Monday 8 February 2021
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.
Sanctions (EU Exit) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 4) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these instruments were laid between July 2019 and December 2020 under the powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, also known as the sanctions Act. As noble Lords will be aware, the sanctions Act provides the legal framework within which the UK may impose, update and lift sanctions, whether autonomously or in line with our UN obligations, now that we have left the EU. It is the foundation for an independent sanctions policy in support of our foreign policy and national security interests.
To establish individual sanctions regimes within that framework, we are required to lay statutory instruments. Of the nine instruments we are considering today, seven transition existing EU regimes into UK law. As set out in my letter to parliamentary colleagues of 25 January, the new UK regimes and the measures they contain are intended to have substantially the same effect as those they replace. The two remaining instruments amend the other statutory instruments that establish sanctions regimes.
The amendments in the Sanctions (EU Exit) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 are designed to ensure that our entire suite of sanctions legislation is as consistent and clear in its provisions as possible. Many regimes contain the same sanctions measures and we strive for consistency in language to promote consistency in interpretation, application and enforcement. British businesses often export goods or provide services to more than one country subject to sanctions, and any inconsistency in the wording of the legislation can cause confusion and increase their compliance costs.
The amendments in Sanctions (EU Exit) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 ensure that UK persons in the Crown dependencies and overseas territories are not unduly affected by the extraterritorial application of UK law. They create an exception to the extraterritorial prohibition so that a licence from the authorities in that jurisdiction is sufficient to authorise UK persons’ conduct there. Those persons do not then need also to obtain the licence from the UK authorities to avoid committing an offence under UK law.
I would now like to elaborate further on the purposes of the seven regimes which these instruments establish. First, the Bosnia and Herzegovina sanctions regulations are aimed at promoting peace, stability and security in Bosnia and respect for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. They are also intended to encourage compliance with and the implementation of the general framework agreement for peace, which established Bosnia and Herzegovina as a single sovereign state. The regulations permit the imposition of financial and immigration sanctions.
The Burundi sanctions regulations aim to encourage the Government of Burundi to respect democratic principles and institutions, and the rule of law and good governance in Burundi; to participate in negotiations with their political opponents in good faith to bring about a peaceful solution to the political situation; to refrain from policies or activities that repress civil society; and to comply with international human rights law and respect human rights. They permit the imposition of financial and immigration sanctions.
The cyber sanctions regulations are aimed at preventing certain types of cyberactivity that undermine the integrity, prosperity or security of the UK or any other country. They are also intended to prevent certain types of cyberactivity that cause the economic loss or prejudice of commercial interests, undermine the independence or effective functioning of an international organisation, or otherwise affect a significant number of people in an indiscriminate manner. The regulations permit the imposition of financial and immigration sanctions. We have imposed sanctions on the same 12 individuals and entities as were sanctioned in 2020 by the EU. These include actors from Russia, China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The Guinea sanctions regulations aim to encourage the Government of Guinea to properly investigate the violent repression that took place on 28 September 2009 and its aftermath, as well as to hold those responsible to account. The regulations permit the imposition of targeted financial and immigration sanctions.
The misappropriation sanctions regulations are aimed at deterring and providing accountability for the misappropriation of state funds from a country outside the UK. They permit the imposition of financial and immigration sanctions. Rather than establish geographical regimes, as existed under EU legislation, this instrument creates a single thematic regime under which designations can be made in respect of misappropriation of state funds taking place anywhere outside the UK, allowing for greater agility and flexibility.
The Nicaragua sanctions regulations are aimed at encouraging the Government of Nicaragua to respect democratic principles and institutions, the separation of powers and the rule of law, to refrain from the repression of civil society and to respect human rights. The regulations permit the imposition of financial and immigration sanctions.
The Unauthorised Drilling Activities in the Eastern Mediterranean (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 aim to discourage any unauthorised hydrocarbon exploration or production activities in the territorial sea or exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Cyprus or on its continental shelf. They permit the imposition of financial and immigration sanctions.
In conclusion, sanctions are a key part of many of the UK’s political and diplomatic strategies. They also contribute to our efforts to uphold and defend the rules-based international order. The United Kingdom has long been a global leader in this field and this will not change now that we have left the European Union. Our independent sanctions policy allows us to use sanctions to achieve maximum impact by working in a way that is agile, expertise-driven and in support of our values, and enables collaboration with both new and established partners. International co-operation is at the heart of our policy. As I have said a number of times, sanctions are most effective when implemented and enforced collectively. We will continue to co-ordinate closely with our European and other international partners on sanctions, using the excellent relationships and networks we have already established.
These regulations are a crucial part of the legal basis that underpins our sanctions policy and of which the sanctions Act is the keystone. With them in place, we can promote and protect security, stability and prosperity at home and overseas, call for accountability and justice, and deter human rights violations and abuses. In short, they will help us to project the United Kingdom as a force for good in the world. I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for his introductory comments. Allow me first to declare my interest as a partner in the advisory board of Transparency International UK. Under the guidance of its offices, I presented a Private Member’s Bill to curb corruption. The then Labour Government did not support it and it fell in the Lords. A remarkably similar government Bill subsequently appeared and sailed through on to the statute book. Be that as it may, there have been remarkably few prosecutions under the Act in the years that followed; perhaps these SIs will help jog the institutional memory—perhaps through the updates that the Minister alluded to.
My remarks focus on Burundi and Guinea, primarily because they are two countries of which I have personal knowledge and experience, and thus like to think I can speak on with a degree of authority. I shall deal with Burundi first—this small, poor country in central Africa, overshadowed by its larger, more powerful neighbour, Rwanda. Like Rwanda, Burundi is threatened by ethnic turbulence, with a population of some 10 million split between 14% Tutsi and 85% Hutu. A visit to the genocide museum over the border in Rwanda is a telling reminder of where this can lead.
The Minister mentioned the importance of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in relation to the coming sanctions. It is questionable whether that is accepted in the country itself. Since independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has been governed as a presidential democratic republic. Its first elected President was assassinated in 1993. Since then, some 200,000 Burundians have perished in ethnic violence and hundreds of thousands more have become internally displaced or refugees. Human rights abuses abound. President Ndayishimiye, in office since mid-2020, claims to have made policy changes to provide the opposition with political space and to mend relations with the international community. This assertion is challenged by the leader of the opposition, Mr Rwasa, who says that there have been no changes, with opposition meetings banned and the President himself stating that there is no room for opposition. Democracy, the rule of law and human rights seem to be way down the agenda.
I recall speaking at a conference on aid effectiveness in Maputo, Mozambique, and being heckled from the audience. It turned out to be two Burundian MPs. They were complaining loudly that the UK had withdrawn all financial aid from Burundi, which was then about $20 million a year, and replaced it with technical assistance in its Treasury. In fact, a Burundian Vice-President told me later that it was the best thing we ever did. He said the taxes collected through the revenue officials the UK trained were four times greater than the cancelled aid. In his reply, can the Minister say what, if any, changes have been made to the sanctions regime in recognition of the change of leadership in Burundi? What is the current situation regarding aid for Burundi?
Similarly, in Guinea, what impact have the changes in the leadership had on the sanctions regime? With the collapse of France’s Fourth Republic, Guinea was the only colony in France’s African empire to take the harsh option of immediate independence without transitional support, rather than joining the French community of nations created by de Gaulle. In 1958, France abruptly left Guinea, taking with it everything it could move. The incoming President, Ahmed Sékou Touré, swept to power and introduced a centralised Marxist socialist regime. A third of the population fled the country. Those who remained suffered the privations of a failing state—hyperinflation, food shortages, starvation and riots. Sékou Touré called for help, first from the Russians and then the Chinese.
Guinea is potentially an incredibly wealthy country in terms of natural and mineral resources. It has up to one half of the world’s bauxite reserves and a large deposit of high-grade iron ore. In parallel with failed economic policies and state-sponsored drug smuggling, a series of brutal dictatorships have enforced control through murder, human rights abuses and imprisonment. My client at the time, the Minister of Public Works, was imprisoned by the President and starved, eventually to death. The 2009 violent outbreak was just one of many such incidents. In January this year, the French-Israeli mining tycoon, Beny Steinmetz, was sentenced in a Swiss court to five years in jail, guilty of corruption by bribing the late President Conté’s fourth wife, Mamadie, with $10 million to persuade the President to transfer the Simandou iron ore concession to Steinmetz for $170 million. Steinmetz later sold on a 51% share for $250 billion. Is the Minister confident that the sanctions delivered under these SIs are sufficient to tackle this level of extreme corruption?
My Lords, I will confine my remarks to the unauthorised drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean regulations. I declare my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—the TRNC.
By way of background to this statutory instrument, since 2006 Europe has increasingly viewed eastern Mediterranean gas as a resource with huge potential to provide economic growth, mitigate climate change and reduce dependence on Russian gas supplies. European companies have been involved in gas exploration while the European Union has largely supported the idea of a new pipeline that connects Israeli and Egyptian fields with Cyprus and mainland Europe. However, things might be changing. As there is an oversupply of non-Russian liquefied natural gas—LNG—the importance of Mediterranean gas is waning for Europe. Eastern Mediterranean gas is also providing a massive headache, with rival claims by Turkey, Greece and Cyprus on exclusive economic zones—EEZs—and exploration rights. In this short contribution I want to focus on Cyprus. Gas production would be a veritable boon for the cash-poor island.
EEZs are not easy. Greece is one of the signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS. This designates a country’s EEZ as extending 200 miles from its shores. Yet regional powers, Turkey, Israel and Syria, have not signed UNCLOS and do not accept its rulings on EEZs. Lebanon disputes its maritime border with Israel, which it claims was compromised by Israel’s bilateral agreement with the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey argues that Cyprus is entitled to only a 12-mile EEZ until it reaches a resolution on the island’s status, and claims that the TRNC has the right to explore in Greek Cypriot waters. The TRNC believes that the gas resources belong to the whole island and that the north should have its share—a view that I do not feel is unreasonable.
Turkey, as an ally of the TRNC, has deployed exploration and drilling ships to Greek Cypriot waters and sent naval vessels there as well. As a result, the development of gas in these disputed waters has been frozen. Indeed, the tensions between Greece and Turkey over the issue became extremely high last year. Conflict was only narrowly averted and cannot be ruled out in the future. As a guarantor power in Cyprus, I would have hoped that the UK might take a more circumspect view on the gas issue. Now that we have left the EU, this seems a good opportunity to think more outside the box. Instead, we seem to be blindly copying EU regulations, without instead trying to fold the issue into revived Cyprus peace talks.
The failure of these peace talks at Crans-Montana in 2017, despite a major effort by former TRNC President Akıncı, was a great disappointment, especially as the TRNC went out of its way to make concessions, some of which alarmed mainland Turkey to such an extent that it did not want him to have another term. As these bi-zonal, bi-federal talks have failed, the new TRNC President Tatar—rightly, in my view—believes that a two-state solution is the only answer. According to the island-neutral Cyprus Mail, it is reported that, in private, President Anastasiades of the Republic of Cyprus is keen on the idea. The Cyprus Mail’s recent article stated that a section of the population of the Republic of Cyprus believed that he
“had calculatingly spurned the opportunity of a reasonable settlement at Crans-Montana”
because he really believes in a two-state solution.
With regard to the UK’s relationship with the TRNC, I welcome the recent meeting between our Foreign Secretary and President Tatar. Can the Minister say what came out of these talks? After Brexit there are good trade opportunities. As an interim measure, could the UK copy our Taiwan policy, whereby we have a trade office in Taipei, which is very successful, even though we do not have diplomatic relations?
A recent press release from the TRNC President sums up the opportunities well. He said the Turkish Cypriot side desires a win-win situation on Cyprus and believes that solving the decades-long Cyprus problem would help reinstate stability in the eastern Mediterranean. He also said that we should see what ideas and proposals the British diplomats bring to the table. He pointed out that he had also raised the issue of strengthening bilateral relations and commercial ties with the UK now that it had left the EU. Tatar also expressed concerns regarding the opening of certain parts of the British bases for non-military development. Can the Minister write to me on this?
I also ask the Minister, who is so well regarded in this House and has such expertise on FCO issues, when the UN Secretary-General’s 5+1 informal talks convene, will the FCO look at reality and the long-standing deadlock to realise that a two-state solution is the only answer and that the gas situation should be part of these talks, rather than just reinstating this unhelpful statutory instrument?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of these statutory instruments. I support sanctions as long as they are compliant with human rights legislation. Exiting the EU means that the UK is now responsible for the legal framework within which the UK may impose, update and lift sanctions, whether autonomously or in line with United Nations obligations. Therefore, I ask the Minister: what is the relationship now with the EU in relation to the sanctions regime? Will there be continued co-operation in an effort to address those areas globally which are flagrant abusers of human rights and are involved in money racketeering, paramilitary activity and corruption—often involving death?
I believe it is a desired objective of your Lordships’ House to address issues to deal with money laundering on an international scale and how it can be accompanied on many occasions by those human rights abuses. We definitely need a sound global sanctions scheme whereby the rule of law, democratic accountability and the proper and ethical use of state funds are the very kernels of our foreign policy.
Those who abuse human rights, attack civilians—whether in Nicaragua, Burundi or Guinea—threaten democracy, the rule of law and the rights and freedoms of civil society, or use corruption, torture and murder to further their own ends have no safe haven for themselves or their dirty money here in the UK, the overseas territories or, in fact, in any part of the world.
I note that the regulations date from 1 January 2021. Since these regulations were debated only last week in the other place and today in your Lordships’ House, what actual legislation covered the last five weeks? Could the Minister provide assurances that the UK Government were covered in terms of sanctions against these countries, where, in some instances, there have been significant abuses of regulations and human rights issues over the last number of years?
I would like to concentrate on two areas. I noticed in doing some research for this debate that there were regulations on Burma—or Myanmar—but they are not mentioned. The other area missing from this list which I believe needs to be covered is that of the Uighurs and China.
In relation to Burma, in particular, the coup d’état that took place last week and the—shall we say—unlawful imprisonment of the leadership there, could the Minister outline what consideration the Government have given to introducing sanctions on members of the Burmese military linked to human rights abuses and the recent coup d’état in Myanmar? What assessment have they made of the coup d’état which took place on 2 February and its potential impact on the rights of the country’s religious and ethnic minorities and the process of democratisation in Myanmar?
In relation to China, what further sanctions will the Government take against the human rights abuses and acts of genocide against the Uighur community? Will there be separate legislation on this matter? I believe that what has happened there is also a violation of human rights, and sanctions should be in place.
Therefore, what actions will the UK Government take at the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council against human rights violations in those countries and to ensure adherence to democratic standards? What representations will they make to the International Court of Justice regarding such violations of human rights?
I hope that the Government will work with the EU, NATO and the UN, along with the new political dispensation in the USA, against human rights abuses and to ensure that democratic standards are upheld. While supporting the sanctions that will be in place as per the statutory instruments—as long as they comply with human rights legislation—I ask that further consideration is given to Burma, and to China and the Uighurs.
My Lords, I first raise a couple of procedural points. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, just said, we are considering regulations weeks after they came into force on 1 January. This makes a mockery of parliamentary scrutiny, and I hope that the Government will look into this so that it does not continue to happen as it has so frequently. Secondly, I raise the way in which this hybrid Grand Committee unfortunately makes it impossible to properly question and challenge the Minister. If we were in the Moses Room, we could intervene on the Minister, ask questions and seek assurances, particularly during the reply, but we are unable to do so properly today. I blame no one for this, least of all the Minister, but it illustrates how important it is that we get back to our normal procedures as soon as it is safe to do so.
Turning to the SIs, I want to deal in particular with the No. 4 regulations, which grant an exception for activities carried out under a licence granted by the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. This causes me great concern and I seek assurances from the Minister on this. But I first point out that these sanctions apply to financial measures, including asset freezes, as well as to trade sanctions and travel bans for key people in the regime. As the Minister explained, among the countries included are Russia, Belarus and Myanmar—formerly Burma. These are currently of the greatest concern and where sanctions are vital to show our concern at the unlawful imprisonment of Alexei Navalny in Russia—as we did previously with the annexation of Crimea and the poisoning of Skripal—and at the unlawful imprisonment of so many people in Belarus, which I am particularly concerned about. We want also to protest and have sanctions in relation to the military coup in Myanmar, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and others have said.
While I have some reservations about the determination of the UK Government to take really powerful and effective sanctions, at least we have the capabilities to do so and an effective Opposition to keep up the pressure—whereas I have serious doubts about both the willingness and the capability of some of the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to do so.
Many years ago, when I was an opposition spokesman on foreign affairs in the Commons, I agreed with the then Minister that we should suspend the constitution of the Turks and Caicos Islands because of financial irregularities there. Incidentally, this was done again some years later. We also know that the TCI, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands and Channel Islands are used regularly by people, including some from the countries listed, to set up bogus companies and to carry out and cover up illicit activities. The Governments in some of these territories do not have the financial or legal infrastructure to enforce sanctions, and they often turn a blind eye to, or are even tempted to encourage, the avoidance of sanctions.
We need clear assurances from the Minister, and I hope he will give them to us. First, what assurances have been sought, and received, that each territory will rigorously enforce sanctions—at the very least in the same way as we do it here in the United Kingdom? Is he satisfied with these assurances? Secondly, what confidence does he have that each territory has the infrastructure in financial supervision, legal checks and procedures for prosecution necessary for enforcement, and what help has been offered to those territories which are not properly equipped?
We will have to trust the Minister to answer all these questions in his reply, since we will not be able to properly or effectively intervene if he fails to do so, notwithstanding the opportunities that we do have. But if he does not provide satisfactory assurances, we will need to find other ways to ensure that they are answered and to pursue the matter further. I otherwise support the regulations.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the clear way in which he outlined the purpose of these pieces of delegated legislation. From 1 January this year, the United Kingdom is responsible for its own sanctions policy, which is given statutory force by the 2018 Act, under which these regulations are made. I trust that these new-found freedoms will give the United Kingdom the flexibility and authority to respond using sanctions quickly and effectively where required. It certainly means that, in future, sanctions can be decided independently by the United Kingdom without having to await an EU-wide response. Sanctions clearly work best when they are implemented in tandem with other countries and it is important that we maintain a shared co-ordination with our partners as much as possible. In all circumstances, the legislation and these statutory instruments provide an opportunity for the Government to take effective, swift action against corruption, abuse of power, human rights violations and hostile or aggressive actions aimed at undermining our national security.
I have no issue with the list before the Committee this afternoon of regulations dealing with individual countries. There are good reasons for each them. I particularly welcome the cyber sanctions regulations, dealing with the prevention of cyber activity that undermines our national security or that of other places across the world. This is a growing area of concern. These attacks are becoming more intense and sophisticated; our own Parliament has been subjected to such an attack in recent times. It is important that effective sanctions are in place to counter the threat of such attacks and that we demonstrate that there will be real-world consequences for countries or individuals who engage in this kind of pernicious activity.
I also welcome the misappropriation sanctions regulations, which are about corruption and the misappropriation of state funds. While the regulations today refer mainly to Tunisia, Egypt and Korea, this new thematic approach is the right one. It provides a great deal of flexibility in responding to this challenge. The cost of corruption worldwide is estimated to be more than 2% of global GDP—a staggering figure. Anything that can deter the mass thieving, often but not exclusively from the world’s poorest countries, is to be welcomed.
On sanctions more widely, I would like to press the Government on a number of areas. What more can be done to combat the Putin regime in Russia? Under him, the Russian state has, sadly, become more and more lawless, both domestically and in its aggression abroad. We have seen the outrageous treatment of Alexei Navalny, which is symptomatic of the way in which any dissent is dealt with under this authoritarian regime, with its gross violations of human rights. The UK has been the subject of attack by Russia and is now in a position to take more effective action against the Russian regime and those with close links to it. How will that become evident?
Recent events in Hong Kong have seen China try blatantly to stamp out the flickering light of freedom of speech and democracy in all its forms. The treatment of the Uighur minority has been utterly appalling. These are but two examples—many more could be related. Can the Government indicate what more can be done to ensure that China is held to account?
Recent events in Myanmar have also been mentioned. The actions of the military there represent a massive backward step for democracy in that country. While all was not well under the previous democratically elected regime, the setting aside of the election results in such a draconian way surely demands the most robust response.
Then there is Libya, where the Government have frozen assets from the previous Gaddafi regime. The Government will be well aware of the campaign to call Libya to account for its support for IRA terrorism in Northern Ireland and its supply of illicit weaponry, including deadly Semtex, which resulted in the murder of, and injury to, thousands of innocent people. Will the Government elaborate further on the action that they will take to ensure that the assets that are currently frozen in this country can be used to provide compensation to the innocent victims of Libya-sponsored IRA terrorism in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom? This Government, and previous ones, have looked at this issue, but action seems to be in short supply. There are over £12 billion of Gaddafi assets frozen here. Last year, £17 million was raised in tax from these assets. Surely some of this could be used to pay the victims of Libya-sponsored terrorism. Will the Government commit to publishing the Shawcross report into this whole area? The Government had it last May, but various reasons have been rolled out for non-publication. Will the Government now move to publish it? Victims have had enough of procrastination and prevarication. I look forward to the Minister’s reply to this and to other issues raised by noble Lords.
My Lords, I declare my interests, as published in the register, particularly as president of Remembering Srebenica. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn; I agree very much with his points about the importance of cybersecurity. I thank my noble friend for setting out the background to this suite of regulations. I support what has been said in general about the need for these effective sanctions regimes. I emphasise in particular the importance of the Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020. I welcome what the Minister said about stability and continuity. I note that he also committed to the regimes being substantially the same going forward. Will he enlarge on that point? In what way will the regulations in relation to Bosnia and Herzegovina differ—if at all—from the previous ones? The substantial point seems to indicate that they will differ in some way.
It is timely that these regulations are launched this week. At the end of last week there was, with ministerial support, a cross-party launch of the Remembering Srebenica memorial week theme for this year, “Rebuilding Lives”. This is a reflection of the importance of memorial week in July. This year we commemorate 26 years since the dreadful genocide perpetrated on Bosnian Muslims at Srebenica and widely throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I trust that my noble friend will feel able to reiterate the United Kingdom’s commitment to the Dayton peace accords which followed the war and which the late Lord Ashdown did so much to cement. The Minister referred to them in his introduction, but this bears reiterating. I ask my noble friend to restate the commitment to the settlement and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some 25 years after the dreadful genocide, the scars on that beautiful country are still very present and tensions are inevitably heightened by the spurious appeal made by Ratko Mladić in August last year against his conviction for genocide at The Hague. The outcome is expected in May this year. That provocative appeal slows the process of reconciliation and makes it more difficult.
The United Kingdom has many close ties with Bosnia-Herzegovina, helped by two excellent ambassadors—the Bosnia-Herzegovina ambassador here, Vanya Filipović, and the UK ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo, Matt Field—as well as strong parliamentary activity, with all-party groups for Bosnia-Herzegovina, for remembering Srebenica and against genocide, all helping to build a better future by supporting that country.
Can my noble friend tell us when the guidance on prohibitions and requirements previewed by the Explanatory Memorandum will be published? It is important for people to be aware of how it will operate. Will he please also say, as called for by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, what joint action on sanctions we will be taking alongside the EU? Will we be working with our EU partners, continuing to co-operate on sanctions regimes, or do we intend to do something different and strike out on our own? I am not quite clear on the long-term position. Clearly, in the short term, there will not be a massive difference. I appreciate that it allows us some freedom for manoeuvre, but how will that operate within working with our allies? That will also apply to other like-minded states. I think, in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, of the United States, which has a particular significance given the Dayton peace accords and their role in bringing the war in Bosnia to a conclusion.
With those comments, I lend my support to the regulations. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that it is undesirable that we are looking at them in the rear-view mirror. It would be far better if we did not have to do that and could consider them in a more timely way. I appreciate that, on some matters Covid-related, that is not always possible, but I cannot see that that excuse—that reason, perhaps I should say—operates here.
My Lords, I declare my interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Zimbabwe and, in doing so, I thank the Minister for Africa, James Duddridge for his courtesy in briefing me ahead of last week’s statement on the imposition of specific measures against four Zimbabwe security sector chiefs.
On the detail of the No. 4 regulations, I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify the effect of the power to disapply the relevant prohibitions of the UK sanctions regime in Crown dependencies and British Overseas Territories, if conduct that would otherwise be prohibited is authorised by a licence issued under the law of those jurisdictions. The Explanatory Memorandum sets out that those provisions are necessary to ensure that prohibitions relating to UK persons do not create a double licensing burden on a UK person in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Can the Minister assure us, however, that the power to authorise conduct that would otherwise be a contravention of the sanctions regime is operable only where an equivalent prohibition applies under other law—that is, that this is to be used only to prevent double licensing and that it cannot be used by the Crown dependencies or overseas territories to circumvent the application of sanctions?
As we discuss these SIs, it is timely to consider the effectiveness of the sanctions regime that we have operated over the past few decades and how we will take it forward now that we have left the European Union. I see this principally through the lens of the targeted measures we have applied against Zimbabwean politicians, officials and military over the past two decades. In themselves, they are hard to argue with. Who would want gross violators of human rights to be able to travel freely or to make use of UK financial institutions to launder the money that they loot from their people?
There is no doubt that sanctions can be an effective tool as part of wider political, economic and diplomatic approaches, but too often, it seems, they are deployed not as part of a wider strategy but instead of one. Nowhere could that be clearer than in Zimbabwe. In the 32 years since I first went to teach in Zimbabwe and the 22 years since I spent a couple of years working in the first post-apartheid South African Parliament, I have watched with dismay as the UK has squandered its influence in the region and as other players—most notably China, of course, but also some of our European allies—have taken a much more strategic approach.
In his statement accompanying the most recent travel restrictions and financial measures against Zimbabwe security sector chiefs, the Foreign Secretary stated that the Zimbabwe sanctions regime
“seeks to encourage the Government of Zimbabwe to respect democratic principles and institutions; refrain from the repression of civil society; and to comply with international human rights law and to respect human rights.”
If that has been the objective of the sanctions regime over the past two years, who can claim that it has been anything but an abject failure? The political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe is as great as it has ever been, the economy has been looted to a state of collapse, corruption is rampant, the rule of law is practically non-existent and gross human rights abuses are routine.
Today, journalists such as Hopewell Chin’ono, who expose corruption, are constantly harassed and regularly imprisoned, while the Ministers they expose walk free. Trade unionists, opposition MPs and activists are abducted, beaten, tortured and then jailed for daring to speak out. As we speak, MDC youth leaders Joana Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri languish in the notorious Chikurubi maximum security jail on trumped-up charges, simply for speaking out for a better life for the people of Zimbabwe. The courage and integrity of these individuals cannot be overstated and is testimony to the country that Zimbabwe can become again.
Fundamentally, change in Zimbabwe will come about as a result of the actions of the Zimbabwean people, but we could play a much more constructive role in supporting the rule of law, the restoration of constitutional government and a return to economic prosperity if, instead of signing the latest sanctions regulations and then complacently turning to other matters, we committed to a joined-up economic and political strategy that could give succour to the valiant Zimbabwe people that when they achieve change, their friends in the international community will be there to help them with a comprehensive support package, so that everybody in the region and around the world can see the dividends that democratic government and the rule of law bring.
By all means, let us have sanctions against individuals who brutalise their fellow citizens and loot their country, but let us not pretend that they can deliver a return to democratic norms in the absence of a long-term and creative strategy for democratic renewal in the region. We could start by putting together an internationally agreed Marshall plan, ready to be implemented as soon as constitutional government returns to Zimbabwe. That would offer hope to the people of Zimbabwe as they continue their heroic struggle for freedom.
My Lords, I ask my noble friend what assessment is undertaken of our sanctions policy in each specific case. We have a list before us today, but of course it is not complete. As referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, a point can come when we become blasé—we apply sanctions and then sit back, feeling that we have done our duty. It is their outworking and the effectiveness of that policy that is critical. I also ask my noble friend: what is the mechanism for co-ordination with the European Union? Lots of our sanctions are done in tandem with it and, indeed, under specific EU laws. Therefore, I would like to know what the mechanism is. Is it haphazard and case by case, or is there something more formally established?
The Minister alluded to the United Kingdom being held in worldwide regard because of our adherence to sanctions and willingness to implement them. However, he may have heard a recent interview with the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the United States, Senator Menendez. According to him, London was awash with Russian money, which Russians were able to dispose of through the purchase of assets, damaging our international credibility and reputation. Does the Minister consider that our policy there needs to be looked at? If, on the one hand, we are saying that we have an international reputation but, on the other, the newly appointed chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, at the start of a new presidential term, believes that about our actions with regard to Russian money coming into this country, it is not a very good starting point. I should like the Minister to address that matter.
The other issue I want to raise, Libya, will come as no surprise to the Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, raised it and the Minister’s attention was drawn to it earlier today in an Oral Question, to which, I suspect, many of us wished to contribute but did not get the opportunity. My noble friend will be aware that, on two separate occasions, I brought a Private Member’s Bill on asset freezing to your Lordships’ House. It was passed on both occasions, but one ran out of time and the other was blocked in the other place, so it did not become law. However, its purpose was to draw attention to the matters that the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, raised earlier.
It is almost the 25th anniversary of the Canary Wharf bombing. That attack was possible only because of the provision of Libyan-supplied Semtex to the IRA. I am a member of the parliamentary support group for the victims of Libyan terrorism. We had a meeting with the North Africa Minister, James Cleverly, on 5 November. We have been anxiously awaiting news, particularly on the Shawcross report, but also as to whether the Government are really prepared to do anything about this. A recent reply the other day merely stated that the Government were looking at it and consulting on a cross-departmental basis. Of course, that is a necessary part of government, but this is going well into its third decade. People are ageing, some have died and some are still suffering. I appeal to my noble friend to pass that point on to his colleague.
Key to the principles behind our policy is whether it is being successful. Are our sanctions working? Do we have examples of where they have brought about an improvement in the policy and in those individuals and countries subject to them? If not, we will be doing something simply for the sake of it. Is any real substance being achieved? If not, will it be achieved by some other mechanism? In broad terms I support what we have before us, but it is only part of the picture. In some respects, the matters I have raised are missing from this because it is part of an overall government policy. I would appreciate a response in the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I should make it clear that I hold office in the TRNC All-Party Group and have been a fairly regular visitor to north Cyprus over a long period. It is always nice to give the Government a pat on the back, but people have grumbled about the length of time before these regulations were debated. I have raised this and I am satisfied with the reply that the Government made the regulations on 7 December, brought them partially into force from 14 December, and fully into force from the end of the transition period on 31 December. They then had 60 sitting days for the regulations to come before both Houses under the affirmative procedure. The Government are fully within their rights in what they are doing. They are not always, but on this occasion they are.
When I look at these regulations I wonder: what are they actually worth? What will they achieve? The noble Lord, Lord Empey, mentioned that it is 30 years since the Libya atrocities. It is 46 years since the breakdown in Cyprus. Indeed, it goes back almost 60 years to the foundation of the state. I am not sure whether this will bring us any further forward. We say that the regulations are to
“discourage … hydrocarbon exploration, production or extraction activities which have not been authorised by the Republic of Cyprus in its territorial sea or in its exclusive economic zone”,
but that is exactly what the dispute is about: the economic zone and whether the Republic of Cyprus, in the eyes of the Government of the TRNC, can allocate drilling rights across what the Northern Cyprus Administration feel is an important part of its area.
In other words, until we get the Cyprus problem sorted out, this will be just a minor sideshow. It is one of many, but the fact is that the previous President, President Akıncı, put in a huge amount of work. If anyone was ever to get a solution, it was him. He was the mayor of Nicosia, or Lefkoşa as the Turkish call it. He was the one politician from the north who had good relations with people in the south. He went a huge amount of the way to get a UN agreement and he failed. The Turks thought that he went too far and effectively campaigned against him in the recent election.
Now we have President Tatar, who has something in common with the UK. Nobody really wanted what he was offering a few years ago: a completely new start in Cyprus. He said that the whole basis of UN negotiations was false and that they would not work. He has now put forward the two-state solution, which has always been on the back boiler in Northern Cyprus. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to take a very close look at it. We cannot carry on as one of the guarantor powers, pretending that we have nothing to do with it and that all we have to do is say, “Naughty north Cyprus, you don’t exist”. I quote a Written Answer that came out only last week:
“The United Kingdom does not recognise the self-declared ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’.”
Hard luck: I am afraid it is there and not doing too badly, actually. It could do much better if we get an agreement, but it is there and it exists.
I want to ask the Minister this: what is the purpose of the sanctions? Will they ever be applied to anyone at all? Can he tell me any individuals or entities they apply to, or that the Government are looking to apply them to? Who at present is, and what sort of people are, being fingered for these sanctions, or will they be a dead letter? The explanatory statement says:
“Sanctions can be used to change behaviour”,
but they have not done very well over the past 46 years. I wonder whether they are changing or reinforcing behaviour, because every time I go to Cyprus I notice a little more hardening of actions and views, a little more intransigence, and a few more people who do not remember a united island and who think that the status quo is quite acceptable if they can negotiate a few more changes at the margin to make it slightly easier to live with.
Will Her Majesty’s Government take a more proactive role than just sitting around, as they have done throughout our membership of the EU, saying, “We hope something turns up. We really want it to, but we don’t know what to do”? I am afraid that is what it has seemed like up to now.
My Lords, I will raise the sanctions on unauthorised drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, as mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Northbrook and Lord Balfe, and then comment on the UK’s broader sanctions policy.
Turkey’s unauthorised drilling in Greek and Cypriot waters is a cause for concern and it is right that Her Majesty’s Government should align themselves with the EU’s position to give Ankara pause for thought. The EU agreed back in December to condemn Turkey’s aggressiveness and unilateral actions in the eastern Mediterranean, giving Turkey a three-month grace period for further diplomacy. It agreed to add new names of individuals and companies connected with unauthorised and provocative drilling off Cyprus to a sanctions list involving travel bans and asset freezes.
This is a dangerous, complicated and underreported crisis, not least because both Greece and Turkey are members of NATO, there are two strategically important British sovereign bases on Cyprus, the position of Cyprus and Greece as EU members, and Turkey’s status as a candidate for European Union membership. Ankara also has a pivotal role in restricting the flow of migrants, primarily from Libya and Syria, into the EU.
Turkey’s President Erdoğan unhelpfully reignited tensions with Cyprus last November, calling for a two-state solution for the island, divided since 1974, rather than the federalist solution supported by both the EU and UN. However, I am glad that the EU rejected Athens’ proposal last August at the Berlin foreign affairs meeting for sectoral sanctions targeting aspects of the Turkish economy such as the energy and banking sectors.
Here, I want to turn to the general principle of sanctions. While targeted sanctions against individuals or companies can have the desired effect in support of human rights or to correct serious misbehaviour or provocation, sectoral or country-wide sanctions are often counterproductive or have unintended consequences. President Erdoğan’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems is at least in part because of his belief in the West’s complicity in the 2016 coup attempt against him. While the West and the US were silent, Moscow was effusive in its support. The proposed new US sanctions against Ankara for buying the S-400s will merely throw Erdoğan further into Russia’s embrace.
I commend to the Minister the work of the highly-respected US Brookings Institution on the impact and effectiveness of sanctions. In one of its reports, it said that
“all too often sanctions turn out to be little more than expressions of U.S. preferences … without changing the target’s behavior for the better.”
It points to sanctions’ patchy results, which, as I mentioned, can lead to unintended consequences. The report further outlined:
“More generally, sanctions can have the perverse effect of bolstering authoritarian, statist societies.”
Making the population at large suffer can lead just to the propping up of a regime and a bunker mentality. On the other hand, targeted sanctions against individuals, companies or types of equipment or technology can have a real impact. Finally, the Brookings Institution states:
“Sanctions should not be used to hold major or complex bilateral relationships hostage to a single issue or set of concerns.”
Will the Minister admit that this is why HMG have imposed sanctions on Guinea for the indefensible death of 150 people in 2009 but have held back on sanctions against China for the alleged enslavement and internment of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds?
We have just had a brief discussion about the effectiveness of sanctions, as raised by the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Balfe, but can HMG have consistency in its sanctions policy? None of the 40 countries sanctioned is a friend. We have sanctioned Nicaragua for human rights abuses but not Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador or Panama, which are arguably as bad if not worse. Having read through the 555-page UK sanctions list, I could not identify a single individual from the Middle East outside Syria, Iraq or Iran condemned for any human rights abuses. James Cleverly, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said in the other place on 3 February:
“Our sanctions regime is the foundation for an independent sanctions policy in support of our foreign policy and national security interests”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/2/21; col. 976.]
Yet sanctions should be the last resort of diplomacy, not the first resort that they have often become; nor should we end up using sanctions to impose our British world view rather than to uphold universal values such as human rights and the right to life itself.
I thank the Minister for laying these sanctions provisions before us. From these Benches, we support them—as far as they go. As he said, most come straight out of the EU regimes.
He rightly pointed out that the United Kingdom played a large part in shaping the EU’s approach. He will know therefore that we regret having left the EU, because sanctions are most effective when applied jointly and because we took a leading role in the EU and have withdrawn that influence. I note, for example, that the EU seems more reluctant than when we were integral to its thinking to place sanctions against Russian individuals in the light of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and now his imprisonment.
I welcome the sanctions in relation to Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have just marked Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember not only the Nazi Holocaust but later genocides such as that in Bosnia, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, referred—I thank him for his reference to my noble friend Lord Ashdown. It is encouraging that some programme of reform may be brought to the Balkans as they seek to join the EU recognising its enormous benefits—something which, ironically, we are encouraging.
The pressure of sanctions on Burundi, Guinea and Nicaragua, to encourage respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights, is important given the ongoing challenges to those, but my noble friend Lord Chidgey challenged us on whether those sanctions were adequate; for example, in Guinea. My noble friend Lord Oates did the same in relation to the effectiveness of sanctions in Zimbabwe. He was surely right that they can be but one tool and that far more extensive engagement is required.
We are becoming acutely aware of how cyberactivities can undermine democratic and economic systems. I am sure the integrated review will address this threat to our country. When is that now expected?
The sanctions relating to the misappropriation of state funds from a country outside the United Kingdom establish a single thematic regime rather than geographic regimes, as the EU specified. As the Minister said, corruption undermines development. Can he update us on how a corruption sanctions regime can now be added, which the Government have said they wish to do? Is he sure that a thematic, rather than geographic, spread will be as effective?
On the sanctions relating unauthorised drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean, the Minister did not say so in his introduction, but it is very clear from the Explanatory Notes that these relate to the troubling involvement of Turkey in this matter. This area of the world has enough tensions and instability without this becoming a further one. As the Minister said, Cyprus’ oil and gas should be used for the benefit of Cypriots. The involvement here of Turkey is very risky. However, I have some sympathy with the view of the noble Lords, Lord Northbrook and Lord Balfe, that it would have been far better to have achieved a settlement of the Cyprus dispute before it joined the EU. It is therefore vital that all Cypriots, from north or south, should potentially benefit. Our leaving the EU risks making it even more difficult to secure a long-term resolution in Cyprus.
On the miscellaneous amendments regulations, the Minister needs to assure us that we are not deviating from what was agreed when we were in the EU. I am rather sceptical about avoiding an apparent double effect with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. I do not see any concern about their being covered twice by the same provisions. What is the possible down side of that? Can he assure us that they are indeed fully covered by these regulations? The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and my noble friend Lord Oates, expressed their own strong concerns. Funds have often directed through some of those territories. There is a sense of the regulations addressing long-standing problems, but it is clear that they need to be updated.
In terms of updating, we still see no sanctions in relation to the Uighurs. We welcomed the global human rights, or Magnitsky, sanctions. The legal opinion announced this morning that acts being carried out in Xinjiang amount to crimes against humanity and genocide bears this out. The Minister will not say whether the Government are considering such sanctions, but we are all watching.
What about going further in Myanmar in the light of the military coup there? The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and others asked about that. What of Ethiopia and Tigray now? I ask the Minister, as I have before: can there be some independent assessment of what sanctions need to be applied, and where? A number of noble Lords have questioned their direction and effectiveness.
In the previous session that we had on arrangements carried over from the EU it turned out that on some conflict minerals, for example, the UK had failed to put in place all that was required in Northern Ireland, as it sat within the EU single market and customs union. Has that now been rectified and have we adequately addressed the different position of Northern Ireland here? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, we welcome these instruments, intended primarily to roll over the EU sanctions regimes into UK legislation. Last Wednesday in the other place, my honourable friend Stephen Doughty covered the Opposition’s position on each of the individual country sanctions in some detail. Due to the limited time, I do not intend to repeat that exercise. However, there were points that the Minister, James Cleverly, did not cover in his response to my honourable friend.
First, as the Minister has repeatedly stated in the Chamber, the strength of sanctions depends on a unified framework across multiple jurisdictions—a point highlighted by noble Lords today. The EU and the US work together co-operatively to secure the applicability of measures, and the UK must be part of that process. In his introduction, the Minister said that the UK would be using existing networks. Just how will this work? How will we ensure that, along with the EU, we have a unified approach? Like the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I would like to know exactly what mechanisms will be used.
The second set of miscellaneous regulations deal with issues relating to the overseas territories. Here, I strongly amplify the point made by my noble friend Lord Foulkes and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, who were absolutely right. I hope that the Minister will explain the mechanisms for overseas territories and the sanctions regimes. Whether it is done by Order in Council or another mechanism, it would be good for that to be set out. In the other place James Cleverly made the point, which we have heard this afternoon, that we do not want to see double prohibition through these regulations and therefore a double licensing burden on individuals. However, it is crucial that we ensure that individuals cannot exploit any administrative gaps. James Cleverly failed to answer Stephen Doughty on what support is being provided to the overseas territories to ensure that they can apply the sanctions regimes, and that we have one unified approach across all territories. I hope the Minister will be able to give us much more detail than James Cleverly did in the other place.
Noble Lords have highlighted the discussion on China when these SIs were debated in the other place. As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, press reports today have highlighted a strong legal opinion confirming the overwhelming evidence of systematic human rights abuses, amounting to genocide against the Muslim Uighur people. We have also seen other minorities in China targeted, along with the attacks on the democracy and freedom of the people of Hong Kong. The United States Government have already barred members of the Communist Party of China from the US and introduced Magnitsky-style sanctions, but we have seen no further designations from the UK. We have been pressing for this for some months, so I hope the Minister can assure us that such sanctions are under consideration and say what discussions we are having with our allies, particularly the US, on how we have a unified approach.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Northover, stated that some of these regulations relate to previous sanctions on Myanmar. Many noble Lords will have watched over the weekend the brave demonstrations against the military coup in Myanmar. Last week, I asked the Minister to seek the toughest kind of sanctions by the international community, including on the enterprises owned by the generals and their families. I hope he can update us on what discussions we have had with our allies to ensure we are stepping up sanctions on those responsible for such a brazen attack on the democratic rights of the people of Myanmar.
I also hope the Government will look again at how the UK’s CDC has been investing in telecommunications companies in Myanmar that have been complying with that country’s government-ordered repression and blockages of internet sites. These not only have potentially covered up atrocities against the Rohingya people but are being used now in the military coup. I hope he will look again at that investment and whether it is really appropriate in the current circumstances.
The Government need to do more with the powers they have through the Magnitsky sanctions regime. Expanding their scope and usage is vital. I hope the Minister will be able to give us an update on the timetable to extend the scope of this regime to include corruption. Finally, as I said in my opening, we support these sanctions regulations and agree that they should continue.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their very valuable contributions and the broad level of support that we saw during this debate. I also recognise the important role of, and the various points made on, the process and procedure. I thank my noble friend Lord Balfe for articulating in a succinct manner—as it saved me having to answer the question—what the current procedures are. However, I never shy away from any challenge in the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, always poses most courteously. I look forward to debates on this issue and others with him.
Having thanked all noble Lords for their participation, I will get to the specific questions raised. Following the normal courtesy, if there are questions that I am unable to answer in the time allocated, I will certainly write to noble Lords and review Hansard to pick up on some of those specifics.
Along with his original questions, the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, raised the importance of his expertise and insights in parts of the world. He raised specific issues about certain individuals in Guinea not being rolled over in the original sanctions tabled by the EU. This will in part also answer the question raised by various noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and my noble friend Lord Balfe, about the effectiveness of sanctions. When these original sanctions were approved it was partly to ensure that there would be a change in behaviour, while recognising any steps taken by new Governments and individuals within them.
I also reassure noble Lords that when applying the sanctions, through the sanctions Act itself and the subsequent global human rights sanctions regime, we are relatively new to this area in terms of specific sanctions on individuals. The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, recounted specific sanctions on individuals and countries, and mentioned the Middle East. I am sure he will recall that, when it came to the global human rights sanctions, a number of individuals from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were covered in the original sanctions designations.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, my noble friends Lord Balfe and Lord Northbrook, and the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, raised Cyprus and the sanctions as they apply there. I agree with the noble Baroness on the wider context of the discussions in Cyprus. As noble Lords will recognise, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary visited Cyprus on 3 and 4 February. He met the President of Cyprus and the leader of the Turkish Cypriots. The primary focus in the areas covered was on not just the issues in the sanctions—as put forward by many noble Lords, with whom I agree—but bilateral and regional issues ahead of the UN-convened talks, which I believe take place next month. The context of the peace talks was very much part and parcel of the discussions that my right honourable friend had in country. I therefore hope my noble friend is reassured that we are looking at all elements and talking to all sides when it comes to not just the areas covered in the sanctions regime, but the wider issues of settlement. We recognise the important role the UK can play in this regard.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and others talked about the importance of our EU partnerships. It did not surprise me when the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, did so in her opening remarks. As I have said, we will of course continue to work very closely with our EU partners and others in this respect. I have said to noble Lords that I regularly have discussions with the lead human rights official in the European Commission, Eamon Gilmore. Indeed, we were in deep discussions prior to the introduction of the EU global human rights regime.
My noble friend Lord Empey raised the formality of structures. I assure him that the strength of our relationships with the European Union and key partners in it is shown in various statements we have made beyond sanctions—particularly on the situation of the Uighur Muslims—which demonstrate the open communication that we retain and, equally, how we work with other key partners on sanctions, such as the United States, Canada and other allies. We will continue to do just that. The primary basis of any sanctions regime is that it is co-ordinated.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, rightly talked of Myanmar, as did other noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, specifically mentioned the leadership we showed during our membership of the European Union against 16 individuals. As noble Lords will recognise, of the military leadership that has taken control in the coup in Myanmar, the leader and his deputy are currently sanctioned. Whether in Myanmar or in China, which the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised, specifically on the Uighurs, we keep the situation in review.
I cannot get into specifics. Noble Lords rightly raise timelines and when particular designations happen around the world, but I cannot speculate in that respect. However, I assure noble Lords, as I have sought to do as FCDO Minister and Minister for Human Rights, that I will take on board the approach that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, acknowledged of talking through specific situations as and when we can, and as early as possible, as well as sharing information with noble Lords.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked about the process, which I have already covered specifically. He also talked about the importance of working with our overseas territories. I assure all noble Lords that the Orders in Council for each designation, with the exception of Bermuda and Gibraltar, are initiated by the United Kingdom. They will reflect exactly the same provisions that apply in UK jurisdictions to allow for a co-ordinated approach. I can also assure the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, as a Minister who worked directly with the overseas territories during the passage of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, that our co-ordination is for territories that do not have capacity for technical support. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised this, and it arose in the other place. We are lending technical support to the overseas territories. I am sure noble Lords recognise that many do not have the infrastructure for financial services, for example, and need support. We are working directly with the OTs in this respect.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that prior to the introduction of, for example, the requirement for public registers, we also operated with key overseas territories on the exchange of notes, which allowed tax and legal agencies to access all the required information. If any specific concerns arise for noble Lords on the application of these issues in the overseas territories, they should raise them with me. I will seek to address them directly.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, for his support. He rightly raised cyberactivity. As he recognised, we saw an increase in such challenges in our own Parliament a few years back. Indeed, I recall that we had a cyberattack on the same day as the tragic terror attack on Parliament. It shows the vulnerabilities, and the increased activity required, in this area. It also underlines the importance we attach to this area of our sanctions work.
The noble Lord rightly raised the Putin regime and issues around Navalny, China and Myanmar. As I am sure he recognises, we have sought to lead and provide direction on sanctions in Myanmar and in the case of Mr Navalny. The noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Empey raised the situation in Libya and the Shawcross report. We discussed this in your Lordships’ House. I have taken note of the concerns that have again been expressed. If there is any more detail on the questions my noble friend Lord Empey raised I shall seek to raise it.
I am being told by my noble friend who is whipping the debate that I am running out of time. In my last few seconds, I acknowledge the valuable work done by Remembering Srebrenica and the points made by my noble friend Lord Bourne. I assure him that we look fully at guaranteeing the sovereign and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He talked about guidance. I believe that it has already been published.
On the specific area of continuing to work at and ensuring the refreshing of our strategy, I say to all noble Lords who raised the effectiveness of the various regimes that provisions in the sanctions Act require reporting back on the effectiveness of each regime. The Act also allows opportunities for individuals to review sanctions applied to them so that they can have a process for appeal. I will continue to update your Lordships’ House on the operation of the sanctions regimes. Indeed, I look forward to further discussions on specific designations in this important area.
I once again thank all noble Lords for their participation. This work is evolving. I noted again with great care various noble Lords’ specific questions and practical suggestions on strengthening work in this area. I look forward to further debate and constructive discussions in this regard.
Sanctions (EU Exit) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
Burundi (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019
Considered in Grand Committee
Guinea (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019
Considered in Grand Committee
Cyber (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
Nicaragua (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
Misappropriation (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
Unauthorised Drilling Activities in the Eastern Mediterranean (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 4.05 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for the following debate is one and a half hours.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, at the outset, I thank the massive cross-government and civic movement that has mobilised to fight the disease. It is not possible to name-check everyone, but I single out for thanks all those in the NHS, social care, volunteers, returned healthcare staff and the Army involved in the deployment of the vaccine. I thank scientists at universities and pharmaceutical companies and those running clinical trials for developing new vaccines, antivirals and all manner of therapies to combat the threat of mutant viruses. I thank all those in the Border Force, test and trace, the hospitality industry, Project Eagle and local authorities who have worked so hard in the last week to stand up new mechanisms for protecting the vaccine from variants of concern. Lastly, of course, I thank the general public for continuing to follow the lockdown rules. The attitude of the public remains resolute. I know there are exceptions, and I appreciate that there are huge sacrifices everywhere, but the actions everyone is taking now are doing a huge amount to protect your family and loved ones as well as the family and loved ones of others.
Our focus remains on the rollout of the vaccine, the development of a sure-fire system to battle any mutations, and an exit strategy from this awful pandemic. In the meantime, social restrictions are necessary while this occurs, so it is important that we bring forward this SI.
This SI makes a number of minor technical amendments to the all tiers regulations, which is necessary for legal coherency. It removes the provision for a linked Christmas household—the “Christmas bubble”—to prevent any scope for misinterpretation. It adds the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to the list of Acts governing permitted marriages, civil partnerships and conversions, so that we treat everyone equally under these restrictions no matter their sexual orientation. It allows cafés and canteens in all post-16 education and training settings to remain open. It inserts an exemption from the closure of sports facilities in tier 3 to allow for elite sports competition, which essentially ensures that elite sports competitions such as the Premier League are permitted. It clarifies that the exception to leave home to collect goods from businesses operating click and collect also applies to libraries. We know that libraries have been a lifeline for many during the pandemic, providing educational and IT support to those who need it, and this amendment will ensure that this keeps happening.
These regulations came into force on 20 January 2021, and we regret that we are only now debating them. However, they were simply technical amendments to existing law. They do not change policy which noble Lords have previously approved.
I thought it would be helpful to provide a short update of the situation we are currently in and our understanding of its impact. The general public recognise the importance of following social distancing rules to control the virus and protect the NHS, which is why the vast majority of people continue to follow the rules. An example of this is limiting social contact. The most recent ONS survey shows that only one in seven respondents reported meeting with someone that they do not live with or are not in a support bubble with outdoors. Some of these people will have met one other person for the purpose of exercise, which is allowed by the regulations. For those people who do not comply, we have a strategy. Police officers will engage, explain and encourage, and for those people who simply refuse to comply, we do enforce. We continue to review the tools available to police to take action and have introduced a new penalty for attending a gathering of more than 15 people in a private dwelling or educational premises, or as a rave.
I am cautiously delighted to be able to inform noble Lords that, as a result of the restrictions put in place and the efforts of the nation to follow the rules, we are now seeing the first signs of improvement. There has been a positive impact in reducing transmission of the virus, and as the Chief Medical Officer stated last week, we have passed the peak of the second wave. I said I was only cautiously delighted because, despite this being a very positive development, we still have more to do. The virus is still prevalent, with approximately 21,000 people testing positive for Covid across the UK each day last week and significant pressure still placed on the NHS.
We also still have approximately 29,000 Covid patients in UK hospitals as of 4 February. That number has been decreasing since the peak on 18 January 2021, when there were more than 39,000 Covid patients in hospitals. That said, the number is still far too high, much higher than the previous peak of just under 22,000, and this sustained pressure is coinciding with the period of greatest seasonal pressure on the NHS. As we know, any new measures take some time to take effect on our hospital numbers, so it is right that we remain cautious and continue, for now, with the restrictions.
This is clearly a challenging and worrying time for everyone. However, there is more good news. There is early evidence that the number of people testing positive has started to fall across England. As reported in the minutes from the SAGE meeting on 14 January 2021, we have indications that new infections are declining in those areas which have been in tier 4 for the longest. This indicates that it is likely that R can be brought down significantly during the lockdown, even with the presence of the new variant. It shows that our approach is working and that we are taking the necessary action to keep us all safe.
We intend to publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown on 22 February. That plan will, of course, depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect, as more people are inoculated. Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach, easing restrictions in a sustainable way and beginning with the most important principle of all: that reopening schools must be our national priority. If we continue to make the progress that we want to see, and believe we can see, we hope to be able to begin to return to face-to-face education on 8 March. We will set out more detail in due course and will ensure that we give at least two weeks’ notice to allow students, staff and parents to prepare.
I again pay tribute to the wonderful staff of our NHS and social care sector, who are working tirelessly to protect the vulnerable and save lives. I commend these regulations to the Committee.
First, perhaps I may apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. On Thursday 4 February, I asked about antiviral drugs: Synairgen’s compound SNG001, an inhaled interferon beta drug, and the controlled trial which had been published in the Lancet and which showed considerable success. I also mentioned ACTIV-2, research established by the National Institutes of Health in the US. With the limits on time to reply to the Statement, I muddled Synairgen’s seemingly effective trial with ACTIV-2, giving the impression that it was a different drug. This made it impossible for the noble Lord to answer my question effectively and I apologise for that.
As many noble Lords have repeatedly affirmed from across the House, we must work together, particularly at times of national emergency. While I speak from these Benches, it is good to celebrate the spirit of proper collaboration of which your Lordships’ House is proud. This is a time of global emergency. Of course, we want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. With vaccines still not plentiful, it is natural to be anxious about ourselves and our families, but we must recognise those elsewhere globally, and particularly in poor nations. It makes economic sense, just as it does with climate change. It may be costly, but it is morally right, and the global fight is essential, not least because of our self-interest.
We should learn from history. Yersinia pestis, the Black Death, caused at least three major pandemics: the plague of Justinian in 1541, the Black Death in 1347 and the Black Death in China in the 1850s. There were repeated, devastating waves in between for many decades. These were spread mostly by travel, by mixing of populations and by people in poverty with poor hygiene and inadequate public health. In 1665, when over 100,000 people in London—probably one-third or more of the population—died in the Great Plague, the greatest proportion were poor and disadvantaged. Lockdown then was rigidly imposed. People were even bolted in their houses, which were painted with a red cross.
The science community has repeatedly warned that we shall almost certainly need to live with Covid for a long time to come. This is likely for Covid-19 but is equally likely to be true of other deadly viruses in due course. So, in addition to global issues, we need everything we can muster: vaccines, better diagnostics, culture facilities, better public health—especially globally—and drugs which kill the virus. We also clearly need isolation, and that will reoccur from time to time. It is important that we do not breathe a huge sigh of collective relief at the blessing of new and better vaccines. There are still many important questions that we will need to consider. Randomised controlled trials must continue. One NIH trial, for example, done in the rhesus monkey, showed that they got protection with different vaccines, but these did not necessarily reduce the replication of the virus in nasal tissues, while some others did. Those are the sorts of reasons why we still do not know how problematic contact between people will be.
Whatever the effectiveness of different vaccines, apart from new mutations, there will be pockets of this virus in the population. If we are to reduce the presence of the virus in our communities, at what stage do we consider vaccinating children? If we eventually do, shall we ignore the serious anti-vaccination protests associated with measles, a far less clinically risky virus? We are relatively safe now from yersinia pestis, not because of vaccines but because of antibiotics. For example, a portable, easily distributed antiviral would be a real asset. Unfortunately, monoclonal antibodies, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Walney, in last Thursday’s debate, may not be quite as useful as a portable, easily distributed and administered antiviral, which could give safety, with fewer side-effects, at the early stages of infection. This might kill the virus before it starts to replicate rapidly. That would be useful during lockdown. An antiviral which gets access to the mucus membranes of the throat, pharynx, larynx and respiratory system, taken by mouth or as an aerosol, could be particularly beneficial because that is the route that the Covid virus generally takes. That would be another strategy to avoid the risk of mutations. This may be important, because we must remember how coronavirus is likely to have infected several animal species before moving into man. It is consequently more dangerous. In many parts of this crowded world, humans now perhaps live more closely to animals than at any time in our history.
Of course, we shall continue to jog the Government, but let us do so in the spirit of constructive collaboration that is important at this time of national emergency.
My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, it is important to stress that, for political leaders at this time, there is one overriding job to be done: to ensure that the relief sensed by everybody that the vaccines are coming is not misplaced into a false sense of security. We need to understand that over the next year or so we must continue the important social distancing measures that we have become used to. I believe the Government have one priority at the moment: to enable the country to emerge from lockdown to a situation which is sustainable in terms of social and economic health and well-being.
Key to that will be the opening of schools of colleges. I say that, but schools and colleges are open and people are working; they are just not physically present. It is important that as many schools as possible open as soon as possible. I urge the Government to move away from central fiats announced at short notice towards a culture of working more co-operatively with teachers and local authorities to work out what resources are needed in different areas to enable schools to open safely.
I draw to the Minister’s attention one issue that requires urgent attention. He will know that to open legally any children’s service has to have staff with up-to-date first aid qualifications. He will also know that first aid training cannot be completed online. Last March, the Health and Safety Executive announced an extension in the grace period for renewal of a certificate from one month to six. The HSE’s current advice is that all training will have to be renewed by 31 March and there will be no extension. That means that staff—and, incidentally, staff of training providers—are being told on the one hand that to get their training certificates renewed they have to go out to a training course, but on the other that they have to observe lockdown. Does the Minister realise that this potentially is a very big problem for schools, colleges and preschools? Does he also realise that this kind of mixed messaging is the last thing that professionals working at a local level to try and give some hope to their communities need?
I understand that it is being reported that test and trace is getting rid of staff. I and many others have been deeply critical of the poor performance of the test and trace operation, particularly the lack of support for isolation. Can the Minister say whether, as we go into this current phase, resources will be diverted to local authorities and local resilience forums so that we can continue to make sure that people are given supported, practical help to isolate? We can then have much more localised efforts to reverse trace so that we can find out where different variants have come from and how they have been transmitted among the population.
I have two final points. First, it is evident that mental health is becoming the big issue of this pandemic for schools and colleges. Are the Government now starting to plan to have emergency first aid mental health services for schools and colleges, exhausted public health staff such as doctors and nurses, and self-employed people who have not been eligible for any government support? Finally, on care homes, nursing homes and domiciliary care workers, when will the Government stop reporting the number of vaccinations that have been offered and start reporting the number that have been completed?
My Lords, from the cheap seats at the far end, I pay a warm tribute to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister for his masterful handling of the vaccination drive. As the NHS called me a critically endangered species, I had my jab last Thursday night and I am in no doubt that it was months ahead of where it would have been were it not for the brilliant handling of vaccination by the Government.
It has been a textbook operation. The Prime Minister gave Kate Bingham the order: “Stop people dying”. She formed a task force that rapidly decided the best vaccines to back and funded their production, bypassing NHS bureaucracy. It was based on scientific judgment, not just buying up everything in sight. The Secretary of State for Health told Oxford University to dump Merck and go with AstraZeneca. That was inspired. It was a masterstroke for which he deserves the highest praise. Then the logistics were fine-tuned, with Professor Van-Tam apparently demanding freezers way back last June. Then contracts for vaccine supply were signed three months ahead of other countries.
I also thank the Prime Minister for getting us out of the slow-moving EU oil tanker. What a perfect description of the EU—a lumbering monster, unable to move quickly and full of last century’s concept of power. If we had stayed in then there is no way we would have approved the emergency use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Theoretically, of course, we could have, but a vote to remain would have made us a very tame, subservient puppet, afraid to do anything on our own. We would also have been trapped into the corrupt EU purchasing racket, paying for French Sanofi vaccines that have not yet been invented. Little did we know four years ago that leaving the EU could save thousands of British lives or we would probably have put that on the side of the bus as well.
While the NHS staff, the military, the volunteers and others are doing a fantastic job of sticking needles in people’s arms, there would be nothing much to inject if it were not for the leadership, judgment and far-sightedness of the Prime Minister, Ministers and all in the Government. Thank you, Prime Minister, personally—the Boris haters will have to gnash their teeth a while longer.
I have a couple of ethical and moral questions to pose to my noble friend, but I do not want answers today. It seems that we will have tens of thousands of vaccine refuseniks. I defend their absolute right not to be vaccinated, so long as they respect my right to get hospital treatment ahead of them if they catch Covid. Hundreds of thousands of people with all other life-threatening illnesses—cancer, heart conditions and so on—have had their treatment postponed to give priority to Covid cases. That may have been the right thing to do when there was no cure for Covid, but now that there is a vaccine it will be intolerable if honest patients who have been vaccinated cannot get into hospital because refuseniks are blocking beds. My message is simple: if you refuse vaccination and catch Covid, then tough luck. You have absolutely no right to displace from a hospital bed a decent patient who has been vaccinated. No matter your colour, ethnicity or age, if you refuse vaccination you forfeit the right to jump the hospital queue.
Related to that, I assume that if, for example, care home or medical staff wandered round the wards, smoking 40 cigarettes a day they would be dismissed on the spot. Therefore, if medical or care home staff refuse vaccinations and wander round wards, belching out Covid all day, which is 100 times more lethal than passive smoking, should they not be considered to be sacked on the spot as well? I simply leave that for consideration.
Finally, we are repeatedly told that we must not call it the Chinese virus, but the variants are called the South African, Brazilian, Kent and UK variants. It simply identifies where they came from or were discovered. China is directly responsible for more than 2 million dead in the world. Since China let this virus escape from its Wuhan lab, covered it up and lies about it every single day, is it not about time that we called it by its true name—the China virus?
My Lords, the Minister described the purpose of the regulations very clearly, so I will not repeat that. I thank the House of Lords Library for its additional information and the secretariat of the Joint Committee on Human Rights for its comments. Thanks are also due, of course, to the statutory instruments committee.
I am also delighted at the success in developing and rolling out the vaccines. It has been efficiently and thoroughly launched, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said, thanks to many people, including those appointed to oversee it by the Prime Minister. I am aware that the regulations have had many stages and many consultations, and that the Government have used the affirmative procedure so that, according to the Explanatory Memorandum,
“public health measures can be taken in response to the severe and imminent threat to public health.”
Apart from the amendments under discussion, there are pressing concerns that should be aired and resolved by the Government to avoid a preposterous assertion of slowness and confusion. I will briefly refer to some of those issues.
Problems remain with the amendment to the power to use and disclose information in relation to the police. Can the Minister say whether the Department of Heath will reverse plans to allow police access to NHS Test and Trace data to reassure the public of medical confidentiality? I remember discussing the concerns about confidentiality when test and trace was brought in—a long time ago now. Those concerns now seem to be disregarded.
I still have concerns about levels of Covid among disabled people and about the situation in care homes. I do not see the legislative clarity needed for relatives, residents and those running care homes. I realise that this is a wider concern than these regulations, but it is urgent and worth discussing.
Last week, I asked the Minister a question about the situation in care homes. I should have given him that question in advance, and I apologise for not doing so, as he was not able to answer it adequately, and I hope that today he will be able to, because I gave him prior notice of what I shall raise. Briefly, I seek clarification on whether, for a relative to be able to visit a loved one in a care home, it will be necessary for all the residents and all staff of the care home to have been vaccinated. If so, is it to be once or twice, and what priority can they expect? Many families have been unable to have other than distant contact with relatives in care homes for a very long time.
This issue is relevant to the human right to family life, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights has expressed concern. Have discussions taken place in the Department of Health with this in mind? I ask the Minister to clarify that as residents in care homes and their relatives are confused and distressed and, of course, longing to get back together again. It is a public health issue; it is also a human rights issue. I hope the Minister will give me a good response.
My Lords, I support these regulations, which, as the Minister stated, include a reference to an exemption for elite athletes who train or enter competitions, and it is to that subject I wish to direct my remarks.
A recent review launched by the Home Secretary and still under consideration in Government concerns the current status of elite sports remaining exempt when travel quarantine rules are introduced. This needs to be seen in the context of the likelihood of the Olympic and Paralympic Games going ahead—despite the armchair critics who say otherwise. Given that there are only 23 Mondays before the opening ceremony, the detailed, careful and safe approach being taken by the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo organising committee is first rate and, barring another spike in Covid-19 in Japan, it should be the showcase televised sporting event across the globe in 2021.
The proposal that athletes should be limited to the athletes’ village and competition venues on arrival, and that regular testing will be a feature of the Games, is commendable. All participants will be expected to undergo a period of quarantine before travelling to Tokyo. In this context, I encourage the Government to open early discussions with the British Olympic and Paralympic associations to plan arrangements, should it not be possible to organise training camps close to Japan.
On arrival, the athletes will be subject to frequent testing, including at the airport and the village. All sensible moves are clearly being taken to ensure the athletes’ village will be the safest place in Japan. The price of not going downtown during the Games is a wise price to pay to prioritise their health, with athletes arriving only five days prior to their competition and departing a maximum of two days afterwards.
In passing, and should there be no crowds, I look forward to the first scientific study which demonstrates that athletic performance should be even better in the absence of the body heat generated by tens of thousands of spectators. The IOC is wise to wait until March or April before making a decision on the presence or otherwise of spectators. For—and this is the key point—the interests of the athletes, not the administrators or sponsors, should always come first.
Those athletes who have failed to observe the exceptional restrictions here in the UK have been rightly named, shamed and penalised. The vast majority who have followed the rules—not least in the Premier League—have provided much needed respite for the television-watching British population in lockdown. With such exceptional and comprehensive measures in place, I congratulate my noble friend on continuing with the current status of exemption of elite sports from these regulations and, I hope, from future travel quarantine rules. Should that not be the case, it would result in increased losses for national governing bodies, many of which are on the threshold of administration. It would remove opportunities for training and competition—including the rest of the Six Nations, which is already successfully under way—and cause further problems for all sports men and women if the quarantine requirement for athletes to stay in airport hotels for 10 days after arrival was introduced for this currently exempt group.
The scientists are publicly on record as recognising that, with the exceptional measures already in place, this is a very low-risk group. I thank my noble friend for taking representations on this and know that, from his diligence and concern for the athletes, the steps being taken by sport and the close co-operation between the sector and government have delivered sensible, safe and appropriate measures.
In the context of the advantages to international training and pre-Olympic competition schedules, I hope the athletes will be able to secure vaccination immediately after—and only after—the completion of vaccination among all vulnerable groups in society. This will considerably help those Olympic and Paralympic athletes seeking selection and, with them, their immediate entourage of coaches and support staff. This is all the more important as the momentum for international vaccine passports increases.
My Lords, another day, another statutory instrument on coronavirus. As the Hansard Society notes:
“The government has laid 364 Coronavirus-related Statutory Instruments … before the UK Parliament. The first two Coronavirus-related SIs were laid on 28 January and 10 February 2020, respectively. The rest have been laid since 6 March 2020, at an average rate since then of seven per completed week.”
No wonder people and businesses get confused. This makes a mockery of both Parliament and the tired excuse that Ministers keep trotting out:
“Owing to the speed with which the Government must take this emergency action to control the virus and save lives it is not possible for a debate to be held before these regulations come into force.”
The speed the Government said they needed for the 364 coronavirus-related SIs has not been effective, as we can see from the number of deaths. Some of the SIs have been superseded within days of coming into force, have caused confusion and have not achieved the goal of reducing the spread of transmission of the virus, thereby helping to keep people alive. The 364 SIs are indicative of a Government who have been far too reactive, rather than proactive, to the public health crisis we face. No other democratic Government across the world have introduced so much emergency legislation to deal with the coronavirus.
What is needed is a clear governmental strategy. It is sadly missing in the UK. That is what is required urgently, not more and more knee-jerk emergency legislation. The country is now at a crossroads in dealing with the virus. We have some hope on the horizon with the vaccination programme, but it is not the end. The world will be living with the coronavirus, new variants of it and all the health and economic risk this brings for years to come. It is time to reflect on what is needed for the next phase, what has been learned and what needs to change for the future. Part of this has to be less emergency legislation and more detailed and well thought-out laws and rules to genuinely save lives and get the country on a firmer footing to be able to deal with the next stage of the pandemic. This Parliament needs to stop just nodding through coronavirus emergency legislation. It needs to force the Government to come forward with a clear strategy for living with this pandemic and help set laws within that strategic framework.
As the past year has shown, 364 pieces of emergency legislation have not been the most effective way of keeping as many people alive as we would have hoped or proactively slowing down the virus. It is time for Parliament to do its proper job. For this House, that means having time to review and revise laws needed to deal with the public health crisis we face. This will help to ensure that the rules that people and businesses are required to obey are much more effective in reducing the spread of the virus and saving lives.
My Lords, my wife and I tested positive at the beginning of January. We isolated. Half way through the isolation, my wife was taken seriously ill and taken into Bedford Hospital. Thankfully, she is now at home. I pay a major tribute to the efficiency of the testing at Bedford town car park, and particularly to the care and attention in Bedford Hospital.
On Saturday, I had my coronavirus jab. The whole thing took 10 minutes. It was brilliantly organised. I spent some time talking to the volunteers, and we owe a huge tribute to them. In that context, I hope that some plans are being made for the Prime Minister to write a letter to all the volunteers who have come forward and taken part.
I have three pleas to my noble friend on the Front Bench. One comes from me as a marketing man. The tiers have worked, but one thing you learn about marketing is that you need to refine down areas, particularly if you are test-marketing new products. We are not test-marketing new products; we are test-marketing something which we cannot totally get a grip on. I wonder whether it would not be more sensible, instead of thinking about district council areas, to hone down to major towns and have a close look at them. That way, we would begin to really get a grip on it.
Secondly, on timing, any organisation—whether it be a business, a school, or whatever—needs time to plan ahead. I hope that when the Statement is made on 22 February, the Government will be planning for approximately three weeks’ notice of any substantial change.
Thirdly, I again make a plea for sport. I declare an interest as president of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club. There was virtually no cricket at all last year. The new season starts, if my noble friend would like to note it, on 8 April with county games across the country. All the 18 major counties have Covid-secure grounds. A huge amount of energy, money and resources have been put into those 18 grounds. The staff are well briefed and organised; the players are the same. Can we please try really hard to start off this season—perhaps confining it to one member and one guest at the grounds? I hope that when the Twenty20 comes round, which will not be until the beginning of June, we will be in a position to open up to the public.
Finally, I make a plea for Wimbledon and declare an interest as a member. Wimbledon’s championship is the leading tennis championship in the world. A great deal of work has gone into ensuring that we can, if at all possible, hold a championship this year in the first two weeks of July. There would be no finer advertisement for UK Ltd, and for the great British public, than to see Wimbledon happening with spectators in those weeks. I wish my noble friend all success in the way he is handling these things, and to the teams working for him, I say: thank you—you have done a superb job.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for all the work he has done in fighting this terrible pandemic. I wish him well with all his efforts in future, but perhaps I can be a little critical of details today, because underpinning this SI are the basic nuts and bolts which make the system work—and they are creaking in places.
We sometimes do not realise that there is a difference between guidelines, which are what Ministers would like us to do but do not have the force of law, and regulations, which do have that force. As we have gone through the tiers created by the Government over the past year, some of the issues have been about guidelines and some about regulations. Let me give a couple of simple examples.
Colleagues will recollect that at the beginning of the year, two women were handed fixed penalty notices by Derbyshire police for reportedly travelling five miles for exercise. The police force subsequently stated that it was reviewing the action based on new national guidelines, but the issuance of the notice was still supported by the Health Secretary, although it did not have the force of law. Then of course we had a similar case—I am not making this as a political point—when the Prime Minister was cycling 18 kilometres to ride around a park in London. I have no trouble at all with that, but the issue is that it causes problems on a wider scale, and with tragic results.
I live in a national park. As I look out of the window, the snow is falling—the hills are covered in snow. Although people have guidelines that the Government’s wish is that they should not drive to the Lake District, but they do. Every weekend, they are still driving regularly from Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Kent and London. That is not illegal, but they are not allowed to spend the night. How do you trap people who are sometimes spending the night?
We had a tragic incident this last weekend involving the mountain rescue, which has been called out several times, when two young men went camping on the mountains above Kirkstone Pass. One of them got chest pains and called the mountain rescue in the middle of the night—it was two in the morning. One member of the mountain rescue slipped and fell; he has very serious injuries.
However, the police cannot stop people driving in to camp. Once they have camped, they can be issued with penalty notices because that is in a regulation: you cannot stay overnight in an area such as this. I am arguing that there needs to be some consistency in the regulations and guidelines so that we know where we stand, and that the police also know what they can and cannot do.
I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. Could the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, please mute himself?
My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the work of my noble friend and Lords Ministers generally. They have had to deal with an unrelenting schedule in incredibly difficult times. Given the plethora of primary and secondary legislation, and the briefings that have kept my noble friend at the House and the Dispatch Box while many of us shield, self-isolate and keep safe at home, I am sure his work is valued by us all, whatever our political colours.
In the few minutes I have today, I want to focus on the wedding hospitality sector. It is an issue I have raised on previous occasions, and one which I have remained engaged with throughout this pandemic. The sector has been devastated by the pandemic, particularly the Asian wedding sector where large premises with high overheads have now lain empty for some 12 months. Many have had to return, quite rightly, hundreds of thousands of pounds in deposits to those who have had to postpone weddings. They feel that they have had little national engagement to plan for their futures, even where local councils have worked closely with them to ensure they are Covid-compliant.
This SI specifically starts to address this process, of course, but I want to ask three specific questions. If my noble friend cannot answer them today, I should be grateful if he could write to me. First, what specific engagement has taken place with those in the Asian wedding sector? Secondly, what consideration has been given to the size of venues-to-people ratio when determining the numbers allowed to attend wedding receptions, or do the Government intend, once things starts to ease, to deal with the matter as they did previously? I would argue that that was clunky and ill informed, and that the one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Thirdly, what are the Government’s plans and timetable for easing the restrictions for weddings and civil partnerships?
My Lords, I want to ask about the route out of lockdown. I fear the Government are relying far too much on the vaccine programme to get us out of trouble and may be planning to ignore the need to reduce the prevalence of the virus in the community before easing restrictions. I hope that the Minister will reply to my noble friend Lady Barker’s question about a lot of test and trace being laid off. Surely this is the time to continue the effort to find out where the virus is and stop it in its tracks by supported isolation strategies? Can the Minister justify this reduction in testing staff? If he tells me that resources are being switched from the eye-wateringly expensive centralised system to locally based—and more cost-effective—test, trace and isolate services, I will be very pleased to hear it. However, the Government were so slow to make use of local expertise in favour of their expensive national system that I somehow doubt it.
Unless we bear down on incidence in the community, mutations will continue to occur and variants will result, with a possible consequence for the effectiveness of current vaccines. What lessons have been learned from what happened last autumn, when cases rose again after the summer easing of restrictions and we had a second wave worse than the first? What lessons have been learned from abroad, specifically Portugal, where there is now an even worse crisis for which it is having to get help from Germany and other EU countries because they had a free-for-all over Christmas?
Are the Government watching what is happening in Israel, where the level of vaccination is higher than here but levels of illness are not reducing as fast as expected? As Israeli epidemiologist Dr Ran Balicer has commented:
“Vaccines work, but the picture is more complex than that. Other steps are needed as well.”
Experts there believe that the lower level of adherence to lockdown in Israel is part of the problem, which should be a clear lesson for us here in the UK.
Can other noble Lords mute, please?
All this indicates the need for timely parliamentary scrutiny of any proposals for loosening restrictions, so that Members of both Houses will have at least as much notice as schools. Members need the opportunity to counter the pressure that the Government are clearly feeling from the so-called Covid Recovery Group, which does not agree with restrictions and seems to believe, mistakenly, that herd immunity can come from widespread natural infections. It does not seem to care about the deaths and long-term illness that would ensue from such a strategy.
Looking to the future, can the Minister say, first, what studies are being set up to monitor the ongoing level of immunity of those who have been vaccinated, testing against not only current variants but others that may arise? This will be essential if scientists are to advise on the nature and frequency of future booster vaccines. Secondly, do we have sufficient capacity in genome sequencing adequately to track new variants, which will inevitably come into the country until the whole world is vaccinated? We are world leaders in genome sequencing but capacity is different from expertise. Do we not need to scale up this work and perhaps do what they are doing in Denmark: sequence the relevant part of the genome of every positive case in order to detect new variants early? I am afraid that when I heard a little while ago that we have two cases of the South African variant I cynically suspected that we actually had many more but did not know about it. We can know this only if we increase our genome sequencing capacity.
Before calling the next speaker, I remind noble Lords to remain on mute when not speaking. I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes.
My Lords, I want to comment only briefly and positively to support the application of the click and collect exception to libraries, as set out in the amended Schedule 3A. I know that reading books gives pleasure to so many people, particularly during lockdown. For many families, a trip to the library is usually a highly-anticipated weekly outing and it is important for a child’s development to help them pick out books to read and to expand their thirst for knowledge.
I have heard of families running out of books to read during lockdown having relied for reading books on libraries and schools, which are shut, and how limiting this is for a child’s development. Oxfam reported that after the first lockdown customers were desperate for books; it saw a massive rise in second-hand book sales. At a time when children in particular are spending so long in front of a screen, a book can be a magical place to escape. I welcome this provision to allow people to keep borrowing physical books from their local libraries. I urge local councils to ensure that this provision, albeit late in the day, is seized on and that local libraries expand their offerings from online to click and collect, and publicise that widely to help families and, particularly, children.
My Lords, I greatly welcome the speed at which the vaccine programme is rolling out and the boost to morale that it has provided. However, news over the weekend regarding the South African variant makes it clear that we need to be constantly vigilant and prepared to adapt our response. The vaccine is no silver bullet.
I want to focus on the impact of lockdown on the mental health and well-being of both young and old, particularly those living alone who may be socially isolated and for whom lockdown has been especially tough. We have, quite rightly, thought a lot about the impact on families, but, in my view, not thought enough about the impact on those living alone. For many, their mental health has suffered, not least due to anxiety that if they catch the virus they will have no one to look after them and check they are okay. Local community groups, charities and local authorities have played a valuable role, but they are unable to meet all demand.
Reports in the press over the weekend talked of post men and women taking on the role of checking up on the elderly, something that has been trialled in the Channel Islands. I would welcome such a trial on the mainland but was very concerned to hear that people might have to pay for this service. Surely the Government should step in to fund any such scheme, particularly for the less well-off and those living in deprived communities. What plans do the Government have in this area?
Last week, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, a question about recent scientific findings from Cambridge University showing that one dose of the Pfizer vaccine may not produce sufficient antibodies to kill off the virus, particularly for the over-80s. The scientists involved suggested that rapid antibody tests could be used to identify older people who had responded less well to their initial jab and prioritise them for a speedier second jab. What plans do the Government have to carry out such tests on older people and residents of care homes, who are currently having to wait 12 weeks for their second jab?
Like other noble Lords, I continue to be concerned about reports of care home staff not taking up the offer of a vaccine. While I understand that no one can be compelled to be vaccinated and that education and reassurance are the key, equally care homes have a duty of care towards their residents, including their well-being. I recently heard a union representative say that one reason some care home staff were refusing the vaccine was that they were fearful of having a reaction which would mean they had to take time off work. Surely the Government should be able to underwrite the pay of any care worker in this situation to encourage take-up. Unless action is taken, residents and relatives who have had a vaccination and had time to develop their immunity may still find that they are unable to visit their loved ones, which feels so unfair—a point made powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey.
The pandemic has put a huge strain on many young people who were already struggling with their mental health due to bereavement, social isolation, a loss of routine because of school closures or a breakdown in support. What plans do the Government have to provide additional funding for the rest of this academic year and the school year beginning in September to allow schools to invest in mental health and well-being support, including school counsellors, but, crucially, without having to divert resources away from academic catch-up funding which the Government have already announced?
This lockdown must be the last. The public would never forgive this Government if, by coming out of lockdown too soon or without a comprehensive strategy to defeat the virus, we once again found ourselves in a full national lockdown.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests with dispensing doctors as in the register. I add my congratulations to the Minister, the Government and all those involved with such a successful vaccination programme in which we can all take great pride.
I draw my noble friend’s attention to one aspect of the South African variation which is causing deep concern across the medical community: the fact that the mutation, or the variation, that we are now identifying as coming from South Africa actually arose during South Africa’s summer, but nevertheless spread quite widely and rapidly throughout the community. Does my noble friend share my concern that this shows that this particular variation—and perhaps others to come—is not a seasonal variation but could actually spread throughout the warmer months? Have the Government done any specific research on this, and do they have any plans for how to tackle this particular dimension of this variation?
Looking ahead to the fact that there will be, in all probability, a need for a booster vaccination this autumn and in years to come, what plans have my noble friend and the department made to ensure an equally smooth rollout of booster vaccinations in addition to the annual flu vaccination for the elderly and, as was the case this winter, the over-50s? Will my noble friend give a commitment today that the department will rely specifically on rural GP practices to ensure a smooth rollout of both the flu vaccination, as in previous years, and a booster vaccination this autumn and in successive years? Will he ensure that GPs, being closest to their patients in very outlying areas, will be asked to deliver these as effectively as they have this year? Can he update us about the inclement weather and what delays the department is expecting to occur—albeit in the short term—to the vaccination timetable which has been rolled out?
Through my noble friend, can we pay a heartfelt thanks to all those involved on the front line, particularly in hospitals? As my noble friend mentioned, this has been a very long winter, and those staff in hospitals, ambulance services and paramedics have been stretched to the utmost. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for all the work they are doing and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. It is important that we pay tribute to the department and all on the front line at this time.
We are a stoic lot in this country, but I cannot go swimming. I cannot watch rugby. My team has been promoted to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years, and none of us can go to watch and cheer them on. I cannot accept the kind offer from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, to be his guest at Northamptonshire cricket club. I cannot have any weekends away. I cannot go to the theatre with my wife, which is what she loves doing. I cannot climb mountains. In fact, I cannot do anything I want to do. I have no interest in Ocado, Amazon or Netflix—none. And I am in a better position than most people. A teacher on BBC Radio 5 Live this morning said three out of 25 kids in her school were in class today—22 were not there. People are struggling to cope.
The Government are making a fundamental error in what they are saying at the moment. It is the first big error, in my view. Of course, you can criticise various things from the past—whether they were done by the Government, NHS England or Public Health England—and say that they could have been done better with hindsight that we did not have before. But this is an error of the future, and it is a political error. I have heard Ministers in the past day or two say that we are not having a vaccine passport because we are not forcing people to have the vaccine, and that we are not a country that will legislate to force people to have the vaccine. But that entirely misses the point of a vaccine passport.
I can tell the Minister that no one will be allowed in the miners’ welfare clubs if they have not had the vaccination, because we are damned if we have been through everything we have gone through to have some Herbert turn up thinking they are better than the rest of us, choosing not to be vaccinated and causing problems. We are not having it.
A week ago, my tiny grandchildren, who I have not seen for eight months, packed their rucksacks in Budapest in Hungary—we are talking about under-sixes—and announced they were going to get a plane to come to visit us, but they cannot. I am damned if, when I am eventually allowed to go to Hungary, I have to ask my GP for a note and waste their increasingly valuable time to say that I have had the vaccine I need to get into Hungary. That is what will be required. The last time I went there, I had to prove that I had had the tests. I had to wait 24 hours—there was a big red cross on the door until those tests came through. They will require a vaccine card. You cannot get into Tanzania or other parts of Africa without a yellow fever card. That is sensible.
The vaccine card is not about saying you have to do it; it is absolutely about, “Here’s the injections you’ve had.” Idiots like me need it on one piece of card so we can remember what we have had—particularly if we will need to have boosters—just like you do if you go to places such as Africa, to remember that you are up to date. That is what it is about.
I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said. He usually speaks a lot of sense. I am with him in spirit, although not necessarily in the detail, on care homes. We have 308 Peers over the age of 75. I would expect Peers to demonstrate to the staff here that they have had their vaccines. Therefore, the vaccine card would be peer-group pressure to get people vaccinated. It is essential. The Government need to get this right.
My Lords, these regulations once again are being hurried because of their expiry date, before the Prime Minister addresses Parliament and the country on 22 February with his route map out of lockdown. I ask the Minister: what evaluation have the Government done of the tiered system and the total lockdown? Do they think that the slow decline to around 15,000 cases per day and just under 9,000 deaths per week means that it is safe to consider easing lockdown next month?
We note that the regulations make minor changes to the tiers legislation, including on elite sports competitions, the exemption to leave home to collect goods ordered via click and collect and from libraries, cafes and canteens in post-16 education centres being open, and marriages and conversions under marriage being permitted. I do not believe that these are contentious. But, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said, it is the bigger, more strategic approach to what needs to happen to unlock the “stay at home” orders that must be considered.
As my noble friend Lady Walmsley outlined, too many people still think that vaccines alone are the answer, but in the light of the spread and strength of the new variants, can the Minister say how the surge testing in the postcodes announced last week is proceeding? Are there effective results in further isolating both the South African and UK variants? Are there any indications yet about the spread of these variants that might affect the easing of lockdown?
For 11 months, we from these Benches have urged the Government to run an effective test, trace and isolate system. The need for that will be even more important as part of the route map out of lockdown, so I echo my noble friend Lady Barker’s concerns that the Secretary of State is reducing or curtailing some contracts with tracing firms, which have summarily sacked their staff. On Friday, Sitel—one of the contractors—said:
“At this point in time as a business we need to reduce the number of agents because we have done our jobs.”
But while there is some reduction in case numbers, the daily level, at around 15,000, is substantially higher than the 1,000 a day when the first lockdown was lifted last year. As the Minister said, the numbers in hospital and number of deaths remain too high.
Does this mean that the Minister no longer believes that test and trace is an essential tool? Perhaps it means that, at long last, local test and trace teams, which have always had a much better success rate at contacting people and persuading them to isolate, will be increased. Can the Minister please explain what is going on?
Last week, in a reply to my noble friend Lord Scriven, the Minister said that 86% of contacts were now being traced, appearing to show a substantial improvement. However, “More or Less”, the Radio 4 programme, reported last week that if a tracer tells one person in a house of five that they must all isolate, that apparently now counts as five separate successes. Is this correct, and does it explain the rapid increase in tracing rates for call-centre companies such as Sitel? What arrangements are in place to give confidence that everyone in any household is self-isolating after they have been asked? Can the Minister say whether this higher level of success is connected to the new way that tracing data is assembled?
From these Benches, we have repeatedly listed the key steps needed for successful test, trace and isolation, especially the latter. Those self-isolating need to be paid their proper wages, as they are performing a civic duty. The Government’s sick pay levels are pathetic, with a theoretical, one-off £500 grant that hardly anyone can access because, local government tells us, the rules are too hard and complicated. Those with dependants, such as unpaid carers looking after disabled or elderly family members who are not allowed to be in the same room for their self-isolation as those they care for, may also need particular support.
As my noble friend Lady Tyler commented, there should be state-funded places in pandemic hotels for those who cannot effectively self-isolate at home, especially when there are many other family members living in a confined space. There should also be a proper care package of support for those isolating, as in Germany and Taiwan, with regular calls to check on mental health, and to ensure that food and pharmacy supplies are getting through. Most importantly, there should be consistent, strong, clear messaging to the public every day. That would provide confidence for those who currently have to choose between feeding their families or self-isolating.
Finally, as we approach 31 March, when the emergency pandemic legislation expires, I echo the comments of my colleagues on the broader issues relating to these almost daily Covid SIs. The Government took to themselves extraordinary Henry VIII powers on the understanding that SIs were to be brought to Parliament in a timely fashion for debate. They are not. Far too often they are enacted weeks ahead of when the Commons debates them, and we have to wait a number of days before they then come to the Lords. The Government must start consultation on the renewal of these powers with both Parliament and the wider public as soon as possible. When will this happen?
I start by placing on record, from these Benches, thanks and great admiration for the way that the NHS, in its widest capacity, is coping under the combined demands of so many Covid patients and, indeed, other patients. A dear friend of my family is about to go into one of our trust hospitals to have a baby any time now. The support for her and her partner has been exemplary, as has the tremendous drive for the vaccine, with the whole public sector and volunteers stepping up to deliver millions of jabs—the hope for the future.
I have some sympathy with the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, about vaccine passports. My husband, who is also a great supporter of Leeds United Football Club, travelled the world—pre-Covid—on internet safety issues for children, so has had a vaccine passport. Of course he has, because he has to show many different countries that he has had the right vaccines. I cannot understand why the Government are finding this such a challenge.
It is a few weeks since we last discussed regulations that were already in effect. These make minor amendments and corrections to the all-tier regulations, and offer an opportunity to scrutinise the detail and effectiveness of the lockdown at this stage. It seems that the public have taken a few weeks to come to terms with an effective lockdown and I think the Government need to recognise the strain that this is putting on families and communities across the UK. This was alluded to by my noble friend Lord Clark.
February is always a difficult month for illness and depression because it is dark and cold and miserable. I get the impression that people are struggling with this, so the light at the end of this tunnel is even more important. That is not only the vaccine, but cracking the test and trace system so that everyone who needs to self-isolate can do so, and protecting our borders from mutations of Covid by effective quarantine. Neither of these have been working effectively and both need to do so as we move forward. I so agree with my noble friend Lord Winston about the effort that needs to go into research and co-operation across the world.
I have three detailed questions. These regulations clarify that marriages and conversions under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 are permitted. Can the Minister advise the Committee whether the need for this clarification was identified as part of an administrative exercise or stems from difficulties that have arisen from conducting a same-sex marriage during the third lockdown? I sincerely hope he can assure us that it is not the latter, given that, under the regulations, weddings and civil partnership ceremonies are permitted only if there are exceptional circumstances, such as where one of those getting married is seriously ill and does not expect to recover, or due to undergo debilitating treatment or life-changing surgery.
The regulations also clarify the exemption to leave home to collect goods from businesses operating click and collect, and that this also applies to libraries. Everybody will welcome that fact as access to libraries is very important indeed. However, the Minister will be aware of concerns that non-essential retail click-and-collect services are a significant source of transmission and are undermining the lockdown due to people who are gathering to collect their items not wearing masks and failing to observe social distancing while queuing. Indeed, John Lewis suspended its click-and-collect services after a change in tone from the Government over the virus. Yet despite continuing to urge people to leave home only for essential purposes and government adverts asking us whether we really need go out, neither the guidance nor the regulations permitting takeaways and retail shops to operate click and collect in England and Wales have changed. Does the Minister recognise that this could be an anomaly and risks confusing the “stay at home” message?
The guidance clarifies that elite sports competitions are permitted. The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that despite strict protocols established during the summer, many athletes and players have been involved in various coronavirus rule breaches while the rest of society is locked down. This has ranged from scenes of crowded dressing room celebrations to players attending gatherings and parties in private homes. While the Government have been keen to stress personal responsibility, what discussions have they had with the sports’ governing bodies? Can the Minister confirm whether any of the athletes involved has been fined under the regulations or whether the consequences have been purely at the discretion of the club or body they represent? Does the Minister agree that this is inherently unfair, especially when allowances and different rules already apply to athletes than to ordinary members of the public?
Finally, my noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised care homes. Can the Minister confirm how many people in care homes have been vaccinated rather than just been offered a vaccination which, of course, is important? What do the Government propose to do about staff in care homes who refuse vaccinations?
My Lords, I want to say a massive thank you to all noble Lords for their questions and, in particular, for the extremely kind and generous comments about the NHS, healthcare workers and all those who have contributed to our pandemic response. It is very rewarding to hear those remarks and I am sure that everyone involved is extremely grateful.
I will try to answer as many questions as I can. If I cannot answer now, I will endeavour to write to noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, was right at the beginning of this debate to point out that pandemics last for a long time. We are profoundly conscious of that from the Black Death, Justinian’s plague, the Chinese plague and 1665. We are in it for the long haul and we hope that the remedies and protections we are putting in place today will help protect society for years to come. The noble Lord is entirely right that those worst affected disproportionately come from areas of deprivation, the elderly and the poor. That is very much on our mind.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, asked about children. The green book is very clear about what vaccines are appropriate for children. We have endorsed the provision of vaccines for CEV children and are doing tests and clinical trials to see if the vaccine can be extended to children because, while not likely to be hospitalised, they are a source of transmission. He rightly raised antivirals. He and I have had correspondence on that subject. He also alluded to a key challenge in the administration of antivirals, which is portability. Access is a profound challenge in primary care for the delivery of antivirals, and that is one of the issues we have to resolve.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about first aid training. If first aiders are unable to access annual refresher training face to face during coronavirus, HSE supports the use of online refresher training to keep skills up to date. If the noble Baroness has more questions about this important issue, I will be glad to answer them by correspondence. I reassure her, though, that when we publish the vaccination figures they are not vaccinations offered; they are vaccinations delivered. Some 549,078 were delivered on Saturday.
The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, rightly raised the massive liberal dilemma of refuseniks. He alluded to the massive public health truism that my health affects not only me but the people I meet. I confirm that surgeons currently have validation for their vaccinations. A surgeon cannot perform surgery if he or she does not have, for instance, a hepatitis vaccination. That is, indeed, food for thought.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked about police data. We are looking forward to debating that issue on 1 March. On the very challenging question of social care, she asked quite reasonably about when we will be able to change the extremely distressing current regime for meeting those in social care. At the moment, meetings do happen outdoors and with protective measures, such as screens, but close contact is not allowed. This is not just to protect those involved but also to prevent the virus entering care homes, where it runs rife. We are seeking data on asymptomatic infection, transmission and the other relevant details from post-vaccination clinical trials. We will publish updated guidance after this period of national lockdown. More than anyone, I hope that this uncomfortable and challenging regime can be changed.
I completely hear the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on sport. She asked some very specific questions and I will be glad to write to her. In reply to my noble friend Lord Moynihan, I pay tribute to those in elite sports for raising our spirits. The Six Nations this weekend was great entertainment, even if the result was rather disappointing for England supporters. We are engaged with elite sport on the border issues, as he knows. We completely hear his arguments and we are trying our hardest to meet the hopes of elite sport. However, I say to him that we are in the hands of the variant and these matters are not completely in our control.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that Parliament has a voice and that these debates on regulations do have an impact on the way that they are delivered. We are working within the framework of the laws we have and are doing our best to respect the influence of Parliament. He makes important points about the use of emergency legislation and I suggest that he addresses these comments to the Constitution Committee, which is doing a report on emergency legislation at the moment and would, I am sure, take his comments into account.
To my noble friend Lord Naseby, I am very glad, as I am sure we all are, to hear to hear of both his recovery and, in particular, that of Lady Naseby. I share his tribute to the NHS staff who have been delivering the vaccine. However, I well remember my noble friend’s comments. On six occasions last year, he made comments about cricket. I also remember, on 3 September, his profound scepticism about my comments that a second wave was on its way, so I gently and kindly remind him that we are not through this pandemic yet and I just cannot give him the reassurances on the reopening of cricket that I know he is looking for.
I completely share the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Clark, and I agree wholeheartedly with his appeal for consistency. The bottom line is that the current guidance is that there should be no travel beyond the most local area—full stop. I completely understand his frustration about those travelling to his area.
My noble friend Lady Warsi’s comments are best directed to MHCLG, which provides guidance on wedding issues. The PM has made it clear that he will be issuing new guidance on 22 February, and the matters she asked about will be addressed in that. Although I hear the concerns of the wedding venue industry, I cannot make any promises on this today. The close proximity that weddings inevitably create does not suit pandemic management.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is entirely right on Israel. Vaccinations are not a panacea. Social distancing remains essential, transmissibility after the vaccine is not clear cut, and therefore our message to the British public is to be patient and maintain the face, space and distance rules. She also asked about new genome sequencing. I reassure her that we are increasing our capacity for turnaround times and the amount of analysis that we provide. She is entirely right that about 5% of the positive PCR tests done today are genomically sequenced, so if a couple of cases of the South African variant are found today, you can expect there to be more tomorrow. But she is not right that central testing is more expensive than local testing; it is in fact much, much cheaper. Nor are we standing down resources: 783,851 tests were done yesterday—a phenomenal number. We continue to invest in local outbreak management: £925 million has been put in the contained outbreak management fund, supporting local testing.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that the CMO’s very strong view is that 12 weeks is a safe interval for the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and that an antibody test is therefore not needed.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, who echoed his remarks, very much for his sincere comments on certification, which he made extremely persuasively. I reassure him that we are at a very early stage of the vaccine rollout at the moment. There are questions of fairness and justice when only a small proportion of the population have had access to the vaccine at all, but I take his points very much on board and will take them back to the department.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that the Project Eagle detective work and fire-blanket scheme is proceeding extremely well. It is too early to be able to give her categoric evidence of success, but the implementation is promising so far. She mentioned messaging and payment, and we have addressed those matters before. We have published an assessment of the tiering system, and I would be glad to email her a link to it. On her comments on test and trace, it would be generous and warm-hearted to say at least one word of praise to the management and the tens of thousands of people who work in test and trace for their phenomenal achievement over the past few months, turning around a massive enterprise that is having a huge impact on the virus.
In conclusion, I reiterate the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on the NHS. She is entirely right that this shows the NHS at its very best. The vaccination programme has been a phenomenal achievement, and I look forward very much to its successful deployment.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 5.40 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded, or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for debate on the following statutory instruments is one hour.
Social Security (Contributions) (Rates, Limits and Thresholds Amendments and National Insurance Funds Payments) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations set the national insurance contributions limits and thresholds, as well as the rates of a number of national insurance contributions, for the 2021-22 tax year and make provision for a Treasury grant to be paid into the National Insurance Fund if required. National insurance contributions, or NICs, allow people to make contributions when they are in work in order to receive additional contributory benefits when they are not working; for example, when they are retired or if they become unemployed. NICs receipts go towards funding these contributory benefits, as well as the NHS. As announced in November, the Government are using the September consumer prices index—CPI—figure of 0.5% as the basis for setting all national insurance limits and thresholds, and the rates of class 2 and class 3 national insurance contributions, for 2021-22.
I will first outline the specific changes to the class 1 primary threshold and class 4 lower profits limit. The primary threshold and lower profits limit indicate the points at which employees and the self-employed start paying class 1 and class 4 NICs, respectively. These thresholds will rise from £9,500 to £9,568 per year. The rates of class 1 and class 4 NICs are unchanged by these regulations. Increases to the primary threshold and lower profits limit do not impact on state pension eligibility. This is determined by the lower earnings limit for employees, which will remain at £6,240 in 2021-22, and payment of class 2 NICs for the self-employed, which I will come to shortly.
The upper earnings limit, the point at which the main rate of employee NICs drops to 2%, is aligned with the higher rate threshold for income tax. The upper earnings limit will increase from £50,000 to £50,270 per year. Similarly, the upper profits limit is the point at which the main rate of class 4 NICs drops to 2%. This will also increase from £50,000 to £50,270 per year. As well as class 4 NICs, the self-employed also pay class 2 NICs. The rate of class 2 NICs will remain at the weekly rate of £3.05, due to the rounding rules which require the calculation of the CPI increase to be rounded to the nearest 5p. The small profits threshold is the point above which the self-employed must pay class 2 NICs. This will increase from £6,475 to £6,515 per year. Class 3 NICs allow people to voluntarily top up their national insurance record. The rate for class 3 will increase in line with inflation, from £15.30 a week to £15.40.
The secondary threshold determines the point at which employers start paying employer NICs on an employee’s salary. This threshold will increase from £8,788 to £8,840 per year. The threshold at which employers of people under 21, and of apprentices under 25, start to pay employer NICs on these employees’ salaries will increase from £50,000 to £50,270 per year. The rate of employer NICs is unchanged by these regulations.
The regulations also make provision for a Treasury grant of up to 17% of forecasted annual benefit expenditure to be paid into the National Insurance Fund, if needed, during 2021-22. A similar provision will be made in respect of the Northern Ireland National Insurance Fund. The Government Actuary’s Department report laid alongside the re-rating regulations forecast that a Treasury grant will not be required in 2021-22, but in view of the economic challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government consider it prudent to make the maximum provision at this stage.
These regulations will also ensure that tax credits, child benefit and the guardian’s allowance increase in line with the consumer prices index, which had inflation at 0.5% in the year to September 2020. As noted in the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report, the increases provided for in these regulations result from the statutory annual review of benefits and credits rates and, as such, are separate from the temporary measure announced by the Chancellor in March 2020 and enacted in the Coronavirus Act 2020. The powers in the Act increased the basic element of working tax credit by an extra £1,045 for the tax year 2020-21 and ensured that the temporary increase was not to be considered for the purpose of the annual review.
In summary, this proposed legislation makes changes to the rates, limits and thresholds for national insurance contributions and provision for a Treasury grant. It also increases the rates of tax credits and guardian’s allowance in line with prices. I hope noble Lords will join me in supporting these regulations. I beg to move.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who so often in the time she has been on the Front Bench has impressed with her clarity and detail. In fact, I did not really need to have read the Explanatory Notes because she has covered the situation extremely well. However, I thought I would join this Grand Committee discussion on these statutory instruments both to support my noble friend on the Front Bench and to make one or two points which I think should be made in the light of the changes.
The first relates to the national insurance uprating. I have no objection to these regulations except in thinking that there needs to be much wider debate about the regressive nature of the national insurance system. There needs to be a challenge—it is as much a challenge for my own party as it is for the present Government—to the nonsense that the more you earn, the less you pay in national insurance, given the new cut-off of £50,270 at the upper rate and the 2% contribution. There is also the silly situation where those who are over statutory retirement age and continue to earn do not pay national insurance. At a time when we need every penny we can get, this seems an area for future exploration. We just need to be honest with people who are doing very well while over the age of retirement. There are now very many of them—well over 1 million—who could make a small contribution. Associated with that is the reconsideration of the 2% contribution. I think this would be seen to be fair and would avoid having to top up the national insurance scheme by £200 million. I just lay that on the table.
I also wanted to contribute in relation to working tax credits and their associated uplift. As the Minister has already indicated, under Schedule 77 to the Act there was a temporary uplift of £1,045, or £20 a week, for working tax credits and associated credits, but also, of course, for universal credit. While there has been great public attention on universal credit, people have not necessarily understood that—if there is no change of heart by the Government—the £1,045-a-year uplift will be withdrawn.
I cannot read the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s mind for 3 March, but I can read the minds of those around me and those I used to represent. A reduction of £20 a week for people in the situation we are describing —including those we are dealing with tonight—is a substantial sum of money, even if it is not for those making the decisions.
I think the Minister has good contacts; she certainly ought to have, given how competent she has displayed herself to be over recent months. I appeal to her to get the message across to Treasury colleagues that it would be seen as grossly unfair at this time if people were to have withdrawn from them what is for them a very large sum of money, but is in greater government spending—in terms of the level of borrowing we have at the moment—a very small contribution to ensuring that people can survive. While I am in no way against the changes that have been described, they overlay a much more difficult and controversial situation that I felt it necessary to put on record this evening.
My Lords, I will address the NIC contribution matters in these regulations. I would have addressed the working tax credit point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, but rather than repeating the point I will simply say “and I” and add amplification to it.
The standard uprating by CPI has been applied and, as this was only 0.5% last September, it has made only a minor difference on the current overall architecture of the NIC regime. There are bigger and wider issues concerning the NIC regime, but I will address and raise some issues relating to Covid, Brexit and international agreements with the Minister. Of course, these regulations concern social security matters.
The pandemic has produced many headaches for the administration of small companies in particular. Apart from their struggles to simply survive, the administrative burden of reporting and making payments to HMRC for their employee liabilities has continued. For many this has always been a challenge in terms of time and administration, but for small companies the administrative complication of furloughing employees is now added to that. Can the Minister update the Committee on how these extra administrative matters relating to submissions to HMRC have been managed? Has any extra help been provided to these small companies where the structure of their staffing has been so dramatically and sometimes irregularly affected?
I wish to explore a wider issue of the consequences of Brexit. Many UK citizens living and working in the European Union have seen their status changed. However, Article 30 of the EU withdrawal agreement gives social security rights where UK citizens were resident in the EU on 31 December 2020. The regulations on these rights are complicated and complex, but essentially, where an individual falls within the scope of the regulations established as a result of the EU withdrawal agreement, is in receipt of a UK state pension and resides in an EU member state, their state pension will be uprated in line with those in the United Kingdom. It is not clear to me, so perhaps the Minister could confirm either in writing or at the end of the debate, whether continuing NIC payments will also contribute to an uprated pension once it becomes payable when an individual UK citizen chose to live in an EU member state after 31 December 2020.
Regardless of this situation, I think the Minister would agree that a UK citizen living in an EU member state will, under most conditions, see their UK state pension uprated. This is an important principle: in most circumstances, as a result of a negotiated reciprocal agreement, the UK state pension will be uprated as if that person living in an EU member state was receiving their pension in the UK. The NIC eligibility for a state pension, using the individual’s contribution record and the criteria in these regulations, will mean a regular uprated pension, regardless of whether they are in the EU or the UK. The decision to follow this very sensible path was a result of a reciprocal agreement negotiated and agreed by the UK with the EU.
I am sure that the Minister will be well aware of the problem for overseas British pensioners, many of whom have not seen their state pension values uprated since their arrival in another country and all of whom fulfilled the NIC contribution record necessary for accruing a UK state pension. One such example is Anne Puckridge, whom I have met. Anne served the UK in all three Armed Forces, but despite a full contributions record she now lives on a pension of less than half of what it would be if it had been uprated as if she were living in the UK. Anne moved to Canada to be near her daughter.
The Government of Canada have now written formally to the UK Government with a request for a reciprocal social security agreement that will cover the uprating of pensions. The UK’s policy is dishonourable and long standing. With the chance to negotiate a reciprocal deal, will the UK now take up the Canadian Government’s offer? There are too many like Anne Puckridge in Canada, and the UK has let them down. This offer from the Canadian Government is a chance to put things right. I hope that the Minister will take this matter back to the Government to press for a reciprocal arrangement, just as they have done with the EU. Every time the matter has been raised in this House it has been referred back to the Treasury, which says that it is too expensive. Now there is a chance, with a Government in another country with whom we have a good and friendly relationship, to start to put this matter right for people such as Anne Puckridge. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that this issue will be considered.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, there is little to comment on concerning the routine uprating of amounts following the CPI indexation, but that does not mean that there is nothing to say more generally about national insurance or tax credits. I identify with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and endorsed by my noble friend Lord German about the £20 top-up for working tax credit and universal credit, which I hope the Government will see the need for.
The Explanatory Memorandum on the SI relating to NI contributions brings two things to light. The first is that the higher-rate tax threshold and upper band of NI have previously been aligned and stay in step, but the bad news about that, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, pointed out, is that one goes up and the other goes down, so the marginal increase is not what people think it is. The second point is that there is a calculator that can be used by small businesses to help with the complexity of determining what national insurance should be paid. That complexity is evident from looking at the list of different parts to upgrade. Many have wrestled with how to modernise national insurance, and I am sure that it is one of those things where “I wouldn’t start from here” applies—I will return to that.
From the employers’ side, NI has often been called a tax on employment, and that has led to changes being made to stimulate employment among those aged under 21 and for some apprentices aged under 25. Both of those had good reasons. Given the effect that Covid is having on younger workers, the obvious question is whether anything more can be done on both a long-term and short-term basis, although I accept that is more of a Budget question.
The issue of self-employed national insurance contributions was also brought into the spotlight by the Chancellor when he indicated that providing Covid help to the self-employed should carry with it some presumption that, in due course, more social security contributions should be paid by that sector. A similar connection between benefits and NI payments was also picked up in the Finance Bill Sub-Committee report, where it was suggested—I paraphrase, but as I was a member of the committee, I well remember the discussions—that changes in national insurance payments need to be accompanied by commensurate changes in, or access to, benefits. Concerns were highlighted around IR35 and the fact that contractors would be asked to pay for benefits that they did not get, such as sick leave and paid holidays—and, of course, many of them did not get much out of the various Covid provisions.
That leads me on to the fact that work is much more complicated and variable than it used to be. That point was made by the Office of Tax Simplification in November 2016 in its follow-up report on NI simplification, which states that
“we live in a changing business environment, with diverse ways of working, and there are a growing number of people who combine self-employment, multi jobs and freelancing”,
“the current system was built for yesterday … let alone for tomorrow.”
Nearly five years on, that is even more true. Once we emerge from Covid, the change to work patterns that it is already bringing will, I suspect, accelerate further.
The Office of Tax Simplification also said that,
“from a policy perspective any change will be challenging for government.”
This has not changed. I am tempted to look a little on the bright side and suggest that adjusting to post-Covid work patterns and needs may create an opportunity to bring about more simplification. I ask the Minister whether that is under consideration.
Various measures have been proposed, and one that seems reasonable to explore first is to make employees’ national insurance contributions work in the same way that PAYE does for income tax, so that it is related to annual income. That was favoured by the OTS, and although it reckoned it would impact 40% of the working population, gainers would generally be part-time employees, women and those aged under 35, and there would be loss mitigation from the social security system where there were losses in lower income households. There would also be positive benefits in better qualification for state pension entitlements. Overall, it would mainly eradicate unfairness that has been going on for a long time. It is also clear that such a change would benefit seasonal workers, such as those in the tourist industry, and young people—again, helping many of those most hit by Covid. As a next steps simplification, does that have any attraction for the Government? It would also seem to fit better with Making Tax Digital.
On the draft tax credits regulations, again, I have no dispute with the computation of upratings, but there are underlying issues relating to child poverty that I cannot let pass by. As has already been mentioned, the temporary working tax credit uplift, which is due to expire in April, has not been extended. In a recent debate in the Commons, the Government claimed that they could not see what the landscape would look like in April. I hope that means that it will be extended in due course, because to me it is clear that matters are already worse in terms of job losses. As the “weaning off” furlough happens, it will be worsened further.
My final point is, I regret to say, a perpetual one: as with other benefits, the Government have restricted tax claims to two children regarding any children born after April 2017. As we know, this is part of the Government’s deliberate impoverishment strategy for those on benefits with more than two children. I repeat: this is the Government’s deliberate and despicable policy for child hunger. That speaks for itself, and I have no more to say.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing these uprating measures and to the small band of other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The Minister will be familiar with my standard line about the Opposition not voting down statutory instruments in this House. With our recess only a few short days away, I certainly have no appetite for creating a constitutional crisis. Nevertheless, even if I were feeling mischievous, we would not oppose these measures. As we all know, there is no mechanism for amending SIs, and without passing the instruments before us there would be no uprating of the various charges and entitlements.
As has been outlined, the first instrument gives effect to the annual re-rating of various national insurance contribution rates, limits and thresholds. As the acronym-heavy Explanatory Memorandum outlines, most of these increases are tied to the annual rate of CPI inflation, which was 0.5% in the year to September 2020. The instrument relating to tax credits, child benefit and guardian’s allowance enacts the increases previously announced in a Written Ministerial Statement of November 2020. Again, those increases are generally linked to the CPI figure of half a percentage point. Paragraph 6.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum notes the position with regard to the Coronavirus Act 2020. This increased the basic rate of working tax credit in the 2020-21 financial year, from £1,995 to £3,040. This has been disregarded for the purposes of calculating the usual uplift.
That Act was passed some time ago. We had expected public health restrictions to have fallen away by now and the economy to be growing. Given that we find ourselves in less than ideal circumstances today, is the Treasury considering a review of its approach to the tax credit uplift, perhaps as part of the upcoming Budget? I also say to the Minister that while cases and deaths now appear to be falling, which we clearly welcome, we remain some way off the conditions required for the economy to fully reopen and for the withdrawal of wider Treasury support for workers, claimants of universal credit, and so on. I hope we will hear soon from the Chancellor, who has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent weeks, rather than people being left facing a financial cliff edge, as has been the case previously.
I will finish with a broader question, relating to the data in the report from the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs to the Treasury on the number of tax credit awards and offences. Is the Minister able to opine on the reasons for significant decreases in the number of penalties and prosecutions in 2019-20, when compared to the previous year? Are there cases outstanding which are therefore not included in these figures? Is it a result of better guidance for claimants? Alternatively, is there a link with the Covid-19 uplift?
We very much welcome the decreases. While, sadly, there are cases of fraud in the benefits system, I hope the Minister will acknowledge that these new figures demonstrate that the numbers are very small as a percentage of overall claims. We are all familiar with past comments from some members of the Government, which have exaggerated the situation and created stigma around claiming additional help. With the events of the past year having highlighted the importance of our social security safety net, I hope we can start to discuss these matters in a more productive manner.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this short but interesting debate. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, touched on the wider debate about the nature of national insurance contributions, particularly the fact that people over state pension age do not continue to pay national insurance contributions if they are still in work. The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, touched on the complexity of the national insurance system overall and asked about any plans for simplification. The noble Lord, Lord German, made similar points about the burden that the complexity can place on businesses. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for his constructive tone and, indeed, all noble Lords for their constructive tone in posing some of these questions.
I am familiar with many of these issues on national insurance. It is a complex area and many of these questions go beyond the scope of our debate today. I also express a small amount of caution because I have scars on my back from tentative proposals for reform of national insurance under a previous Government. I am well aware that proposals for changes in these areas may need to be looked at carefully and cautiously.
I will have to disappoint noble Lords in my response to today’s debate and remind the Committee that national insurance contributions are different from income tax and other contributions: they are social security contributions. The rationale for not paying contributions after state pension age is that there is no opportunity for an individual to increase their entitlement to the state pension. However, employer national insurance contributions are paid for those workers.
I think that all noble Lords touched on the question of extending the £20-a-week uplift to the basic element of working tax credit and the universal credit standard allowance. As was acknowledged, that is not a subject for this debate. However, as they have done throughout this crisis, the Government will continue to consider how best to support people as the economic and health situation develops. The recent development of the Covid-19 vaccine demonstrates how quickly the situation is evolving. It is important that we make the right decision at the right time and remain flexible.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said that the costs of the uplift were small. As an illustration, I remind noble Lords that extending the £20 increase by a further 12 months would cost over £6 billion. That is equivalent to adding 1p to the basic rate of income tax, plus a 3p increase in fuel duty. The £20-a-week increase forms just one part of a wide-ranging package of support that the Government have provided to protect people’s jobs and incomes, including income support schemes, mortgage holidays, support for renters, the £500 million local authority hardship fund and the £500 payments for people on low incomes required to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace. There is also a temporary suspension of the universal credit minimum income floor for self-employed claimants and an increase to the local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and universal credit, which is being retained at the same cash value into 2021-22. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, that I faithfully report back to Her Majesty’s Treasury the debates that we have in this House and noble Lords’ views on these matters. I will continue to do that, including on this topic.
The noble Lord, Lord German, touched on the administrative burden that small businesses are facing, particularly during the pandemic. The Government have provided an unprecedented package of support to help businesses through the pandemic. The noble Lord asked about the furlough scheme: that is a huge support in paying employees’ wages and encouraging employee retention. I would happily write to him on the administration of that scheme, but I understand that it has been made as straightforward as possible for businesses to administer. In addition, the Government increased the employment allowance in national insurance to £4,000 from April 2020. This includes over 650,000 businesses that have been taken out of paying national insurance contributions altogether since the introduction of the allowance in 2014.
The noble Lord, Lord German, also asked about the uprating of the state pension to those who live within the EU now that we have left the end of the transition period, and touched more closely on the payments to those in receipt of the state pension who live outside the EU. I say to the noble Lord that the policy on those receiving their state pension who live outside the EU is a long-standing policy of successive Governments. It has been in place for around 70 years and there are no plans to change it. We continue to uprate the state pension where there is a legal requirement to do so, for example in those countries with which the UK has a reciprocal agreement. The Government understand that people move abroad for many reasons, and the decision remains a personal choice. For a number of years, advice has been provided to the public that the UK state pension is not uprated overseas, except where there is a legal requirement to do so. As I said to noble Lords on the issue of tax credits, I say to the noble Lord, Lord German, that I will happily take this issue and the offer he raised from the Canadian Government back to Her Majesty’s Treasury.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, posed a question on some of the changing statistics on the number of inquiries conducted under Section 19 and the number of penalties and prosecutions on tax credits changing. The number of penalties and prosecutions in the 2019-20 tax year decreased due to multiple factors that affect volumes of penalties and prosecutions, and the cumulative effects of those different factors are significant. For example, universal credit has led to a reduced customer base, which would already naturally lead to a reduction in penalties.
As around 80% of the problems with tax credit claims stem from customer error, we have also embedded a further upstream approach to compliance whereby we look to educate customers to avoid errors and to identify those most likely to make an error or where we would have expected a change to be reported. This is paying dividends through reductions in error and fraud, which reduces the propensity for penalties to arise. The number of inquiries conducted under Section 19 increased from 13,752 in 2018-19 to over 15,000 in 2019-20. Section 19 allows HMRC to carry out inquiries into awards after the end of the tax year, once they have been finalised. The increase in the number of Section 19 inquiries is because our digital services, particularly around income, highlight where the customer has likely made a mistake when finalising their awards, giving us the basis to inquire about the information provided at finalisation. This process will help us to support claimants in getting their tax credit award on the right footing going forward, reducing the risk of claimants accruing further debt—which would occur if the issue was not corrected—receiving penalties or potentially being prosecuted.
I hope I have answered most points made by noble Lords in response to this debate. If there are any specific questions I have not managed to address, I will happily write to noble Lords. I therefore beg to move.
Tax Credits, Child Benefit and Guardian’s Allowance Up-rating Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, that completes the business before the Grand Committee today. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 6.18 pm.