we heard much about in the debate on the previous group. The amendment in lieu is shorter and refers to crimes against humanity. We have done this because we want to complement the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, not duplicate what it is trying to achieve; otherwise, the Government could just provide a nil return in their determination to Parliament, absent of any legal ruling of genocide, so it adds an important element. We want to provide a safety net in case the courts decide there is insufficient evidence to permit a ruling of genocide. The main thrust of the amendment remains on state actions, but we are also concerned for the UK’s commitments and actions, and this would complement the standards amendment that the House has just passed, which will also include human rights and international obligations.
We need, and have agreed, to have an open and transparent process. Like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for spending time to meet us to consider this question. However, when I met him, I reiterated the call for proper, joined-up government, where we end the position of one government department condemning the actions of a country that commits outrageous crimes against humanity while another department signs preferential trade agreements.
We are assured that such mechanisms as the annual FCDO report to Parliament, to which the Minister referred, will be drawn to the specific attention of other departments. I have read and debated that report every year it has come out, and know that the countries we are trading with have terrible human rights records, but I have not heard a Trade Minister refer to them. I want to make our judgment today on the record, not simply on the kind words and assurances that we have heard.
The reason why this amendment and that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on genocide, matter so much is that the decisions the Government make on trade outside the European Union, and the way those decisions are taken, are opening up an entirely new frontier in Britain’s responsibility for what happens to human rights overseas. The question is whether we embrace that responsibility or ignore it.
The Minister said that trade will not be at the expense of human rights. The question of trade agreements is not like the decisions the Government take on arms sales, for example, where there is a legal framework in place, some guarantee of parliamentary scrutiny and, on some occasions, the right to challenge those decisions in court.
On the trade agreements that the Government are signing, we have none of those things when it comes to human rights. On arms sales, the Government are obliged to consider whether they are legally permitted to license those exports. On wider trade deals, we are simply left to hope that the Government will voluntarily ask themselves whether they are ethically willing to extend preferential terms of trade to countries that abuse human rights.
The evidence so far is deeply worrying, with the Government apparently showing no concern whatever for the human rights records of potential trade partners before signing agreements with them and, as we have heard, resisting all attempts in the past year to place legal or parliamentary constraints on their ability to negotiate those deals.
That was also reflected in a much more mundane but equally pernicious way in the trade deal that came into force on 1 January maintaining free trade beyond the Brexit transition period with President Biya’s regime in Cameroon. That was the very same day that the United States Senate unanimously approved a resolution condemning the Biya regime for its massacre of civilians, its burning of villages, its mass detention of political opponents, and its use of torture and extrajudicial killings in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions. That trade agreement with Cameroon was signed by the Government with apparently no consideration of whether it was appropriate or right in the light of the actions of the Biya regime. A full month later, there has been no parliamentary scrutiny of that agreement, which has still not been made available for Parliament even to read.
Those are the precedents that are being set when it comes to human rights and the Government’s new trade agreements, and we are just at the beginning of seeing where this will lead. That is why it is so crucial that this House sends a clear message to Parliament, to the other place and to the Government that we care if British-made arms are used to kill children in Yemen as they travel to school on buses, that we care if British trade agreements give legitimacy and financial support to regimes such as those in Cameroon and Egypt, even as they slaughter their civilians and execute their political opponents, that we care about what is happening to the Uighur population and about the terrible crimes committed by the Communist Party of China, and that we care that the Government are able to take decisions in all these areas not just without an ethical mindset or a legal framework but without even a bare minimum of proper parliamentary scrutiny.
I appreciate what the Minister has said. I appreciate his sympathetic words about the need for human rights and about human rights being taken into account, but, on the past record, those sympathetic words are simply not enough. For me, as I said on Report, the best outcome would have been if the Government had committed to come up with their own transparent process, thereby alleviating the need to divide this House and the need to send amendments back to the elected Chamber. But I think that the elected Chamber deserves the right to have a further look at this very important issue, and it is very important that we are able to send that message.
I welcome the fact that the Government have sought to engage on this matter, but what has been proposed in the meetings we have had has serious limitations, and what is proposed in terms of committees is already within the mandate of the relevant Select Committee. There is no indication that the Government’s policy will change, particularly—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will refer to this—on the question of genocide.
It is unclear what the concessions that have been referred to are or how they will impact on policy. The fact is that the Government’s proposals were not laid before our House in time for today’s debate. If we are really to be able to consider a concession from this Government, it is vital that this House votes for my amendment and for the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I beg to move.
My Lords, I would like to add my voice to that of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, before I turn to my own all-party amendment on genocide. His proposition that great thought must be given to a more coherent and comprehensive approach to dealing with gross violations of human rights is the right approach. It is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord because many of the same issues motivate and animate the two of us, and it is always a privilege to speak about these issues in your Lordships’ House.
As co-chair and co-founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, I gave evidence to the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea. Six years ago, it found North Korea to be a state “without parallel”. Its crimes were found to include
“extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
It concluded that these crimes were
“ongoing … because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.”
It also concluded that crimes against humanity had been committed, and recommended that the Security Council request that the International Criminal Court initiate a prosecution. That has never happened because, as the United Kingdom repeatedly says, China would use its veto to prevent a referral to the ICC. That is on the issue of crimes against humanity and human rights violations, even before one comes to the crime above all crimes—genocide.
Of course, we should challenge the ability of any country to use a veto when human rights violations of this magnitude are found by a commission established by the United Nations, but there is no treaty obligation to prevent even crimes against humanity. However, there is one on genocide—hence the amendment in lieu that I have laid before your Lordships today and on which, later, I will seek the opinion of the House.
On Thursday last, I spoke during the proceedings on the telecommunications Bill. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for responding so positively to many of the points that I and other noble Lords had made to her and, as a consequence, it was possible not to have a Division. During that debate, I outlined some of the appalling atrocities which have been occurring in Xinjiang and which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has just referred to—an issue which I first raised in your Lordships’ House in 2008. I am vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uighurs and follow this matter on an almost day-by-day basis.
This amendment on genocide has its origins not in China or Xinjiang or in the Uighurs but in 2016, when, despite Parliament passing a Motion on genocidal crimes against Yazidis and other minorities, the Government refused to accept it because a court had not made the declaration. The all-party genocide amendment remedies a circular argument. It also supports the position of successive Governments that only a court has the authority and ability to make such a determination. For at least a generation, the policy of all Governments has been that genocide determination is a matter for courts, not politicians.
Boris Johnson, at Prime Minister’s Questions on 20 January, said that
“the attribution of genocide is a judicial matter”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/1/21; col. 959.]
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said on “The Andrew Marr Show” on 17 January, “Whether or not it amounts to genocide is a matter for the courts.” Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, said on 21 November 2017 that
“genocide is a strict legal term, and we hesitate to deploy it without a proper judicial decision.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/11/17; col. 839.]
The United Kingdom reviewed this policy in 2016. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, concluded:
“It is not for the Government to be prosecutor, judge and jury … Not only are the courts the best place to judge criminal matters but their impartiality also ensures the protection of the UK government from the politicisation and controversies that attach themselves to the question of ‘Genocide’.”
This is in contrast, of course, with the United States and other jurisdictions that have made non-judicial or political determinations of genocide, the latest of which was the designation by the outgoing US Administration on 19 January regarding the treatment of Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The following day, it was reaffirmed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the incoming Administration, so it is a bipartisan view.
The Government accept that the present process in the UK is not fit for purpose. Yesterday, at a meeting of Peers that was addressed by three Ministers—many of those present in your Lordships’ Chamber will have heard this—they said that they intend to offer a concession to turn the policy of 40 years on its head and allow Select Committees to consider whether a genocide, as defined under Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Crime of Genocide, is under way.
Respectfully—I say this as a member of your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Select Committee—Select Committees already have such authority to examine evidence of genocide if they wish to do so; they do not need legislation to give them that power. Members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs have already expressed public opposition to and scepticism about this proposal.
If, however, such an approach were to include a legislative right—for instance, for a committee not only to examine the evidence but to be able to trigger a referral to the High Court—this would not only open a judicial route, it would also enable parliamentary scrutiny and provide a trigger mechanism. An otherwise toothless concession might then be given some teeth.
This lunchtime, a letter was sent to all Peers, rather belatedly, from two of the three Ministers who were present on that call yesterday. The noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, was one of them, although, interestingly, the signature of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was not on this letter. My noble friend Lord Hannay, who knows a thing or two about foreign affairs, emailed me to express his support for the amendment before your Lordships’ House. About this letter, he said:
“It seems to me that the letter makes one fundamental error when it says that your amendment”—
that is, the amendment before your Lordships—
“is designed to get a British court to rule on whether country X or Y had broken its obligations under the genocide convention. It’s surely aimed at getting a British court to rule as to whether the British Government would or might break our obligations under the genocide convention if it were to conclude a trade agreement with country X or Y in the light of evidence about their genocidal actions.”
My noble friend is right: the amendment does not seek to convict a country through the courts. Many of the windmills that the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, invited us to tilt at earlier on are therefore imaginary ones. We do not need to be like Don Quixote in that respect. This amendment does not provide for a criminal prosecution. My noble friend Lord Hannay is right when he says that its purpose is to enable the United Kingdom to fulfil its obligations under the genocide convention.
On Report, this amendment received a majority of 126 in your Lordships’ House. The Government, with their large majority of more than 80 in another place, had a majority of 11 when the amendment was considered there. It is greatly welcome that the Government are beginning to address the issue and offer some way forward. I am grateful to the Ministers and their teams. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, just reminded us, the only way that such concessions can be agreed is by our voting today to send this amendment back to the Commons. Otherwise, it will die in the ditch.
When Ministers say that they do not want the courts involved and question the ability of the courts to deal with such issues, they should consider that among the supporters of the amendment before us today are two illustrious former Lord Chancellors from both sides of the House: the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Falconer of Thoroton. Other supporters include two former Supreme Court judges, the former Lord Chief Justice and a range of QCs, including the noble Lords, Lord Carlile of Berriew and Lord Pannick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, who is in her place. As ever, we all look forward to hearing her speak. The Government can hardly plausibly argue, therefore, that the amendment is legally defective or incapable of operation.
At yesterday’s meeting, Ministers said that the amendment may frustrate foreign policy and create diplomatic difficulties. We are talking about genocide, not diplomacy. The amendment is designed to frustrate business as usual on the narrow and specific issue of genocide and honour our obligations as spelled out in international law in the g