House of Lords
Thursday 11 February 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
Introduction: Lord McDonald of Salford
Sir Simon Gerard McDonald, KCMG, KCVO, having been created Baron McDonald of Salford, of Pendleton in the City of Salford, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Amos and Lord Hammond of Runnymede, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Kamall
Syed Salah Kamall, having been created Baron Kamall, of Edmonton in the London Borough of Enfield, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Flight and Lord Callanan, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally.
After Royal Assent, Oral Questions will commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them brief and confined to two points. I obviously ask Ministers to be brief as well.
The following Acts were given Royal Assent:
Pension Schemes Act 2021,
High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Act 2021,
Medicines and Medical Devices Act 2021.
Learning Disabilities: Child Trust Funds
My Lords, the Government have committed to making the process of obtaining legal authority to access a child trust fund more straightforward. A working group comprising the Ministry of Justice, the Treasury, HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions has met several times to consider what more can be done, and it has also met the Investing and Saving Alliance, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Money and Pensions Service. The Court of Protection Rules Committee is reviewing its application forms and considering issues raised by campaigners.
I am grateful to my noble friend, who has only recently inherited this pressing problem. I hope that he can help the thousands of families who cannot access child trust funds without a lengthy and at times intimidating procedure. On 3 December, when I last raised this, my noble friend Lady Scott said that the new working group would
“report back to the Minister in early January.”—[Official Report, 3/12/20; col. 828.]
What progress has been made? Might he promote a simplified and streamlined court procedure to access what are normally fairly small sums of money?
My noble friend is absolutely right that, because these funds are generally of relatively small amounts of money, it is all the more important that court procedures, which are designed to comply with the Mental Capacity Act 2005, are both accessible and proportionate. Rules and procedures are a matter for the courts, not Ministers, but I will do all I properly can to ensure that children and young adults with a learning disability can access what are, after all, their own funds.
My Lords, in December, some finance firms started to allow parents supporting a disabled youngster to access trust funds without a court order in exceptional circumstances. Some 30% of families benefit, but 70% are still required to go to court. Last week, in a meeting with the Investing and Saving Alliance, officials from the Minister’s own department refused to support this—why?
My Lords, it is not for the Government to comment on the development of private sector proposals and the extent to which—and whether—they comply with the relevant legislation. We are working with all the financial trade bodies to ensure that parents and guardians of young people who do not have the required mental capacity to make the decision to access a child trust fund at age 18 are aware of both lasting powers of attorney and the important benefit of making an application to the Court of Protection before they reach 18 to avoid court fees.
Does the Minister not accept that there is an urgency about this? Many families face huge administrative burdens and other pressures when their child reaches adulthood. Child trust funds can play an important part in helping with the transition, but accessing them should not become an additional burden, especially when relatively small sums of money are involved. Will he please commit to ensuring that families will be supported proactively in these circumstances —and do this with some urgency?
My Lords, I can certainly commit to that: I have arranged meetings later this afternoon to that end, and I will take a personal involvement to ensure that all that can be done is done. I will also liaise with the President of the Family Division but I emphasise that, ultimately, court rules are a matter for the court, and there is a constitutional propriety that I have to maintain.
I ask my noble friend about capacity. Under the Mental Capacity Act, this is not a generalised presumption; it is specific to the issue at hand. Who exactly determines whether the individual has capacity? If a professional assessment of capacity is needed, who exactly is expected to pay? It can cost several hundred pounds.
My Lords, there are a number of ways in which the requisite capacity, or lack thereof, can be established and assessed by the court, and those issues probably take me outside the bounds of an answer here. I will write to the noble Baroness to give more detail.
My Lords, last time this was discussed, I said that the Minister had pointed out an absurdity. He has still got his finger on it. Can he give the House an assurance that we will not only get a solution but will hear about when that is reached, and that banks and their internal bureaucracy are informed about this so it can be done quickly?
My Lords, the present situation is absolutely unfortunate. One of the problems is that this does not seem to have been anticipated by the Government which put child trust funds into existence. We are doing all we can, and I will certainly report back to your Lordships’ House on the progress we make. As I have already said, I am personally committed to ensuring that this problem is solved.
My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that any measures taken to help children with disabilities access their own money in their child trust funds will also read across to junior ISAs, where I believe similar problems can arise? The Government may have special responsibility here, after the 2005 Government offered parents extra payments to invest in a child trust fund if they were also claiming disability living allowance.
My Lords, those who look after children with learning disabilities deserve our help and admiration. They do not need unnecessary obstacles being put in their way. Is there any evidence that those trying to access the funds being discussed have anything but the best of motives?
The noble Baroness is certainly right. Virtually everybody does have the best of motives, but there have been cases where the protections afforded by the Mental Capacity Act 2005 have, unfortunately, been needed. One has to remember that, ultimately, one is dealing with the funds of somebody who lacks the capacity to deal with them themselves. That is why the Mental Capacity Act puts in protections which may well be needed.
A professional actuary has been helping campaigners to identify the aggregate amount of money that disabled young people could lose from their child trust fund as a result of the current court process. The results estimate that, if one in four parents give up pursuing these funds because of the perceived difficulty in accessing the money, £107 million could be lost to those children over the next 10 years. This money is being locked away forever in individual accounts. What assurance can the Minister give that any new solution will be designed to make it as easy as possible for these families to access the benefits for young people?
My Lords, I do not want anybody to give up accessing money which is rightfully theirs. There are a number of provisions in place for fees but, to sum this up, the Government’s intention is that no one who needs to apply to the Court of Protection solely to access a child trust fund will pay fees.
Further to his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, will the Minister tell the House why it is that the scheme which the investment and savings body has put in place while waiting for a permanent solution, and has been operating—moving the system from cumbersome to semi-cumbersome, not a full solution—is not getting the blessing of the Ministry of Justice in order that it can make at least some progress in this matter?
My Lords, the reason is that it is not for the Ministry of Justice to give its blessing to private sector schemes and to say whether they do or do not comply with the relevant legislation. That legislation is important: it is there to protect people. If the private sector wants to put in a scheme, that is a matter for the private sector. So far as my department is concerned, we need to make sure, so far as we can, that the court rules and procedures are appropriate, proportionate and accessible.
I declare an interest as chair of the National Mental Capacity Forum. As Covid lockdown difficulties for the Court of Protection have now led to delays of around 20 weeks for uncontested applications, can the Government confirm that forms marked “Urgent” are prioritised and digital options are being explored by the court, to improve access while retaining the important protections from the MCA against exploitation or misuse of funds?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that two weeks of the waiting time is mandatory under the Act. For the rest of that period, if applications are marked as urgent then they are dealt with on an expedited basis. On the second point, court staff are putting in place new digital ways of working the procedure to try and speed things up.
I thank the Minister for being so brief that I could get in. I point to my entry in the register of Member’s interests relating to my work for the Investing and Savings Alliance. I was delighted to hear what the Minister said about there being no conceptual difference between a child trust fund and a junior ISA. Now that this issue has been raised, should the department now grasp simplifying legal procedures for a whole host of financial products? Can we not see, in the next year, the “Wolfson reforms” as his legacy?
My Lords, I regret that my noble friend is already talking about my legacy when I have only been in this House about six weeks—in future, I will make longer answers. My noble friend raises an important point. I emphasise that the constitutional position is that court procedures and rules are a matter for the courts. So far as I am concerned, we need to make sure that the response of the justice system, over the whole gamut of civil justice, is proportionate to the sum in issue and the issues which are being argued about. To that extent, I agree with the point made by my noble friend.
My Lords, an increase in dental activity has been made possible by updated infection prevention and control guidance. NHS England and NHS Improvement have set a 45% activity target for January to March 2021, with the main aims being to increase patient access and reduce backlogs in patient care. PPE is being provided free of charge to NHS dental practices to support the provision of services, and we are looking at what role pre-appointment testing could play.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware of the problem of dealing with the essential time gaps required for cleaning and sterilising between patient appointments where the dental practice has only one surgery that can be used for treatments? A significant time is required for this between patients, which means fewer patients can be treated. The BDA has had reports of tests of a very effective ventilation system which could be used to enable many more treatments to take place in the working day. It costs about £10,000 to install. After the closure of surgeries for a considerable time, the operators of national health dental surgeries are not in a position to fund this. Will the Government provide either the funding or the necessary equipment to NHS dental practices?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is entirely right; ventilation is a key issue. I took my daughter to the dentist this morning, and there were indeed long gaps between each appointment. I am not aware of the ventilation system she alludes to, but if the BDA would like to write to me, I would be happy to have a closer look at it.
My Lords, can I follow up on the Minister’s point about the new activity target imposed on dentists to reduce the backlog? It seems to have had the reverse effect. It has resulted in one of the biggest dental chains in the country instructing its dentists to focus on band 1 check- ups and reduce urgent treatments to meet the targets, reducing access for those who need it most. Other practices are reported to be doing the same. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of this target on patients who need urgent and complex treatment? Dentists have continued working, like doctors, nurses and other health professionals, in a high-risk environment during the pandemic. But their contribution seems to have been ignored. Can the Minister confirm the Government’s appreciation of the commitment of dentists and their staff during this pandemic?
I join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to dentists. As of 18 December, 88% of NHS dental practices were open, and that is a huge tribute to the hard work, determination and skills of dentists. She is right that they offer a spread of services; more triaging is going on, and that has successfully made a big contribution to getting through the lists. As of 13 January, 6.9 million dental patients have been triaged on the AAA service—advice, analgesics and antibiotics—but urgent dental care centres, of which there are 695, have picked up the difficult and time-consuming work for those who have an emergency need.
My Lords, do the Government plan to continue to enforce activity targets in the next financial year? The new contract is only seven weeks away, and those in the profession has heard nothing about the basis on which they will be paid next year. When do the Government plan, at last, to deliver wider NHS dental contract reform, which they committed to in 2010? The issue keeps being kicked into the long grass.
My Lords, I would like to reassure the noble Baroness that officials are working extremely closely with the dental profession on the arrangements for the new practice. It will not be a complete renegotiation of the full contract, but we are looking at what arrangements should be in place for 2021-22. And as I said before, I pay tribute to the hard work of dentists. Activity targets are a useful way of getting a focus on increasing the throughput of dentistry. We have a big backlog, and that is one way we can try to increase the velocity of dental appointments.
My Lords, in order to deal with this backlog, should we not rely on the good sense of dentists to prioritise their patients—for instance, to treat those with pain and infection with antibiotics, then deal with the less urgent problems? Would the Minister consider the fairer solution adopted by Scotland and Northern Ireland, where new activity targets are half those of England?
My Lords, the Chief Dental Officer has looked at the activity targets and done extensive modelling to ensure that they are fair and safe. The noble Lord is entirely right that some dental support can be done in absence through things such as antibiotics. But it is important that face-to-face appointments are increased, otherwise, we will have a generation of people whose teeth are not in great shape, which will cost the country dearly.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that should people with gum disease and swollen gums get Covid-19, they are many times more likely to die, having ended up in intensive care or on a ventilator? Would the Minister agree that oral care, which goes hand in glove with dentistry, is vital for reducing the risk of severe Covid-19 outcomes and is an important part of patient safety and the prevention of ill health?
My Lords, I confess that I did not know about that association. I am not sure whether it is correlation or causation, but I completely support the noble Baroness’s observation that oral hygiene is critical, and we should put the steps in place to improve the oral hygiene of the nation.
I think the Minister needs to go back to the drawing board, because the new NHS activity target is basically forcing dentists to choose between check-ups and helping those in pain. That cannot be right. It can only increase health inequalities, let alone deal with the gigantic pandemic backlog. In secondary care, there is the particular problem of patients needing general anaesthetic for their dental treatment. These are mostly children and learning-disabled adults. There was already a waiting list of a year before the pandemic. Could the Minister inform the House how many patients are on this waiting list now? If the Minister does not have this information, could he please write to me? Do the Government have a plan to reduce this awful, and obviously very painful, waiting list?
My Lords, I do not necessarily accept the dichotomy the noble Baroness refers to. I think it is reasonable for dentists to triage patients between those who can be treated with either advice, analgesics or antibiotics, and therefore do not need face-to-face contact, and those who need to be prioritised to, for example, the urgent dental care centres. I commend the dental profession for making good choices in that area. With regard to the treatment of children using anaesthetics, those are not statistics I have to hand, but I would be glad to write to the noble Baroness with whatever information we have.
My Lords, when I inquired, none of the dentists in north and east Cornwall was able to offer an appointment for NHS dentistry, so I know to my cost that private treatment is expensive. Would the Minister tell the people of Cornwall, whose earnings are below both regional and national averages, what should be done about this lack of NHS dentists in remote areas, leaving patients untreated, in pain and often resorting to self-care?
My Lords, as I said earlier, 88% of NHS dentists are open. I was at an NHS dentist earlier today, and I pay tribute to all those dentists that are open. I do not know the specific situation in north and east Cornwall, but those in acute pain have access to the 695 urgent dental care centres, which are around England. I have enormous sympathy for those who have painful teeth, and I urge them to hunt down an appointment at one of those centres, where the service is excellent.
My Lords, official statistics show that the number of patients seen by general dental service dentists in Northern Ireland fell from 163,537 last February to just 8,825 in June, but rose again to 49,059 in September. With many of the current Covid restrictions having been put back in place since then, what discussions have UK Ministers had with their counterparts in Northern Ireland and the other devolved regions to encourage people to visit their dentist rather than suffer pain at home?
My Lords, I am grateful for that account of the Northern Ireland statistics, which tell a very similar story to those in other parts of the United Kingdom. The noble Lord is entirely right that those statistics tell a story of the massive challenge dentists face in order to increase the number of appointments per day. We are looking at a number of measures to try to improve that, including ventilation, which was referred to earlier by the noble Baroness. Testing is another option we are looking at. We are trying to put in place the kind of pre-appointment and point-of-care testing that can protect both the employees of dental practices and their patients. I hope that will help accelerate improvement in this area.
Schools: Online Teaching
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the number of children who are not eligible for face-to-face teaching who have not been able to access online teaching for more than 80 per cent of the normal timetable in (1) primary, and (2) secondary, schools in England since 5 January 2021.
My Lords, the Government are investing more than £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care services, including securing 1.3 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children and young people. We have estimated the need based on the number of year 3 to year 13 pupils in England eligible for free school meals, which equates to 1.3 million. We have delivered more than 980,000 laptops and tablets to schools, trusts, local authorities and FE institutions to date.
While leaving aside the fact that the noble Baroness has not answered my Question, I do welcome the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins to co-ordinate recovery. Does the Minister not agree that it would be sensible to lift the 25% requirement on schools in order to access the national tutoring programme, to decentralise funding for recovery and to give specific priority to those children with special educational needs who have lost out so grievously over the last 10 months?
My Lords, schools will be provided with £650 million as part of the Covid catch-up. Within that, schools can allocate funding to pay 25% of the subsidised cost of the National Tutoring Programme Tuition Partners, but the noble Lord will also be aware that Teach First has nearly 700 academic mentors currently in schools or working remotely. That is, of course, localised provision and they are the employees of those schools.
Although the Government have spent more, the Sutton Trust says that just 5% of state school students have adequate access to devices for remote learning. Some 86% of private schools use online live lessons, compared with 50% in state schools, which is worse than last year. Only 26% of children in poorer homes do five hours’ learning a day and more than eight out of 10 teachers think the attainment gap will increase—so this is a national crisis and the Government will have to spend much more to help children catch up.
My Lords, the Government have made clear that catch-up in education will be for the lifetime of this Parliament. For this financial year, £300 million more has been announced for tutoring, from early years through to 16 to 19 provision. Teachers should be in daily contact, monitoring whether children are accessing remote education. If they are particularly concerned about children accessing that, they can offer them a school place as a vulnerable child.
My Lords, since it looks as if we will have to cater for children working from home for several years as new variants of the virus emerge, will the DfE make a virtue of this necessity and help all schools and their pupils to become fully online-enabled by the end of this academic year?
My Lords, since the pandemic began, 6,900 schools have access through the department’s EdTech programme to get either Microsoft Education or Google Classroom—but my noble friend is correct that we hope this type of online access to the best education on offer in this country will become part of the system going forward. Obviously, the more than £400 million that has been invested is a great platform to build on.
My Lords, how many children of asylum seekers are unable to access online teaching? Will the Government encourage and fund schools and local authorities to deploy public service interpreters to help asylum seeker parents manage their children’s home schooling?
My Lords, within the figure of 1.3 million that I outlined, there will, of course, be some children of asylum-seeking parents who are eligible for free school meals. It is an allocation per pupil, so if there are siblings who claim free school meals, that can be two laptops or tablets per household. Teachers should recognise that, if there are the type of barriers the noble Baroness refers to, they have discretion in those circumstances to classify the child as vulnerable and bring them into school.
My Lords, on the issue of mobile data charges for children studying from home, the Minister very helpfully wrote to me after a previous Question, explaining that the Government’s cap, agreed with mobile phone companies, applies only in England and not in the devolved nations. Did that happen because the UK Government did not negotiate for the whole of the UK, or did the Scottish Government and others turn down the opportunity to set a cap on mobile data charges for the children they are responsible for?
My Lords, all I can do is outline the very obvious point to the former First Minister of Scotland that education is, of course, a devolved matter—but, of course, we will assist the devolved Administrations to get the kind of deals we have got from many of the mobile phone providers. Noble Lords have been concerned about these issues and I am holding a specific briefing at 3 pm today that any noble Lords are welcome to join for more details on these provisions.
My Lords, the Minister has told us of the vast number of computers the Government have made available to disadvantaged students, but can she say what success the national tutoring programme has had in training and tutoring both parents and children who may have no idea how to use the technology and, indeed, may not have access to suitable broadband?
My Lords, in relation to the National Tutoring Programme, there will be 13,000 tutors available to more than 100,000 students. On the issues the noble Baroness refers to, teachers are obviously the front-line staff and I give credit to the many teachers who are doing their best to assist parents who are not confident in using this technology, literally by a phone call to walk them through, step by step, to ensure that the child can get that type of access. The majority of the national tutoring partners can work remotely as well.
My Lords, I declare that I am a non-executive member of the board of Ofsted. In addition to concerns about formal education, all children and young people are currently missing out on fresh air, exercise and social interaction with their friends. We all know that the Government are making incredibly difficult decisions about easing restrictions, but will the Minister make the case for outside, organised sport to be able to resume? When schools do return, would it be at all possible for play dates to resume, albeit within classroom bubbles if necessary?
My Lords, we all await with bated breath 22 February, the date on which the Prime Minister will announce the review of the lockdown, but I am sure my noble friend will be pleased to hear that Sir Kevan Collins, the catch-up ambassador, has outlined that he views catch-up as encompassing physical education and mental well-being, as well as educational catch-up. But I will take back my noble friend’s views on the importance of outdoor education.
My Lords, the Government’s new Education Recovery Commissioner, just referred to by the Minister, has said that schools could be working to help children make up for lost education for at least five years. That underscores the importance of a long-term strategy for all pupils, but particularly for those from disadvantaged families, who have received far less support during lockdown. There has been little discussion of a post-Covid digital strategy, and a longer-term approach will require universal access to digital learning well beyond the pandemic. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that every young person has a device and access to data and online education resources going forward, to counter the effects of the digital divide that the pandemic has exposed?
My Lords, we are looking at the catch-up in the short, medium and long term. As I have said, it is for the lifetime of this Parliament. In the short term, looking to this summer, that means summer schools and some form of Covid premium. On digital, DDCMS is allocating funding so that areas of the country where there is no access to broadband can get on to broadband. Yes, we recognise that a digital strategy for education will be needed going forward—it will be one of the inadvertent positive outcomes of the pandemic.
My Lords, could the Minister comment on the challenges facing parents with four children studying from home and maybe only one tablet in the household when schools are unable to match the timetable so that those four children can access their online lessons? Will she consider enabling some students to repeat a year as a result of those challenges?
My Lords, all the large structural issues, such as extending the school day, extending the school year and repeating a year, are matters that need to be considered. As I have outlined, if those four children are all eligible for free school meals—as 1.3 million are—a school is able to allocate four devices. It is a matter for schools and FE colleges, and we trust them to be able to identify the right students who need access to devices.
My Lords, the impact of school closures has hit a generation of children and has hit those who cannot access online resources hardest of all. We should have identified this problem right back in the first lockdown. But, looking ahead, are Ministers doing all they can to make sure that the surge of support from charities and businesses to offer laptops is going forward to children and not being hindered by red tape? Secondly, in recognising that digital poverty is unfortunately likely to stay with us for some time, can I ask that they consider that those children without access to online teaching should be eligible for face-to-face learning in case of a future lockdown?
My Lords, the students the noble Baroness outlines would be eligible to be classified as vulnerable children. We applaud the local and national campaigns, particularly those around refurbishing laptops. Obviously, the Government wanted to purchase new devices and did so in a very disrupted supply chain last year, and we are a huge customer for that sector. We applaud the Daily Mail campaign whereby businesses are giving refurbished laptops. Indeed, they are using the same distribution portal as our scheme so that schools can get access to those as well, which I hope deals with the red tape outlined by the noble Baroness.
Refugees: Napier Barracks
My Lords, throughout the pandemic, the asylum system has faced significant pressures, and it has become necessary to use additional temporary accommodation to ensure that we meet our statutory obligations at all times. The Government provide destitute asylum seekers with accommodation that is fit for purpose and correctly equipped in line with existing asylum accommodation standards and contractual requirements.
My Lords, since I had a brief discussion with the Minister a few days ago about this issue, I have learned far more about what is going on. Surely it is unacceptable that asylum seekers—some of whom have suffered dreadfully, including from torture—should be held in conditions where Covid sufferers cannot self-isolate, where there is inadequate medical attention or support, and where there is a lack of hot food and hot water. Surely the Home Office should not be opening more barracks but should be finding decent accommodation for such vulnerable people.
My Lords, I would reject the description of “decent accommodation” —this accommodation has served our Armed Forces. We are manging any outbreaks in line with Covid guidance, and everyone staying at those barracks has a decent standard of living, including heat, food and accommodation.
My Lords, the health of those accommodated in the barracks obviously must be paramount. Can my noble friend confirm that Public Health England has been closely consulted throughout this period? Can she also agree that the use of these barracks will be a temporary facility only, and that they are not really suitable for long periods? Perhaps she will share my hope that, with a reformed asylum system, the swift processing of applications will enable us to avoid using this type of facility in the future.
I repeat the point I just made to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about the accommodation being good enough for our Armed Forces. I underline that the accommodation is safe, warm, fit for purpose and of an appropriate standard, with three meals provided a day. To put the current demand for asylum accommodation into context, back in 2019 the accommodation asylum population was broadly static at about 47,000, but, as of December last year, we now accommodate in excess of 61,000 people.
My Lords, I fear that the Minister has been misinformed for her responses, as the information on the ground is very different, but that is not her fault. It seems that the Home Office is planning to use disused Army barracks such as Napier increasingly to house traumatised and, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, often tortured asylum seekers for whom prison conditions—as conditions in Napier are described—induce untold suffering, mental health crises and, indeed, suicide attempts. Can the Minister tell the House when Napier will be closed, as it needs to be, and assure the House that barracks will not be used as accommodation to house traumatised asylum seekers in the future?
I must say to the noble Baroness that the people at Napier are not being detained. I must underline that point very clearly: they are not being detained. I have been through the standards of the accommodation with noble Lords already. In terms of trauma, the access to healthcare in the barracks is of a very high standard. We have a nurse on call from Monday to Friday, nine to five, and out-of-hours healthcare, dental provision and emergency healthcare are available as well. I would reject some of the statements being made by noble Lords.
My Lords, Churches Together in Folkestone is providing invaluable support to residents of the barracks. The local MPs of all parties and the Bishop of Dover—well known to Members of your Lordships’ House—have all expressed concerns about the appalling conditions at the barracks and called for its closure. Two judgments have been made recently whereby residents have been extracted from the barracks because of their vulnerability. When were the barracks last inspected independently or visited by a Minister? If this has not occurred, can the Minister, who we know is concerned about these issues, assure us that such an independent inspection or visit will soon take place?
My Lords, I am not sure when a Minister last went in. I would suggest that at this current time, during a pandemic, it might not be the best thing for a Minister to go into the premises. But I can assure the noble Lord that HMIP is going in to do an inspection.
My Lords, I have never been to Napier barracks but, in the past, I have seen accommodation we have provided to our servicepeople in other parts of the United Kingdom. In many cases, it is not of a very high standard, which is very disappointing. Can the noble Baroness justify to the House how we can be sure that this is good-quality accommodation? Do we not have here a public health disaster made in the Home Office?
I can say to the noble Lord that, first, we are working very closely with public health authorities. Secondly, on the various aspects by which you might judge how people are living, there is drinking water, including bottled water, and three meals a day, two of them hot. I have gone through the healthcare provisions, and legal advice is also available. There is wi-fi on site, and everyone has a phone.
The Minister has outlined the very large increase in the number of people in this sort of accommodation, and I accept that the Minister and the Government are doing their best. The one thing that they are failing on is the number of people who are getting into the country as illegal migrants. What I would like to hear from the department is that Napier barracks is closed because we have got a grip on illegal migration. Can the Minister promise us that that is also a priority?
I can echo the words of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who has said that the asylum system is broken. Over the next few months, we will see how we will change the immigration and asylum process to be firm and fair, while ensuring that it absolutely clamps down on those facilitators of illegal migration, who are criminals.
The 600-plus people in Napier and Penally are only the unacceptable tip of an unacceptable iceberg of over 60,000 asylum seekers now waiting for an initial decision on their case. They are not allowed to work, they are expected to survive on less than £40 a week, and three-quarters of them have been waiting for more than six months. It is not just the virus; the numbers more than doubled in the two years before the virus struck. As the Minister said, it is the system that is broken. NGOs such as the Refugee Council—I declare my interest as a trustee—try to mitigate the consequences, but only the Government can mend the system. Can the Minister assure us that the Government now intend to act to make the asylum system fair?
On 28 January I asked the Minister what conditions in the barracks were like, and she assured me that they were fit for purpose. In the last few days and weeks we have seen articles in the newspapers and on the news—these barracks are not fit for purpose and we should do our utmost to find other accommodation, remembering that at some point these asylum seekers will become citizens of Great Britain, or they will go elsewhere. What will they think of us as a nation and the way we have treated them?
I think I have probably answered the noble Baroness’s question but, absolutely, there has been additional demand on the system, and we have accommodated it. However, to go back to what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, we need to process those claims as and when it is safe to do so and either grant people asylum or return them to their country of origin.
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many officers of the Metropolitan Police have been disciplined in connection with Operation Midland since the publication of the report by Sir Richard Henriques The Independent Review of the Metropolitan Police Service’s handling of nonrecent sexual offence investigations alleged against persons of public prominence, on 4 October 2019.
My Lords, disciplinary action against individual officers is a matter for forces. However, my noble friend will be aware that, following Operation Kentia’s investigation into the five officers referred to it in connection with Operation Midland, the IOPC found organisational failings and issued 16 learning recommendations but found that none of the officers had a case for misconduct.
My Lords, who could fail to be moved by the following dignified yet devastating words:
“I’ve always believed that a strong moral compass is essential to every public body and especially to police forces, and above all, to its leadership … However, it just seems to me the Metropolitan Police has preferred its corporate or personal ambitions to a strong moral compass.”
Those are the words of Lady Brittan who, with the husband to whom she was devoted, our former colleague and the former Home Secretary, Lord Brittan, suffered grievously at the hands of policemen who failed to adhere to the law they had sworn to uphold. The House will not have forgotten other distinguished public figures who had their reputations traduced. Almost exactly a year ago I asked in this House:
“Is it not shocking that not a single police officer has been called to account for the catalogue of errors laid bare in Sir Richard Henriques’s report on Operation Midland, while some of those involved have been promoted to high rank?”—[Official Report, 3/2/20; col. 1613.]
I got no answer. I therefore ask the Government that question again today. Do they not understand that it is their duty to act, and act now?
My Lords, the IOPC has declined to investigate the matters to which my noble friend refers. With regard to higher rank, I assume he is referring to the commissioner, whose term ends in April 2022. Of course, the decision on appointment following that will be a matter for the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London.
Those impacted by Operation Midland, and their families, were caused great distress by failings in the operation. However, it is also the case that our justice system continues to badly let down victims of sexual abuse, with prosecutions for rape at an inexcusable low. Do the Government agree with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in its report last year on the response of the Metropolitan Police Service to the Henriques report, that
“The police have a responsibility to encourage victims to come forward—and that means creating a sense of public confidence that complaints will be taken seriously.”
A great number of legitimate victims came forward following the high-profile case of Jimmy Savile. Are the Government satisfied that enough is now being done to encourage victims of sexual abuse to report such crimes, and what work is being urgently done to improve prosecution rates since victims of both non-recent and more recent sexual abuse deserve justice, and those who committed the offences should receive justice?
The noble Lord makes a valid point. This is all about victims. It is important that victims come forward—so often they have not. When we look back at past times, perhaps when I was a child, and some of the subsequent cases that have come to light, it is clear that victims were consistently failed, certainly in the area of child sexual abuse.
Lord Brittan’s accuser was interviewed by Wiltshire Police before he was interviewed by the Metropolitan Police, and he wrote blogs about the alleged incidents. Sir Richard Henriques found numerous inconsistencies between his Wiltshire interviews, his blogs and his MPS interviews, yet the information on the search warrant used to invade Diana, Lady Brittan’s home stated:
“His account has remained consistent and he is felt to be a credible witness who is telling the truth.”
How can the Home Office sit on the sidelines in the face of such evidence and the suffering of Lady Brittan?
My Lords, I do not undermine the suffering of Lady Brittan but, with regards to the individual to whom the noble Lord refers, a remedy was sought. That individual was convicted of perverting the course of justice, and now sits in prison.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. There is little doubting the terrible damage done to all those targeted by Operation Midland, but I make the point that these false allegations also harm the real victims of child sexual abuse, of which there are many. How many convictions have there been to date for historical child sexual abuse?
First, I totally agree with my noble friend about false allegations harming the actual victims, which has never been raised in your Lordships’ House before. On historic convictions for non-recent child sexual abuse allegations, since 2015 there have been almost 5,000. Those are the victims we should really be thinking about.
My Lords, I should first refer to the fact that I was a personal friend of the late Lord Brittan for 40 years; indeed, my father was a friend of the late Lord Bramall. I have the greatest sympathy for our much respected Minister having to answer questions on this matter, but we have all been deeply disturbed by the reports of the interview with Lady Brittan, and I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to meet her and the family of Lord Bramall to hear their concerns and look into this matter again. It is very disturbing, and I am sure I speak for all Members of the House in saying that.
My Lords, I have met the family of Lord Janner. I am not sure that it would be appropriate at this point to meet Lady Brittan, which does not mean that my sympathy for her is any diminished from what it is for anybody whose family member has been falsely accused of something they did not do.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former Metropolitan Police officer. The inexcusable and hapless supervision of this matter from the very top of a once proud and competent investigative organisation has left a trail of victims feeling very hurt and bitter. Spurred on by unforgivable political interference, those supervising and having overall responsibility for this investigation permitted uncorroborated evidence from a now disgraced fabricator of evidence to be believed and invested in. That fact speaks volumes for the lack of management and detective ability of those at the top of the organisation at the time, who have now been allowed to move on to more prominent roles. Are we to understand that the Home Office, as the lead government department for policing, is content for this stigma to fester; and is it not time to review the downward spiral of detective recruitment and training in the Metropolitan Police?
I agree with my noble friend that anybody who has been falsely accused or caught up in some of the inadequacies of investigations has my absolute sympathy, because it ruins lives; but in terms of remedy of institutional failures, we currently have the IICSA inquiry, and I hope that that will bring some sort of closure to the families and people affected by those institutional failures.
My Lords, Lord Brittan demonstrated that it is possible to maintain one’s dignity in adversity. In the last months of his life, he was cruelly assailed by baseless allegations made by malicious users that would have broken healthy men. It is sad that he did not to live to witness his own exoneration and that his widow is still troubled by the acts and omissions of the police identified by the Henriques report. Does my noble friend agree that police officers who have taken an oath to uphold the law but who suborn it by perverting the course of justice by deliberately misleading a judge should not just be investigated for misconduct but prosecuted?
My Lords, as I said, the IOPC has declined to investigate in certain areas. I know that certain cases have been given to Merseyside, as a separate force, to investigate, but it is sad that Lord Brittan did not get to see his name cleared and I understand the grief that his widow will be going through.
My Lords, I take the Minister back to the question asked earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. It was quite clear that different evidence was given to Wiltshire Police from later on. Experienced police officers should therefore have noticed a difference in the reliability of the witness much earlier. We have here an institutional as well as an individual failure. Although the person referred to at that stage as Nick has since been prosecuted, why has no officer been held accountable for their failure, which was so clear, obvious and well documented?
My Lords, I have given that answer several times now. Obviously, disciplinary action against an individual officer is a matter for forces; we have IICSA’s current inquiry into institutional failures and we have had a number of inquiries into different matters regarding the issues raised this afternoon.
My Lords, I have great sympathy with a lot of the views that we have heard, but I will try to look optimistically forward. I know that the Minister and her department have been looking at the whole question of whether anonymity should be given until a charge is made, and I wonder whether she could fill us in on where we are on that, what are her views and how that might help to prevent this happening again.
We have discussed this a lot in your Lordships’ House. There is a presumption of anonymity, and that is absolutely right. There are occasions when names may be given out to bring forward further evidence. The Jimmy Savile case was a classic case in point. Quite often, it is not the police, the Home Office or anyone but the media who gives out names.
My Lords, first, I declare an interest in that Paul Gambaccini is, I am pleased to say, a close personal friend. I am also conscious that the Metropolitan Police on occasion, when investigating such cases, has clearly shown its ability and impartiality, which is not reflected here. I come back to the Henriques report. Will that and similar reports be taken into consideration by the Home Office in future for any appointments and promotions? Many of us consider that necessary for this report.
My Lords, it depends which promotions the noble Lord is talking about, but recruitment within the police is done by the police; recruitment of the commissioner, as I said, is done by the Home Secretary in conjunction with the Mayor of London.
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Order of Consideration Motion
That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Financial Services Bill has been committed that they consider the bill in the following order:
Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clause 2, Schedule 2, Clauses 3 to 5, Schedule 3, Clauses 6 and 7, Schedule 4, Clauses 8 to 21, Schedule 5, Clause 22, Schedules 6 to 8, Clauses 23 and 24, Schedule 9, Clauses 25 to 27, Schedule 10, Clause 28, Schedule 11, Clauses 29 to 32, Schedule 12, Clauses 33 to 46, Title.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 2 February.
“I would like to update the House on the situation in Myanmar. On Sunday evening, Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, seized control of the country, declaring a state of emergency in the early hours of Monday morning. The country is now under the effective control of the commander-in-chief and the military Vice-President, Myint Swe. At around 0200 local time on 1 February, the Tatmadaw began detaining politicians and civil society leaders across the country, including the democratically elected Aung Sang Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. The Tatmadaw has said that this state of emergency will continue for a year.
The army has also taken control of the airports. Only military broadcasters are still on air, and phone lines and the internet remain at risk of being disconnected again. The military’s actions follow on from its accusations of fraud during November’s election. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy won by a landslide and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party’s share was drastically reduced. While there were significant concerns about the disfranchisement of minority groups such as the Rohingya, there are no suggestions of widespread irregularities. International observers, such as the Carter Center and the Asian Network for Free Elections, found no evidence of significant irregularities in the elections. As such, the United Kingdom considers the election result to credibly reflect the will of the people and that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party is the rightful winner of the election.
The commander-in-chief has indicated an intention to hold new elections to replace the results of those in November 2020. Any dispute regarding the election results should be resolved through peaceful and lawful mechanisms. The Myanmar Supreme Court is hearing a case on alleged irregularities but has not yet decided whether it has jurisdiction. The reports today of the arrest of the chair of the Union Election Commission are deeply concerning.
The events of Sunday night have filled us all with a profound sense of revulsion and sadness. Our thoughts are with the people of Myanmar, who have once again been robbed of their inherent democratic rights. The elections in 2020, though by no means perfect, were an important step on Myanmar’s path to democracy. We and others welcomed them as a strong endorsement of Myanmar’s desire for a democratic future. Myanmar’s transition has been troubled, with a constitution rigged in favour of the military, a campaign of atrocities and systematic discrimination against the Rohingya and other minorities, and a faltering peace process.
This coup threatens to set Myanmar’s progress back by years—potentially decades. As such, we are clear in our condemnation of this coup, the state of emergency imposed in Myanmar and the unlawful detention of democratically elected politicians and civil society by the military. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary both issued statements to this effect on Monday morning. It is essential that Aung San Suu Kyi and all those unlawfully detained are released. We must receive assurances that their safety, well-being and rights are being respected. The state of emergency must be repealed, arbitrary detentions reversed, the outcome of the democratic elections respected and the national assembly peacefully reconvened. We are aware that there is a risk that demonstrations could provoke a violent response, taking Myanmar back to the dark days of the 1988 uprising or the 2007 saffron revolution, in which scores of civilians were killed.
As for the UK response, we are pursuing all levers to ensure a peaceful return to democracy. First, we have made representations at the highest level within Myanmar to encourage all sides to resolve disputes in a peaceful and legal manner. The Foreign Secretary had a call scheduled for later this week with Aung San Suu Kyi prior to her detention. We are clear in our demands that this call goes ahead and we hope that it will serve as an opportunity to confirm her safety. I formally summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to the UK to the Foreign Office yesterday. In the meeting, I condemned the military coup and the arbitrary detention of civilians, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and made it clear that the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar must be respected, and the elected national assembly peacefully reconvened. We are doing all we can, working with those in Myanmar, to support a peaceful resolution to this crisis.
Secondly, the international community has a role to play. We are engaging with partners globally and in the region to help to align objectives and find a resolution to the crisis. We will work through multilateral fora to ensure a strong and co-ordinated international response. As president, the Foreign Secretary is co-ordinating G7 partners on its response, aiming to build on its quick statement last week on Navalny. The UK has urgently convened the UN Security Council, which will meet later today. As a champion of the rules- based international order and democratic government, we are driving the international response, including in our role as president of both the G7 and the UN Security Council, urging the military to immediately hand back power to the Government who were legitimately elected in November 2020. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations also has an important role to play, as do the principles of the ASEAN charter, including the rule of law, good governance, and the principles of democracy and constitutional government. We continue to engage with ASEAN partners to support a regional response, and I held a meeting with the Thai Vice-Foreign Minister this morning.
Thirdly, it is the military’s actions that instigated this coup. The UK already has a number of measures in place in response to the military’s past and ongoing atrocities. On 19 September 2017, the UK announced the suspension of all defence engagement and training with the Myanmar military by the Ministry of Defence until there is a satisfactory resolution to the situation in Rakhine. The MoD no longer has a defence section in Yangon. The United Kingdom has already imposed sanctions on 16 individuals responsible for human rights violations in Myanmar. We sanctioned all six individuals named by the UN fact-finding mission report, including the commander-in-chief and his deputy, who are the architects of the current political situation and who also have the power to de-escalate the crisis and restore democracy. We will assess how best to engage with the military, if at all. We have also enhanced private sector due diligence to prevent UK funds from going to military-owned companies.
The UK does not provide direct financial aid to the Myanmar Government, but we provide some targeted support, working through other international organisations and multilateral bodies. In the light of the coup, the Foreign Secretary has today announced a review of all such indirect support involving the Myanmar Government, with a view to suspending it unless there are exceptional humanitarian reasons. It is important that our response holds the military accountable.
We will continue to support the people of Myanmar. We will continue leading the international response to this crisis and calling on the military leaders in Myanmar to relent, revoke the state of emergency, release members of the civilian Government and civil society, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, reconvene the elected national assembly, respect the results of the November 2020 general election, and accept the expressed wishes of the people of Myanmar. I commend the statement to the House.”
My Lords, this appalling action by Myanmar’s military leaders represents a flagrant breach of the country’s constitution and fundamentally undermines the democratic right of its people to determine their own future.
In the week since this Statement was first made, we have seen the people of Myanmar take to the streets to demand democracy. The police are now using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against these peaceful protesters. Many of those brave people have tweeted their own experiences, which I have seen. On the subject of social media, I hope that the Government will look again at how the UK’s CDC has been investing in Myanmar telecoms companies that have been complying with the country’s government-ordered repression and blockages of internet sites. They are now, of course, being used by the military in the coup.
As the military acts on its warning of violent response, the UK is the penholder of Myanmar at the Security Council and has a responsibility to stand up for democracy and against the coup. I welcome the speedy action in convening the UN Security Council and the consensus in calling for democracy, freedom and human rights. However, those words must now be built upon. Can the Minister confirm whether the UK intends to bring forward further resolutions to the council?
Yesterday, President Biden issued an executive order enabling his Administration to immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests, as well as close family members. The first round of targets would be identified this week and steps were being taken to prevent the generals having access to $1 billion of Myanmar government funds held in the US, which will also impose strong export controls and freeze US assets that benefit the Myanmar Government, while at the same time maintaining support for healthcare, civil society groups and other areas that benefit the people of Myanmar directly. About an hour ago, I saw Dominic Raab’s tweet welcoming President Biden’s actions but not committing to following him. What practical steps have the Government taken to mirror and support our US ally in its actions? What are we doing to ensure, as President Biden asked, that other allies back those sorts of actions?
Across the UN system, there is much more that the UK can do to hold the Myanmar military to account. At the International Court of Justice, the UK Government, unlike Canada and the Netherlands, have refused to join the genocide case brought by the Government of Gambia against Myanmar, which would have raised international awareness of that crucial issue. In recent days, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has called for a special session of the Human Rights Council. Does the UK intend to pursue such a session by utilising our seat on the council? Given concerns that the military is following through with its threats of a violent response to the peaceful demonstrations, can the Minister say how we will work with our allies to analyse the reports from those protests to ensure that the international community can most effectively respond to any such repression and hold those people responsible to account?
This House will be aware that there was a leaked FCDO assessment this week showing that the Government are concerned by the prospect of violence in Myanmar. As the UN penholder and president of the Security Council, it falls to the UK to lead. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will outline a comprehensive strategy today for confronting the intolerable actions of the Myanmar military.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Minister for bringing this Statement to the House.
It is, indeed, extremely concerning that once again the military has taken over Myanmar. The military says that this is because of irregularities in the elections, even though, as the Government and others have said, there is no evidence of significant problems in an election that delivered an overwhelming majority to the civilian Government. Once again, we see the damage done when, in liberal democracies, leaders say that elections in their own territories are fraudulent, when there is no evidence of that, or they seek to break international law, even in a “limited way”. We need to rebuild respect for the rule of law globally.
The Government are right to say that this coup threatens Myanmar’s recent progress. There have been widespread demonstrations and we are beginning to see the army take more aggressive action, for example with the use of rubber bullets and, it seems, live rounds. A couple of days ago a woman was shot in the head and critically injured. Can the noble Lord update us on how the Government see the perceived risk of army brutality being unleashed on the protestors? Do the Government think that the military leaders in Myanmar are confident that their army will fully support them, given such widespread opposition, especially among young people? We hear that some police have crossed over to join the protestors. Now we hear of a draconian new cybersecurity law being fast-tracked, which would force internet and mobile phone providers to share their user data, which is extremely worrying. Can the noble Lord comment?
Can the Minister also comment on what role China is playing in Myanmar, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked? It is perhaps not surprising that China blocked action in the UN Security Council but I am glad, as the noble Lord said, that the UK took that action. Popular protest is not something that the Chinese Government could easily condone but we gather that they are playing a more significant role in Myanmar, which they jealously guard as “their” neighbourhood.
What is happening on the Thai border? What is the attitude of the Thai Government—also under great pressure—with protests again authoritarianism there? We will need to work proactively with others if we are to help to protect the many demonstrators from a brutal crackdown.
One key recommendation is that we should work with others to sanction military companies. The military earns a great deal from its businesses; this has funded its attacks, including this coup. The UN fact-finding mission had already recommended that sanctions be put on military companies even before this coup. I am aware that the UK put Magnitsky sanctions on 16 individuals in the Myanmar security forces. However, these freeze assets in the UK, which they do not have. I realise that these sanctions may send a warning to others in the region—they are important in that regard—but, in this case, they are not very effective in the case of Myanmar. Surely the Government, as president of the UN Security Council and the G7, should lead the way in terms of a widespread arms embargo on Myanmar. What are we doing, for example with our EU allies and others, on this or other strategies?
The US has just placed sanctions on those who led the coup. Is the UK engaging with the US on how to make such sanctions as effective as possible? Do the US plans include military companies? The asset freeze announced by the US on Myanmar Government assets in the US certainly sends a strong signal that this regime is illegitimate.
In addition, the UK should formally join the ICJ genocide case in The Hague; here, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Can the Minister update us on that? The Government have said that they are considering it. Now is surely the time to do so.
Can the Minister also comment on the very vulnerable Rohingya and other minorities in this situation? What emerged from his discussions with the Bangladeshi Government last week? What preparations are being made in case of an increased outflow of refugees? We do not want borders closed, as we saw before, but we recognise Bangladesh’s need and that the refugees need to be properly supported. As the Minister knows, more than 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar over the past few years.
The military leaders in Myanmar’s brutal assault against the Rohingya were described by the UN as a
“textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
We cannot stand by and allow further such crimes to follow this coup. Can the Minister tell us what effect the Government’s decision to cut the aid budget will have on their ability to sustain the level of humanitarian and development funding that has gone to Myanmar and is for the Rohingya refugees?
In this very worrying situation, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for their contributions. They rightly raised a series of issues, which I will seek to address.
In her remarks, the noble Baroness asked for an assessment of the current situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, also noted, it is a week since we last discussed this matter. Let me assure both of them and your Lordships that we have been not just monitoring but acting. Clearly, the situation over the weekend of 6 and 7 February saw large-scale protests; the noble Baroness rightly pointed to the scale of them in both Naypyidaw and Yangon. Notably, we have seen largely—I use that word deliberately but carefully—peaceful protests.
The noble Baroness is quite right to note that, in many instances, the police have been restrained when many people perhaps expected otherwise. However, as the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said, we are concerned by further reports of crackdowns on protestors in Naypyidaw on 9 February, including, as the noble Lord noted, the firing of rubber bullets and the use of water cannons. It remains unclear whether the security forces discharged live rounds, although that was being reported. When I looked into this, I came across a particularly shocking case where, as has been widely reported, a lady was shot in the head.
On the noble Baroness’s point about the cybersecurity law, I, too, have heard about proposed actions in that respect. She will have noted the internet blackouts that have taken place; we are concerned about these as they have made the flow of information in and out of the country that much more challenging. We are clear that internet services must be maintained and freedom of expression protected.
In that regard, I want to pick up on the point rightly made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about the CDC. The CDC carries out due diligence for every investment it makes, including in its contract with Frontiir. The investment was made to ensure low-cost internet availability and focused primarily on key areas, including Yangon. In March, there was a Myanmar Government directive to all ISP providers to block websites, which Frontiir and others have followed. Of course, the UK has taken a number of steps over the censorship of websites, but I note carefully what the noble Lord said in this respect. It is part of our strategy to ensure that the internet is restored at the earliest possible opportunity. I would also add that the investment was made with the good intent of providing the most vulnerable people with internet access.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord rightly mentioned the recent announcement from President Biden and his Administration. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary tweeted this morning about our support for the actions taken. I know that if I were sitting on the other side of the Dispatch Box, I would find this frustrating at times, but let me say that we are looking actively at all the tools at our disposal.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, rightly noted the 16 sanctions. To put that in context, 14 of them have been directly rolled over and become applicable in UK law; this is part of what we led on with the EU. There were another two, most notably against the current commander-in-chief of the army and his deputy. They were part of the first tranche of global human rights sanctions that we introduced, and will also stay in place. The noble Baroness mentioned the UN fact-finding mission. Six specific individuals were named in it, and I assure her that all of them are part of the UK’s current sanctions regime.
I note the point made in the context of both individuals and other organisations and firms. All I can say at this juncture is that we are of course looking at the actions of the United States. I come back to the point that this requires co-ordination. While signals may be sent, as I have said repeatedly—I know that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord share my views on this—it is when we act in conjunction with others that we see the best benefit against those we seek to target.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what actions the UK has taken. He rightly pointed out that we are penholders, particularly on the issue of the Rohingya. However, we are also the current president of the UN Security Council. In this regard, we convened a specific meeting on 4 February. I totally concur with the noble Baroness’s assessment of the importance of China’s role, not just in the current crisis but in terms of the continuing challenge of the situation and suffering of the Rohingya community. China has an important role to play. Through our bilateral engagement and engagement at the UN Security Council, we continually remind China of its important role in this respect. It was notable that, although there was no resolution, a statement was issued by the UN Security Council on the worrying nature of the events and military coup in Myanmar. We will continue to look at the situation during our presidency for the remainder of the month.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the actions that we have taken, including at the UN Human Rights Council. Again, I, as the Human Rights Minister, have prioritised this. Together with our European Union colleagues—I somewhat expected the noble Baroness to ask me about the EU, but I will proactively provide her with this information—we worked at the Human Rights Council and will convene a meeting tomorrow on the situation. Of course, we are formal members of the Human Rights Council as well.
On action by the International Court of Justice, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, referred to, we are supportive of the Gambia’s action. To put the UK’s formal intervention into context, we are looking at that. A number of countries have stated their intention to intervene but are yet to do so. There is a structured process at the ICJ, part of which is for Myanmar to come back on what has been levied against it by the Gambia and others. I believe that Myanmar has responded, while the other countries which have said that they will formally intervene are now considering their position, as will we, to see when a formal intervention, which we would support, would be best suited to give greater credence to the role of the ICJ in this respect.
I hope I have responded to some of the specifics put to me. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, will appreciate that we are engaging on this issue proactively across our roles, including in the G7. They will both have noticed that on 3 February we issued a statement as part of the G7. We are using our role at the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council. I would add one further piece of information. Through our ambassador, we have also attended a briefing with the military-appointed Foreign Minister. We used the occasion to communicate directly to that representative of the current military leaders of Myanmar who are in charge our unequivocal condemnation of the coup.
We join all countries in calling for the release of those who been arbitrarily detained, not least Aung San Suu Kyi. I shall pick up the point about elections raised by the noble Baroness. As we all know, some of these elections are not the most perfect one could imagine. Nevertheless, there were external observers, and it is not for the Myanmar military to call them into question, given the general reports. Putting the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya people to one side, others in the country participated fully and the result was conclusive. I can assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that, through engagements beyond the Chamber, I will continue to update them both about the ongoing situation and will seek to provide briefings in a timely manner.
We now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of questioners. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Helic.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the Statement and the update he has offered. There are immediate actions which must be taken. I draw his attention to those being taken by New Zealand. It has suspended all military and high-level political contact with the country, including a travel ban on its military leaders. At the same time, we must look at this moment of crisis and recognise the depth of the challenges in Myanmar and to its fragile democracy. Progress will be impossible without action on a range of fronts, including on racial discrimination and violent conflict, true inequality and underdevelopment. I hope that our engagement with Myanmar will move beyond this immediate crisis to look at the endemic problems that the country has been suffering from.
My Lords, I take on board what my noble friend said about the military and the need to look at the situation regarding the arms embargo. As she will be aware, the UK is a long-standing supporter of an arms embargo on Myanmar and, together with our EU colleagues, we played a key role in the embargo imposed following the 2017 Rohingya crisis. Since we left the EU, we have transitioned that into domestic law. My noble friend also made a broader point about the importance of stability in Myanmar. We are working in the region, particularly with ASEAN, which has an important role to play in this respect.
My Lords, I noticed the Minister’s warm words about co-operating with China and drawing the importance of this matter to its attention. However, does he accept that the military coup would have been impossible had the military, given its very strong relations with China, not been given the nod by the Chinese Government? This is another geostrategic win for China while the West stands by helpless. What long-term plans does the United Kingdom have to reform the United Nations Human Rights Council so that countries such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are prevented from making a mockery of global human rights?
My Lords, the noble Baroness said that I have warm words for China; I was merely reiterating our practical engagement with that country. We should not forget that China is a P5 member of the UN Security Council. As I have said a number of times on various issues, where we have direct challenges with countries that are P5 members, we must continue to engage with them, albeit in very candid terms, through the international fora of which the UN Security Council is an important part. I strongly believe in doing this because I have seen for myself the benefits.
The noble Baroness also raised an important point about the Human Rights Council. I agree that there are members of the council which do not reflect in any way the value system we subscribe to. I can assure her that, through our engagement at the council, we look carefully at the human rights records of those countries that put themselves forward for election to the 47-strong membership. While the council is still not without its challenges, it provides a very useful forum in which to bring these issues to the fore at the top level of international diplomacy.
My Lords, will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the civic and religious leaders in Myanmar, including the respected Buddhist monk, Myawaddy Sayadaw, who is now in prison, and Cardinal Charles Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, whose published message last week spoke out strongly against the coup, called for the release of everyone who had been detained, and implored demonstrators to remain non-violent? Given the cardinal’s words to the international community that
“Engaging the actors in reconciliation is the only path”,
how are the Government, through the channels of communication to which the Minister referred, pressing the military to engage in a meaningful process of dialogue with the democracy movement? At the same time, to pick up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, how will a new peace process be pursued with the country’s ethnic minorities, which could prevent an escalation in armed hostilities and lead to a genuinely inclusive political settlement for all stakeholders?
My Lords, I join the right reverend Prelate in paying tribute to the courage of many voices in civilian society, including those of religious leaders who are calling for peace. The situation with the Rohingya underlines how religion can sometimes be used as a divisive tool used to target particular communities because of their faith or ethnicity. On the issue raised by the right reverend Prelate about engagement with the military, our assessment is that there is a real fear that, even under civilian administration, we can see the challenges as the situation plays out. I do not feel that, at the moment, we are on the cusp of any real hope of seeing a resolution of the internal civil issues confronting Myanmar. However, we will continue to work through all channels in pursuit of that common objective.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy in Burma. The Minister has talked about sanctions by the United Kingdom. While those are welcome, they will be directed at individual members of the Tatmadaw. Does he agree that the brave activists in Burma need to see tangible action by the international community against the institution of the Tatmadaw? The best way to achieve that is not by withdrawing trade privileges and preferences, which would impact on ordinary Burmese people, but by robust and targeted sanctions on military-owned and controlled companies and their substantial business associates, including those around the world.
My Lords, I can reassure the noble Baroness that the targeting of sanctions, as and when we impose them, is intended to identify the individuals and organisations responsible for the most egregious abuses of human rights. As I said in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, we are keeping the situation very much under review. We have noted the actions that others have taken, most notably the United States.
My Lords, yesterday I sought to encourage the Minister to support President Biden on the issue of arms exports. It will therefore come as no surprise to him that I equally seek his support for President Biden’s initiative on sanctions. But may I raise with him the question of live ammunition? In their discussions with the ambassador from Myanmar, have the British Government impressed on him that the mere presence of live ammunition carries the dangerous risk of misjudgment, potentially resulting in fatalities? Live ammunition should neither be on display nor should there be any question of it being used.
I concur with the noble Lord. I assure him that we have called in the ambassador of Myanmar and conveyed to him that people’s right to protest peacefully should be respected in Myanmar. We have also urged all forces, the police and military in particular, to exercise utmost restraint and to respect human rights and international law. As I said earlier, there have been reports of live ammunition being used, which is appalling, but I concur with the noble Lord’s views.
My Lords, both the Government’s Statement made here and the measures announced by President Biden are encouragingly robust, but does my noble friend agree that sanctions that isolate Myanmar as a whole will merely drive it further into the arms of China? They should therefore rightly be targeted on military leaders, Magnitsky style, and the businesses that they control, as others have rightly argued. Does my noble friend also agree that this is the time for a strong Asian coalition? These steps must have the full support of Myanmar’s main Asian investors, such as Japan. If China wants to regain any respect at all on the international stage, it should support or at least not counter these moves.
My Lords, again, I assure my noble friend that I agree with him. Our challenge is not with the people of Myanmar and they should not be punished for the military coup. He is right to point out that our sanctions regime targets these specific individuals or organisations, which is the right approach. He also raises a key point about the region itself. We are working very closely with ASEAN partners on this. My colleague Minister Adams, who is responsible for that part of the world, has been speaking directly to counterparts across ASEAN to discuss how to respond to these events directly.
My Lords, this is an appalling state of affairs. Will the Government ensure that democracy must prevail, with severe consequences for coup leaders for not coming to the table immediately? I trust that we will convene a G7, and underpin and implement a new electoral world order, global standards and processes. I was pleased to hear the Minister refer to the G7. However, given that the probability of a coup was on the cards in the days prior, what representations and actions were taken by diplomats to avert this fiasco, including the assurance of continuous support for those brave and principled people of Myanmar who stood up for their rights, as also occurs elsewhere?
My Lords, I assure you, and as I already alluded to, we are working on the ground through our ambassador. He is co-ordinating with other like-minded partners within country, and we are working directly with allies, such as the United States, ASEAN partners and others, to make the points that the noble Lord has just reflected on.
My Lords, could the Minister confirm whether the Government will work with other like-minded allies to impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar to underpin human rights, particularly as the UK has the presidency of the UN Security Council?
My Lords, as I have already indicated, the UK is a long-standing supporter of the arms embargo and it is already being applied. Since we left the EU, we transitioned the arms embargo regime from the EU into UK law. The UK autonomous Myanmar sanctions regulations prohibit the provision of military-related services, including technical assistance to or for the benefit of the Myanmar military.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Collins has already raised the question of the assets of the military leaders and the companies that they control. The point has been made by a number of noble Lords about the support of President Biden. I can say from overnight conversations that President Biden’s Administration are looking very hard at what steps we propose to take, in the same light. The Minister said that we were looking at all the tools and that he feared he would frustrate us in not answering on them, but I know that he is a man of great integrity. What do the Government know about assets held in London and the overseas territories? Will they take steps to sequester and hold them, until they can be provided to the people of Myanmar, for their future? Will he make progress reports to the House on this?
My Lords, the noble Lord, who served as a Foreign Office Minister himself, knows that I cannot make those specific commitments from the Dispatch Box, but I have noted what he said very carefully. As I indicated in my earlier answers, we are looking at all options to ensure that those who have committed and are behind the coup are also held fully to account. That includes all tools. We have noted the sanctions that the Americans have already acted on and, as I have said several times, when we act together on sanctions, we see a better result.
My Lords, the Minister’s indication that the Government are thinking of formally intervening in the Gambia’s genocide case against Myanmar, at the ICJ, is welcome. Given the Government’s preference for Parliament to express its views on genocide now, rather than taking things to a court, could the Minister tell the House whether parliamentary interventions and suggestions on how to intervene would be welcome?
My Lords, I always welcome interventions from parliamentary colleagues. On the specific issue of the ICJ intervention, as I said before, our long-standing position is to support the action that the Gambia has taken. We regard a formal intervention as something that should be measured and timely to make sure that the issue can move on. It does not mean that we are not supportive, because we have not formally intervened. I further assure the noble Baroness that we have been engaging with the APPG, for example, which is looking carefully at these issues. Recently, Minister Adams and I convened a meeting with, among others, my right honourable friend Jeremy Hunt and Rushanara Ali to discuss this very issue.
My Lords, I have a very close friend who has a son working in Myanmar. He has informed me that the British embassy has ceased to register British residents in the country. Could my noble friend confirm whether this is correct and whether the embassy is fully staffed? Does he agree that our presidency of both the Security Council and the G7 gives us a special opportunity to become global Britain? Will we convene a special meeting of the G7 and undertake to keep this very deplorable situation on the agenda of the Security Council?
I believe that I have already answered the question that my noble friend raised on the G7 and the Security Council. On the other issue, we have advised all British nationals to remain at home where possible. There is a nationwide curfew, which makes it a challenge, but if any British national needs to engage, if my noble friend provides me with that information, I will follow up that issue.
My Lords, Aung San Suu Kyi was hailed by world leaders as the person who established democracy in Myanmar, through her efforts and sacrifices. However, she was accused of failing to protect Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims during the 2016-17 persecution. There was a worldwide outcry citing her as complicit in the crimes against the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi is being detained by the army, at present. Notwithstanding the Rohingya issue, world leaders should support her as before, while supporting sanctions. Can the Minister tell us what chances there are of democracy returning to Myanmar again?
My Lords, it is a credible inference that, in seizing power, General Min Aung Hlaing and the military were partly motivated by the desire to protect themselves and their families from investigation of their corrupt and lucrative financial deals and economic holdings by a strengthened democratic Government. It is certain that they have managed to squirrel away stolen assets in this country, the British Overseas Territories and other democratic countries. Following on from my noble friend Lord Triesman’s question, and recognising the limitations that the Minister is under, beyond sanctions, do the Government have the power and intent to trace, seize and freeze these assets so that, in due course, they can be returned to their rightful owners: the Myanmar people?
My Lords, as chair of the International Development Committee in the House of Commons I heard and saw at first hand the brutal atrocities committed during the last era of military rule. Given that the Myanmar economy is largely owned by the army, can we ensure that sanctions are targeted to force the military to recognise that the development of Myanmar and its own interests are incompatible with military dictatorship, and that they are applied in a way that helps those protesting against the coup and avoids hitting the poor hardest?
My Lords, many years ago, when the military were last dictating the country, I visited Myanmar and heard directly from victims of torture about the terrible things that happened. We have the same bunch of people in charge of the country again. I have two questions. First, do the Government have any evidence that the military regime is using torture against its political opponents in Myanmar? Secondly, does the Minister agree that we have to be very careful before any sort of development aid goes to Myanmar, because it will be used to prop up the infrastructure and help the military? We should really oppose any such aid going to Myanmar, except at a local community level.
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first question, in all our interactions with the Myanmar authorities after the military coup we have stressed that those held in arbitrary detention must be released immediately, and that while they are in detention they must be afforded all their rights. I am certainly not aware of any evidence of torture. On his second question about support, Myanmar is at a crossroads. That entails a real challenge. We need to ensure that sanctions or any other tools available to us target those behind the coup and do not lead to long-term instability in Myanmar and the surrounding region. However, I accept the point that we need to ensure that the support we give Myanmar at this crucial juncture is targeted at the most vulnerable. Our aid and support in this respect is certainly targeted to do just that.
My Lords, the time allowed for questions on the Statement has now elapsed.
Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2021
Motion to Approve
My Lords, a few days ago many of your Lordships will have listened intently to and reflected on the debate on the Armed Forces Bill as it passed through its Second Reading in the other place. I hope your Lordships were struck by the number of very positive things that the Bill proposes to do, including embedding further into law the Armed Forces covenant; implementing the sound recommendations born out of the Service Justice System Review; introducing flexible service for reservists; and addressing the issue of posthumous pardons. These are just a few of the subjects that many of your Lordships are rightly passionate about.
As was explained during the Bill’s Second Reading, Parliament renews the Armed Forces Act 2006 every five years through primary legislation. However, in the intervening years an annual Order in Council must be made and approved by both Houses for the Act to continue to remain in force. The 2006 Act is currently due to expire on 11 May this year, so a further annual order is needed to keep it in force. The draft order we are considering will keep the Act in force until the end of 2021. Primary legislation, in the shape of the Armed Forces Bill, is needed to keep it in force beyond 2021.
If the 2006 Act expires, certain major problems arise. For example, it would be impossible to maintain the Armed Forces as disciplined bodies. Service personnel do not have contracts of employment and so have no duties as employees. Their obligation is essentially a duty to obey lawful commands. If the 2006 Act expired, members of the Armed Forces would still owe allegiance to Her Majesty, but there would be no sanctions for disobeying orders. Moreover, other disciplinary offences would cease to exist, commanding officers and service police would lose their statutory powers to investigate offences and enforce discipline, and the service courts would no longer function.
Discipline in every sense is fundamental to and underpins the existence of our Armed Forces. Indeed, it is the reason for their success in the discharge of their remarkable range of duties, whether here at home, tirelessly supporting the emergency services, local communities and assisting with the mass vaccination across the UK during the pandemic; supporting our British Overseas Territories by delivering vaccine doses; protecting our safety and security; tackling the ongoing threat of cyberattacks posed by hostile states; actively safeguarding the world’s main waterways and escorting ships to deter the scourge of modern piracy and ensure freedom of navigation in disputed waters; playing their part to counter terrorism or to combat drug smuggling and people trafficking; taking a central role in the ongoing United Nations peacekeeping operations in Mali; distributing vital humanitarian aid; continuing the war on terror by assisting and building capacity with partner nations to defeat the likes of Daesh in Iraq and Syria; maintaining our forward presence in the Baltic and northern Europe to strengthen Euro-Atlantic security; or monitoring our sovereign air space to identify any threatening presence. All that reflects a huge and remarkable range of diverse activity.
The requirement for Parliament to regularly consent to the maintenance of the Armed Forces dates back to the Bill of Rights in 1688, when the existence of a standing army was contentious. While this is no longer the case, the debate on this order to keep the 2006 Act in force is also an opportunity for us in this House to record our thanks by permitting the Armed Forces to continue for another year.
That is a summary of the background to the statutory instrument. I hope that your Lordships will support the draft continuation order. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction. I pay tribute to our Armed Forces personnel for their service to the nation. I had the privilege of working with them, as Armed Forces Minister and later as Secretary of State for Defence, and I never ceased to be impressed by their selfless commitment, abroad and at home. They have shown it once again during the present pandemic. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.
The Armed Forces Bill, as the Minister pointed out, is the foundation of military command, discipline and justice. It is also the bedrock of the democratic civil-military relationship, so I of course support that Bill and this Motion. Specifically, I broadly welcome several measures in the Bill, including the update of the service justice system and the new service police complaints commissioner, modelled on the civilian police’s Independent Office for Police Conduct, and in particular, I welcome Clause 8 of the Bill, which puts the Armed Forces covenant into law. In the limited time that I have I will focus on that.
This should have our non-partisan support across your Lordships’ Chamber. The covenant had its origins as the Armed Forces charter by the last Labour Government over a decade ago. Under the coalition and Conservative Governments, that has been built upon and, whatever deficiencies remain, there has been an undoubted shift in the right direction in looking after our forces and their families. This Bill quite properly aims to build further on that but, as presently constructed, it is unnecessarily restrictive in that respect. As the Royal British Legion, among others, have pointed out, the range of issues that have a significant impact on the Armed Forces community include health, housing, employment, pensions, compensation, social care, education, criminal justice and immigration, yet the Bill covers only aspects of health, housing and education.
There is also no reference in the Bill to any enforcement mechanism. The Government could surely have gone a bit further in both respects. Moreover, the Bill imposes a duty only on local councils and local agencies to have regard to these areas, not on national Government itself. Yet many of the areas in which Armed Forces personnel and veterans have problems are the responsibility of the national Government or are based on national government guidance. It therefore has a flavour of “do as I say, don’t do as I do” about it, which will undermine its effect, especially since no specific duty to act is imposed, even on local councils and agencies.
The context in which the Bill is being debated hardly encourages confidence that the morale of our Armed Forces personnel will continue unharmed. As noble Lords will know, our Army is 10,000 below the required strength, with the MoD revealing only last weekend that every one of our infantry battalions, with the exception of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, now fall short of battle-ready personnel, some significantly so. Military pay has fallen behind since 2010. This is surely a missed opportunity in the Bill to make the recommendations of the independent Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body binding on Ministers.
Accommodation remains a serious problem. I do not underestimate that challenge, and I pay credit to the Government for the Forces Help to Buy scheme, under which many personnel have been helped on to the housing ladder. However, the quality of much of the Government’s provided accommodation remains seriously deficient, as last week’s National Audit Office report illustrates.
I wish the Bill well but hope that Ministers will listen in Committee—a rare Hybrid Committee—and be prepared to incorporate sensible suggestions to improve the Bill. As I said, the covenant attracts wide cross-party support and, therefore, there should be no impediment to the Government listening to others who have constructive suggestions. Everyone, especially our Armed Forces, would thereby benefit.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, something I did on many occasions when we both spoke in defence debates in the House of Commons. I begin, as others have, by paying tribute to the professionalism and commitment of all three of our Armed Forces. This proceeding has great constitutional significance of course, as has already been pointed out, and is sometimes regarded as the first illustration of human rights being made available to the citizens of this country.
The short debate provides the opportunity to reflect, to some extent, on the state of the Army. I shall not anticipate the issues that are likely to be raised when we come to Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill, which passed that stage in the House of Commons last Monday. The point I raise arises from the used of the phrase “standing army”. Standing implies substance, both quantity and quality. That is why I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Reid, in relation to the issue of numbers. It is an extraordinary, and some might say curious, consequence that the figure of 10,000, which the Army is said to be short of, is equivalent to a rumour that the Army will cut 10,000 members. I hope that this is mere coincidence and not an acceptance that recruitment is unlikely to improve.
The Minister may remember that some weeks ago I asked her a number of questions, mainly about the Royal Regiment of Scotland. I was, as I suspect she was, taken aback by the rather alarming shortages that these questions revealed. That provokes me into asking: what analysis is being made of the reasons for these shortages? What assessment is being made of the impact on capability and employability as a result of these shortages? As the noble Lord, Lord Reid, has just indicated, last week, in a national newspaper, some of the most famous regiments were revealed as being substantially below strength. What analysis is being done of the reasons for this and what impact has there been on capability? If these are the figures for regular soldiers, what is the position in the reserves? In recent history, in engagements abroad we have had to draw very substantially upon our reserves. So, if the regulars are so poorly below strength, what is the position with the reserves?
We are waiting for the comprehensive review. It sometimes feels like “Waiting for Godot”. Godot never came, but hopefully the comprehensive review will finally be upon us. We are led to believe that it is an opportunity to address new strategic objectives. There will be no point in having new objectives if we do not have the resources to implement them. I listened recently to a most challenging speech by the Chief of the Defence Staff—in truth an excellent speech—setting out a new strategic concept. I hope that he will excuse me if, for the small purpose I have today, I sum it up in the rather ugly way of “fewer tanks and more drones”. That does not do justice to the intellectual and far-seeing nature of the speech, but the cornerstone of defence is deterrence. Faced with a variety of threats, we must maintain a full spectrum of deterrents, and therefore, of capability. If an adversary mobilises tanks, we can hardly rely on the nuclear deterrent as an effective one.
I have one final point. We lead the battle group in Estonia, which is part of the enhanced forward presence of NATO and a deployment of very considerable military and political purpose. If we are to reduce the Army by 10,000, might it be that when asked by NATO to take charge of a deployment of that kind, we will be unable to do so by reason of a shortage? That would be a grave embarrassment.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the Army Reserve and would like to focus my comments today by giving a taster of the soon-to-be published Reserve Forces 2030 review, of which I had the honour to be chairman. It is an enormous pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, and I can perhaps answer one of his questions and reassure him that in recent years the reserves have been growing in numbers.
While it may seem archaic that we debate this SI today, the requirement for your Lordships’ House to give approval for the continuance of our Armed Forces Act underpins the relationship between Parliament, society and service men and women, a relationship that many other nations view with envy. At its heart, in part at least, is the citizen soldier, the reservist. Indeed it is worth noting that the two oldest units in the British Army, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers and Honourable Artillery Company, are reserve units tracing their history back to 1530s, predating even the Bill of Rights of 1688.
Like that of many fellow reservists, my service has been part of a fairly consistent juggling act between the competing demands of a hectic professional career, private life and soldiering. In reflecting on my own time as a reserve, so much has changed over the 32 years, going from an almost entirely contingent force that trained at weekends and annual camps, recruited locally and was encapsulated by names such as the Territorial Army and Royal Auxiliary Air Force to the Reserve Forces we have today, across all three services, delivering daily support and skills as part of a semi-integrated force, the true value of which we have seen in recent months during the current Covid crisis. To take just one example, the Nightingale hospitals were designed and delivered in part by the Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps, industry experts donating their skills unpaid to the nation via the volunteer reserve.
Since Haldane’s creation of the Territorial Force in 1908, which subsumed the militia and the Volunteer Force, reserves have always embraced change. It is perhaps because reservists are both drawn from and a part of society that one of their key strengths over many years has been their enduring capacity to adapt to the needs of the day. The relationship between the military and society, in which the Reserve Forces play a crucial role, is complex and changing, and the challenges the country has faced during Covid have underlined how important that relationship is.
The most recent reform was the Future Reserves 2020 review, which focused on growth and investment in the single service reserves. Until that point, the Reserve Forces were viewed by some as being in decline, having been used almost solely as a source of individuals to bolster Regular Forces exhausted after years of campaigning. Building on the undoubted success of the implementation of that review over the past 10 years which has seen the size of the reserve grow, the terms of reference for the latest review were rather different. Rather than looking down and in at the use of reserves by the single services, we were tasked with looking up and out. At its heart, the review is about people and skills and how defence, industry, government and wider society can share them. This means looking at how the Reserve Forces can provide capability across government departments, deliver networks into industry and academia and reinforce national resilience and homeland security as well as renewing and strengthening the link with society in general.
The national experience of the Covid pandemic has demonstrated in no uncertain terms how the nation needs to pull together in time of crisis and how government, Parliament, state institutions, industry and the general public rely on each other. In harnessing this latent appetite to volunteer, the latest review looked at how UK Reserve Forces can provide a nucleus for this activity as well as support the creation of non-military reserves, such as an NHS reserve. It became quickly apparent that the latest review could not just be another review focused on reserves. Rather, it needed to be a review on the provision of defence capability in the round. It is apt, therefore, that our work has been able to inform the integrated review, and we have drawn on the integrated operating concept published last year. The review will be published shortly, but suffice to say many of the recommendations go far beyond those that many have been expecting.
The vision the review describes is of empowered Reserve Forces that are further integrated with their regular counterparts and the wider defence enterprise, while at the same time providing greater utility and assurance across a broader range of military capabilities with access to civilian skills. We have sought to break obstacles for people to join the reserve and to promote a spectrum of service from full-time uniformed, to part-time, spare time and non-uniformed service that will enable individuals to contribute their skills. We have also looked carefully at ways to ensure those who have left the Armed Forces can continue to contribute. At the very core of the review though is the reservist and a recognition of the need to ensure that, just like it was to their predecessors, the offer of service in the Reserve Forces remains not only attractive to the individual reservist but is valued by their families, employers and wider society too.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, who holds the rank of brigadier, and to give my support to this draft order. The House will shortly be debating the quinquennial renewal Bill, which will be an opportunity to consider in detail its proposals. As time is limited, I have just one general trailer point for now. The Armed Forces Act 2006 incorporated the three single service discipline Acts into one overarching Act. There is a good case, with which I believe the Minster is in sympathy, to ensure that all enactments that deal directly with the Armed Forces should be brigaded under a single Armed Forces Act. I have raised this suggestion a number of times, first in 1998 when debating the interaction between the Armed Forces Acts and the Human Rights Bill and mostly in debating the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. Other Acts, such as those concerned with complaints and flexible working also spring to mind. I hope the Government will give serious thought to this suggestion and set about doing it for present and future, if not for past, legislation.
Apart from that, I have just one peripheral query. I was intrigued to realise that the Armed Forces Act is due to expire not five years from its last enactment, which was in May 2016, but that it can be extended by order until the end of the calendar year. In 2011, I had an amendment to the quinquennial Bill affecting the inclusion of an Armed Forces covenant report, which was accepted, and another amendment which I moved on Report and which was carried against the Government’s wishes. It was October and the renewed Armed Forces Act had to be law by November, so there was no time for ping-pong or consulting. The revised arrangement with a government concession was agreed following a meeting I had with the then Defence Secretary which allowed me to withdraw my amendment and the Bill returned to the Commons without further delay. No attempt was made by the Government to extend the Act beyond 8 November, although with the sixth order it could have gained a period of grace of almost two months. It would be interesting to know how frequently in the past this “extension” by means of a sixth order, in this case from May to December 2021, has been used. In the 30 years I have spoken in debates on these Acts, I do not recall that it has been invoked previously.
My Lords, I acknowledge the almost ritualistic nature of this debate, which is required under the terms of the Armed Forces Act 2006. None the less, it offers this House a welcome opportunity to pay tribute to the brave service men and women who serve our country with honour, valour and skill. At a time when we are being urged to remain at home and stay safe because of Covid-19, members of our Armed Forces remain out front and in harm’s way across many different settings.
Last summer, in an interesting blog on his website, the Minister for Defence listed five examples of ongoing overseas operations involving UK military personnel. As the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, alluded to, they included the Royal Navy ships stationed in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean; UK forces from all services based in Kabul, Afghanistan; a UK deployment forming part of the NATO presence in Estonia and Poland; Royal Airforce jets in Lithuania as part of NATO’s air policing mission; and UK troops engaged in UN peacekeeping missions and training operations.
More recently, when winding up the Grand Committee debate secured by the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, who I am delighted to see is in her place today, informed your Lordships that more than 6,000 UK personnel were deployed on 39 operations in 46 countries. These are truly remarkable commitments for a country that some critics say has lost its place at the top table of global affairs. At home, we have all witnessed our service men and women playing an absolutely vital role in guiding us through the pandemic.
Last month, Robin Swann, the Northern Ireland Health Minister, announced that more than 100 medically trained military personnel were being deployed to the Province to assist local nursing staff on the wards. In normal circumstances, given the history of the Province, that might have been seen as a controversial move. However, in a statement which was somewhat unusual, to say the least, Sinn Fein publicly supported the decision. It added that
“any effort to make the threat posed by Covid-19 into a green and orange issue is divisive and a distraction.”
Since the initial lockdown last March, specialist planners, medics and logistics experts from across the Armed Forces have worked at the heart of the national COVID Support Force. Noble Lords will recall the remarkable job that UK troops did in building Nightingale hospitals around the nation. Within a matter of weeks, and sometimes days, sport stadiums, convention centres and entertainment complexes were converted into fully equipped, top-of-the-range community hospitals.
Later, when the UK Government finally got their act together to launch the national Covid testing programme, thousands of our military personnel were deployed at short notice to operate hundreds of mobile testing centres, which carried out hundreds of thousands of tests. Most recently, as the long-awaited vaccination programme began to roll out, it was again our highly skilled men and women of the UK Armed Forces whom the Government turned to. Not only have our service personnel been at the fore in distributing the vaccines to all four corners of the United Kingdom but many, as well as military veterans, have also been engaged in giving jabs to the public. I was also pleased to hear the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, say in another place week that UK Armed Forces had delivered thousands of doses of the vaccine to the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and the Ascension Islands. He also provided an assurance that the Ministry of Defence stood ready to support vaccine delivery to all British Overseas Territories.
Given the vast array of activities and achievements that I have outlined, it is obvious that all members of our Armed Forces should expect the strongest possible support from Her Majesty’s Government, not just in terms of resources but in other areas. To that end, I look forward to delving deeper into some of these issues when the Armed Forces Bill is debated in your Lordships’ House later this year. In the meantime, I fully support the order before us today.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, is not available at the moment, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Empey.
My Lords, in her opening remarks, my noble friend the Minister listed the areas where our service personnel are currently deployed. These range from a very difficult deployment in Mali to deployment on European soil, in Estonia and Lithuania. Of course, there is still Afghanistan and the situation in the Middle East as well, and threats are emerging in the South China Sea. It is perfectly clear that the variety of fields of operation continue to be significant.
The Minister referred to discipline, and of course that is part of the processes that we are debating today. But it is the legal position that I want to reflect on for a moment. I think that many people in this country and in this Parliament are still reeling from the implications of the cases and abuses undertaken and led by sleazy lawyers, who tried to exploit the position when soldiers were deployed in very difficult environments, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. I just want to check with the Minister what training our service personnel receive on the legal aspects of their deployments in different locations around the world. Does she believe it is adequate? Does it take into account potential difficulties that soldiers, sailors and air personnel could be putting themselves into through their activities in these areas?
We also discussed the covenant. This was a considerable innovation and a very welcome one. Apart from the assistance provided for the Covid situation, most of the services in our country at the moment tend to be deployed on other things, including, from time to time, bomb squads deployed not only in Northern Ireland but around the country. However, that was not always the case. The situation regarding the covenant concerns me somewhat because, although it has been operating reasonably effectively here in Northern Ireland in recent years, there are still several weaknesses in its establishment.
A moment ago, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, referred to the annual report that the Secretary of State produces, usually in December each year, on how the covenant is operating. Members need to be aware that at no stage since its commencement have the Northern Ireland Executive produced a report of those activities. That has been done by the other devolved regions—Scotland and Wales—and those have subsequently been incorporated into the report. However, no such report has been made in Northern Ireland, so Parliament is not seeing how the covenant is being operated there. I have no doubt that we will come back to that when the Bill comes before us, but I wanted to draw the House’s attention to the fact that it is a missing link. If the Secretary of State cannot get a report from the Executive in Northern Ireland, he may have to find other means, and he should be provided with the powers to do so. The covenant is UK wide and defence is a non-devolved issue, so I do not believe that the Secretary of State should be left in ignorance of what is happening on the ground.
We all wish our Armed Forces well. They face many challenging times. We will see the first deployment of the “Queen Elizabeth” carrier force in the next few months and that will be a huge step forward, but I believe that we have underfunded our defence for many years and I hope that this overstretch is not allowed to continue further.
My Lords, the events in Myanmar over the last few weeks have demonstrated the dangers of a politicised military. This statutory instrument, which appears every year, gives us the opportunity to stop and reflect on the position of the military in our own country. It is the mark of a major constitutional principle that the military is under the control of Parliament.
The Armed Forces Act, which the instrument renews, as the Minister reminded us, concerns itself centrally with discipline. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force are not structured like limited liability companies; the personnel are not employees with the right to trade union representation; and they are not democracies where the personnel vote for their officers. Yet the Act provides that soldiers can be punished if they refuse to obey a lawful order or if they absent themselves from their unit. As the Minister has commented, obeying orders without question in a chain of command is fundamental to the military. That is how it can function as a powerful unit within the state.
The norm is that the Armed Forces are subordinate to Her Majesty’s Government. Only once in my lifetime has there been any threat or challenge to political control. In the period after the 1974 election when Harold Wilson returned to the premiership, there was much talk that he and his Government were Soviet agents. Speculation was abroad of a military coup to replace his Government with military rule led by the late Lord Mountbatten. This was of course the height of the Cold War. You can imagine that, if Mr Corbyn had won the 2017 election, there might have been widespread talk on social media to similar effect, Cold War or no.
At that time, in 1974-75, I was privileged to be allowed to lunch every day in an officers’ mess based in the same complex of buildings as the assize court where I habitually practised. Whether Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent was a subject of lunchtime discussion in the mess—although mainly, I have to say, by the retired and elderly officers who customarily frequented it. In case it is suggested that I am exaggerating about what I heard, it was serious enough for Mrs Thatcher, when she subsequently became Prime Minister in 1979, to set up a committee to investigate it. It concluded that there was no real foundation for the rumours that had widely circulated—now I am not so sure.
Myanmar reminds us of the importance of this measure today. I pay tribute to the armed services. I am sure that when they go abroad on operations they are fully trained in the rules of engagement. That only 10 court martial trials have emerged from both Iraq and Afghanistan out of some 3,000 investigations shows how much they are up to the standards that we expect of them.
The civil war between parliamentarians and royalist forces in the 17th century shook the foundations of this country. After the Restoration, when James II started to replace Protestant officers in the British army with Catholics, it led to the invasion of Protestant continental forces under William of Orange. His variegated army was strengthened when Churchill defected to his side—that was, of course, John Churchill, the commander of the English forces, later Duke of Marlborough. His defection drove the monarch into exile. The Bill of Rights 1688, repeated in 1689, was that deal: no standing army in Britain without the consent of Parliament. That is the consent that we are giving today. William of course took his army over to Ireland to confront the Catholics at the Boyne, with consequences that face us today.
Since the Falklands, Parliament has asserted the right to vote on the commitment of British forces to active operations. We shall shortly be debating the Liberal Democrat amendment to the Overseas Operations Bill on whether Parliament’s consent should be a necessary precondition for a British Government to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights in overseas operations. This Government’s proposal is that they should have the sole power to derogate under the Royal Prerogative. I hope that when we come to debate that proposition, we shall give it a Churchillian gesture.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and his tour through history, which was certainly very instructive, especially for some of us who have studied history over a number of years.
I support the order before us. The other place has debated the Armed Forces Bill and for the first time the Armed Forces covenant was put into law in Clause 8, which is very welcome. A number of noble Lords have mentioned the covenant. The idea of a covenant and charter, as has been said, has been around for over a decade. The point about the covenant is that it is a broad promise by the nation to ensure that those who have served in the Armed Forces and their families are treated fairly. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has just said, members of the Armed Forces do not of course have employment contracts, so they rely on the Government to treat them properly.
I do not want wish to repeat things that noble Lords have already said during this debate. However, I wish to raise a point about the overall state of the Armed Forces, which was raised by a number of other noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Reid of Cardowan, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem and Lord Empey. We cannot fulfil the covenant—which is so crucial for our Armed Forces personnel, their families and veterans—and our national security requirements if the Armed Forces are understrength, demoralised and having difficulty retaining personnel. As has been mentioned, our Armed Forces remain 10,000 below the total strength that Ministers said was needed in the 2015 strategic defence review. As has also been mentioned, the Ministry of Defence recently reported that the battle-ready strength of our battalions at the moment is seriously under par.
Another issue that has been raised is that of Armed Forces pay, which has declined significantly since 2010. Although of course I welcome the £24 billion of extra defence spending over the next four years, I am concerned that, if it is spent almost exclusively on kit, that will be at the expense of our defence people. In his Statement last November the Prime Minister said:
“Reviving our armed forces is one pillar of the Government’s ambition to safeguard Britain’s interests and values by strengthening our global influence”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/20; col. 487.]
Those are very fine words.
The delayed integrated security, defence, development and foreign policy review told us that the Government wish to define ambitions for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy. Her Majesty’s Government made the spending announcement before figuring out what the strategy should be. There are rumours, as has been mentioned in today’s debate, that the Army will be cut further to pre-Napoleonic levels. Surely there is a strategic disconnect here.
Finally, in the other place the Secretary of State for Defence said on 8 February that
“in the end, if we do not invest in our people, we will not have anything for the future of our armed forces.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/21; col. 126.]
If Her Majesty’s Government really believe in global Britain, they need to invest in their service personnel first and foremost.
My Lords, I very much agree with the last things said by the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, and I welcome his comments.
I should declare two interests before I go any further. The first is that I have a son in the Army. He is currently enduring sleeping out in the snow in the Sennybridge training area, poor chap—but I like to bask in his reflected glory when people pay tribute to the Armed Forces. The second, more pertinent interest is that I have been in the receipt of an Army pension for over three decades.
I of course support this continuation order. Indeed, I think I took it through the Commons in 2011, although I have not checked Hansard. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Lancaster’s comments: he is absolutely right that this is about the relationship between Parliament, the people and the Armed Forces. That may be historic, but this is an extraordinarily important measure, because without it we would be in a very different position.
I will take this opportunity to look at wider defence and Armed Forces issues. I welcome the Government’s pledge of an extra—I think—£16.5 billion over the next four years but, regrettably, and I hate to say this, it is not enough. Yes, we need to have good equipment and ships. Defence procurement, by the way, is always a mess; we thought we had got it sorted about eight years ago when I was working at the Ministry of Defence, but I am afraid that cost overruns continue to be absurd and it always needs to be sat on very closely.
I follow what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said because I fear that the reduction people have been speaking about—the plans to cut the army to a ceiling of 72,000—are true. Now, this is nuts. It is completely bonkers. I would like to quote Kim Darroch, who was our ambassador in the United States and is now the noble Lord, Lord Darroch. He was addressing a defence committee recently, and I thank the right honourable John Spellar for pointing this out to me. The noble Lord, Lord Darroch, said:
“I would be really worried about reducing further the size of the British Army. I say that in part on the basis of my experience in Washington. I would go into the Department of Defense and occasionally to see General Mattis myself or to take people in to see him and his predecessor under the Obama Administration. One of the things that both would say consistently is, ‘You are already too small—in terms of your Army. I mean, 80,000 just isn’t good enough. You need to be above 100,000. It is a big mistake to reduce to the level you are at. For goodness’ sake, do not go down any further and expect to retain your current level of credibility in Washington.’”
Those are powerful words from a noble Lord who sits as a Cross-Bencher, not as a Conservative.
The current coronavirus crisis shows the need for manpower—perhaps we call it people power in these politically correct days—in helping to organise the Nightingale hospitals, as my noble friend mentioned, and for the vaccinations that are still being done through military personnel. I think we used to call it military aid to civil authority. You need a disciplined force for that, and as an insurance policy to cope with the unexpected. By the way, we are about to face rocketing unemployment levels, so recruitment should become easier. We do not want to add to that unemployment.
I turn briefly to the threats. Have we forgotten that President Putin has invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea? Have we forgotten MH-17, the airliner shot down over Ukraine by Russian rockets in 2014, or the poisonings in Salisbury with Novichok, which was then used against Mr Navalny in Russian territory? Do we not understand that President Putin thinks in Cold War terms, as a former KGB officer? He wants to make Russia great again, to coin a term. China is also flexing its muscles with cyberattacks while building bases on reefs in the South China Sea, threatening Australia and now us over Hong Kong. There is also the recent ban on the television network CGTN. It talks about civil-military fusion; Chinese trade, by which we all benefit, is linked to its plans for aggrandisement.
I was born after the Second World War and we have been cutting the Armed Forces ever since, often for very good and sensible reasons: the end of the war and of national service, the withdrawal from empire and the end of the Cold War. In 2010, the strategic defence review, in which I was a participant, talked a lot about asymmetric warfare but I do not recall any serious discussion about resurgent military power in either Russia or China. We fondly imagined that the world was getting safer. We may not like it, but it is actually getting more dangerous. As the world changes, so we must change too in our own interests. There is a report in the press today that France and Germany spend more on defence than we do, which rather undermines our proud boast to be the second-largest defence spender in NATO. I rather hope that my noble friend the Minister might be able to comment on that. By the way, my Army pension comes out of the defence budget, which is absurd.
We need to acknowledge these threats—I have not mentioned ISIS or terrorism—and the utility of a flexible Army. It will be more worrying if there is a further reduction in our forces. We will not be taken seriously by our allies in the United States and in NATO itself, nor by the rest of the world, including China and Russia, if we send the wrong message. Of course, we need cyber and space programmes; we need new technology such as unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones as we usually call them. But we also need people—boots on the ground and trained personnel able to defend our country and our interests.
My Lords, this SI has been prepared by the Ministry of Defence. The SI
“provides for the continuation in force of the Armed Forces Act 2006 … which would expire at the end of 11 May 2021”.
This instrument will continue in force until the end of 2021. As the Explanatory Memorandum says, its territorial application is worldwide. It
“applies to members of the armed forces wherever they are in the world and applies to civilians subject to Service discipline in certain areas outside the United Kingdom or on Service ships or aircraft. Civilians subject to Service discipline are … defined in Schedule 15”.
These groups are
“principally of persons who work or reside with the armed forces in certain areas outside the United Kingdom or are travelling on Service ships or aircraft.”
As it then says,
“the 2006 Act would cease to have effect one year from 12 May 2016 … but for the fact that Her Majesty has power to make Orders in Council, each extending the life of the 2006 Act for one year … The central effect of expiry of the 2006 Act would be to end the provisions which are necessary to maintain the armed forces as disciplined bodies. Crucially, the 2006 Act confers powers and sets out procedures to enforce the duty of members of the armed forces to obey lawful commands. They have no contracts of employment, and so no duties as employees. Without the 2006 Act, the powers and procedures under which the duty to obey lawful commands is enforced would no longer have effect. Commanding officers and the Court Martial would have no powers of punishment in respect of a failure to obey a lawful command or any other form of disciplinary or criminal misconduct. Members of the armed forces would still owe allegiance to Her Majesty, but the power of enforcement would be removed.”
The Act provides all the necessary powers for the commanders of the Armed Forces, which are among the UK’s most valuable assets. They defend our country during wartime and, in some cases, give their lives for the country. In return, the UK has a duty to ensure that when the soldiers retire or are killed, there are proper pensions for them and their families. Are the pensions and support structures in place to ensure that these individuals and their families are protected effectively?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the clear way in which she explained the purpose of today’s order to the House and for setting out so elegantly the extent of the work and service undertaken by today’s Armed Forces. I add to what other noble Lords have said by paying tribute again to our Armed Forces of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We owe such a debt of gratitude to the service men and women of our Armed Forces for their courage, professionalism and outstanding devotion to duty, which is unparalleled in the world. It must never be forgotten that the sacrifices of our Armed Forces, at home and abroad, enable us to carry on our daily lives, protected as far as possible from hostile action and secure in our democracy and our liberties.
No one epitomised more the best qualities of our veterans than the late Captain Sir Tom Moore, who will never be forgotten. I also pay tribute to all those organisations and charities which have done so much for veterans, through delivering services and helping to champion their cause. Each and every one of them, and the many volunteers involved, deserves our highest praise.
This order is one of the more significant parliamentary processes that we undertake each year, as it enables the Armed Forces to continue to exist—and to exist as disciplined bodies, subject to annual parliamentary renewal. The debate gives us the opportunity to discuss a number of issues with the Minister. I will raise first the Armed Forces covenant, which has been mentioned by other noble Lords. The covenant is so important, given that it represents the promise between our country and those who put on the uniform to serve it and protect us. It is our solemn responsibility to look after them while they are in service and afterwards.
I welcome the provisions in the Armed Forces Bill—it was debated in the other place on Monday—to strengthen the statutory underpinning of the Armed Forces covenant and to reinforce it in law. I am pleased that this legislation will apply to the whole United Kingdom. We must be vigilant in ensuring that veterans in all parts of the United Kingdom benefit equally and in full from the protections in that covenant. We have been campaigning for that for some considerable time. It was recognised in the New Decade, New Approach agreement and I am pleased at the progress that the legislation represents.
Sadly, as has been referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, there have been attempts to block and somewhat impede the implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland—with some even trying to deny that it applied there. This is in a country where, despite making up less than 3% of the population of the United Kingdom, our people contribute in much larger numbers proportionally than elsewhere to both the Regular Forces and the Reserve Forces. As will be recognised, veterans in Northern Ireland have particular difficulties and challenges, given that many of them live where they also carried out operational duties.
The Government could be more ambitious in looking at the Armed Forces covenant and as the Bill proceeds through Parliament. I ask them to go further than covering health, education and housing. I join the noble Lord, Lord Reid, in asking the Government to include other areas such as employment, pensions, criminal justice and social care, to name but a few.
The other issue I would like to raise is protection for members of the Armed Forces who served in Northern Ireland in Operation Banner but are not covered by the provisions of the legislation recently introduced in Parliament to protect against vexatious and other claims where there has already been an investigation. The repeated investigations of ex-service men and women, some of them many years after the events, are a really serious problem. It is excellent that legal protection is given to veterans who served overseas, but it is essential that those who served in Northern Ireland receive the same protection. I welcome commitments from the Government stating that
“Legislation will be coming in due course”,—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/21; col. 50.]
but given that such legislation is to originate from the Northern Ireland Office, can the Government give a firm commitment that it will not be held up by that department as a result of political manoeuvring? We really need action on this issue, which also affects members of all the security forces who served in Northern Ireland.
The passing of this order is fundamental to the protection of our country. I unreservedly support it and I am grateful for the opportunity that its annual discussion affords to raise issues of concern to our service men and women, and our veterans.
My Lords, this order is what remains of what used to be an annual Army Act to legalise our Armed Forces—an important relic to reinforce our repugnance of military rule by Cromwell. Indeed, my first speech on the Front Bench was on the Army Act and the estimates. Looking across the world, particularly at Myanmar, one can see that nothing has changed and the patterns are still the same. Today we are fortunate in that our Armed Forces not only protect us but have provided such an important role in their assistance to the civil power—namely, the National Health Service—in the pandemic.
I welcome the enshrinement of the military covenant in legislation, as my noble friend Lord Reid has done. It is also appropriate that Mr Kevan Jones MP reminded the other place that the starting point was
“in 2008 with the Command Paper under the last Labour Government”,
which advocated not only
“putting the covenant into law but giving it teeth”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/21; col. 56.]
I welcome the reduced version in the new proposal mandating the covenant, despite a lack of enforcement proposals, again referred to by my noble friend Lord Reid of Cardowan.
Today in my few minutes I wish to concentrate on Clauses 2 to 7 and Schedule 1, which deal with court martials. As a young, inexperienced and newly called barrister and subaltern I appeared in quite a few court martials in Germany in the course of my national service. Even in your Lordships’ House there cannot be many ex-national service men still around. Other than that, however, I took no professional or other interest in court martials. That was until the case of Sergeant Blackman, which aroused considerable publicity in 2017, following which I secured a short debate in your Lordships’ House. I suggested the need for a review of the system, and the MoD acted with unaccustomed speed—I suspect encouraged by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, who was then Defence Minister—to set up an inquiry under the former circuit judge Shaun Lyons. We are grateful to him for his report. Former Judge Advocate-General Blackett had expressed concern about the working of the court-martial system. As I understand the Bill, it is a great loss of opportunity to fully take on board the anxieties expressed at the time.
Clause 3 provides for the Lord Chief Justice to nominate a circuit judge to preside over court martials. I had thought it was the President of the Queen’s Bench Division who allocated judges, but I may be wrong. From time to time—at present, indeed—a High Court judge has been nominated to preside on serious cases. I welcome this provision as I have appeared from time to time before licensed circuit judges in murder cases. The important point is that such cases in the court-martial system are rare. There are about six or seven a year, and it is experience in handling such heavy cases that matters, hence the need for a judge.
Schedule 1 makes minor amendments to the personnel and numbers in a court martial. In the numbers set out there remains the possibility that, in a serious case such as murder, a verdict by a majority of one—3:2—could achieve a conviction. The numbers are not announced following a court martial. Since our Armed Forces are now very much reduced in numbers and cases can involve civilian dependants, the chasm between the system prevailing in our civil criminal system and the court martial remains. When I discussed the anomalies and differences with one of the highest judges in the land, it was suggested that in such cases we should consider moving to a system that provides for ordinary citizens: that is, justice by trial by jury. I regret that I did not pursue this more radical measure more fully.
New Zealand, I am told, and as I told the House then, has moved to a system where the verdict has to be unanimous. I am conscious of the decision of the Court Martial Appeal Court under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in the case of R v Twaite that the system is ECHR-compliant but, with respect to the court, a majority verdict as proposed needs very careful reconsideration. The proposals in Schedule 1 tinker with a system. A system that allows the finding of guilty of murder by a majority of 3:2 is not fit for the 21st century, particularly when the figures are not announced as they are in civil trials by jury in our country.
I welcome the statutory protocols in Clause 7 regarding the direction of service personnel and giving the DPP the final decision, but I hope that the supervision of the Attorney-General remains as it does for other court martials.
My Lords, it is very frequent that Ministers talk about wide-ranging debate when they are summing up. In winding up for the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, I indeed comment that this has been an extremely wide-ranging debate on one of the shortest statutory instruments that I have ever seen, but clearly one that is very important.
However, it appears that legislation linked to defence and the Armed Forces is a bit like buses, in that we have three pieces of legislation almost simultaneously: the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2021, the Armed Forces Bill 2021—currently in the other place—and the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. Inevitably, there is some overlap between those three pieces of legislation. While, like my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, I will focus primarily on the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2021 today, it is necessary to think about the other Bills—precisely because, while I, like other noble Lords and clearly the Liberal Democrat Benches as a whole, fully support this continuation order, it is vital that we have our Armed Forces. Given that they may not be maintained within the kingdom without the consent of Parliament, in line with the 1688 Bill of Rights, it is vital that this order goes through.
It is also vital that the Armed Forces are not just maintained legally, with the support of Parliament—although that is vital—but supported with money and the support that is needed for service personnel to enable them to fulfil their functions. The continuation order might be primarily about service discipline, but, as many noble Lords have pointed out this afternoon, there are issues around recruitment, retention and the size of our Armed Forces. In particular, while this order simply agrees that we should have Armed Forces, I have several questions that I would like the Minister to answer this afternoon, if possible; they are particularly associated with the size of our Armed Forces.
As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem pointed out, there is an essential question of a standing army, there are questions and concerns about shortages and various noble Lords have asked questions about the size of the budget. They have pointed out in particular that the size of the defence budget, in and of itself, is not the only issue that matters; what matters is ensuring that we are supporting our Armed Forces, not simply putting money into capabilities such as tanks. I note that the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, is not speaking today, but, if he were, he would probably be talking about ships.
However, we also need to consider the size of the Armed Forces. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, raised the issue brought up by the United States about the size of our Armed Forces, suggesting that 80,000 was too small. Could the Minister confirm whether it is indeed correct that the size of our Armed Forces is due to slip to 72,000, and what assessment the Ministry of Defence or Secretary of State has made of their size and whether this is appropriate for the United Kingdom, particularly at a time when the United Kingdom Government are talking about global Britain?
We have heard about the many very important roles of the Armed Forces, to which I pay tribute. Some of them have been domestic: one of them was at the 2012 Olympics, but they also supported the NHS in relation to vaccinations and other authorities in relation to flooding. Internationally, they have dealt with humanitarian questions, and they also deal with all those other defence issues that one expects the Armed Forces to be dealing with: humanitarian intervention, peacekeeping and military involvement, supporting NATO and the United Nations. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the size of the Armed Forces and our global commitments? Are they fit for purpose, or should we be looking for an expansion of our regular forces? As has been suggested, at a time of pandemic and rising unemployment, there may well be a pool from which to recruit people.
However, there is also a question of retention. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the facilities available to the Armed Forces? In particular, is service accommodation now fit for purpose? The National Audit Office suggests that it perhaps is not and that SLAM accommodation needs to be looked at; what assessment have the Government made of this?
Finally, there is a whole range of issues that the Liberal Democrat Benches and Members across your Lordships’ House will clearly wish to raise in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill and, in particular, the Armed Forces Bill—so these are just a few questions to flag up concerns that will come forward over the coming weeks and months.
As my noble friend Lord Reid of Cardowan and noble Lords have said, we are discussing this order a few days after a national newspaper leaked what it said was a Ministry of Defence report revealing that 32 out of 33 infantry battalions are seriously “short of battle-ready troops”. The chair of the Commons Defence Committee was reported as saying:
“Britain's role on the world stage is at stake and our relationship with the US.”
We need a proper defence strategy without further delay.
I also want to thank all the men and women of our Armed Forces, including, but not only, those deployed to standing commitments in Cyprus or the Falklands, those serving as part of our NATO defences in Estonia or the UN peacekeeping in Mali and those helping this country through the Covid crisis.
British forces are respected worldwide for their professionalism and for their values which we most admire: integrity, loyalty, discipline and service. Therefore, we welcome the order to extend the present Armed Forces Act 2006 from the end of May until the end of December, not only because expiry of that Act would end the provisions that are necessary to maintain the Armed Forces as disciplined bodies but also so that Parliament has the time to give the proper scrutiny to the new Armed Forces Bill, which has just had its Second Reading in the other place—and to have the time for cross-party work to improve the legislation. We support the Armed Forces Bill and stand firmly behind our Armed Forces. We recognise their ongoing efforts to make our country and the world safer.
The Bill presents a real opportunity to make meaningful improvements to the day-to-day lives of our Armed Forces personnel, veterans and families. However, the Government’s focus appears too narrow, and, as currently drafted, the Bill is a missed opportunity that fails to develop a future framework for our Armed Forces, veterans and their families—or to deliver on the laudable promises made in the Armed Forces covenant. We believe that the covenant represents a binding moral commitment between the Government and service communities, guaranteeing them and their families the respect and fair treatment that their service has earned. From substandard housing to veterans’ mental health and social care, the promises made in the covenant often do not match the reality experienced by our service communities. However, the Bill does little to tackle these issues head-on.
The Bill also looks at the service justice system, and we welcome the new service police complaints commissioner—but we want to improve the confidence in, and results in, cases of murder, manslaughter and rape and to solve the problem of reinvestigations.
With the extension of the Armed Forces Act 2006 under this order, I hope that the Government will use the time provided to work constructively and cross-party to get the best for our Armed Forces.
My Lords, we have had an excellent debate this afternoon; it has been both passionate and constructive, and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. What has shone through without exception is a shared desire to do the right thing by those who do right by us—and a shared determination to recognise our bravest citizens. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, that it is because they are our people that we will do the right thing by them. I also seek to reassure my noble friend Lord Robathan that, according to NATO criteria, we are the highest defence spender in Europe; these criteria are established and robust.
It is worth reminding noble Lords that the purpose of this debate is to provide for the continuation of the Armed Forces Act 2006 as it currently is, not as it would be if amended by the Armed Forces Bill, which, as has been noted, had its Second Reading in the other place on Monday night. This House will have a full opportunity to debate the provisions of that Bill when it comes to this House in due course. Having said that, the Bill has been introduced and I understand why noble Lords have found comment irresistible. I will therefore say a little this afternoon in response to some of the points raised, knowing that we will return in much greater detail to these topics later in the year.
I was pleased to hear the support for the Bill, though the acceptance from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, was just a little grudging, if I might say so. I hope that, as we proceed to a fuller debate later this year, we will be able to reassure him of the many positives in the Bill. It takes forward matters of considerable importance relating to the implementation of the service justice system review and the Armed Forces covenant. I note the areas in which noble Lords feel the Government could be taking a different approach in the Bill. I have listened to the comments on topics such as the covenant being too narrow in its scope and its legal duty not being strong enough and concerns raised over aspects of the service justice system. I will try to deal with these accordingly.
The noble Lord, Lord Reid, and other noble Lords argued that the scope of duty for the covenant is too narrow—that it should be broadened beyond housing, healthcare and education. We have chosen these remits carefully and, importantly, in consultation with the Armed Forces community, because we know that they will make the greatest improvements to family life. Significantly, the Bill contains provisions for us to expand this scope into other areas through secondary legislation at a later date. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Reid, and your Lordships, that the scope of this provision will be reviewed regularly. This is not the end of our legislative effort; it is the beginning.
The noble Lord, Lord Reid, and a number of other contributors, argued that the legal duty is not strong enough. They were concerned that creating a legal duty to “pay due regard” to the principles does not, in their estimation, give enough clout. There has been talk from the Opposition Benches in the other place of needing to set “measurable national standards”. Throughout this, our challenge has been to try to strike a balance. On the one hand, we wanted to ensure delivery against the covenant principles but, on the other, we wanted to avoid the sort of prescriptive approach that puts bureaucratic barriers in the way of practical delivery. I assure your Lordships that public bodies were consulted extensively. Our decision also reflects the diverse nature of public services across the United Kingdom, not least in the devolved nations, as a number of noble Lords referred to. The devolved nations have responsibility for these areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised the issue of awareness of implementing the covenant obligations, as did the noble Lord, Lord Dodds. These changes will make the impact of the covenant more local. That will possibly raise a desire to make more obvious just how that is benefiting Armed Forces personnel and veterans. I remind noble Lords that the Bill honours the promise to give the covenant the legal standing needed to deliver for everybody in the Armed Forces community, right across the whole United Kingdom.
I move on to the service justice system, about which a number of comments were made, not least by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. The Government have considered the reviews of His Honour Shaun Lyons and Professor Sir Jon Murphy. It is their recommendations that underpin the improvements to the service justice system that we are taking forward in the Bill. I am pleased that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, welcomes the broad thrust of the improvements, but I noticed his particular concerns and look forward to him pursuing these matters when we debate the Armed Forces Bill later in the year.
Noble Lords raised a range of issues in their contributions. I will try to deal with these as best I can. The noble Lords, Lord Reid, Lord Campbell, Lord Truscott and Lord Rosser, my noble friend Lord Robathan, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and other noble Lords all raised the size of the military. The integrated review, which is not yet published but is expected soon, will detail the forward shape of our whole defence capability as we look to a new age of threats. Any speculation about Army force structure at the moment is purely that—speculation. I reassure noble Lords that we are confident that we have the numbers and the capabilities to do the job. We have discharged our core obligations to protect and secure the nation against threat, despite the challenges of Covid. That has been entirely down to the professionalism, competence and commitment of our Armed Forces personnel.
I want to include the reservists in that. My noble friend Lord Lancaster helpfully outlined the extremely positive position in relation to the reservists. We hope the provisions of the Armed Forces Bill will be a further encouragement to them.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, raised a matter which is dear to his heart: a consolidation of Armed Forces legislation; a desire to see it all under one legislative umbrella. He was, perhaps, imputing to me a view which I have not yet formed. I want to look at this issue in considerable depth. The noble and gallant Lord has approached me on the matter, and I will respond to him on it, but I make clear to your Lordships that I have not formed any view on it at the moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised the important matter of training of our Armed Forces personnel. There were echoes of the overseas operations Bill when the noble Lord made that point. I can confirm that serious regard is given to training and we deliver all necessary training. It is important that all our service personnel, at all levels, fully understand the obligations placed on them by both UK law and applicable international law. I can confirm that the training is also reinforced ahead of deployment on operations. For example, civil servants deploying in key roles to operational theatres and in key operational policy roles in the MoD also receive training in the law of armed conflict. In addition, each commander deployed in a military operation will have a dedicated military lawyer available at all times to give them specific legal advice. I hope that reassures the noble Lord that we endeavour to service this important issue in the best possible way.
The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, raised the issue of pensions to dependants. I undertake to write to him separately on that matter.
In conclusion, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, that is the accepted lexicon of any wide-ranging and interesting debate, but that is just what this rather unusual continuation order debate has been. It is unusual because the debate is on continuing the current Armed Forces Act 2006 but, in doing so, we have an opportunity to see the Government’s proposals for the future of the 2006 Act. Today’s debate has made it clear to me that there will be an extremely interesting and lively debate on the Armed Forces Bill later in the year.
In the meantime, there is the much simpler task of continuing the current Armed Forces Bill. Everyone in this House agrees that we owe our men and women in the Armed Forces a tremendous debt of gratitude. We have seen them at their very best, particularly in the past year. The support of noble Lords for this draft order not only contributes to Parliament upholding the constitutional position—so eloquently described by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—that the Armed Forces may not be maintained without the consent of Parliament but it reflects the deep affection this House holds for our servicepeople through its support of the draft continuation order.
Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) (Claimants previously entitled to a severe disability premium) Amendment Regulations 2021
Motion to Regret
That this House regrets that the Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) (Claimants previously entitled to a severe disability premium) Amendment Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/4) will result in claimants in receipt of the Severe Disability Premium in legacy benefits moving on to Universal Credit without ensuring that all will be fully compensated for the loss of the Premium; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to extend to legacy benefits the same uplift given to Universal Credit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and to ensure that claimants are advised before moving from legacy benefits to Universal Credit that they could suffer financially as a consequence.
Relevant document: 42nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, I am pleased to move this Motion standing in my name. These regulations are the latest twist in a long-running saga that concerns the severe disability premium, or SDP, which provides support for the extra costs of care incurred by severely disabled people living alone without a carer. It is worth about £67 a week and is paid on various means-tested benefits.
The latest government figures I could find suggest that over 500,000 working-age households get SDP. But when the Government created universal credit to replace legacy benefits, they chose not to include an equivalent of the SDP. As a result, although some disabled people are better off, many of the severely disabled people getting this premium will be much worse off on universal credit. That is a wider pattern: some people are better off on universal credit than legacy benefits and some much worse off.
To deal with that, the Government pledged a system of transitional protection, so that, at the point of transfer, no one would lose out in cash terms. But they will apply this only during what they call mass migration, the point when the DWP closes down legacy benefit claims en masse and tells people they have to claim universal credit instead. If someone moves on to UC before that point, which is called natural migration, they get no transitional protection.
Unfortunately, many people have no choice. You cannot make new claims for legacy benefits, and if you are already getting them but your circumstances change—say you lose your job, have a baby or move house—you are forced on to universal credit. Two people getting the SDP found themselves in this position when they moved home. They were forced on to UC and were much worse off. They went to court and in 2018 the High Court ruled that this was unlawful discrimination. So the DWP created something called the SDP gateway to stop those getting the premium naturally migrating to universal credit and losing out. Those who had already crossed over were given compensation for the lost premium, although that was originally set arbitrarily low, so that was challenged in court again, and it is now based on the lost SDP.
These regulations remove that gateway and give some compensation to those who will then be moving over to universal credit. But it is not full compensation; it does not compensate for the loss of the enhanced disability premium, only the severe disability premium. Nothing is paid where the SDP is attached only to housing benefit. And it is a fixed sum, which is reduced when any part of your universal credit rises, even if that is only because your rent has gone up. So claimants will see the support they receive fall in real terms, year on year.
If someone moved on to universal credit during a managed migration, they would have transitional protection based on all their legacy benefits, not just the SDP. That managed migration process has been paused. Can the Minister tell us what the new target date is for completing it? Zacchaeus 2000 points out that Covid-19 has increased rates of redundancy and caused changes in working hours, increasing the number of people on legacy benefits experiencing a change in circumstances. More claims will therefore end up moving on to universal credit with no transitional protection or with just the transitional SDP element.
Some vulnerable people risk losing a lot of money. Marie Curie, in its excellent briefing, points out the impact on people with terminal illnesses or life-limiting conditions. It says that the loss of the two disability premiums could leave new claimants up to £84 a week worse off. Then there is the related issue of the £20 uplift to universal credit. That was not applied to legacy benefits, many recipients of which are disabled people or carers. This is incomprehensible, as well as unfair. Since there is meant to be a pandemic measure, many sick or disabled people have spent the last year shielding at home, with spiralling energy costs and lots of additional costs such as home deliveries, PPE and much more.
Astonishingly, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey, suggests that claimants should simply claim universal credit if they want the £20. This is terrible advice. Some people will be worse off on universal credit than they were on legacy benefits, even with that extra £20. Others, who would be better off on universal credit because of the £20 uplift, will be worse off if it is taken away. How will they know? It is really complicated. The DWP says that it cannot advise individual claimants, so why on earth is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions telling people to switch?
If someone applies for universal credit, there is no going back. Noble Lords may have seen cases of people in the news of people getting tax credits who then applied for universal credit and were rejected because they had savings; UC has a savings threshold, unlike tax credits. But then they were not allowed to go back to tax credits, so they got nothing. We surely cannot have that apply across all kinds of other categories of claimant.
What should be done? First, the Government should urgently address the flaws in their strategy for dealing with people in receipt of severe disability premium who are going to be forced on to universal credit. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee said:
“The DWP should introduce an equivalent to the Severe Disability Premium. This should be a self-care element for any disabled person who does not have someone assisting them and claiming the carer element of Universal Credit.”
Many charities agree. What is the Government’s response to this?
Secondly, the DWP should address the process of claimants moving from legacy benefits on to universal credit. We need an urgent update on managed migration. We need mass communication, and we need personalised advice for anyone thinking of moving so that they know the consequences before they make that jump.
Thirdly, the Government should extend the £20 uplift to legacy benefits. They should do the right thing and make that uplift permanent. The Economic Affairs Committee put the case simply:
“We believe that the increase shows the original rate was not adequate … The Government should commit to making the increase in the standard allowance permanent.”
That original rate is not adequate as a result of years of benefit cuts and freezes. The House of Commons Library figures show that, excluding Covid-related increases, most working-age benefits were between 9% and 17% lower last year than they would have been if the Government had simply uprated them by inflation since 2010. The OBR estimated that the 2015 Budget would cut over £9 billion from social security spending by the end of this financial year. No wonder that before that £20 uplift, unemployment support was at its lowest level in real terms since 1992.
We need action. Temporarily extending the uplift will simply temporarily extend the confusion and uncertainty. The Government should do the right thing, address the problem with SDP, extend the uplift to legacy benefits, make it permanent and announce it as soon as possible, so that people have certainty and can judge for themselves whether they will be better off on universal credit or legacy benefits. The case for taking action on this matter could not be clearer. I hope I do not have to press the Motion to a vote, because I hope the Government will realise what is at stake and do the right thing.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, has withdrawn, I call the next speaker: the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. This is a most difficult issue and I have every sympathy with my noble friend the Minister and the Government in their efforts to support those who have been affected by the pandemic and urgently need help with living.
I recognise that there are calls for the £20 uplift to be extended to all legacy benefits. However, my suggestion to the Government is that, unless there is the appetite and the funding to extend the £20 to everybody, it seems unwise to commit to a further 12 months of the uplift, as has been called for, given that we are hopeful—I certainly am—that the impact of the pandemic will be behind us to a large degree in 12 months, and we will be into a recovery within the next few months. I would certainly not support any calls for a major one-off lump sum payment to offset the loss of the £20 uplift. I support the Government’s move to add £20 to the existing benefit as a temporary measure in light of the pandemic and its dreadful impacts.
However, I also believe that, in the context of this particular discussion on the severe disability premium and the loss of the EDP as well, it would be worth the Government considering whether a self-care element might be added, as recommended by the Economic Affairs Committee. Also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, suggested, can my noble friend the Minister update the House on what is happening with managed migration? To what extent are we seeing success in the Government’s moves to help people back into work and ensure retraining —after all, this is the fundamental rationale for universal credit and the reorganisation of the benefits system? Those who are able to work and are helping people to get back into work are the ones we are trying most to assist in our social security system.
To what extent are we moving away from the extraordinarily complicated layers? Indeed, today’s debate and all the issues we are discussing highlight the extraordinary complexity of the regime, with a bit of benefit for this and a bit of benefit for that and one level of disability and another level of disability. The claimants themselves need financial advice to figure out what benefit they are better off on and what benefit they should be claiming. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is correct to identify this as a problem, but I hope that we can proceed with the aim of simplifying the benefits system through moving to one payment, with perhaps one or two additions, rather than one or two hundred additions, which can be the case over the entire benefits system.
I am unable to support the regret Motion moved by the noble Baroness. As I have said, I welcome the Government’s efforts—and, I know, those of my noble friend the Minister and the department—to really assist those who are struggling through the pandemic.
I support everything that my noble friend Lady Sherlock said in moving her regret Motion.
I have some experience of the grinding juggernaut of universal credit—a High Court reversal here, the occasional telling-off there by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, on which I served for a couple of years—with the Government’s policy being that nothing will stop this managed migration. I think that it should be stopped. Remember, universal credit was never universal in the first place. It did not cover most disability benefits, it did not fit the needs of the self-employed, and the minimum income floor is a particular burden during the pandemic.
Some of the structural problems are coming home to roost. Even now, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee had to remind the Government that they should include in their Explanatory Memorandum the fact that, because the gateway closed last month, people moving to UC may face an erosion of their benefits. Independent advice is vital and will not be readily available to those people who receive the severe disability premium.
These allowances are not a luxury; they help to cover the extra costs that disabled people face—particularly during the pandemic, with extra heating costs and increased food costs. Many of us can afford broadband and take it for granted that we can do our grocery shopping online, with a minimum spend of £40. The Disability Benefits Consortium’s report on disabled people on legacy benefits found that
“82% of disabled claimants have had to spend more money than they normally would during the pandemic”—
mainly on food shopping and utility bills. Charities and campaigning groups on poverty issues have called for the extension of the uplift to legacy and related benefits. The disabled, carers and those with a long-term illness are in the poorest 10% of the population. Quite simply, it is not good enough for the Minister in the Commons to say that this will take several months to implement.
The £20-a-week uplift is due to end in April 2021, unless the Chancellor decides to extend it. The poorest households would lose 10% of their budget. Policy in Practice says that stopping the uplift would mean that
“683,000 households, including 824,000 children, would no longer be able to afford to meet their essential needs”.
Citizens Advice has said that this
“would push those just about managing into debt.”
Even more worryingly, BASW—the British Association of Social Workers—suggests that
“low income is a driver of children being investigated as part of child protection concerns.”
Support targeted at the lower half of wealth distribution in the UK or the unemployed is two to three times more effective at increasing spending in the economy than a universal stimulus, as low-income households spend a higher proportion of their budget on essentials. A case study provided by the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, a small charity, outlined the experience of Lee, who was incorrectly moved on to universal credit despite being in receipt of the severe disability premium on a legacy benefit and the SDP gateway still being in place. She went into serious debt and rent arrears. She was moved back on to legacy benefits and she would not want to go back on to universal credit. The overworked DWP did not always acknowledge her inquiries, or looked only at the most recent correspondence rather than at her whole history.
Seriously unwell and disabled people such as Lee do not need the added stress of UC’s failing system, especially during a pandemic. The Government must look at this again.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy. Her outline of the structural problems of universal credit was excellent and her testimony of the suffering in our communities was powerful.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on her regret Motion and offer the Green group’s strong support for it. I also endorse all her asks in providing a basic, decent level of benefits.
Many noble Lords may have seen a photo that was shared widely on social media yesterday. It showed a queue for a food bank in the snow in Glasgow. People were so desperate to get the basics of life that they endured those conditions. It is very clear that our economic and welfare systems have utterly failed.
The Minister may be aware of the McKinsey & Co report that came out this week. It made an interesting international comparison and showed that countries with minimal welfare provision, such as the US and the UK, have had to pay out huge amounts more in the conditions of the pandemic. We are, of course, in an age of shock and can only expect more shocks. Not providing basic, decent benefits on a regular basis ends up costing a great deal indeed.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for making the case for a simpler benefits system. She highlighted the difficulties in what you might call the “old regime” of a mix of benefits. We also heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, about the incredible complexity that disabled people face with the severe disability premium, which we are addressing today. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, laid out very clearly the case for a universal basic income. I have one direct question for the Minister, to which I would really appreciate an answer: are the Government finally considering this obvious, simple, clear, fair solution that means that no one falls through the gaps?
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, referred to some personal accounts and experiences and I should like to do the same. I have an account from someone who suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent a year in hospital. It is posted on the North Staffordshire Green Party website—I will tweet out the link. This is a long story, but it is the kind of experience that many people with a severe disability premium payment would have gone through. This man received the disability living allowance in 2004, not after the original application but after being forced to go through an appeal process. The payment was awarded for life. A decade later, that was replaced by the personal independence payment and the man had to reapply. I will now quote a few of his own words because we should listen to these experts from experience. He said:
“We entered a small dimly lit room with a young male assessor. He told me he had worked in mental health for several years to which I replied—good, you’ll be able to understand my brain injury. I left the assessment extremely tired but rather dazed … It was only a few weeks later when the award letter arrived, I realised why I was feeling dazed—everything in the assessment conclusion letter was a blatant lie—I wasn’t bothered that I had been declined—I felt demoralised and degraded. I revealed to the assessor some of my most intimate moments. As I was reading the assessment I felt as though I had been contradicted with some of the information being made up. It was this moment I realised I had been interrogated not assessed. This sent my mental state of mind tumbling into an abyss of depression—you can appeal, I was told. How can you appeal blatant lies, I thought; and did not appeal.”
Many Members of your Lordships’ House will be well aware that recipients of the severe disability premium have been through experiences such as that, often again and again. Yet we are subjecting them to the level of complexity that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, outlined.
The payments exist because our society is discriminatory, as it does not exist in ways that meet peoples’ needs without their requiring the special extra payments because of their disability. As I pointed out at Second Reading of the Financial Services Bill, if we make a society that works for those who are vulnerable, we make a society that works well for everybody. All of us are only one accident, one medical emergency, one crisis away from needing payments like this. Knowing that those payments are there—reliably, certainly and sufficient—is vital to us all.
My Lords, I declare that I receive DLA. I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for tabling this Regret Motion and speaking so lucidly about the issues that we are concerned with.
The interaction of universal credit with the severe disability premium is not for the fainthearted, as noble Lords will understand. It is a fiendishly difficult subject. What is clear and absolutely shocking is that disabled people on the legacy benefits, including SDP, have received no £20-a-week uplift in response to the pandemic, unlike those on universal credit, as we heard. Unless this particular cohort of claimants gets good advice on whether to migrate to UC, they are likely to lose out over time, as we know that there is no SDP in universal credit. It is very much thanks to our committee, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, that the Explanatory Memorandum makes clear what is happening over time.
Some people would argue that it does not matter because of the disability benefits of PIP and DLA, which are regularly uprated. But we are talking about working-age severely disabled people who will have a great deal of expenditure in their lives, such as installing and regularly servicing appliances, paying for care, extra heating, transport, food and all kinds of things. Being disabled is extremely expensive and we are hearing from many people that they are really struggling. As for the jobs market, it was difficult for disabled people before the pandemic and will be even harder now, with so many people unemployed. People will therefore need all the help that they can get. The Regret Motion should be supported.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness and to hear from her first-hand experience.
The severe disability benefit, as we have heard, awarded to people with existing disability benefits such as ESA and PIP, is by definition for the most complex disabilities, including physical and learning disabilities, autism, mental health challenges and, as we have heard, for people who are terminally ill. The excellent Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, states that when moving to universal credit claimants should be,
“advised before moving from legacy benefits … that they could suffer financially”.
This is perhaps, in many cases, one of the groups who find it most difficult to obtain advice. For many, access to, or even ability to use, IT will be a challenge in itself when the benefit system is becoming almost exclusively an IT facility.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of this House examined the Explanatory Memorandum and discovered that it did not make clear that transitional payments would erode over time. The Government responded to that point and revised it to include further information at the request of the committee. However, if it takes a scrutiny committee of the House of Lords to identify that people are going to be worse off under a system, what hope is there for many people outside this House who do not have that expertise, knowledge or understanding? There is a responsibility on the Government to be absolutely transparent and make sure that before people make the move to universal credit, which, as has been said, is a one-way system—there is no going back, once people are in it—they do not erroneously put themselves at a financial disadvantage.
I know that my noble friend the Minister understands these things. She, of all people, with her experience of work before she came into the Lords, understands only too well how disadvantaged people live. I have a high regard and respect for that knowledge and I am glad that she is there to bring it to her department.
I mention one thing in passing and I hope that noble Lords will not think that it is too sexist. This debate has predominantly been contributed to by women. I sometimes wonder whether that is because it is women who take the responsibility in the family for the benefits of relatives and dependants. Maybe that is why women have a more instinctive understanding—I have no doubt that people will complain about this—of the real impact of these issues on day-to-day lives.
A lot of the disability groups have made their case about the financial impact this will have, including Disability Rights UK, among others. Disability Rights UK has made very strong statements, which I am sure the Government are aware of. But on the question of managed migration, my experience is that this group, who are the most severely disadvantaged because of the level of their disability, have been subject to all sorts of changes and disadvantages. But we have not had this spelt out in debate in either House.
My noble friend will know that last year, after 30 years of experience in Parliament of personally dealing with casework—I cannot imagine how many I have dealt with—I actually struggled to engage with the Government’s website to apply for ESA for a young woman in a very difficult situation with an advancing degenerative disease. In order to apply for ESA, the computer made me keep going to universal credit. This woman was married to a man in receipt of the support level of ESA, and the only way the computer would allow me to apply for even universal credit for her was if that man agreed to forfeit the right to his ESA. I know my noble friend has taken this up, and I hope she has made some progress with it. But this is what people are facing. They deserve a lot better than this.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly but vehemently in wholehearted support of my noble friend Lady Sherlock’s regret Motion.
I was privileged to be a member of the Economic Affairs Committee when it conducted its inquiry into universal credit. It began in January last year, before it became clear that Covid-19 would indeed spread from China and have such a devastating impact on British society and the economy, although our resulting report was published in July. It was therefore able to reflect and comment on the action taken by the Government in response to the pandemic crisis. The chronology is important because we set out to review the workings of universal credit quite independently of the pandemic and to make recommendations for times in the future which, even if they will be inescapably affected by the pandemic, will be more normal and comparable to circumstances before that crisis.
The specific issue of the severe disability premium, which this Motion is about, should be seen in the broader context of universal credit, its design and its agonising phased introduction over the past 10 years against the background of the Conservative-led Government’s premeditated reduction in welfare spending. Professor Jonathan Portes, who was, inter alia, chief economist at the DWP between 2002 and 2008, recently wrote:
“The overwhelming case against cutting Universal Credit: not the pandemic, but the extraordinary cuts to unemployment-related benefits over the last four decades.”
The majority of these cuts, which took benefits from 25% of average earnings in 1979 to under 15% in 2019, were implemented by Conservative Governments. However, disappointingly, I have to acknowledge that the Labour Government of 1997 to 2010 did not do anything to reverse that trend.
What is true broadly of the inadequacy of universal credit is even more so in relation to its failure for so many of those with disabilities. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculates that 31% of disabled people live in poverty, compared to around 20% of the population as a whole. Half of all those in poverty are disabled or live with a disabled person.
The Economic Affairs Committee was advised that the introduction of an equivalent to the severe disability premium would cost approximately £1 billion per annum. If 10 Downing Street can employ three times as many official photographers as the White House, surely it would agree that the sum of £1 billion to alleviate the poverty suffered by 50% of all disabled people would represent extraordinary value for money. Can the Minister give us the comfort that this will be addressed, allowing my noble friend to withdraw her Motion? In the absence of that comfort, I would have no hesitation in supporting my noble friend’s Motion if she chooses to press it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on her regret Motion and particularly on its content. I support that Motion because I am of the view that these new measures will result in claimants who are in receipt of the severe disability premium on legacy benefits moving on to universal credit without ensuring that they will all be fully compensated for the loss of the premium. That is the fear of many of the disabled organisations, as well as of Marie Curie, which has supplied many of us with a briefing paper on this particular issue.
When universal credit was introduced, I was a Member in the other place and opposed it at that particular stage. I saw and viewed it as a benefit measure that would heap further misery on people and push individuals towards food banks. With the pandemic, that has become a greater reality, and permanent financial measures are now required to help people who are increasingly in financial need.
As other noble Lords have referred to, it is worthy of note that the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee drew attention to the erosion rules, stating that:
“The Explanatory Memorandum did not make clear that these transitional payments will erode over time”.
I note that the Government revised those to include further information at the request of that committee. In addition, this committee noted the widening
“eligibility to the transitional SDP element to both ex-partners after a couple receiving SDP separate”,
and observed that the Department for Work and Pensions had estimated
“that this eligibility change will benefit a few hundred claimants overall.”
It is worthy of note that Disability Rights UK stated that, from October 2020, these transitional payments were no longer ring-fenced and separate from other universal credit elements. Under the new rules they were classed as a “transitional element” only. In such circumstances, a claimant will not, in fact, receive an increase. Disability Rights UK has stated that the new regulations will mean that,
“after transitional help is eroded after time, UC for disabled people will be significantly less generous than ESA and the other legacy benefits it has replaced.”
Marie Curie, which provides such strong support for cancer sufferers, believes that everyone nearing the end of their life should have the financial support they need for a decent quality of life. No one should spend the end of their life facing poverty or material deprivation. Marie Curie has particular concerns regarding the move to universal credit for people with terminal illness who live alone without a carer, and the impact that the loss of severe disability premium will have on that group. In that regard, will the Minister provide assurance that the disability Green Paper planned for publication this spring will review the financial support available to disabled people living alone and without a carer to look after them? What discussions have the Government had with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that any new claimants for universal credit who would have been entitled to SDP under the legacy benefits scheme are able to afford all the care and support they need and are not left more socially isolated by the abolition of this component?