House of Lords
Monday 22 February 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.
Retirements of Members
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally.
I should like to notify the House of the retirements, with effect from 12 February, of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, and, with effect from 19 February, of the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, pursuant to Section 1 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. On behalf of the House, I should like to thank the noble Lord and noble Baroness for their very much-valued service to this House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Education: Supply Teachers
[Inaudible]—perform a valuable role and make an important contribution to the running of schools by covering temporary staff absences. The department does not hold data on the proportion of teaching posts provided by supply teacher agencies. School leaders have autonomy over workforce planning, including how they manage absences. The department has provided guidance to schools on ways to manage absences, including the use of supply staff.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Teaching is becoming part of the gig economy. Head teachers and school governors faced with limited budgets are unwilling to employ new teachers on a permanent basis. By recruiting teachers from agencies, they can avoid paying pension contributions and sickness benefits and they can more easily dismiss the teachers when faced with financial difficulties. The agencies typically take fees of at least £100 per week from teachers’ pay. These circumstances are making teaching an unattractive career choice and threaten to undermine the standards of teaching. What, if anything, are the Government doing to address them?
My Lords, the Government are investing £2.6 billion in school budgets this year. In relation to supply teachers, the Government have entered into an arrangement, involving the Crown Commercial Service, to help schools to use teacher agencies and to make the fees transparent. It is clear that any teacher from an agency regulated by BEIS who is employed for 12 weeks becomes a permanent member of staff with all the entitlements that that gives them.
My Lords, I am grateful that my noble friend acknowledges the role that the flexible workforce has played during the pandemic, but I echo the request from the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, that we set out to make sure that these people are well treated, that their rights are protected and that, in offering an efficient and value-for-money service, we build for them a good career structure.
My Lords, indeed, this is a regulated sector. Employers—namely, schools—and agency workers make use of this arrangement, and many teaching staff who are coming to the end of their career and who want to work in this flexible way take advantage of it. It is an advantage to the agency staff that they can choose to work one day or one week out of three and, as I said, it is particularly attractive to those ending their career, but of course there are protections to balance the advantages for the employee and those for the employer.
My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware of what Matt Hancock said yesterday about vaccinating teachers. If the Government reconsider, will they ensure that supply teachers are not overlooked? Moving around, they are in a particularly vulnerable position, which is one very good reason why teachers should be vaccinated before any full return.
My Lords, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation asked for a cross-governmental response on occupational vaccination and the department responded to that. I can assure the noble Earl that that was for the entire education workforce and that representation included all people, temporary and permanent, including those in early years.
My Lords, the school workforce census for the 2016 cohort shows that more than a quarter of teachers left teaching in the early years of their career. The loss of one in four teachers within three years speaks volumes about the difficulty and problems involved in retaining teachers. What plans do the Government have to address this workforce recruitment problem—looking at workload, among other things—to ensure that we have enough teachers to fill all the posts in schools on a permanent basis rather than relying on supply teachers, who already have an important role to play providing short-term cover?
The noble Baroness is correct that we want to retain the talented teachers whom we recruit each year. We are delighted that there has been an increase in recruitment this year of 23%. The early career framework should address the issues that she outlined: a one-year initial teacher training followed by two years of professional development support. That begins in September this year. Schools will be required to deliver that to put teaching on a par with the professional development that is offered by professions such as law and medicine. It will enable new teachers to have mentoring and time out of the classroom and to be introduced in a gradual way and supported into the workforce.
My Lords, the substantial increase in teacher workload means that many schools have to have recourse to supply teachers. Unlike the old local authority system, under which I had some of my most taxing supply teaching experiences, private supply agencies are creaming off teachers and scarce school funds. What plans do the Government have to rectify this, to ensure better pay and conditions for supply teachers while making sure that schools retain money for essential use?
My Lords, we trust school leaders to make workforce arrangements. Some schools, particularly multi-academy trusts, choose to employ supply teachers and some local authorities still run a pool supply service. As I have outlined, the agency supply deal means that there is transparency of fees and the arrangements are clear to schools, particularly when a teacher goes from a 12-week period of being temporary to being entitled to be permanent. So there is transparency—113 agencies have signed up to this deal, which we have made available to schools to help them to buy well and ensure the necessary transparency.
My Lords, the DfE has issued advice to schools not to lay off supply staff and to ensure that safety arrangements allow them to continue to be employed where needed. This has not prevented some schools from dispensing with supply teachers, placing additional pressure on permanent staff to cover for absent colleagues. The DfE advice is aimed equally at schools that engage staff directly and those that engage via agencies. The principle is the same—they should continue to employ and continue to pay—but there is no means of enforcement. Will the DfE now re-emphasise its advice to schools not to lay off supply staff?
The noble Lord is correct that the school budgets that have been paid regardless of the opening or closing of schools mean that those supply staff who are direct employees should continue to be employed during this period. However, for those who are employed by agencies, the guidance is for schools to try to continue to use those supply teachers, but of course the employer is the agency. If those supply teachers are not used, there is the possibility of furlough, but that is obviously a decision for the employers. We have made a wide range of support available for agency supply teachers, but the arrangements obviously depend on whether they are a direct employee of the school or from an agency. The guidance helps schools to treat their workforce fairly.
My Lords, certain areas of the country have shortages of teachers, particularly in some subjects. If those shortages relate to maths, chemistry, physics or computing, substantial bursaries of £24,000 are available to meet that shortfall. We are aware of population movement due to the pandemic and I assure the noble Lord that we are working as quickly as we can to see where this has taken place to ensure adequate school places.
My Lords, given the finding of the Migration Advisory Committee that modern foreign language teaching is a shortage occupation, will the Government commission research and data collection to show whether there is a disproportionate recourse to supply teachers for MFL, what level of difficulty is experienced by agencies in providing them and what impact this has on the take-up of teaching and learning languages?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. A shortage has been identified in modern foreign languages, but we are seeking to address it by recruiting more permanent modern foreign language teachers. There are 1,687 new modern foreign language teachers in the new cohort. A bursary of £10,000 is available in shortage areas, as well as other arrangements. We have identified 25 local authority areas where modern foreign language teachers can reclaim student loan repayments as part of a way of encouraging them to work in those areas.
My Lords, given their commitment to a recovery programme to try to reduce the number of children who may never catch up following the school closures, will the Government ensure that supply teachers are available to contribute, given the pressures that there will be on permanent teaching staff? Will the Minister tell the House whether the necessary online training will be provided for supply teachers taking part in this programme and how such training might be resourced?
My Lords, the guidance to schools helps them in this time of fluctuating staff absences to address their workforce issues. In particular, it draws attention to the use of supply teachers. Many resources are available, including teacher resources on the Oak National Academy, the remote platform with video lessons for all teaching staff. We are encouraging school leaders to make use of agency staff as and when they are needed to ensure the appropriate level of workforce in their schools.
Questions for Written Answers
My Lords, Ministers take their obligations to Parliament seriously. In the past 12 months, the Government have answered more Questions for Written Answer than in any equivalent period going back to at least 2015. Since the onset of the pandemic, some departments—not least the Department of Health and Social Care—have quite understandably been asked significantly more Written Questions than usual. All departments are working hard to answer Written Questions as quickly as possible.
My Lords, Written Questions should be a critical tool for us, but responses, when they eventually arrive—one of mine took four months— just give information that is available elsewhere and do not answer the questions. Peers get just 30 seconds to ask an Oral Question and do not have the right of reply even when Ministers give incorrect information. This is no way to hold the Government to account. Does the Minister agree that this situation is just not fit for purpose and needs radical reform?
My Lords, it is clearly far from ideal that some Members of this House, including the noble Baroness, have waited as long as they have for Written Answers. In ordinary circumstances, it would be completely unacceptable. I am sorry that it has happened. All departments have been under pressure during the Covid emergency; even so, I can tell the House that in January this year 84% of Written Questions from your Lordships were answered on time. It is perhaps worth my saying that it is open to any noble Lord who is unsatisfied with an Answer they receive to ask a follow-up Question.
My Lords, I thank the Minister, but this is not just an isolated complaint; it has become more of an established pattern that is not confined to Written Questions, important though they are. Select Committee reports are now routinely overdue. I am afraid it cannot all be blamed on Covid-19; complaints about delays in Questions predate it, as do the consistent overruns in responses to Select Committee reports, from as far back as the 2015-17 Session. This is now a systemic problem. Will the Minister institute a thorough review into this matter and report back to your Lordships’ House?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and shall certainly take his comments on board and transmit them to members of my Front Bench and the usual channels. I am aware that there is concern about the matters he raised, which run more widely than simply Questions for Written Answer.
My Lords, a timely answer can be a strong enhancer of government policy. Will the Government further commit to using Written Answers as one of the important messages to counter any myths that anti-Covid vaccinations are dangerous to health, especially since these myths exist in certain sections of the BAME communities?
The noble Lord raises a very important point. I can tell him that Ministers use a number of vehicles to dispel myths about the Covid emergency and the vaccination programme in particular. I thank him for his question, which I am sure will resonate with colleagues in the Department of Health and more widely.
My Lords, there are a number of Ministers and former Ministers in this House. We all know how seriously they and their officials took and take the prompt and thorough answering of Written Questions. Surely, delays would have taken place only if there were more pressing matters at hand, and we have had to deal with the pandemic. While perhaps upbraiding them on their tardiness, should we not also recognise the service that our Ministers and officials have given during this time and the outstanding job they have been doing?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. It is worth noting that, in the Session to date, Ministers for the Department of Health and Social Care—principally my noble friend Lord Bethell—have answered 100 Oral Questions and 22 Private Notice Questions, as well as handling more than 40 Statements. In this House, we have also debated 56 sets of health protection regulations. It is not just through Written Answers that the DHSC has been accountable to this House.
I received a written response on 4 February, within the time limit, saying that
“The Department for Work and Pensions plans to respond shortly on this issue,”
which felt like a fob-off. Since then, nothing. What is the Government’s interpretation of the word “shortly”?
My Lords, we have debated this matter a number of times in this Chamber. Clearly, the noble Lord is entitled to expect a substantive answer within the space of a few days of the Answer he received. I shall follow up the matter he has raised but, as I said earlier, Ministers take their obligations to Parliament very seriously. My noble friend the Leader of the House regularly speaks to members of the Government Front Bench about the importance of timely responses to Written Questions, and her office actively chases late Answers.
What has the DHSC done to expand the number of people in its parliamentary branch to deal with the large increase in Questions tabled for Written Answer? I must admit, I put down a Written Question quite recently which was promptly answered, very impressively, by my noble friend Lord Wolfson.
My Lords, the Department of Health and Social Care has done so: the parliamentary team has expanded from nine civil servants to 17 and its ministerial correspondence team has more than doubled in size to 111 members of staff. The effort has been huge. I am happy to report that it is making a difference. Four or five months ago, the average turnaround time for a Question in the department was 23 days; it is now seven days.
My Lords, this situation goes back a long while; I understand that Mr Speaker has also expressed concern. While agreeing that timeliness is important—there is little point in belabouring that it took one year to answer a Question of mine—meaningful content would also be helpful. Does the Deputy Leader concur that it might be preferable if officials presented for ministerial sign-off the answer to a Question, rather than seemingly avoiding doing so? An example was the Question “Which francophone countries has the Trade Minister responsible visited to extol the undeniable virtues of British goods and services?”, to which the Answer was “Our Minister has visited Moscow, amongst other destinations”.
My Lords, I am sure the noble Viscount’s question will be noted in the relevant department. I endorse his general point; your Lordships’ House has resolved that:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers should give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”
and that they should be “as open as possible” in answering questions.
My Lords, the noble Earl has been clear that he agrees it is fundamental to our democracy that all government Ministers be accountable to Parliament, which is the reason for these concerns. I put it to him that the noble Lord, Lord Frost, has been appointed to the Cabinet but is currently on leave of absence from this House and that three months’ notice is needed to return. The noble Earl will know that I have raised previously how helpful it would be for your Lordships’ House to hear from the noble Lord directly, and I have been disappointed that he was not here to do so. When will he return to the House? Can arrangements be made for him, at the very least, to answer Written Questions? Given the backlogs we have heard about, perhaps an extra pair of hands would be very welcome.
My Lords, on 25 September last year I tabled a Question concerning deaths from Covid-19 in care homes. It was answered 131 days later, on 2 February. It revealed that in one six-week period some 11,155 elderly patients died, the equivalent of a small town such as Wetherby in Yorkshire. Was there a delay because the Government were not compiling statistics for care home deaths at the time, or was it a policy decision to delay publication of such a devastating policy failure? What assurance can the noble Earl give on ensuring rapid publication of data in future?
My Lords, I have asked the Department of Health and Social Care specifically about very long-delayed Answers, which I agree are deeply regrettable. The number is coming down; I understand that there are only a handful. Often the reason for such a delay is either the practical difficulty of gathering data or the rapidity with which the policy environment is moving, precluding an accurate answer being formulated.
Political Parties: Expenditure Limits
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Ministerial Statement by Lord True on 3 December 2020 (HLWS610), what representations they have received in support of their plans to increase the permitted expenditure limits for political parties at general elections; and what will be the uprating in line with inflation for national spending limits.
My Lords, the Government engaged with political parties on spending limits last year. A range of views were received and, following that engagement, we uprated candidate spending limits at local elections in England. We have committed to reviewing candidate and party spending limits at reserved polls this year with a view to uprating them in line with inflation. We will not comment on specific figures until after this planned review has been carried out.
The Minister knows that this Question does not relate to candidate spending or to local election spending. It relates specifically to national election spending. Perhaps I can help him. The figure for inflation since 2000 is approximately 69%. The figures published by the Electoral Commission show that increasing national party expenditure limits would benefit only the Conservative Party across Great Britain. Taking these together with other proposals under consideration, but not widely known, to allow national party spending to be targeted more easily at marginal constituencies, are the Government not now ending any concept of the level playing field in elections?
No, my Lords. I am not certain whether the noble Lord speaks for his party in his Question or in the rather intemperate letter that he sent to the Minister for the Constitution on this matter. Spending limits have been unchanged for national elections since 2000. Failing to update them is actually changing policy by steadily reducing spending limits in real terms.
My Lords, given that the friend and family recipients of Covid crony contracts have already poured more than £8 million into Conservative Party coffers, does the Minister acknowledge that this huge increase in permissive spending will encourage more millionaires to think that they can buy government favours, including nomination to this House?
No, my Lords. I strongly disagree; the noble Lord should think carefully before spreading such charges. If one looks at the record of donations that the Liberal Democrats have received, including those from convicted criminals, it is clear that charges of that kind should not be cast in that manner. The Government are reviewing the matter; local election limits were put up by the coalition Government, in which Liberal Democrats served, in 2014.
My Lords, as a party treasurer, I know that in 2000 the cost of a second-class stamp was 19p and it is now 66p. Therefore, does the Minister agree that the rules need to reflect reality? Given that all parties were fined after the 2015 election, there is clearly a need to simplify the rules. Perhaps he might point out to the Liberal Democrats that election spending is not necessarily the only issue: late filing of accounts six months after the 2019 election was also reprehensible.
My Lords, I agree, but I would not want to give the House the impression that the Government do not think that there are matters that need to be addressed and considered. Notional expenditure is obviously one of them. I am grateful for the support that we received from the Labour Party on examining the rules on notional expenditure.
My Lords, as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important for all political parties to look to new priorities for recovery and for meeting the new imperatives of sustainable development. Does the Minister agree that any increase in political funding limits should not unduly disadvantage smaller parties committed to new and necessary forward thinking?
My Lords, have the Government considered introducing a mechanism to allow for the uprating of local and national spending limits for elections and donation-reporting thresholds at arm’s length from Ministers, which would provide protection for the Government and reassurance to others?
My Lords, we think it important to engage with the political parties, and we do so. Obviously, the reporting of donations has to be and is transparent; I strongly agree with the noble Lord on that. That is the situation that obtains presently. So far as his broader question is concerned, I reiterate that cross-party discussion of these matters is important and we appreciate the input of the Labour Party on them.
My Lords, why is £12,000 per constituency with an average of 70,000 electors not sufficient? Why is more money needed? What is it going to be spent on—or is it just that inflation has reached such levels under this Conservative Government that money is absolutely essential?
My Lords, in our judgment, it cannot be right that the limits for parliamentary by-elections have not been updated in more than 20 years. By updating for inflation, as is currently under consideration, the limits would remain in line with the original intent of Parliament in 2000 when they were introduced.
My Lords, this Question reminds me of my time as a political organiser in the 1980s. Of course, campaigning has changed a lot over the last decade or so: President Obama was one of the first politicians to use social media extensively to get elected in 2008. The use of social media, including Facebook, bots, online ads and political consultancies such as the defunct Cambridge Analytica, which accessed 87 million Facebook users, is currently unregulated. How do the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government intend to include social media use and abuse in election spending in the future?
My Lords, the noble Lord touches on an important point in relation to digital campaigning. We have said that we will introduce a digital imprints regime and we published a consultation on the proposed regime in August 2020 that closed in November. We are taking forward a programme of work on electoral integrity that will ensure that it is fit for the modern age. It will address some of the issues to which he referred.
My Lords, is it not time to end the outdated distinction between borough and county constituencies? The latter attract a 50% premium for expenditure purposes per elector. In the age of modern campaigning, when people no longer walk the streets as much as use social media, should we not apply a single formula across every constituency in the United Kingdom?
That is an interesting suggestion. As a former leader of a London borough, I am not sure where I should go in responding to it. It is certainly true that modes of campaigning are changing and may well continue to change. On my noble friend’s specific point, I will take it on advice and refer it to the Minister for the Constitution.
Apologies, my Lords—I will try again. In recent general elections, the wealthiest and largest political parties have used their very generous national party spending limits—in 2019, it was close to £19 million—to cover a variety of non-national costs, including targeting a lot of individual constituencies with generic leaflets, billboards, et cetera. Independent candidates and smaller rising parties do not have this additional spending option. Will the Government be open to consider rebalancing the two types of spending limit in the interests of fairness as well as to prevent swing seats being barraged with messaging? Will they put far tighter limits on individual contributions to political fundraising, so that we do not all get the politics a few people pay for directed towards a small percentage of the population?
My Lords, I have not noticed the Green Party fail to target its efforts on specific constituencies, but the noble Baroness may be able to advise me otherwise. I do not think it would be sensible practice to seek to reduce donations to levels that might be achieved by the least popular parties in the country. The truth is that many individuals—whether trade unionists or others—contribute a great deal of money to the larger parties, and I think their contributions should be welcomed and esteemed.
My Lords, food crime is of rising importance to the public, our trade, our farmers and our climate. That is why the Food Standards Agency constituted the National Food Crime Unit in 2014; why the National Food Crime Unit published its assessment in September; and why Ministers have a dialogue with the NFCU, industry and the police about increasing its powers.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the National Food Crime Unit is operating against organised crime with its hands tied? Investigations are being hampered. Does the Minister agree that investigation powers should be strengthened to include powers to collect the necessary evidence to a higher standard? In other words, will the Government agree that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act powers should be granted to the National Food Crime Unit? The National Police Chiefs’ Council agrees to this to remove the burden from local police forces, which actually agree that food crime is not a high priority.
The noble Lord entirely has a point. I completely agree with him that the National Food Crime Unit has a formidable task ahead of it and that its investigatory powers could be enhanced and its impact improved. That is the view of the Government, industry and the police, and that is why we are committed to the dialogue, first suggested by the Kenworthy review, on the enhancement to which the noble Lord refers.
One of the food crimes I am told is increasing is that of stealing market-ready lambs. The people stealing them do not just load them on to a trailer and take them away—they butcher them in the fields and leave the debris, guts, blood and heads. I wonder whether the police have enough powers to deal with that particular crime, which is increasing.
The noble Baroness is entirely right: this is a very distressing crime. I was pleased to note the convictions and custodial sentences in March last year under Operation Stock, led by Northamptonshire Police, of three men for a string of such offences in the Midlands. The NFCU remains alert to the entry of meat from these offences into the food chain and works with policing rural crime networks to actively counter this practice.
My Lords, the better the NFCU does, the more cases will be reported to it. Could my noble friend tell me what the budget for the NFCU will be over the next three years? Could he also confirm, as the opportunity for reporting to the NFCU improves, whether there is enough anonymity for people, particularly those within the food business, to be able to make complaints without exposing themselves to retribution by criminal gangs?
My Lords, the NFCU’s head count is just over 80 staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and its budget is £5.7 million. The NFCU has an anonymous reporting route available via the phone and the FSA website, and it welcomes contact from public-spirited people within the industry on wrongdoing. The unit also encourages engagement with industry through more overt routes, and I particularly thank the Food Industry Intelligence Network, whose members share over 50,000 anonymised authenticity sampling results with the unit each year.
My Lords, in the 1970s I wrote a book based on a survey on the consequences of benefit withdrawal and found that, typically, claimants were driven to crime. Have Her Majesty’s Government undertaken any recent research into the consequences of the very low universal credit rates, the sanctions regime and the deductions taken from benefits to repay loans early on in the claim? If not, would the Minister be good enough to ask the DWP to undertake such research into the crime effects—if you like—of the benefits system?
My Lords, I bow to the noble Baroness’s great expertise on the correlation between poverty and crime. But that makes no excuse for the kind of crimes we are talking about here. Many are either brutal—as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to—or crimes of fraud, for which there is no excuse.
My Lords, I am encouraged by the Minister’s response today, and I am sure that many Members of the House will wish him well in persuading his colleagues to give more power to the NFCU. As he does so, will he ensure that the new system is integrated completely with the more established direct farm-related food regulations and crimes?
My Lords, the NFCU has done an enormous amount in working with stakeholders. Although it is a relatively small unit, with just 80 individuals, it works extremely closely with trading standards officers in local authorities and with policing authorities up and down the country. It leverages its expertise, and we hope to be able to augment that expertise with investigatory powers so that it can relieve police forces from some of the application of justice in this area.
My Lords, a steady supply of nutritious food is essential, not only for those recovering from Covid but for those who are struggling due to losing their job or having been furloughed. Queues at food banks are extensive. Food crime is very serious, so can the Minister provide assurance that it will not affect the supply of food to those who are most in need?
My Lords, the focus of the unit tends to be on either food that is unfit for human consumption, such as in the horsemeat scandal of 2013, which the noble Baroness will remember, or on the passing off of low-quality food with a higher-quality label. It is not involved in addressing the theft of food. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that getting good-quality food to all the population is a priority, and that is one of the Government’s priorities.
My Lords, I applaud the work of the National Food Crime Unit. The main function of the Food Standards Agency is food safety and surveillance. We are currently in the midst of a salmonella outbreak through the import of chicken nuggets from Poland. Does my noble friend share my concern that this raises serious issues about the food safety and surveillance system and why this outbreak was perhaps not detected during the import of this meat into the UK?
My Lords, I am across the recent outbreak of chicken nugget salmonella poisoning across the UK. However, I point to the work of the European distribution fraud unit, which is very much focused on this kind of cross-border food crime. I will take back to the department the noble Baroness’s recommendation and will write to her if there is any update that I can provide her with.
I will be very quick because I am very keen that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is able to get in on this Question. Can the Minister commit to briefing parliamentary counsel to advise and bring forward these changes, and when can that happen? We on these Benches would welcome this commitment and would give appropriate support to the resulting legislative process.
My Lords, detecting food crime often depends on trading standards officers and public analysts. Does the Minister consider that the current number of trading standards officers and public analysts is adequate to give the public confidence that food crime is being detected in a timely and comprehensive way? Could he also tell us what progress has been made on detecting honey fraud? It is estimated that about 15% of honey on sale in Europe is adulterated, and it is now over a year since Defra held a seminar on detection methods.
The noble Lord undoubtedly knows that, since January 2021, the FSA has been running a 12-month pilot of the new model of working with local authorities on trading standards in order to improve the work between the FSA and trading standards to address any gaps there may be in that collaboration. On the noble Lord’s question about honey fraud, I completely endorse his shock and outrage that the honey that we buy in the supermarket may be adulterated. It is sometimes said that there is 10 times the amount of manuka honey on sale than could ever be possibly made by the bees of New Zealand. There are challenges on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy allocations, as the noble Lord undoubtedly knows. We are working extremely hard with both Defra and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist to put pressure on international authorities to align the data needed in order to investigate honey more closely.
Covid-19: Surplus Vaccine Doses
Private Notice Question
My Lords, the United Kingdom has committed to equitable access to safe and effective vaccines through multilateral collaboration. COVAX is the best way to deliver this. By pooling global resources, it enables the development, purchase and distribution of vaccines. We will be able to offer vaccines to COVAX only when we are certain that we have doses surplus to the needs of the UK population. That will be a decision for the Health Secretary.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that update. The Prime Minister rightly got credit after his announcement at the G7 meeting that the UK would donate its surplus vaccines. We know that one of the main issues is supply, but of course it is also cost. I appreciate the Government’s generous funding to COVAX, Gavi and other organisations, but I have just one question for the Minister. Can he confirm that the cost of the surplus doses for low-income countries will be met by the UK and that we are not just transferring the ability to buy the vaccine to COVAX?
My Lords, the details of how and when the vaccines will be shared are still being confirmed, but there are further discussions to be had on the point my noble friend raises with COVAX and vaccine manufacturers. She will be aware that we are contributing £548 million for global equitable access through the COVAX AMC. That remains the primary area of UK support.
My Lords, given the Government’s plan to reduce overseas development assistance by £4 billion—two-sevenths of the budget—there is a real worry that the Government might allow access to the vaccine without actually making any contribution to help developing countries provide it. For example, Malawi is already suffering from an education crisis and an economic crisis as a result of the lockdowns and the virus. Surely we should be helping such countries to deliver that vaccine if it becomes available and making sure that they can afford it, not just aiming for it and hoping for it but actually delivering it.
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that that is exactly the objective of the COVAX AMC commitment, and it is why the UK Government have led on it. Not only have we led on it but the noble Lord will have seen the Prime Minister’s statement which led to other countries also committing to it. This is aimed at the 92 most vulnerable countries and will help to vaccinate more than 1.3 billion people.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that significant ODA funding to Oxford which initially paid for the Ebola vaccine gave us a head start in the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine? Will the Government reconsider their short-sighted policy of cutting ODA funding?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, the Government have made their position clear. It was a difficult decision, but a necessary one. Nevertheless, it still guarantees £10 billion of support this year. On support to Oxford University, our commitment to UK science has been a major contribution to being where we are on the global stage when it comes to vaccine distribution and research.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on this initiative and on their positive support for COVAX. I note that other countries are making their own unilateral offers. Will the Government, with their influence as president of the G7, take two further initiatives? Will they seek a commitment from G7 countries, and others if possible, to offer a vaccination to all vulnerable people and health and care workers in those 92 countries by a target date of, say, July 2022? Will they seek an agreement to waive parts of the TRIPS agreement on intellectual property so that there are no barriers restricting access to Covid-19 medicines, tools, devices and vaccines?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, Oxford and AstraZeneca have worked very closely on intellectual property. Indeed, close collaboration with the Serum Institute of India has allowed it to produce exactly the same vaccine in India. On his earlier point about COVAX and other countries, he will have noted that UK leadership—we used the first G7 summit led by the Prime Minister—resulted in major contributions to COVAX, not least $4 billion from the United States as well as from the European Commission and Germany.
We are a charitable and generous country, but we can do more than just hand over our spare vaccines to save lives in the developing world. Perhaps the reduction, which has been mentioned, from 0.7% to 0.5% should be put on hold, with that £4 billion used in 2021 to buy vaccines to save lives in low-income countries. Can the Minister confirm whether the 0.2% reduction began in January or will begin in April at the start of the financial year? Will he also confirm that there will be a vote in both Houses before the 0.7%, which is enshrined in law, is cut?
My Lords, I am all too aware of the strong sentiments about the Government’s announcement on ODA spending. Of course, the Government are working through, and we have previously said we will come back to your Lordships’ House on the provisions we need to make in legislation. On my noble friend’s earlier point, I totally agree with him, but I assure him that it is not just our funding of COVAX and the AMC facility. My noble friend will also be aware of the commitment we have given to Gavi, CEPI and the World Health Organization to ensure equitable access not just in our fight against Covid-19 but in other pandemics as well.
My Lords, approaches are developing that enable individuals to give into the COVAX fund in gratitude for having received their vaccination against Covid-19. How are Her Majesty’s Government encouraging the development of such initiatives? Will they support such approaches through match funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office?
My Lords, our initial funding of the AMC was very much based on match funding. We have seen that coming through and there are valuable contributions that other key partners can make. We are working very closely with the Gates Foundation among others to ensure that support for Gavi, the AMC and, particularly, for those most vulnerable is something not just for Governments but for the private sector as well.
My Lords, I must admit that I am a bit disappointed that the Minister was unable to give a straight answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, in relation to what donation means. In the G7 statement made by the Prime Minister there was a welcome commitment to sharing technology. Can the Minister give us a bit more detail on what that means and, particularly, will the Government support the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool?
First, and foremost, I am surprised that the noble Lord expresses disappointment. If anyone has led on this, particularly with the World Health Organization, within Gavi and on COVAX, it is the United Kingdom, and that is resulting in other countries stepping up. The reason I did not answer specifically is that we are having discussions in that respect. On the noble Lord’s general point, I assure him that we are very much committed to ensuring the success of the rollout and equitable access. As the COVAX facility makes further announcements in the coming few weeks, that will become all the more clear.
My Lords, one of the core elements of the COVAX approach is to strengthen health systems in developing countries. Key to that is the bilateral support that countries such as the UK will provide them. Given that the Government’s intention is to breach the law and the undertaking to meet 0.7% support, there could now be cuts of up to 50% to the UK’s bilateral support for these countries. Instead of moving ahead with this, could the Government consider a moratorium on the cuts and guarantee that UK support to strengthen health systems in developing countries to distribute the vaccine will not be cut?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, I have already made the Government’s position clear. On the noble Lord’s second point, of course supporting countries’ health systems bilaterally remains a key priority, but there are challenges ahead with the reduced spending on ODA. They are currently under review at the FCDO.
My Lords, we welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement at the G7 that we will provide surplus vaccines to other countries. Is the Minister aware that India has already supplied over 10 million vaccines to other countries, including, in the announcement last week, the supply of 200,000 doses to UN peacekeepers worldwide? They are being manufactured by the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, owned by the Poonawalla family. Does the Minister also agree that, when we increase our inoculations from 500,000 to 1 million a day, we can commence our own vaccine diplomacy as global Britain?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point about vaccine distribution, we welcome all countries that are helping to meet the challenge of the pandemic. The noble Lord will be aware of the central role that the United Kingdom played in facilitating early engagement between the Serum Institute and the United Kingdom, and between AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in ensuring the scaling-up of production that we now see in India. India is the pharmacy of the world, which is reflected in its mass production. The Prime Minister made it very clear that the UK’s excess vaccine will be aimed primarily at the COVAX facility, because we believe that it guarantees the most equitable distribution.
I also warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment, which he gave at the G7. I think we can take some gentle pride in Britain leading by example, but can my noble friend say whether all our vaccine effort for poorer countries will go through COVAX or whether any of it will be direct? What preparations does COVAX have in place to ensure that the vaccines are distributed fairly and do not fall into the hands of elites and middlemen, with all the corruption that foreign aid has sadly, and all too often, entailed?
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s support. On his specific questions, we are not at the point where we can make specific pledges about excess vaccines, but I note what my noble friend said about support for particular countries. We will support primarily the AMC facility at COVAX, which we have led, to ensure the most equitable access. He makes an important point about distribution, which we will be monitoring closely with our key partners, including UNICEF, which is a key agency in the distribution of these vaccines.
The Minister continues to be suspiciously vague about whether the Government will simply transfer the right to buy vaccine supplies rather than pay for them themselves. No doubt this will be seen as an instrument of British foreign policy, so will the UK be claiming credit for its generosity in the recipient countries, if it does turn out to be generous, and will we be content to see these vaccines going to countries whose Governments are engaging, for example, in genocide or human rights abuses?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, by working with key partners we will ensure that the most vulnerable communities receive the vaccine irrespective of where they are within countries. I am sorry if there are specifics that I cannot go into, because they are matters for discussion, and no Minister would provide that detail if it is yet to be determined. However, I challenge him. The UK Government have been leading the charge in our response to this global pandemic. The British Government, under this Prime Minister, have ensured that the facility that we now have, through the COVAX AMC, will provide for the most vulnerable around the world. That is something not to be proud of, but to recognise.
My Lords, I am proud of and recognise the initiative, and I congratulate the Government on it. However, to reinforce slightly what I think the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, was trying to say, given that we have had a cut in overseas development aid, it would be wonderful if we could make this a real gift and not one that needs to be underwritten by anybody else.
My Lords, I join in applauding the Government’s leadership in its support for the COVAX facility, but does the Minister recognise that only today the World Health Organization’s director-general expressed concern that COVAX is having problems trying to source early supply of vaccine, while at the same time some of the richest countries in the world continue to contract for early delivery of vaccine? We need to take an initiative to enable the rich countries to secure early vaccine supply to COVAX. I wonder if the Government can use their leadership in COVAX to secure that kind of initiative.
My Lords, I hear my noble friend, who speaks with great experience of the health sector. As he is aware, COVAX is explicitly designed to work for high-income, low-income and middle-income countries. That is why the Government led the AMC facility to ensure equitable access to the 92 most vulnerable countries. We continue to collaborate with other key partners through our influence at the World Health Organization, GAVI and CEPI to ensure that the COVAX AMC facility is fully supported by all.
Clerk of the Parliaments
Announcement of Successor
My Lords, on 30 September I informed the House of Ed Ollard’s intention to retire from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments, with effect from 1 April. The recruitment process for his successor has now concluded.
The unanimous recommendation of the board was that Simon Burton should succeed Ed as Clerk of the Parliaments. His appointment follows an open and external competition, supported by employment consultants Saxton Bampfylde, which attracted a wide field of high-calibre candidates. A number of internal and external applicants were interviewed by a board consisting of me, the Lord Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Convenor of the Cross Benches, and Dame Sue Owen—a former Permanent Secretary at the DCMS and Civil Service diversity and inclusion champion. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in congratulating Simon on his appointment, and I very much look forward to working with him.
We will have an opportunity to pay tribute to Ed’s career in the House nearer the point of his retirement, when I will table a Motion in the usual way, enabling us to record our appreciation for his distinguished service. With Simon’s appointment, the post of Clerk Assistant will fall vacant, so an open recruitment process will now begin.
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to welcome in due course and to congratulate Simon Burton on his appointment as Clerk of the Parliaments, which, as the current incumbent knows, is a demanding job. All of us who have worked with Simon over the years know of his calm sense, tolerance of our foibles, expertise in the ways and means of this unique Chamber, knowledge of legislation and procedure, and wisdom in his advice. But it is not just us who think this: as the noble Baroness has said, those attributes were tested, for the first time, against external, and I gather very impressive, candidates. It was a challenging hurdle for our new Clerk of the Parliaments to jump, but he did so with flying colours.
We welcome him to his new role and wish him well. Life is always challenging in this place, but with Covid, R&R and no doubt other surprises to come, he will never be bored.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 10 February.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement on housing and building safety. Beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government want to build back better—better homes, better infrastructure and better communities. The foundation of those ambitions, and the mission of my department, is safety and fairness. We have all been moved by the stories we have heard and the people we have met—home owners placed in difficult and sometimes impossible situations through no fault of their own. I appreciate the frustration, the worry and the despair that at times they feel. I share their anger at the errors, the omissions, the false promises and even the outright dishonesty, which were built up over many decades but which this Government are determined to tackle.
That is why today I am announcing an unprecedented intervention—a clear plan to remove unsafe cladding, to provide certainty to leaseholders, to make the industry pay for its faults of the past, to create a world-class building safety regime and to inject confidence and certainty back into this part of the housing market. First, we will finish the job we have started on remediating unsafe cladding. After the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, the expert advice that this Government received identified aluminium composite cladding, or ACM—the material on the tower—as by far the most unsafe form of cladding. It should never have been used, and our independent expert advisory panel recommended that it should be the focus of our remediation work.
Thanks to a considerable effort, including during the pandemic, almost 95% of all high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding identified by the beginning of last year have been remediated, or workers are on site now doing the job. That rises to 100% in social housing. Guided by expert advice, the work to remove other types of cladding that are also unsafe—albeit less so than ACM—where they pose a genuine risk to life is also under way.
It has always been our expectation—our demand—that building owners and developers should step up to meet the cost of this work. Where they have not, or where they no longer exist, the Government have stepped in, providing £1.6 billion to remediate unsafe cladding. However, it is clear that without further government intervention many building owners will simply seek to pass these potentially very significant costs on to leaseholders, as this is often the legal position in the leases that they signed. That would risk punishing those who have worked hard and bought their own home, but who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves caught in an invidious situation. Importantly, it would also risk slowing down the critical works to make these homes safer.
I am therefore making an exceptional intervention today on behalf of the Government and providing certainty that leaseholders in high-rise residential buildings will face no cost for cladding remediation works. We will make further funding available to pay for the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in high-rise residential buildings of 18 metres and above, or above six storeys, in England. We continue to take a safety-led approach, and this funding will focus on the higher-rise buildings, where the independent expert advisory panel tells us time and again the overwhelming majority of the safety risk lies, in line with the existing building safety fund and the anticipated scope of the new building safety regulator that we are establishing and will shortly be legislating for. This will ensure that we end the cladding scandal in a way that is fair and generous to leaseholders.
Secondly, for lower and medium-rise blocks of flats, the risks are significantly lower and the remediation of cladding is less likely to be needed; in many cases, it will not be needed at all, but where it is, costs can still be significant for leaseholders. That is why I am announcing today that the Government will develop a long-term scheme to protect leaseholders in this situation with financial support for cladding remediation on buildings of between four and six storeys. Under a long-term low-interest scheme, no leaseholder will ever pay more than £50 a month towards the removal of unsafe cladding, many far less.
Taken together, this means the Government are providing more than £5 billion, including a further £3.5 billion announced today, plus the significant cost of the very generous financing scheme, which will run for many years to come, to ensure that all leaseholders in medium and high-rise blocks face no costs or very low costs if cladding remediation is needed. Where it is needed, costs can still be significant for leaseholders, which is why we want to take these important steps. We want to ensure that the Government develop this long-term scheme, which will protect leaseholders with financial support. Taken together, this means that the Government are helping leaseholders to move forwards with greater certainty and more confidence about the future.
Thirdly, while the problem is not one of leaseholders’ making, it also cannot be right that the costs of addressing these issues fall solely on taxpayers, many of whom are not themselves home owners and can only dream of getting on the housing ladder. The Government have always expected the industry to contribute towards these costs, and some have done so. Today, I am announcing that we will introduce a gateway 2 developer levy, which will be implemented through the forthcoming Building Safety Bill. The proposed levy will be targeted and will apply only when developers seek permission to develop certain high-rise buildings in England, helping to ensure that the industry takes collective responsibility for historical building safety defects. In introducing the levy, we will continue to ensure that the homes our country needs get built and that our small and medium-sized builders are protected.
In addition, a new tax will be introduced for the UK residential property development sector in 2022. This will raise at least £2 billion over a decade to help to pay for cladding remediation costs. The tax will ensure that the largest property developers make a fair contribution to the remediation programme in relation to the money they make from residential property, reflecting the benefit that they will derive from restoring confidence to the UK housing market. The Government will consult on the policy design in due course.
Fourthly, I know there are many people across the country who are concerned about the safety of their home. In the actions we have taken and those we take today, we have already very clearly prioritised public safety. However, it is also important that we put the risk of a fire, and in particular the risk of a fatal fire, in context—it is low. Last year, the number of people who died in fires in blocks of flats over 11 metres was 10—an all-time low—and fire-related fatalities in dwellings in England have fallen by 29% over the past decade. By way of comparison, more than 1,700 fatalities were reported on our roads in 2019.
Of course, any death is one too many, and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower lingers with us and demands action. That is why it is right that we address safety issues where they exist and are a threat to life, but we must do so proportionately, guided at all times by expert advice. That is the approach that we are taking through the Building Safety Bill, the new building safety regulator, the Fire Safety Bill and the new national regulator for construction products, which I announced in January. I am determined that we will have a world-class building safety regime.
We need everyone to follow this sensible, proportionate approach so that this part of the housing market can move forward and home owners are not disproportionately impacted. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has consulted on new guidance for valuers on when an EWS1 form should be required. The Government endorse its work to ensure that assessors have a stronger basis on which to make good, proportionate judgments about valuation risk. Lenders have welcomed the progress on that guidance, which will help to ensure that more than half a million leaseholders in blocks of flats over 11 metres will not need a separate EWS1 assessment to get a mortgage. That builds on the interventions we have already made to create and train many more assessors, and we are doing more so that they can access professional indemnity insurance to get on with the job.
Today, in addition to providing certainty to leaseholders, we are providing confidence to lenders. Following discussions that my right honourable friend the Chancellor and I have had with lenders, we expect all the major banks and building societies to strongly support today’s intervention, which will provide greater certainty to the market and help to restore the effective lending, purchasing and selling of properties as soon as possible.
Taken together, this exceptional intervention amounts to the largest-ever government investment in building safety. We believe in home ownership, and today we firmly support the hundreds of thousands of home owners who need our help now. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I declare my relevant interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of Heart of Medway Housing Association and a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd.
Three and a half years on from the Grenfell tragedy, in which 72 people lost their lives, decisions made by the Government have left thousands of people trapped in unsafe homes and many more unable to move. The Government’s announcement has come far too late for many and is, sadly, a repeat of undelivered promises. It backtracks on a key promise that no leaseholders should have to pay for the cost of this scandal, which is not of their making. On 11 March 2020, nearly a year ago, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that
“all unsafe combustible cladding will be removed from every private and social residential building above 18 metres high.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/3/20; col. 291.]
But that has not happened.
The funds set up have been dogged with problems. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House how much of the money available has been spent so far. I believe there has been a major underestimation of this scandal—this problem—by the Government. Can the Minister tell the House how many buildings are unsafe, where they are and what danger they pose? Until the Government have credible answers to these basic questions, there will continue to be mistakes and the offering of piecemeal solutions that must be updated when they do not deliver. Can the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, update the House and guarantee that the funding provided will cover all buildings over 18 metres high?
Will the Government set up an independent task force to prioritise buildings according to risk, with powers to get the funds out of the door and the ability to go after building owners when they fail to get the work done? That has been a consistent problem that we have raised again and again. Ministers have now promised 17 times—yes, 17 times—that leaseholders will not bear the cost of fixing a problem they did not cause; these were the promises made to the innocent victims of this scandal. But the Government have betrayed their promise that leaseholders will not pay for the building safety crisis. Three and a half years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster, hundreds of thousands of people cannot sleep at night because their homes are unsafe. On top of that, the Government have decided to pile financial misery on them. This is wrong; it is an injustice, and it is unacceptable.
Can the Minister tell the House why this arbitrary 18-metre height limit means the difference between a safe home and, potentially, financial ruin? What are the terms of the loan? What will the interest be? Will leaseholders be required to pay the interest as well as the main costs? On the point that the leaseholder will not pay more than £50 a month, if they sell the property, does the loan have to be paid at that point? Does it go with the former owner, or does it stay with the current owner? We need to know where we stand. How long will the scheme run for? Will it go up by the rate of inflation each year? What will the Government do if these homes remain unsaleable? How will they ensure that freeholders take up the loans? How will the Government speed up remediation, given that the current stalemate cannot continue?
Other properties do not have dangerous cladding, but these people have been charged thousands of pounds per flat to fix other safety issues. The Government should focus on securing our economy and rebuilding after Covid, not saddling homeowners with further debt. The Government should pursue those responsible for payment and prevent leaseholders and taxpayers carrying the can. The Government have announced a levy and a tax, which I welcome, but those responsible should bear the cost. How much do the Government anticipate the levy will raise? Will they pursue others, such as the cladding manufacturers, responsible for putting the dangerous cladding on in the first place? The Government have missed every target for removing ACM cladding and 50,000 people are still living in flats wrapped in it. This is the same cladding that was found on Grenfell Tower, and thousands more have other dangerous cladding on their buildings. When will this all be removed?
What about the skyrocketing insurance costs that innocent victims are being forced to pay? Can the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, tell the House what he expects, on average, a leaseholder to pay? People cannot continue to live in unsafe, unsellable homes. Homeowners should not be faced with financial ruin—bankruptcy, even—to fix a problem they did not cause. Unfortunately, these proposals, instead of providing justice, will still leave too many people struggling and facing loans. This is a very poor Statement from the Government—they will have to come back to the table and do what they promised in the first place: ensure that no victim of this scandal will have to bear the cost of fixing a problem they were not responsible for.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the repeat of this important Statement on the Government’s response to the cladding crisis. I remind the House of my interests, recorded in the register, as a member of Kirklees Council and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I was pleased when I read the heading of the Statement, “Building Safety”, and the opening paragraph, which refers to the mission of the Secretary of State being that of “safety and fairness”. Unfortunately, the Statement then fails to live up to those laudable words. The first issue I have with it is that throughout, there is reference only to “unsafe cladding”. In fact, what has become clear, as the vast scale of the problem that the Grenfell tragedy exposed, is that the building safety failings go far beyond “unsafe cladding”. As flammable cladding is removed, in some buildings further significant construction failings are revealed: flammable insulation has been used; firebreaks have not been built into the structure as a way of slowing the spread of a fire; balconies are not made of fire-retardant material; and spandrel panels are also seen as a potential safety concern.
How do I know this? In January 2020 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government issued guidance note 23, relating to the seven building components under review, requiring building owners and managers to take urgent action on these. The question for the Minister, therefore, is: will the additional government funding pay for all the defects revealed when the unsafe cladding is removed? If, for instance, it becomes evident that there is an absence of firebreaks, will the funding cover the costs of installing them? If not, the leaseholders will still be faced with large bills to pay for failings in the construction.
The next fundamental question that I hope the Minister can answer is: why has 18 metres been chosen as the bar above which cladding removal is funded by the Government and below which the leaseholders and tenants are required to pay? Is the 18-metre figure an historic one that needs to be reassessed? Serious fires can occur in blocks of varying heights: for instance, the fire in a block called The Cube, in Bolton, was very serious—although fortunately, there was no loss of life—but the building was lower than 18 metres.
That leads me to the question of fairness. As noble Lords will recall, this is the mission of the department in respect of building safety. Can the Minister explain how it is fair for leaseholders in blocks below 18 metres high to have to pay for remediation? I recognise that low-interest loans are available and that the currently anticipated maximum payment is £50 per month. This will, no doubt, be added to the service charge and will be one of the costs that potential buyers will consider. It will make these flats less attractive to buyers and they will almost certainly command a lower value. How is it fair to require leaseholders to pay for building remediation which is not in any way of their making?
One of the roles of government is to ensure that safety regulations are appropriate to the task and that there is an inspection regime. The Government have failed to do this, so they are partly culpable, must bear the cost and recoup it from those who share culpability.
Then there is the question of building regulations. It is alleged that some of the buildings affected by this scandal failed to comply with building regulations at the time of construction. Can the Minister confirm this and provide some estimate of the numbers involved? Where breaches of regulation are involved, will the Government require full remediation costs to be met by the developer? This is what happens with the manufacturers of cars and white goods, for example. Surely it should also apply in these instances. Does the Minister agree?
Next, I turn to the total funding package. The additional funding provided by the Government is a start, but this £5 billion needs to be put into context. During the debate on the Fire Safety Bill, the Minister confirmed that the total cost of remediation was likely to be in the region of £16 billion. Does that imply that £10 billion or more will be paid for by leaseholders through the loan scheme? Perhaps the Minister will let us know whether this is what the Government have calculated.
It is proposed to recoup some of these costs from developers by raising £200 million per annum via a tax on the sector. The cost of the minority of the remediation to be recouped from developers is pathetically small. During the last four years, the five largest developers made profits of around £16 billion, which rather puts the proposed figure into context. Will the Government reconsider the level of this tax to make it fairer?
Finally, I hope that the Government do not need to be reminded of the terrible, personal cost of the cladding scandal. For instance, Laurel and Jonathan in Manchester are seriously considering bankruptcy as the only way out of their predicament. Hayley in Leeds has already been forced into bankruptcy. In an Inside Housing survey last year, 23% of respondents said that they had considered suicide. Such is the stress of living in an unsafe home and being forced to pay huge increases in insurance and service charges. For leaseholders and tenants, this building safety crisis is not in any way of their making, yet they are expected to pay the price while those who created it are not being similarly expected to pay in any significant way. Can the Minister explain how this adheres to the department’s mission of fairness? Will he press for a review of the current proposals as more information comes to light?
My Lords, around £3.5 billion in direct, additional grant has been committed. This is a significant amount of money which dwarfs the £1.6 billion previously promised. More than £5 billion has been committed to support the ending of the cladding crisis. The plans go a long way towards ensuring that affordability is not an issue for any leaseholders in medium-rise properties. It also ensures that, where there is no warranty outstanding or insurance available to protect the leaseholder, the taxpayer—through the Government’s additional grant—will step up and provide the funding necessary to ensure that the cladding system is removed.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about progress. Despite Covid, we saw 50% more starts in 2020 than in any other year. Workers were on site and, by the end of the year, 95% of high-rise buildings with the same sort of cladding as at Grenfell had either started or completed remediation. We know exactly where these buildings are. The vast majority of the remaining cladding will have been removed from them by the end of this calendar year.
The main thrust of the questions was around the scope of the fund. It is important to recognise that height is a huge factor when it comes to safety and the risk to life. The higher the building, the more risk there is to the residents. People who live in buildings between 18 and 30 metres high are four times more likely to have a fire involving a fatality or the need for hospital treatment. In buildings above 30 metres, this rises to 35 times more likely. We know that height is a factor. Eighteen metres is the cut-off point for the definition of a high-rise building. This has been part of building regulations for a considerable number of years. The definition that we are using for scope is above six storeys, so The Cube would fall within the remit of a building where an application could be made to the building safety fund to remove its cladding. The threshold is six or more storeys or a height greater than 18 metres.
The long-term safety advice makes it clear that the external cladding system acts as accelerant, helping the fire to spread. This is why the government money is focused on the removal of external cladding systems. Internal compartmentation, firebreaks and fire doors are designed to stop the spread of fire. It is right that taxpayers’ money should focus on the material that accelerates the spread of fire.
The £3.5 billion and the finance scheme will together help hundreds of thousands of leaseholders. For those in medium-rise properties, it will cover a significant part of their costs. For those in high-rise buildings, there will be no cost. To date, 13,000 leaseholders in ACM buildings have been supported by the government grant scheme. Between 70,000 and 90,000 leaseholders in buildings with non-ACM cladding systems will not bear any cost. A further 150,000 leaseholders in buildings between 11 and 18 metres high will also be helped.
It is important, however, that building owners step up to the plate to support remediation where the government grant is not available. We do not expect this cost to fall entirely on leaseholders. With the ACM fund, more than 50% of owners did the right thing and ensured that the cost did not fall on leaseholders. We expect to see that with the non-ACM buildings as well. Here, warranty schemes can often still be drawn on and protect leaseholders.
It is worth looking at the cladding manufacturers. I will take that point away because, as well as the developers, they are culpable for the situation that we find ourselves in—a point that has been made by both the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. That is something that we can look at in due course.
This is a five-point plan looking at significant sums of money to support the removal of the external cladding systems. It is those systems that have accelerated the spread of fire and their removal makes it far more unlikely that Grenfell will ever happen again. We know that the future building safety regime will be focused on ensuring that the new buildings will be of far greater quality and then provide the greater confidence that is required in the housing market to ensure that it begins to function properly in future years.
My Lords, in welcoming the extra support for leaseholders, I commend my noble friend on the role that I know he personally played in shifting the Government’s position. On the developer levy, which I called for last year, can he explain why it is going to be levied on future developments—which, as he has just explained, will not have the same problems, and where indeed the developers may be new to the market—rather than on those developers that are responsible for the defects and that did very well on the proceeds?
I thank my noble friend for recognising that this announcement includes a developer levy, which he was lobbying for. It will be on future buildings, but at the same time we recognise the role that a number of developers have played in creating the cladding crisis. That is why the Secretary of State also announced that a new tax would be introduced for the UK residential property development sector that will ensure that the largest property developers also make a fair contribution to the remediation programme. We think that these measures taken together will ensure that the industry does more to contribute to the remediation of historical cladding defects and will play its part in dealing with this crisis.
“make the industry pay for its faults of the past”,
how will the Government recoup the full cost from those resistant to undertaking remedial work before they close their companies? Are those who deliberately concealed evidence of the flammability of ACM panels to be subject to corporate manslaughter investigations?
My Lords, we will continue to push very hard to ensure that developers make their contribution. As I pointed out, historically we have seen developers and building owners step forward and pay for the remediation and removal of unsafe cladding that is on their buildings, and we will continue to push developers to do the right thing. However, the levy and the new tax are set to raise significant sums of money. The tax itself is estimated to raise £2 billion over 10 years.
My Lords, many leaseholders in high-rise and medium-rise buildings are currently receiving insurance premium quotes for many times the previous annual cost. Much of the additional premium is a consequence not of cladding directly but of wider concerns regarding fire risk in their building, so removing and replacing deficient cladding will not in itself return premiums to a level of normality. Can the Minister tell us of any plans to make the representatives of leaseholders and the insurance industry agree a joint approach to alleviating this unacceptable burden?
My Lords, I can say that we are meeting with representatives of the insurance industry and of the cladding groups to work on precisely that—a solution to make sure that there is a proportionate, common-sense approach to building insurance. I underline that increasing the pace of remediation is likely to see a return to more sensible policies regarding the setting of building insurance.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation. Can the Minister explain why this very welcome new funding will not be made available to remediate the homes of people living in social housing? Housing associations do not have profits to draw on and local councils cannot simply deplete their reserves, so to make homes safe they will have to divert rental income that would have been spent on the upkeep of tenants’ homes, investment in their communities or building much-needed new affordable homes. Does the Minister accept that the only way to resolve this problem once and for all is for the Government to provide up-front funding for the remediation of homes of all tenures and then claw back as much as possible from those responsible for creating these inadequate buildings in the first place?
My Lords, I point out that the priority of this Government is to protect leaseholders from facing the costs of the removal of unsafe cladding, whether they are in social sector buildings or in private buildings. Where registered social landlords feel that they need to impose costs on leaseholders, access to grant funding is available as well as the new financing scheme. That protects the leaseholders in those properties, which is the priority of this Government.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Those in a flat 19 metres high will have unsafe cladding replaced at no cost, and that is welcome. Those in a flat 17 metres high will have to pay up to £50 a month for an unknown period. Why do the Government think that is fair?
My Lords, I pointed out that height is a marker for risk. Those buildings greater than 18 metres are four times more likely to result in a fire-related fatality or someone needing to go to hospital for treatment. Above 30 metres, that rises to 35 times more likely. So the focus needs to be on removing the material that accelerates the spread of fire in buildings that in and of themselves, through height and being of residential use, are at greater risk of causing fatalities.
My Lords, following the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, I understand that housing associations can apply for support from the extra £3.5 billion of additional funding for the rectification of these appalling building defects in high-rise blocks, but that help will be available only for flats sold to leaseholders for defects in housing association flats that are retained for letting. All the costs will fall on the housing association itself, requiring the diversion of funds intended for other purposes, particularly building new homes. Can the Minister give an estimate of how many new, desperately-needed social rented homes will be lost because of this?
My Lords, I am not in a position to give an estimate of that kind, but I recognise that social landlords have significant resources that they can put into making sure that their buildings are safe, and many are proceeding to do precisely that. I do not think we can easily estimate the impact on new build, but we can say that the funds support those leaseholders who would face costs without access to grant funding or the financing scheme.
The Government have secured a welcome agreement on EWS1 forms that will benefit thousands of home owners. Many other home owners, however, still need to secure such a form before they can move on with their lives. Can my noble friend outline what steps the Government are taking to make securing such forms easier?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for raising this significant issue. We are looking at how we can increase the supply of the professionals needed to carry out those EWS1 assessments, and we have provided £700,000 worth of funding to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and that is looking to upskill around 2,000 building surveyors to be in a position to do that after about a month’s training. As well as increasing the supply, we are working closely with RICS and other parties to narrow the scope of when EWS1 is required. You should not need to have an assessment of an external wall system in buildings under 11 metres. There is less latitude in buildings above 18 metres, and a number of buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres will also not require an EWS1. It is only in the event that they are covered with some kind of external cladding system to a great degree—let us say, more than 25%.
Why do the Government not require every local authority to publish the addresses of all buildings falling under cladding fire risk categories? Is the FOI response from the DCLG of 12 March last year refusing such information still valid where it spuriously states that
“disclosing it would be likely to endanger the safety of individuals”
“could enable someone to identify particular buildings”,
usable by “those with malicious intent”? That could apply to any inflammable building, a chalet or indeed any temporary building.
My Lords, it is sensible to be very careful about the dissemination of information about the precise locations of buildings with flammable material. We need to recognise that there are potentially people out there with malicious intent. It is right and proper that we keep information that would enable people to identify those buildings confidential as far as possible.
My Lords, much of the effectiveness of this legislation will depend on the power and vigour of the building safety regulator. Will that be a named individual or a committee? If it is a named individual, will he or she have the same powers as an ombudsman and receive complaints from individuals and community groups who have often complained and warned but never had access to a decision-maker?
I share the noble Lord’s scepticism about the value of committeeism. I am pleased to announce that the leader of the new building safety regulator, the chief inspector of buildings, has been announced. I am delighted that Peter Baker, the acting chief inspector, has been confirmed as taking up the reins and ensuring that this new regime works. He will be accountable to ensure that that happens.
My Lords, I welcome the gateway 2 developer levy and the new tax on residential building developers. I echo the calls for my noble friend to look carefully at recouping costs of remediation work from developers of past projects and not just those in the future, especially those who failed to comply with building regulations or cut corners at the time of construction, and the manufacturers of the cladding materials including ACM.
I thank my noble friend for making the point. It would be fair to say that the new tax on developers, details of which will be announced shortly, will include a number of the major developers historically responsible for high rises. She makes an important point that we should also consider the role of cladding manufacturers in this crisis. It is fair to say that, while developers have made good solid profits in recent years, the cladding manufactures have had healthy profit margins too. It is important that they are made to contribute to the resolution of the cladding crisis.
The Minister did not answer the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. Post-Grenfell surveys have revealed other fire-related defects such as flawed fire separation. The leaseholders in these properties suffer the same problems of the inability to sell, high remediation costs and rocketing or no insurance. Yet the Government seem to be leaving it to leaseholders, building owners or somebody unspecified to pursue action against those who made the errors and omissions in the past. This is not good enough. What will the Government do to help these non-cladding victims?
I did refer to the fact that other building safety issues, beyond the external cladding system, were breaks on whether a fire continues to spread—they are not accelerants. The scope of our intervention is designed to deal with the biggest contributor to the life safety risk. We would look to building owners to step up where possible and help with the remediation of faulty building works. We have focused the additional grant funding on precisely that which is going to protect and save lives.
My Lords, it is certainly welcome that the Government have taken action on properties over 18 metres, but the great majority of tenants are in properties under that height. I refer to my declared interests, primarily that I am a former chair of the National Housing Federation, which represents housing providers. It has huge numbers of tenants who have bought shared ownership properties, who are not well off and are currently in enormous difficulties. This is because, despite what has been said by the Government and RICS about EWS1 inspections and the flexibility around them, lenders are continuing to insist on EWS1 inspections in practice. These home owners are not well off, and inspections everywhere are getting valuations of £0, serious delays and uncertainty. Will the Minister speak to lenders about resolving this issue? Would he also accept that a bill of £50 a month is unaffordable for those in shared ownership, given that the reason they are in these properties in the first place is that they are not able to afford a home otherwise?
My Lords, we have spoken to lenders and there were positive statements by Barclays and the chief executive of Nationwide in the announcements. They welcomed this and recognised that the additional £3.5 billion helps to provide certainty, admittedly in high rises. The financing scheme remains open to all, both social sector and private sector leaseholders, to ensure that they would not have to pay more than £50 a month towards the remediation of unsafe cladding. In the round, the announcements we have made will give confidence to the market to be more sensible on valuation in future, I hope.
My Lords, this Statement is welcome as an important contribution to the absolute priority of safety in our housing stock and building back better. Will my noble friend consider expanding the remit of the building safety regulator to whom he has just referred to take into consideration the need to continue to upgrade the least efficient social housing stock, reduce carbon emissions and bills, tackle fuel poverty and save the budget to help 600,000 households reduce carbon emissions by subsidising the costs of energy efficiency? All these have an impact on safety.
I thank my noble friend for raising the issue of how we can ensure that we achieve our zero-carbon commitment. The building safety regulator has oversight of building control bodies and monitors their performance. We hope that oversight will improve the efficacy of building regulations across the board. I point out that climate change mitigation and adaptation are intrinsic components of building regulations and will remain so.
My Lords, some people need a different kind of safety guarantee. Will the Minister condemn recent death threats, including a petrol can left next to a property belonging to a Romany Gypsy mother of two going through cancer treatment and in the process of applying for planning permission for new housing?
I will join the noble Baroness in condemning all such abhorrent incidences of hate crime. Hate crimes like that are completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated under any circumstances. My department has been informed that both the local authority and local police are dealing with the incident. As the police are investigating the specific matter she raised, it would be inappropriate for me to comment any further at this point. I am sure that she will understand that, as I would not want to prejudice their work.
Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill
My Lords, the Bill before the House today will for the first time enable Ministers to take paid maternity leave from their job for an extended period. Women who aspire to, and hold, high office will no longer be disadvantaged against other women in this respect. I am sure that representatives of all three parties that have been in government in the last 20 years will agree that this is long overdue.
It is well known that the occasion of the Bill—and the cross-party agreement to accelerate it, for which the Government are grateful—is the pregnancy of my right honourable friend the Attorney-General. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending best wishes to her and her family.
This should not be a reproach to anyone, least of all to my right honourable friend. Sometimes it is an individual case, and the perception of injustice arising, that propels social advance, and let it be so here. The Bill sends out a vital message to encourage more women from every walk of life to enter politics, and to seek promotion in government without the fear of having later to choose between career and family.
I repeat how grateful I am to Her Majesty’s Opposition for their constructive engagement in the preparation of the Bill. Jointly, we have affirmed—and do here affirm again—that this will be the beginning, not the end, of a journey of reform. To date, within government structures, insufficient attention has been paid to the needs of pregnant Ministers, and there has been only limited progress to date. Yes, the Ministerial Code was changed in 2019 to confirm the ability of junior Ministers to take maternity leave, but this workaround—which several Members of the other place have used—relies on another Minister taking on additional responsibilities. We need to go further, and I will return to this issue later, as I know it is of importance to the House.
Clearly, this approach is simply unworkable for Secretaries of State or other holders of individual offices, such as the law officers or the Lord Chancellor, owing to their constitutional role and the volume and complexity of their workload, which gives rise to a pressing need for posts to be filled. The current law does not allow the Government to take on and pay another Cabinet Minister, or equivalent, as maternity cover, as happens in workplaces up and down the country. No fewer than three Acts of Parliament govern the issue of ministerial appointments and pay, and the restrictions on them. It is worth underlining the constitutional importance of these Acts, as they manage part of the delicate balance between the legislature and the Executive, ensuring that the payroll vote is kept in proportion to the overall size of the Commons. This is a serious consideration, and a balance that should not be adjusted lightly. However, we propose modest changes to prevent putting some women off holding high office for lack of adequate maternity provision.
Until now, for someone to be appointed to cover a Minister at this level, or one of the opposition officeholders covered by the Bill, and for that individual to be paid, the pregnant Minister would normally have to resign. The Bill ends this anachronistic and wholly unacceptable situation by providing six months’ paid maternity leave for all eligible Ministers and opposition officeholders.
Turning to the content of the Bill, Clause 1 allows the Prime Minister to designate a Minister who wishes to take maternity leave as a “Minister on leave” who remains part of the Government—able to be briefed on matters and to keep in touch with work, but not responsible for exercising the functions of the office from which they are on leave. It makes clear the conditions applicable to designation as a Minister on leave. It also sets out how the designation comes to an end, either automatically, six months after the Minister has been so designated, or earlier, should the Minister cease to hold that office—for example, due to appointment to a new ministerial role, resignation or dismissal.
Clause 2 sets out the methodology for calculating the amount of the allowance for the period of maternity leave, and how it is to be paid. It sets the allowance at six times the monthly salary of the Minister on leave’s previous ministerial office. The effect is that a Minister on leave continues to receive the same monthly amount in maternity allowance as they would have received had they still occupied their previous ministerial role. It will come from the same source, usually the relevant department in line with money provided for by Parliament. Finally, Clause 2 also sets out the arrangements that apply when the designation as a Minister on leave ends before the automatic expiry after six months, providing for a lump sum payment of the remainder of the allowance. That applies in all situations where the designation terminates earlier than the end of the six months, unless the Minister is appointed to another ministerial role, or has died.
In order to prevent double payment of a ministerial salary, Clause 3 provides that a Minister on leave cannot receive the maternity allowance provided for in this Bill at the same time as any salary set out under the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975. It also makes clear that, where they are a Member of this House, a Minister on leave cannot receive the so-called Lords officeholder allowance under Section 5(1) of the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991. In addition, Clause 3 clarifies that, for the duration of the designation, a Minister on leave does not count towards the limit under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 on the number of Ministers who can come from the House of Commons at any one time. However, once the designation ends, the Minister once again counts for those purposes.
Clauses 4 to 6 make provision for certain opposition officeholders, namely those listed in the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, to take up to six months’ paid maternity leave. The arrangements contained are similar to those relating to Ministers in terms of duration, eligibility criteria, amount of allowance and source of the allowance. However, in contrast to Ministers, an opposition officeholder who is to take maternity leave would stay in post. The Bill authorises a payment to a nominated individual who, at the discretion of the Leader of the Opposition in the relevant House, is to cover the officeholder’s role, on similar terms as those for Ministers.
This difference in approach reflects the fact that opposition officeholders are not appointed by the Prime Minister and do not have statutory functions in the same way as a Secretary of State. It is therefore possible for an individual to provide the necessary maternity leave cover while the original officeholder remains in post. Only one person can be appointed to cover an officeholder’s post at any point during the period of leave. However, should the Leader of the Opposition wish to change the appointment, he or she may do so.
As is the case with a Minister on leave, where the opposition officeholder is a Member of the House of Lords, she is not eligible to claim the so-called Lords officeholder allowance provided under the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991 while on maternity leave. However, the individual appointed as maternity cover, by virtue of these provisions, is entitled to claim that allowance for the duration of their appointment. This is because the allowance is paid to reflect work undertaken in the House.
The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 makes provision for both MPs’ and Ministers’ pension schemes. Both Ministers and opposition officeholders are entitled to pensions under the Ministers’ pension scheme. The original officeholder’s salary remains pensionable during their maternity leave. However, the Bill provides that the individual appointed to cover the post is entitled to the Ministers’ pension scheme for the period of their appointment, in relation to the allowance paid to them for this role. The Bill comes into force on Royal Assent, and thus will be of immediate benefit and effect.
I turn to some issues which the Bill has given rise to in the other place and outside. First, on future work to broaden this reform, I have already made clear that the Government recognise that the Bill does not go as far as most will desire. There will understandably be many who would have wanted to see a Bill to resolve wider issues of parental leave such as paternity, adoption and shared parental leave. The Bill also does not address absences for sickness and other reasons, or the question of unpaid roles, which I know is an issue of particular interest to Members of this House. These are complex issues that require careful further consideration, taking into account modern working practices and the wider constitutional context.
The House will be aware that the Government recently consulted on parental leave and pay for employees, and they are due to respond to that consultation in the near future. This work will provide us with a valuable perspective, and any future proposals for Ministers will be developed with those conclusions in mind. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, the Government have undertaken to look into broader proposals, both in the round and in detail. The Government also welcome IPSA’s recent announcement that it will be consulting on some of these issues. We look forward to working with them, and with Members across both Houses, on this work. The Government are committed to building more widely on the progress this Bill represents and will present an update to Parliament by the Summer Recess.
Several Members of the other place raised concerns about the use of the word “person” in this Bill in referring to pregnant women. I know that a number of noble Lords share that concern, and I have, of course, noted the amendment from my noble friend Lady Noakes, who I look forward to hearing shortly. I understand the strength of this feeling, but I will come back to this point in my closing speech in more detail so as to respond more completely to the points raised by all noble Lords on this issue in the course of the debate.
Briefly, I should point out that the language used in the Bill is in line with current drafting convention and guidance; it is legally accurate and achieves the aim of ensuring that female Ministers can take paid maternity leave. Of this there is no doubt. The Bill’s drafting also provides flexibility in the event that the future work programme that I have just spoken of gives rise to the need to revisit its provisions. Nevertheless, the Government have already responded to the concerns from both Houses that this drafting could be misinterpreted, and have updated the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, which now detail how the Bill is intended to support women, and explains the drafting practice. It will continue to be the policy of this Government to refer to “pregnant women” in government publications. As I said, I will reply to the amendment in full in my closing speech, when I have listened to all Members of this House, but I wanted to make this point clear at the outset, and to make clear that the Government are listening to the strength of feeling in this House on this matter.
For the reasons outlined above, I commend this reforming Bill to the House.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, I beg to move the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper. This regrets that the drafting of the Bill does not respect the fact that only women can be pregnant. Before speaking to my amendment, I would like to assure my noble friend the Minister that, while I deplore the language of the Bill, I fully support its proximate aim, which is to allow my right honourable friend the Attorney-General to take paid maternity leave. I join my noble friend Lord True in wishing the Attorney-General well and that her baby is safely delivered.
I had expected to be given an advisory speaking time of more than six minutes in view of my regret Motion, but this is not a time-limited debate, so I shall be taking a little extra time anyway. I shall, of course, comply with the Companion. My noble friend Lady Scott need not bother to do that Whip thing of head swivelling and jumping up and down when I do go over six minutes.
My Motion is about the drafting of this Bill, but it is set within a broader context of the erasure of women in society. Those of us who care about the position of women have been increasingly concerned about the dilution of the 2010 Equality Act with its protected characteristic of sex, not gender, which should protect women. Some organisations, deliberately or carelessly, conflate sex and gender. The Office for National Statistics, for example, has dug itself into this hole for the upcoming census, with the likely result that inaccurate statistical data about women will come from that.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which should have been vigilant in guarding all the protected characteristics of the 2010 Act, has itself caused problems, and its guidance has led directly to a loss of single-sex spaces. The NHS, which in the past had to be forced to abandon mixed-sex wards, now routinely admits to women’s wards on the basis of self-identification, regardless of the needs or wishes of women. Prisons operate like this, too. And do not get me started on so-called gender-neutral toilets.
There is an increasing use of language that eliminates women, such as the ludicrous use by the World Health Organization of “people who menstruate”. Only two weeks ago, the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust declared that “breastfeeding” was to be replaced with “chestfeeding”, and “mother” with “birthing parent.” That might go down well in woke Brighton, but it will appal men and women in mainstream Britain.
People who challenge this in public are often labelled transphobic, as JK Rowling discovered when she poked fun at the WHO and its use of “people who menstruate” and was then publicly vilified. There is no malice in wishing to maintain the biological facts of womanhood and the lived experience of women, which includes menstruation, childbirth and menopause. That view happily coexists with respect and concern for transgender people. I am proud of my own record on LGBT issues, both in your Lordships' House and in the organisations with which I have been involved, but I am not prepared to be erased as a woman.
Let me turn now to the drafting of this Bill. Clause 1(3) uses the language of “the person is pregnant” and
“the person has given birth to a child”.
It is a biological fact that only women can be pregnant and give birth. That is why laws that relate to maternity issues have in the past routinely been drafted using the words “woman”, “she” and “her”. It is not good enough to just say that we have gender-neutral drafting now. When Jack Straw, as Lord Chancellor, announced in 2007 that the Government would use gender-neutral drafting, the context was the long-standing interpretation rule that words referring to the masculine gender include the feminine. This was thought to be demeaning to women, although I personally never felt demeaned by it. The Statement made it clear that this was not intended to outlaw the use of particular genders where only one is involved. It was not intended to prevent women from being mothers. It is ironic that Jack Straw’s generous gesture towards equality has now been turned against women.
Just three years after the 2007 Statement, the Equality Act 2010 was passed. That clearly uses female terminology to define the protected characteristics of sex and pregnancy. On 12 December 2013, your Lordships' House had a debate on gender-neutral drafting. The Minister, my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, said: “The guidance”— that is, the guidance from parliamentary counsel—
“also recognises that there must be some flexibility and that there will be some Acts where only gender-specific drafting can be usefully applied. In a case where a person has to be of a particular gender—male or female—gender-neutral drafting does not require drafters to avoid referring to the gender. I think your Lordships would agree that that would be the case for legislation about maternity.”—[Official Report, 12/12/13; col. 1014.]
I say “hear, hear” to that.
As far as I can tell, there has not been a ministerial Statement since 2013 that reversed the clear understanding of what gender-neutral drafting was about. The Minister may well cite some more recent primary and secondary legislation that has departed from that clear understanding, but, as far as I am concerned, that has slipped through below the radar. We have to put a stop to the practice. If this Bill passes unamended, there will be yet another precedent on the statute book for the elimination of women.
When this Bill was considered in the other place, the Minister asserted:
“It is not the case that we could legally and correctly use the word “woman” in this piece of legislation”.—[Official Report, 11/2/21; col. 594.]
I respectfully say to the Minister that this is garbage. There is nothing illegal or incorrect about using the word “women’ in relation to pregnancy. The only thing that appears to prevent the use of the word “woman” is a reinterpretation, by stealth, of the gender-neutral drafting guidance. In my view, it would be entirely legal and certainly correct to use the word “woman” in this Bill. Parliamentary counsel should be reminded that at the end of the day it is Parliament, and not civil servants, that decides how our laws are written.
I have spoken before about your Lordships' House being seen from the outside as a metropolitan bubble. This Bill speaks the language of a metropolitan elite who is unconcerned about its impact on the majority of our society, who are women, or about the view of the overwhelming majority of our citizens that women exist.
This is not a party-political issue, but it grieves me that a Conservative Government, who are bravely standing against all sorts of nonsense that has infested our public life, are abandoning women.
I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for introducing this welcome Bill, and I take the opportunity to welcome my noble friend Baroness Hayman of Ullock to her first outing winding for the Opposition on a Bill. I also look forward to hearing from the first noble Baroness, Lady Hayman.
My honourable friend Rachel Reeves MP paid tribute to the noble Baroness last week, recalling that, back in 1976, she was first woman MP to have a baby while serving in Parliament. However, just 10 days after she gave birth, she had to turn up in the House to vote, as pairing had been suspended. Had the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, realised, 45 years ago, how long we would have to wait for this first step, I do wonder whether she might have given up the will to fight, although knowing her, I think not. Where the noble Baroness led, others followed, and today we take another, albeit tiny, step forward.
For many of us, it is hard to believe it has taken so long to come even this far. When I published my first article on maternity leave—I think in spring 1971—in the industrial relations review and report, virtually no one apart from some very few in the public sector was able to get paid time off. Thas was 50 years ago. Thirty years ago today, my godson was born. Happy birthday, Freddy. Soon after, he became “famous for a day”, when we launched a campaign for maternity leave, contrasting the situation in the UK with that in the EU, showing how two pregnant MEPs—Carole Tongue from the UK and Kirsten Jensen from Denmark—had very different maternity rights. Young Freddy, I have to say, was just a PR prop, cradled by the then Shadow Employment Minister, a certain Tony Blair, but he given star billing in the Times.
So 50 years on from that first article, 30 years from when I launched that particular Labour campaign, I am, needless to say, delighted to support this Bill, even though it is a small, weak thing and fails to cover paternity leave, adoption or, more importantly, every working woman. But it does mean that the Attorney-General will be the first Cabinet Minister in UK history to take maternity leave with proper pay and cover. Where the Attorney-General leads, others will, and must, follow.
As Rachel Reeves also noted in the Commons, the first four female Labour Cabinet Ministers—Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson, Florence Horsbrugh and Barbara Castle—were childless. Indeed, that was often the choice for women: have a career or have a child, but not both. Of course, many did succeed and heroically combined both. In my generation, apart from the noble Baroness, I think particularly of the right honourable Harriet Harman and the late Barbara Mills QC, who set up a nursery in her basement to solve her childcare problem. Under the last Labour Government, first Yvette Cooper, some 20 years ago, then Ruth Kelly and Meg Hillier had babies while serving as Ministers, although with no formal provision for maternity leave and with other Ministers having to cover for them; I assume that there was some pairing. Luckily, Yvette Cooper had chosen to live with the person now officially recognised as the “Celebrity Best Home Cook”—Ed Balls.
Here in this House, we have mostly arrived past childbearing age, although I am delighted that this is no longer the case. However, the amendment I want to see would add grandmother leave to the Bill. I am delighted that Lords Ministers will be covered—as is my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, although she has warned me off thinking I might step into her shoes for six months as the lovely Nigel has firmly put his foot down on that.
This Bill makes it clear that there need be no choice between motherhood and a career—at least in Parliament. However, elsewhere, most working women face a very different situation. While statutory maternity pay can be for 39 weeks, it is only for the first six weeks, not six months, that it is paid at 90% of average weekly earnings. For the remaining 33 weeks, it is just £151.20 or less. This leaves household incomes well down for a lengthy period, and that is before parents must start saving to meet the cost of childcare for when the mother returns to work.
It is true that many employers pay more than the statutory minimum, but it is in no way universal. Fewer than one in 10 private sector bodies sampled offered the same as in the Bill. Labour will hold the Government to their word to work on a cross-party basis to introduce comprehensive legislation in the coming months to extend this Bill’s coverage to all of Parliament, but we also want to press for the rights of women councillors and mayors—indeed, all working women—so that maternity rights become the norm, not the exception. We also want paternity leave for men to be similarly extended.
As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, there is one unusual choice of words in this Bill: the reference to a “person”, rather than a “woman”, being pregnant. The Minister has provided assurances that this is a drafting issue and does not signal any change of policy, but there is no doubt that it seems at odds with other legislation on maternity rights and protection, despite Friday’s letter from the noble Lord, Lord True. More surprising, as we heard from the noble Baroness—she actually called it garbage—was the statement made by his colleague in the Commons:
“It is not the case that we could legally and correctly use the word ‘woman’ in this piece of legislation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 594.]
Why not, given that it is in the notes and the Minister assured us that
“it will continue to be the policy of the Government to refer to ‘pregnant women’ in broader Government publications”?
We look forward to what the Minister just promised us: his explaining a little more when he winds up about why this language was used and whether there is any chance of it conflicting with other relevant legislation.
Clearly, the wording in no way detracts from the intention of the Bill; maternity leave will indeed be available to the AG from later this week. We would in no way want to signify any lack of support for its provision. We wish the Attorney-General well for the future enlargement of her family and we look forward to working with the Government to ensure that maternity provision is extended to all MPs and working women so that it really does become the norm, not the exception. We hope that the Braverman Bill is, as the Minister just said, the beginning, not the end, of the reform and we look forward to the rest of the debate on this important Bill.
My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Bill and support its proposals.
It implements proposals made six years ago by the Women in Parliament APPG. As the Minister told us, the Ministerial Code was amended two years ago to accommodate ministerial maternity leave, so the Bill should have been introduced earlier—not rushed through now. I accept its use of gender-neutral language, as recommended in the 2007 legislative guidance, but I note the sensitivity of language at stake here. This clearly needs further discussion but I suspect that it would not be helped by dividing the House at the end of this debate.
The battle to improve maternity conditions for working mothers carries strong personal echoes for me. My wife was a lecturer at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology when we were expecting our first child. At that time, there were no older married women on the academic staff and no arrangements for leave. Helen drove home every lunchtime throughout a university term to breastfeed our daughter. Thankfully, conditions for women giving birth while in work have improved immensely since then, particularly in the Civil Service. I welcome this further step in liberal improvements in the status of women.
However, this welcome comes with a number of critical reservations. As the Minister admitted, the Government are rushing this through to deal with the immediate situation that faces a particular Cabinet Minister. It is almost an ad personam Bill. It does not address parental leave for ministerial fathers. It does not cover adoption. It does not address the issue of sick leave for Ministers, even though this arose for a Cabinet Minister involved in one of the most delicate aspects of the Brexit negotiations—the Northern Ireland issue—in 2018. I regret the absence of these elements from the Bill. I thank the Minister for his pledge to set out the Government’s proposals for covering these other dimensions soon.
The Bill provides for maternity leave to enable a Minister to return to their responsibilities six months later. Such continuity offers an excellent principle for good government; it takes most Ministers a year or more to master the full complexities of their portfolio. Yet we now have a Cabinet almost none of whose members has held office for much more than a year. The current Attorney-General is the third to hold that office since 2015. She sits alongside the fourth Foreign Secretary, the fourth Chancellor and the fourth Secretary of State for Education, and the fifth Business Secretary, since 2015—and now there are rumours of a coming reshuffle. Will the Minister tell us whether his Government intend to allow Ministers to stay in their posts long enough to expect to return from six months’ leave to the same office? Ministerial churn at a rate of nine to 18 months per office is the opposite of good governance.
But my most fundamental criticism is that this is the only constitutionally relevant Bill that we have so far seen in this Parliament, apart from those on Brexit. The Prime Minister promised in the 2019 manifesto that
“After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution”.
That commitment was widely welcomed across the political spectrum; think tanks even held meetings to discuss what this broad agenda should include. Instead, in the past year the Government have sacked senior civil servants, broken the Ministerial Code, disregarded the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, attacked the Electoral Commission, strengthened the Executive at the expense of Parliament, and bypassed democratic local authorities in handling the pandemic. The constitution commission which the Government promised to set up in less than 12 months from the election has been shelved. The Minister has defended this slide from the manifesto commitment without hesitation. He has repeatedly told us that Conservative victory in last December’s election represented the “will of the people”, on 43.5% of the electorate. He has defended behaviour from this Government that John Major—whom he served—would never have contemplated as Prime Minister.
We have watched the US Republican Party slide away from constitutional democracy towards pluto-populism—rich men claiming to represent the will of the people, while breaking the spirit and the letter of constitutional democracy. We see the beginnings of a similar slide here. That is why we need to hold the Government to the manifesto commitment they want to forget.
While I welcome this Bill, I encourage colleagues across the House to hold the Government to account on their neglect of larger constitutional issues, not least because the relationship between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland has been shaken by Brexit, and will not be resolved without further constitutional changes.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who made some interesting points. I thank the Minister for setting out the position in relation to this Bill. I support this short, focused Bill, and believe that nothing should be done to delay or thwart it, although I have sympathy with the points raised by my noble friend Lady Noakes on the language in it. I wish my right honourable friend Suella Braverman well with her maternity, and I hope with her maternity leave—as others have noted, this measure is long overdue. Like others, I note the massive contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who is speaking later in this debate. She was indeed a trailblazer.
With that said, there are wider interests which need to be considered, and I am grateful to my noble friend for admitting that these will be brought forward; the sooner, the better. Setting best practice for parental leave across the board for other employers and employments is something which has been neglected by successive Governments. We need to deal with paternity leave, to consider the position of adopted and surrogate children, and indeed to look at shared parental leave, as the Minister acknowledged. I am grateful that this is going to be part of the Government’s agenda. Something on the timeline for this would be welcome, as we do not want to lose the momentum as we are taking this first welcome step in relation to maternity leave. Good employers should be following practices set out by the Government and by Parliament, so we need to step up to the plate, as has been noted for sick leave, grandparental leave, carers, victims of domestic abuse, and so on. All these can be considered, I hope.
With the indulgence of the House, notwithstanding the importance of those issues, I will touch on another matter which is long overdue, and particularly relates to people in your Lordships’ House. That is the subject of unpaid Ministers. I had the great pleasure of being a paid Minister, and I hope that gives me some latitude to speak on this. It is said without in any way undermining our excellent Ministers, both paid and unpaid, but in this day and age it must not be right that we expect people to serve and not be paid. I certainly know of one potential Minister who was asked to serve but felt unable to do so because she was not going to be paid. That was not under this Prime Minister, I add, but it seems wrong in principle. Eight of our 25 Ministers in your Lordships’ House are unpaid, which is nearly a third. We should not expect people to serve but not get the rate of pay attached to the job. We would not expect that in industry or elsewhere in the public service; it is not right in a modern democracy. It should not be a condition of the job that you are unpaid; I hope my noble friend will undertake that this will be looked at by the Government.
I recognise that there is a legislative impediment to increasing the number of paid Ministers, and that this has impeded successive Governments of all colours; it is not particular to this Government by any means. But it would be a relatively simple matter, and I imagine non-controversial, to amend or repeal the measure. I cannot believe that it is right in the 21st century that we are not paying Ministers for doing the job. It seems like something which belongs to another age, such as quill pens or horse-drawn hansom cabs, perhaps more appropriate to the age of Trollope—Anthony, not Joanna—and it is high time that we moved on.
My Lords, while I welcome this Bill, I think it a shame that it has taken so long to acknowledge that maternity leave should be granted to Ministers, and that it is being rushed through both Houses, meaning there is not enough time to scrutinise the Bill.
I welcome the Bill, but even though it is very narrow there are some flaws. For example, there has been no equality impact assessment—why? Is it because it is being rushed though?
As the Government have recognised that women holding ministerial office should have paid maternity leave, this should be an opportunity to look at the wider case of improving paid maternity leave for all pregnant working women. I hope that there will be another maternity Bill before us soon so that we can look at improving the lot of all pregnant working women. The Bill should be an impetus to address low statutory maternity pay, which is around £151 per week, or lower in some cases—less than half of the national minimum wage, so the pregnant woman’s income is reduced at a time when she is preparing for the birth of her child. The Government have done the right thing by the Attorney-General and women Cabinet Ministers. I hope they will put things right for the rest of the pregnant women in the country.
It is surprising to me, and to many others, that the word “woman” is not used in this Bill but instead the word “person” is used, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, explained so well. I certainly agree with her. Considering that only women can get pregnant and give birth, I cannot see any reason why “woman” cannot be used. I believe in using gender-neutral language where appropriate, but I do not believe it is appropriate in this Bill. In his letter to Peers, the Minister explained that “person”
“reflects modern drafting convention and guidance, in place since 2007, and common across much of our legislation”.
I note that the Minister says “much”, which I assume means “not all”.
Jack Straw, as Leader of the House of Commons, in 2007 made a Written Statement to the House of Commons dealing with using gender-neutral language in legislation. It was not debated, but this has become the guidance, and in many respects was good, as no longer in legislation would we see the male gender used when it should have referred to men and women.
But there are examples, such as in the Bill, when the word “woman” should be used rather than “person”. I give the example of the Equality Act 2010, which uses “woman”, not “person”, throughout and in all sections related to pregnancy, maternity and lactation. I refer again to the Minister’s letter:
“We recognise that a drafting convention that was originally designed to avoid denigrating women should not result in the erasure of women from our public discourse.”
As a result, the Explanatory Notes have been changed, using “Minister” instead of “person” in several places. I just wonder about that. The Minister recognised that it was not appropriate to use “person” and changed it to “Minister”, but why could it not have been changed to “woman”?
On the issue of language, at Second Reading in the Commons the Paymaster-General, Penny Mordaunt, said that she would provide further explanation in Committee but that she understood
“how offensive the word ‘person’ or ‘persons’ can be in this context”.
Commenting further, she said:
“I hope that we can make some changes, if not to the legislation then to the explanatory notes, that will address some of”
However, she said that the Government could put the word “Minister” in the Explanatory Notes and stated that:
“Although that is still gender-neutral language, it is a much less jarring term than ‘person’.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; cols. 559-94.]
When legislation is intended only for women and not for men, I hope that the Minister will accept that “woman” should always be used in place of “person”.
It is not too late for the Government to come forward and amend the Bill to right a wrong. I hope that the Minister will take note of the criticism and of how offensive it is to women, bearing in mind that this is the second Bill before us in recent months in which the word “woman” has been written out of the legislation, as in the Domestic Abuse Bill. Having said that, I support every other aspect of the Bill and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I, too, welcome the Bill, which is long overdue in seeking to right a wrong and an anomaly that has been ongoing for some time. However, as has been acknowledged, it is extremely narrowly focused. It ignores the lack of provisions for all MPs and throws up wider implications concerning the lack of protection for others. It is clear that it does not go far enough. The timing and political urgency have dictated that the Bill is rushed through, but there is disappointment that this opportunity was not used to put right other wrongs and anomalies, and it has highlighted the lack of protection for thousands of others.
The lack of an equalities impact assessment, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, is very disappointing, given the subject of the Bill. This would have allowed further consideration and a wider assessment that could have included all MPs, parliamentary staff and, as has been mentioned, local councillors in the round. I look forward to that and the wider issues that have been thrown up today being addressed when the new legislation, which we have heard about, is introduced. It could also seek to address the need for greater and better representation in public life than we have at present.
The Minister in the other place admitted that the beneficiaries of the Bill are indeed very narrowly defined. She went on to say that, although adoption leave and shared parental leave were important provisions, they had not been included in the Bill, as they
“require further consideration in the wider constitutional context.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 528.]
That is disappointing. However, she said that the Government would swiftly bring back proposals to address outstanding parental leave issues. I was going to ask the Minister what “swiftly” meant, but he said in his introduction that such proposals would be brought back by the Summer Recess, and I welcome that.
It is right that the Bill will change the law to allow the Attorney-General to take maternity leave—I wish her well in the birth of her child—but I hope it will ensure that the Government show commitment to strengthening the employment rights of all pregnant women and new parents across the UK. The Government also need urgently to take a serious look at the unacceptably low basic rate of both statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance, which, as has been mentioned, are a paltry £151.20 a week—less than the national minimum wage for a 35-hour week—especially while thousands of pregnant women are losing their jobs during this pandemic.
The impressive speed with which the Government are acting to ensure that the Minister is able to take paid maternity leave is in contrast with the failure to act on previous commitments to enhance legal protections for pregnant women and new parents in the workplace, especially in the current climate. It is quite shameful that the United Kingdom ranks 22nd out of 24 European countries, lagging way behind many other countries.
The Government have yet to take action on their commitment back in January 2017 to strengthen legal protections against redundancy for pregnant women and new parents. When are these likely to be brought forward? It also remains an anomaly that the Bill requires a pregnant Minister to seek the Prime Minister’s permission or discretion in order to take maternity leave. It does not create a right to maternity leave. I would like some assurance that there will be concerted action to address questions around adoption, surrogacy and other issues that may well arise in the future.
It is good and positive that the Government have found time for a Bill for one woman, but they should be able to find time to follow this up and bring forward a Bill to help many thousands of others. This is particularly important in the current pandemic, when pregnant women are not covered by the furlough scheme, despite guidance that pregnant front-line staff, particularly in the NHS, are vulnerable to Covid-19 beyond the 29th week of their pregnancy. It is reported that many thousands of pregnant women are unlawfully being sent home on sick pay or unpaid leave. Last October, the TUC, Maternity Action, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives called on the Chancellor to adapt the furlough scheme to protect working women who are more than 28 weeks pregnant. It has been reported that there has been no response, despite a reminder in January. Will this be taken back and responded to as a matter of urgency?
Concern has been expressed about the gender-neutral language used in the Bill. I have received correspondence about it, and I am sure that other noble Lords have as well. People are raising their concerns with us. All legislation is framed using gender-neutral language, as is this Bill. The Minister’s letter said that the guidelines had been amended accordingly to refer to the Minister in question and that “pregnant women” would continue to be referred to in government publications alongside gender-neutral language, as appropriate. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that that is not true, and others are also saying that that is not the case. There is some confusion over this, and I look forward to clarification when the Minister responds. Given that we expect gender-neutral language to be inclusive, I would be happy to be able to use “pregnant women”—we have used it throughout this debate—alongside other gender-neutral language as appropriate.
The Government have done the right thing for the Attorney-General and other Cabinet Ministers and opposition spokespeople. Now, they need to put right the completely wrong and unequal situation experienced by the rest of the women and new parents in this country.
My Lords, I declare an interest, although not a current one, as the prospects of my being offered ministerial office are as remote as the chances of my becoming pregnant again. However, 45 years ago, I was pregnant and in Parliament when such a thing was, frankly, considered inconceivable, to coin a phrase. My son, Ben, was born when Jim Callaghan’s Government were hanging by a thread, with no majority in the Commons, running three-line Whips on Lords’ amendments, and with no pairing, following an incident involving Michael Heseltine—now the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine—and the Mace, which older Members might recall. Given the attitudes and circumstances of 45 years ago, it is perhaps not surprising that no arrangements for maternity leave were in place, so I ended up bringing the baby into the House with me two days after leaving hospital, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to.
The day after the first vote in which I participated, which the Government won by a majority of one, the front page of the Daily Express read, “Held Together by a Nappy Pin”, although I preferred the Sun’s headline, “Little Ben strikes”. I thank my lucky stars that my experience predated social media, so my hate mail was confined to those who put pen to paper and to those newspaper columnists who decided to accuse me of neglecting my child, of exhibitionism or of that terrible thing that women do—wanting to have it all.
Like all noble Lords who have spoken, I wish the Attorney-General well and applaud her decision to embark on a substantial period of full maternity leave. I welcome the provisions in this Bill to ensure that she can do so. But over the decades since 1976, many distinguished serving women Ministers and MPs have, I am happy to say, given birth. It is no longer an affront, nor a novelty, and I suspect the current doorkeepers in the House of Commons are no longer instructed by the Sergeant at Arms, as they were in 1976, as to the degree of force to be used to stop a mother bringing a baby into the Chamber.
After all those years and all that experience, I find it dispiriting that we need emergency legislation to ensure that appropriate arrangements are made to provide maternity leave for Suella Braverman. Even more worrying and depressing was to hear the contributions of MPs to the debate on the Bill in another place, their descriptions of the continuing abuse received by pregnant MPs and the many serious unresolved issues regarding cover for their constituency responsibilities. There is clearly much work still to be done.
Today, we are faced with this emergency legislation, which universally in this House is considered unsatisfactory because, by its nature, it lacks the consideration, equalities assessment in advance, and scrutiny to which it should be subjected before its presentation and during its passage through Parliament.
The fact that women parliamentarians have babies has been apparent to my certain knowledge for 45 years. The Attorney-General’s pregnancy has hardly been a state secret. We should record our concern at the lack of foresight and planning by the Government that has led to us having to deal with this Bill at breakneck speed. That haste and lack of time for consideration has meant—as the Minister accepted in his introduction—that we are in the uncomfortable position of putting on to the statute book severely limited legislation which leaves many issues unanswered and does not deal with important questions relating to paternity, shared parental and adoption leave, or the issues faced by non-ministerial parliamentarians.
I fear it also creates the impression that we can find time to legislate to address the needs of our own but not the needs of all the other pregnant women and new parents for whom current provision is far from adequate and for whom Covid has created its own problems, particularly in relation to furloughing, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ecce, said. Only if this Bill is followed by comprehensive action in these areas will the Government have any credibility. I hope the noble Lord the Minister will be able to provide reassurance on this point when he winds up.
Finally, a word about language and the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes: I believe the drafters of this Bill have quite simply got it wrong in trying to Snopake the word “woman” from the legislative lexicon. The price of so-called gender neutrality in this Bill is an awkward and ugly distortion of the English language and an affront to common sense. Far from encouraging respect for language and the recognition of diversity, to which I am fully committed, it risks bemusing and alienating the public and damaging the very causes that passionate advocates of such language espouse. I look forward to debates in Committee on this issue but, even more importantly, I profoundly hope that this Bill can be the spur to do far better for pregnant women, new mothers and fathers, and their babies in the future.
My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. It is always so, but especially on this Bill. As we have heard, she has a special place in the history of mothers in Parliament and as a pioneer of what we are discussing today.
I welcome this Bill and will not detain your Lordships long. One may well argue that the measure is rather overdue, and it may come to many as a surprise that recent Governments have not acted on this issue before. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, it is always interesting that, when Parliament has to act on things which seem to be in our own interests, we can do it in a hurry. I remember well an issue with election leaflets, when it was discovered that the then Home Secretary—Jack Straw, I think—had a whole stack of posters in his garage that were printed incorrectly. We quickly put through a Bill to make sure that those were not redundant.
I am delighted that we are moving bit by bit to aligning Parliament with current workplace practices. As we have heard, some may consider that this Bill should have a wider remit, but as it is being brought forward to address a particular case, legislative time is difficult to find. This is probably a wasted opportunity, but we are where we are, so let us go ahead with it.
One employment issue that was raised consistently by a former constituent of mine was job-sharing for MPs. While I understand some of the reasons why that may seem desirable or attractive to some—and as much as I try to think how it might work, as it does in other workplaces—I was never able to resolve the particular problem of voting being shared. That said, I am pleased that the Bill has a narrow remit and I hope that, as a result, it should have a relatively speedy passage through Parliament.
I am also aware—I could not be unaware—of the concerns we have already heard about some of the gender-neutral language in the Bill. I do not want to get into this controversial and complicated issue, nor do I think I am qualified to do so. I listened to my noble friend Lady Noakes and share some of her views on the excesses of language that we have seen recently, not least from Brighton. However, I fear that my natural inclination to avoid controversy may have deserted me. In times past, I may well have shared more of those concerns. On reflection, I have found myself to be always somewhat behind the curve and that the world has moved on, leaving me behind. Now, somewhat counter-intuitively, I do not see a problem with the language being used—language which has, after all, as we have heard, been a convention for a number of years. It is more inclusive and was originally introduced to enhance the status of women. I am satisfied that there is absolutely no intention on the Government’s part to write out the incredible role of women.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for his helpful letter to us, which I found reassuring, and for his opening comments today. I shall listen carefully to his closing remarks. All I will add is this: I find it quite common now when filling in forms and asked to put down one’s gender that there is a box marked “Prefer not to say”. I understand that some do not wish to identify their gender. Perhaps this language will help them. As I have said, I have no expertise at all in gender politics, but I am happy with the wording. However, I will listen carefully to other noble Lords who, I am sure, will put forward a contrary view—we have already heard several today. This is a good and necessary Bill and I support it fully.
My Lords, I too support the intent of the Bill and certainly wish the Attorney-General well. As other noble Lords have said, it is disappointing that the Bill provides for only a small number of what might be described as very privileged women when we know that in the workplace many thousands of pregnant women or new mothers face discrimination and risk losing their jobs. In fact, one of the striking facets of the debate in the House of Commons was the number of comments made by Members of Parliament about the impact on women of pregnancy and the insecurities in the workplace. The noble Lord, Lord True, acknowledged that the Bill could have been so much more. It is a missed opportunity. I accept what the Government have said about the work being done, but we are being asked to set up a two-tier system for maternity leave in this country and there is a feeling of discomfort about that.
This has been a very good debate so far and I listened with great attention to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Randall. I must say I disagree with him about the issue of language; I do not see it as a technical issue. Fundamentally, a much more important set of principles lie behind the way language is used in the Bill. A colleague of mine counted the number of times “women” was used in the Commons debate and it came to over 300, yet the Bill makes no mention of women. Instead, we heard the rather inelegant terms “person who is pregnant” and “person who has given birth to a child”, which do not seem to add to what we understand as good English.
I have supported trans rights and gay rights over many years. I fought the iniquities of Section 28 and, as a Minister, I took the legislation through this House to allow for gay adoption. I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, whose speech I enjoyed, that, working in London and living in Birmingham, I am a fully paid up member of the metropolitan bubble and proud of it. However, I have become increasingly concerned that the hard-won rights of women over many decades are at risk of being watered down and marginalised as the single-sex spaces enshrined in the Equality Act 2010 come under increasing attack.
That is why this language is so important. Many public bodies are misinterpreting the Act, and many women’s sector organisations, especially those that seek to end violence against women and girls, fear loss of funding and commissioning if they want to provide single-sex exemptions. I am afraid that various government departments have weaselled down the words of the Equality Act in the guidance they have issued to public bodies. Local authorities have misinterpreted the Act and are threatening many small charities trying to provide these services at local level, and people there are frightened to speak up because they believe that they will be attacked and, if they are not careful on social media, accused of transphobia. The Government have remained silent because they themselves have a lot of this philosophy embedded in their advisory system. That is why the wording of the Bill is so important.
Work by Jane Clare Jones and Lisa Mackenzie has described the pattern of erasing sex in data collection and other areas of public policy. The ONS has caved into bullying—pathetic. The head of the ONS was interviewed, I think on the “Today” programme, and said that it was not going down the path it has now chosen. However, it has caved in, as many public bodies do, because they come under aggressive attack on social media and are accused of transphobia. The Government remain absolutely silent.
On the language, in her thoughtful contribution my noble friend Lady Gale talked about the fact that gender-neutral terms will often be appropriate. I agree with that. However, do we really want to see demeaning terms such as “menstruators”, “individuals with a cervix”, “birthing bodies” or even “chest feeders”? When the Brighton trust announced the use of the latter term, where was the Department of Health? It was absolutely silent, because it is cowed and frightened to speak up against this kind of absolute nonsense.
There are many parliamentarians who know that this is nonsense but they are frightened to speak up because of the abuse they will receive. Look at my honourable friend Rosie Duffield. What support has been given to her? Hardly anything, except from a few brave, dedicated people. It is shameful that we have allowed this situation to arise. That is why the Bill and its drafting are so important.
The justification was of course Jack Straw’s change in the convention and revised guidance. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, that was designed to promote the rights of women because previously, “he” was always taken to mean “he and she” in legislation. For that to be used against women in this Bill is extraordinary.
I have looked up the parliamentary counsel guidance. The latest version was produced by the Drafting Techniques Group in 2020. This is a most worthy body but it is not one that should be at the heart of government decision-making. I noted the advice on page 2, which says:
“Clarity is helped by the use of short sentences … Tell your story in a moderate, level tone. Legislation should speak firmly but not shout … While brevity may be good, brusqueness is not.”
That is good advice but is it slavishly followed in all legislation? I very much doubt it. We understand that six pieces of legislation since the original guidance was issued have used the word “women”, including the seminal Equality Act 2010.
I have to say that six minutes is a guide; it is not something that can be enforced by anybody in your Lordships’ House.
With respect, we do not have to take the privileges committee report tonight. This is a Second Reading debate and I am afraid that advisory guidance on a Second Reading debate is highly inappropriate. But I shall not go on much longer.
The noble Lord, Lord True, was very helpful in arranging a meeting last week—we are meeting him again—and I am grateful to him. He must know that the Bill in the way it is worded is indefensible. If this had been a normal Second Reading, the Minister would have observed this debate, gone back and said, “We’re going to get an amendment and we’ve got to change it.” I know we have only four days to go but I urge him to think again. He should also say that this will never be used as a future precedent in legislation. He should ensure that parliamentary counsel changes the guidance, because it is not up to the mark.
Finally, this is my great appeal. Please will the Government defend women who speak up for the protection of women’s rights based on sex? I come again to the outrageous abuse that some of my parliamentary colleagues have received by stating in perfectly reasonable terms that they are not transphobic, just reasonable people seeking to do their job, yet they do not get support from the people who know that what is happening to them is wrong. Above all else, I hope the Minister will say something about that.
My Lords, I am delighted that we have the chance to give this Bill its Second Reading today. It is long overdue and I am sure that there are many outside your Lordships’ Chamber who would be surprised that we do not already have this in place. I congratulate the Government on bringing in this legislation but note the speed with which it is required.
Reading the Library notes on this Bill reminded me of the shock I felt when my grandmother told me she had to leave work when she got married, because she would be taking a job away from a man. That a Minister would have to resign her position to take maternity leave is ludicrous and not in keeping with the world we live in. It is unacceptable that a woman should have to choose between her job and career and having a family.
As an athlete, having to fit the birth of my daughter around my competition schedule because there were no maternity rights was not easy—that is still very much ad hoc in sport today. There is a great deal of similarity between being an athlete and being in Parliament. The reality is that many women have to take different decisions from men about how to make it work, and delay having children or walk away from a role they care passionately about and are good at because it is impossible to find the right balance and support.
This Bill sends out a strong message. I would like to see provision for paternity, shared parental and adoption leave, as well as wider issues of statutory maternity pay and leave for MPs and their staff, included in other legislation.
We should also consider your Lordships’ Chamber. As younger Peers are appointed, we must have increased flexibility. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, on paying Ministers. I remember one occasion a couple of years ago when a returning Peer brought her baby to a Division, and because only a Peer can walk through the voting Lobby, the baby was passed down the line—fine for that one moment, but not a long-term solution to allow women to play a full part in political life. I know from the experience of being a parent of a young child in Parliament that, if you do not live in London, it can be very complicated. I know we choose to do this role, but I really think that Parliament can do better.
The six-month time limit is fine, but we should not stop looking for a greater degree of flexibility if required. I would also prefer it not to be a discretionary power for the Prime Minister to designate a Minister wishing to take maternity leave as a “Minister on leave”. It should be automatic. I have been thinking about whether they could be better described as a “Minister on maternity leave”, but I have concluded that I do not have a strong opinion on this form of language.
However, like others, I will raise the language used in this Bill. I support neutral language, and there are many benefits in terms of driving equality. Yet for so many we do not live in an equal society. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently said—this relates to the pandemic—that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is the “most urgent and immediate” threat to equality. We should seek to correct this. The fact that we measure pay gap, employment gap, educational attainment and a whole set of other metrics shows us that our society is not equal.
I have been contacted by women and men who asked why the word “woman” is in the Explanatory Notes and not the Bill. I will be clear: I think the word “woman” and variations of it should be used in this Bill. I know there will be many who will not agree with me raising this, but I see my role as a Member of your Lordships’ Chamber as being to raise issues that challenge.
I do not hate or want to dehumanise anyone. As a disabled woman, I have experienced discrimination and received a significant number of emails about the many forms it takes. This is a contentious issue and in this debate there will be many views; we are probably not all at the same point on the continuum. We need to be able to have an open discussion, without fear of retribution, of being cancelled or shouted down for discussing terminology or having a different view. Mine may or may not be the majority view beyond the debate today, but that does not mean we should not debate it.
I thought long and hard about joining the debate today and whether I could deal with any potential backlash that may come my way for saying that the word “woman” should be in this Bill. Many from different viewpoints have said that I should be careful. This is not the time to debate the wider aspects of what freedom of speech means; that is for another time, but we must tackle the abuse that women face for having a public view on a whole range of issues. Being told what my opinion should be does not encourage sharing of views and is detrimental to the long-term goal of equality.
Language is important. I have always said that language is the dress of thought. As we know, the specific language used in legislation is incredibly important. It has far-reaching consequences. It is about providing rights and protection and it is our duty to find the balance in that.
I have spent most of my life fighting for inclusion for everyone that society chooses to label as different. I have spent most of my life being othered by language, attitude and a lack of physical access. Growing up, I was called handicapped or a crippled child; luckily, there has been an evolution in that language. Perhaps we need to find a new form of language to include those who feel othered, but it must not be at the expense of the word “woman”.
One thing I am certain of is that many in your Lordships’ Chamber, and those who have a different view from mine on the use of language, want to stop the denigration of women. Excluding the word “woman” from this Bill and other potential legislation does not help the cause of equality for everyone or anyone.
Finally, I wish the right honourable Attorney-General all the best when she becomes the first “Minister on leave”.
My Lords, it has become almost formulaic to say that it is an honour to follow the previous speaker, but it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. She is a woman of quiet courage and total determination; she spoke from the heart and I hope we will heed her.
We have all said, and meant it, that we wish the Attorney-General well and a safe delivery of a healthy child. It is totally fitting that we should be passing legislation that enables her not to have to worry about her job or future—unless the Prime Minister changes his mind about her appointment, but that is a wholly different issue—and we can all support the objectives of this Bill, narrow and late as it is. I associate myself with all the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and others on that.
Apart from my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, with whom I normally find myself in agreement, but certainly and emphatically not tonight, we are all concerned about the language, particularly the erasure of “woman”, “maternal” and “maternity”. We are very fortunate to have a glorious mother tongue—I use the words very deliberately. In our language there are some rich, marvellous and emotive words, none more so than “maternal” and “mother”. There cannot be a Member of your Lordships’ House who does not have fond memories of a mother or grandmother. For many—I include myself—a mother has been the most significant and important figure in their early life. I still think of her very fondly.
I believe it is completely wrong to have the ugly insensitivity of “person” in the language in this Bill. “Personhood and apple pie”—how wonderfully and trippingly it comes off the tongue. I disagree with what has been implicit in many of the fine speeches we have heard, led by my noble friend Lady Noakes: a sort of recognition that we cannot really do anything about it this time. We can. We have a Committee stage on Thursday. If my noble friend the Minister really recognises this, as he does to a degree in the changed Explanatory Notes, and if we can have a translation of that recognition into a free vote, which there should be—I believe all votes are free votes, but I know that is not a commonly held view—we should be able to change this Bill without delay.
If my right honourable friend the Attorney-General is great with child and could produce a child very soon, and this is one of the reasons for the hurry, we can forget that, because I shall introduce an amendment on Thursday which would make this possible for her, if the child is born between 22 February and the receiving of Royal Assent. We can certainly deal with this and make sure that the Bill emerges from our House, as so many Bills do, improved—improved in its language and its recognition of the importance of maternity and motherhood.
I beg my noble friend to talk to his colleagues in government, because the amendments that we shall move do not alter by one jot or tittle the thrust and content of the Bill. All they do, by using the words “woman” and “mother”, is recognise properly that the Bill is about maternity. If the Government were to accept that, the passage of the Bill would not be delayed by more than 24 hours at the very most. As I said, if the child were to be born in that period, and if we accept the amendment that I will have tabled or something like it, then there is not a problem at all.
We are guardians of many things in your Lordships’ House, and one of the things that we should guard with most jealous fervour is the English language. I hope that we will strike a small blow for that as we strike a big blow for motherhood when we come to dispose of this Bill in Committee. I accept the fact that we do not normally vote on Second Reading, and I am not calling for that. I know that my noble friend Lady Noakes, who made a very fine speech, is not calling for that either. I am, however, calling for common sense to triumph over the language of bureaucracy. I hope that we will make progress in the right direction here, just as we are making progress in acknowledging motherhood. We should not do so with a Bill that does not acknowledge motherhood.
My Lords, I am going to use the formula: “It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.” He always makes me smile. The Government have got themselves into a real pickle on this one, have they not? The Minister might be surprised to hear that I am going to give him a bit of wiggle room, because I very much support what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is trying to say here. The erasure of women in public life, in literature and in all sorts of ways has horrified me. The debate has become so toxic and so unacceptable that many of us keep our heads down and try not to engage at all. That is quite often what I do, simply because I work on so many issues, and that becomes difficult when I get distracted by the vileness and hate.
However, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that only women get pregnant. Legally, that is not true anymore because trans men have pregnancies and they have babies. I have held a baby by a trans man. Perhaps the Minister would like to put “women and trans men” into the Bill: that might be an acceptable way forward for all of us. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, spoke about “woke Brighton”. I come from Brighton; when I was living there, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was not woke. The whole thing about chest feeding was absolutely ludicrous because, of course, men have breasts; they get breast cancer. The whole thing is utter stupidity, and you have to wonder who thinks these things up. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, also made an interesting point about the wording being at odds with other drafting. That seems a little bit strange these days, but that is something that I gather the Minister is going to expand on.
Most of the speeches in this Chamber today have been very, very concerned with the depiction of women and how we are treated in our society. One thing that we can do is make misogyny a hate crime. That is something that we should do urgently, and we should raise it at every single opportunity so that people who treat women in that sort of way are actually brought to justice.
On the wider aspects of the Bill, it is, of course, utterly unfair. I can see why it is being brought in, but why is it not for all women? It is absolutely appalling that this is only for a tiny section of very privileged, elite women. It should be for all women. Why is there discretionary power for the Prime Minister? That is awful, because the Prime Minister is most often a man, so it has to be a man’s discretionary power.
In the other place, the MP Stella Creasy wrote to Penny Mordaunt, the Paymaster-General, and I will read a few lines from that letter because it exemplifies why this Bill is so inadequate. She wrote:
“The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently described instances of pregnancy and maternity discrimination as one of the most urgent and immediate threats to equality during the pandemic. A survey by Pregnant Then Screwed found that 46% of women who have been suspended from work because of their pregnancy have been suspended on incorrect terms, including 33% on furlough and another 13% on sick pay, or told to take holiday or to start maternity pay.”
We do not have equality in Britain. We are meant to be a foremost democracy in the world and we do not have equality for 50% of our population. It strikes me that there must be many, many women who have been held back by this because misogyny is so entrenched in our society that we do not even notice it; we do not see it when it is happening. Many thousands of women—millions—have been held back from doing all that they can to improve society. Again and again, we hear that when you have women on boards, for example, or when you have women as part of work teams, the work is better. The thinking is better because it is a different perspective.
Quite honestly, this Bill is perfectly acceptable in its very narrow, late way, and while we cannot blame the Minister for it being this late, we can perhaps blame him for it being so narrow, so that is a message that he could take back. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said in her opening remarks that it is a tiny step. Dear me—it is a tiny step on the right path, but we really need to see a few more giant steps.
My Lords, my comments are going to follow those that have been made by the majority of Members before me. I am not sure that I have anything particularly new to add, but this is an important issue. I very much hope that the weight of numbers will have some sort of influence on the Minister and the Government.
I welcome the Bill and share the comments that others have made. It is late and, to be honest, we should be leading in this field, but we are very much lagging behind. I remember that, when I was first elected a Member of Parliament in 1992, and when I looked round at my fellow new MPs in the Labour group, it was amazing how disproportionately most of us did not have children. That is what it has been at every stage: we have always been late at making it easier for women to be involved in politics and to have a family as well. Nobody could have explained that more strongly than the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has done. Let us not stop here: it is with some humility that we should say that this is good legislation. It is something to be proud of because the Government have got themselves out of a bit of a difficulty with one person, but it cannot rest here. I welcome the comments that the Minister made about ensuring that we look at the other issues as well.
The main reason why I put my name down to speak in this debate was to offer support for the reasoned amendment that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, very ably moved and that colleagues from across the House have spoken to as well. It might be argued that it does not matter: if you look at this Bill, what is going to change if we have the word “woman” rather than “person”? However, it matters and it matters a lot. My noble friend Lord Hunt really pressed this point and was right to do so.
More than anything, it is just common sense. We are not here to pass legislation that does not make sense to the public whom we represent. If we were to go out into the streets of our country and try to explain to the electorate—to our citizens—that we have got ourselves into a position where we are not permitted to use the word “woman” in a Bill that deals with maternity, they would not know where we were coming from. Yet that is the argument that the Minister in the House of Commons made, and it is the argument I thought that the Minister here made today. Common sense and clarity must mean that legislation that we pass makes sense in its language to the people whose lives it will affect.
Of course, this is even more important because of the wider cultural context in which this debate is taking place. There is a wider debate at the moment which risks denying that biological sex exists. I cannot sign up to that. It makes it far more difficult for women-only spaces and for the protection of women in certain circumstances, which has been hard fought for over the years, to actually be carried out. As my noble friend Lord Hunt said, you can see public bodies and areas of public policy where there is now a struggle with how much or how little gender-specific pronouns can be used. This must be sorted out. Equality of opportunity and gender-neutral language were never about making it difficult, embarrassing or awkward for us to use gender-specific pronouns when it is appropriate to do so. I accept and understand that this debate can be difficult as social mores change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said, it is about finding a language where all feel comfortable—but it was never meant to be a situation where women were fearful of expressing a view they strongly held.
I think language does matter, and I welcome gender-neutral language where appropriate. I remember my first Bill in the House of Commons: I was involved in legislation about teachers and was told that the term “he” in it had to apply to female teachers as well, and “headmaster” applied to head teachers of any gender. That is what the legislation, in terms of gender-neutral language, was trying to overcome. We must be clear on that because we must defend it. We must not allow what was a good piece of legislation, or a good piece of advice, to muddy the waters on some of the key issues.
The last point I make—and this really is my plea to the Minister—is that I am not sure why the Government have used “person” rather than “woman”. I was not sure having read the debate in the House of Commons, and I am not sure having listened to the Minister today. I am pretty sure that the 2007 guidance did not require the Government to use “person”. Is he saying that if he presented legislation to the House today which talked about “women who get pregnant”, the Bill would not have the force of law? If he is saying that, I would challenge it merely on the grounds that legislation has been passed since the 2007 guidance—whether they were Bills related to maternity, pensions or equality of rights—that uses the term “woman”. If it would have been legal to use “woman” rather than “person” in the Bill, why did he not do so? If it was not compulsory, it had to be a matter of choice. If the Government chose to use “person” rather than “woman”, I hope that he will be able to explain that in his closing remarks.
Other than that, I think the Minister has been helpful, both in the meeting he had with some of us before this debate and with the open manner in which he introduced it. I hope he will continue to act in that way as we take the Bill through the House of Lords.
My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness who has just spoken on the way she discussed the word “woman”, and I was pleased that my noble friend moved her amendment. I would go so far as to say that, if an amendment is tabled in Committee, I will support it. I am a very loyal Member—indeed, at least one of the noble Baronesses sitting on the Opposition Benches teases me about that. But on this issue I am quite clear: we should use the word “woman”.
I have had the privilege of being married for 60 years, and my wife and I have three children. My wife trained across the road at St Thomas’. The first child came quickly, but the second and third were planned, because my wife and I agreed when we were engaged that both of us would like to work in life and that she should work on whatever form of medicine she chose. She chose to be a full-time general practitioner for most of her working life and certainly when she had the third child. By then she was the senior partner and, as I recall, took only three or four weeks off after having that baby. Of course, in those days there was no formal maternity allowance—it was a matter of individual choice. The decision we made was that we would use our resources to appoint a nanny, child help and childcare, and all muck in. Times have changed, and that is good.
My problem is to try to set aside the individual and look at the strategy being followed. Here we have one of the key offices of state. Every key office of state is probably very demanding and very important in its impact on our economy and our country. It happens to be particularly important at this stage because of Brexit and the problems we all know about in its implementation—particularly Northern Ireland and the union. Somebody is leaving a key office for six months. I do not know what plans the Government have made on two aspects, but I imagine that the Prime Minister believes that the present incumbent is absolutely the key person to do the job. They are not a second choice, but for those six months there will have to be a second choice. That is a pretty tough call on whoever that person may be because, under the Bill as drafted, they know they are out in six months.
But it goes deeper than that, does it not? The civil servants, who are key to implementing law, are put in a difficult position because it is a challenge to their management. I wonder what thought has been given to that. This brings us back to one of the core criticisms of the Bill: that it did not encompass a whole breadth of issues raised in the Commons. Therefore, it is a bad stretch, in my view, to have emergency legislation caused by the situation of one person. Are we really saying that, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer turns out to be a woman who has a child due somewhere around Budget time, the woman can decide to take six months’ leave? In terms of the interests of the country, I would submit that that is a bit of a challenge. It is a bit of a conundrum, and I have some reservations about the way we are producing this emergency Bill when we have not, in my judgment, thought it all through.
I reflected a little further. I have the privilege to be a trustee of the pension fund. We work very hard to try to help pensioners of that fund who get into all sorts of “scrapes”. But we do not actually change the provisions of a Bill: we find methods to help them or advise them, whatever it may be. Basically, we have a problem here.
I asked my daughter, who is self-employed, “What is the maternity provision for you, my darling?” The answer came back: “None”. Then I did a bit of research. We are talking about 1.63 million women in our country who get nothing. Once again, I think somebody should have done a little bit of pre-thinking.
I have thought very long and hard about the Bill, and I am not going to oppose it. Nevertheless, two things come to mind: first, the ones I have raised on the managerial side, if you like, of somebody taking maternity leave from a very senior position in government, and, secondly, the word “woman”. For me, as a man, it is crystal clear that the word “woman” should remain. The Government will have to wrestle with the management dimensions, but if there is an amendment down on “woman” or “women” I—for once—will actually support it.
My Lords, let me declare an interest: I am the chairman of the Genesis Research Trust, which deals with research into women’s diseases and in particular with pregnancy problems, miscarriage, stillbirth and infertility among many other things including cancers. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord True. Should I have said “the noble person”? Perhaps not. I do not wish to behave in any way disrespectfully. He very helpfully listened to our problems beforehand and I hope that will continue before the next stage of the Bill.
Rather like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I have to say that every single one of us in this Chamber, every single person outside in the street and every citizen of the United Kingdom was born from a mother’s uterus. We forgive the muddled biology that we heard a little earlier in this debate. The fact is that only a woman can give rise to a baby. The environment in the womb is critical to our development until we finally die at the age of 70 or 80, if we are lucky. That is important. That defines so much of what makes our humanity. Michael Meaney, who is a very great biologist from Canada, showed very clearly in the studies he did in Toronto and later in Singapore, where I have been somewhat associated, that what happens during pregnancy at various stages affects the development of the baby, including its cognitive ability, its functions and the diseases that it might develop later on at the age of 40, 50 or 60, as have many other scientists. That is fundamental and that depends on the woman, her health and the way she is protected, so we are extremely grateful for the Bill. That the Attorney-General has this opportunity is terrific. The problem is that that does not always apply to some women who have stress with their hormones and all sorts of other problems.
Let me leave Singapore for a moment and come to domestic matters because this is critical. The noble Lord, Lord True, might like to hear from me that, in 2018, 2,943 babies were stillborn, and for 60% of them the cause was unknown. Birth defects were a very minor problem. In many cases, it was poor medicine. Sometimes this was avoidable, but in many cases the reason for stillbirth is completely unknown. These women leave hospital absolutely bereft, and many of them never recover after that loss of a pregnancy. That loss of life within them is critical to that person. If that is not enough, let me remind the House that something close to 200,000 women each year miscarry a pregnancy, and some of them will miscarry several times. I think my record was a woman miscarrying 19 times before she finally gave up being pregnant. One of the commonest things I heard during my professional career from these women when they sat in front of me in tears having had a miscarriage or a stillbirth was, “I do not feel that I am a proper woman.” That was a very common phrase in my clinic in the last 40 years.
If that is not enough either, let me remind the House that about one in 20 women is infertile and they strive hard to become women by being pregnant. That is a goal like none other in their lives. It is for them the most important thing they can do. This is not some aberrant mentality. It is natural. It is born as a result of our evolution as humans. It is part of our humanity, and it is essential. Most of them do not achieve it. For example, figures in Europe show that, after six cycles of in vitro fertilisation, only 43% of women get pregnant. We tend to forget that there is no treatment for them. That is very important.
We are rushing this Bill through for a particular reason, and nobody would doubt the need to get it thorough for the Attorney-General, but what message does it show to women who have lost babies or lost a pregnancy or lost the life within them? Most of them come from poorer, disadvantaged communities. That is true for most diseases that affect us, and it certainly applies to diseases of pregnancy. We have one of the highest stillbirth rates in Europe. We still do not understand why.
Finally, if the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, decides to press her amendment to the Motion to a vote, I will join her because I think it is important to consider this. I think the Minister will see that there is a growing head of steam. I know he was left carrying the baby on this Bill. It was not something that he desires and he had nothing to do with the drafting. We understand that very well, but it is still a problem. Why would I want to go through the Lobby? I would go through the Lobby because I owe it to the hundreds of women who sat in front of me in tears saying, “I don’t feel a proper woman.”
My Lords, it is always an education to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Winston. I declare an interest as an expectant grandfather. One of my daughters, Shula Markeson, is expecting her second child, my fourth grandchild, in a few weeks’ time. In this expectant state, I find it extraordinary that until the pregnancy of the Attorney-General, to whom I send my best wishes, no one in Government seems to have recognised that Ministers, like other women, get pregnant and are entitled to paid maternity leave. The fact that we are considering fast-track legislation today, with all the defects in parliamentary scrutiny that that involves—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale—tells the House everything it needs to know about the low priority historically accorded by successive Governments to issues of maternity. I agree with my noble friend Lady Hayman and others that the Government need to give priority to more general reform.
I also think it is regrettable that, in a Bill which belatedly recognises the needs of female Ministers, Clause 1 confers benefits only if the Prime Minister so allows at his or her discretion—a point touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. When he replies, can the Minister give an example of when the Prime Minister might refuse to allow a pregnant Minister to be designated in circumstances where she would be remaining in post but for her pregnancy? Why is this not a duty to pay maternity leave?
Also, can the Minister confirm that it is not intended by this discretionary benefit that the Prime Minister should ever be able to say to a pregnant Minister, “Very sorry but, because you’re pregnant, I’m going to sack you”? That is rightly unacceptable in all other walks of life. In his opening speech, the Minister said that the Bill sends out a “vital message” to women that they can pursue a political career, without needing to choose between that career and their family. Does the Minister really think that the conferral of the benefits on a discretionary basis is consistent with these laudable aims?
On the language of the Bill, Parliament has often referred to the person who gives birth to a child as a woman and, indeed, a mother. Examples have already been given and I add one—Section 33(1) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 defines a “mother” as:
“The woman who is carrying or has carried a child”.
However, your Lordships should recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, was correct to point out that there are trans men, who were born female, who have given birth. One brought legal proceedings in the Court of Appeal last year. A judgment was given, in which noble Lords may be interested, by the Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, in the McConnell case. It is reported in the third volume of the Weekly Law Reports for 2020 at page 683.
The Lord Chief Justice explained that the claimant had been registered at birth as female, but had transitioned to live in the male gender and had received a gender recognition certificate under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, stating that his gender is male. He then underwent artificial insemination, became pregnant and gave birth to a child. He brought legal proceedings complaining that the child’s birth certificate recorded him as the mother. He said that, because he had transitioned, he should be recorded as the father or as a parent. The Court of Appeal rejected his complaint and said that recording him as the mother was not a breach of his human rights.
The Lord Chief Justice said that, as a matter of common law and under the legislation governing the registration of births, the person who gave birth to a child is the mother, and the Supreme Court dismissed an application for permission to appeal. In light of that judgment, I do not think that there are any legal difficulties in referring to mothers or women in the Bill. The mother of Parliaments, in doing that, would be showing no disrespect to trans men.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his opening statement and for clearly setting out the purpose of the Bill. It is narrow in its application, and I am happy to support it through all its stages in this House. I agree that it is wrong, in this day and age, that Cabinet Ministers who take maternity leave are required to resign. I welcome the extension of provisions to cover the position of opposition officeholders, as well. Women in Parliament and public life generally have faced massive challenges, and our ways of working must be brought up to date as quickly and comprehensively as possible.
However, like other noble Lords, it seems strange to me that it takes the circumstances of an individual case to prompt legislation of this nature. The public will find it very odd that this situation has not been legislated for long before now, rather than being rushed through to accommodate specific circumstances. I also take the opportunity to wish the Attorney-General and her family well, at this time.
I share the view that it would be far better for the Government to bring forward more comprehensive proposals than this legislation to cover paternity, shared parental or adoption leave. I cannot think of any real reason why they could not have included these. None of them is covered in the current legislation; nor is the situation of Cabinet Ministers who are affected by sickness and need to take leave. In recent years, we have had examples of Cabinet Ministers who have had to step down as a result of sickness. It would be good if there was legislation to cover those circumstances, as well.
I welcome the commitment by the Minister and the Government to give urgent consideration to issues such as this and to bring forward proposals to address outstanding parental leave issues in due course. I welcome what the Minister said about an update before the Summer Recess, and we look forward to that. It would also be useful to know how the legislation before us and the situation that has been presented compares to provision made in the devolved Administrations. It is important to have consistency across the United Kingdom.
There are a couple of specific issues that I want to highlight on the particular provisions of the Bill. The first is the time limit of six months for paid leave and the second is the discretionary nature of the provisions, whereby the Prime Minister is vested with certain powers that do not normally apply elsewhere—a matter just alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. That Ministers are public officeholders, appointed by the sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister using the royal prerogative, limits what can be put in statute. I recognise that. However, having to seek the permission of the Prime Minister of the day to take maternity leave, as provided for in the Bill, seems incredibly anachronistic. It leaves open the rather bizarre possibility that the Prime Minister could refuse such a request. Neither a Minister in such a position nor the Prime Minister of the day should ever be put in that position, however theoretical. I think that the six-month period is too restrictive; there is no good reason why it should not be for up to 12 months. The current law on statutory maternity leave is 52 weeks, after all, and it would seem reasonable to extend the period to that.
It is also important that the Government address wider, general issues concerning maternity leave and statutory maternity pay. No one should face discrimination or undue financial loss as a result of having a child and no one should ever be in the position of having to give up their job. The low level of statutory maternity pay or allowance generally in this country is cast into sharp relief by the provisions of this Bill, which allow six months’ maternity leave on full pay. As this legislation is brought forward today to deal with the position of Cabinet Ministers, it cannot be long before the Government address wider issues affecting mothers and fathers across the board in this country.
Finally, I fully support the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in her recent amendment. I wholeheartedly endorse the argument that she and other noble Lords have advanced in advocating their support for that amendment to the Motion, and I will certainly support her, if she presses it to a vote.
I have great concerns, as expressed in the other place and by noble Lords, about the use of the word “person”, as opposed to “woman”, in the Bill. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation from the Government for why this is the case. It is baffling, and not just to Members of Parliament—it is something that most members of the public will find utterly inexplicable. I hope that the Government listen to what noble Lords have said in this House and move to rectify the situation, as the Bill goes through its different stages.
My Lords, I support all that my noble friends Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lady Morris of Yardley have said, so I will not go over those arguments. If the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, wishes to press her amendment, I will go through the Lobby with her, because it is awful that the word “person” rather than “woman” is used in this Bill.
This Bill is either too little or too much. It is too much in the sense that it is extraordinary that the Government have found time to fast-track this measure while, at the same time, protesting that parliamentary time cannot be found for other urgent measures. For example, the Coronavirus Act allows local authority meetings to be held remotely. This is working well but, at the moment, operates only until 7 May. The provision should obviously be extended, but the Government say that this requires primary legislation, and parliamentary time cannot be found.
On this day, coronavirus is at the forefront of all of our minds. This Bill displays an odd sense of non-logical thinking in relation to public administration. It is also inadequate as a maternity and paternal rights measure. We have had maternity and adoption leave since 2002, and shared paternal leave since 2015, yet the Bill omits any reference to these and confines itself to maternal leave. The maternity leave period is far too short, and the measure is merely discretionary in nature and has shortcomings that would have been exposed by an equality impact assessment.
The Bill addresses the position only of Ministers and other officeholders, not Peers and Members of Parliament. It does not address the wider issues of statutory maternity leave and pay and redundancy protection. I welcome the letter that Stella Creasy MP in the other place has sent to all of us today, in which she sets out how things should be.
The Bill is welcome in as far as it goes, but it is a small, rushed step in an important area. I offer the Attorney-General and her family all my best wishes, and I hope that the Minister will come back to us at Third Reading with amendments.
My Lords, my father was the world’s first Minister for Health and Motherhood in the New South Wales State Parliament in Australia. He introduced a child endowment, a form of family support, in the 1920s. I was a founding member of The 300 Group in 1980, with Lesley Abdela and others across the political spectrum, which encouraged equal representation of women in Parliament.
It is disappointing to see that, irrespective of the challenges women face getting into Parliament, we still have barriers such as these for women, should they choose to start or continue to have children once they are elected. Despite this, I welcome the intent behind the Bill, although I find it extraordinary that this issue is only being considered in the 21st century, with the Government lagging behind modern society. Most businesses adopted this approach long ago.
My concern runs deeper than merely timing, as the Bill does not go far or deep enough. The Minister made this point in his opening speech—to
“make clear that the Government are listening.”
I echo the view of Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, that the right to maternity leave and maternity cover should extend to all MPs, and I would go further and say that it should also cover Ministers in the House of Lords. I am also sympathetic to calls for paternity, adoption and shared parental leave to be extended to both Houses—Ministers and MPs—so that they can, if they wish, spend precious time with their families while knowing that their jobs are being covered.
We all know the importance of family, and that those early days are formative. Once gone, you cannot turn the clock back. It feels wrong that we should be introducing a Bill at great speed for the benefit of one senior Minister when, with a little more time and effort, we could be benefiting many more without using up more parliamentary time. I urge the Government to give this benefit and choice to all parents in both Houses.
My Lords, Members of the House of Commons voted to give Ministers formal, paid maternity leave for the first time, and it was hailed as an important and long-overdue change. The Government pledged to bring forward more sweeping maternity protections before the summer recess. Many MPs made statements during the debate. Significantly, the Minister, Penny Mordaunt, said that the Bill will put an end to the “wholly unacceptable situation” of Ministers having to resign to take leave.
Two significant points were made: that the Bill fails to address adoption, and that it fails to address shared paternal leave. The most important statement was made by the mother of the House, Harriet Harman. She said that the Bill should be an impetus to addressing low maternity pay, and that the Government have “done the right thing”. She went on to say that maternity pay is £152 per week—less than half what you would get on the minimum wage. The Bill was passed without any opposition at Third Reading. I ask the Minister whether it might be wiser to see how private sector companies have provided maternity leave to their employees and paternity leave to males.
My Lords, I am sure that we all wish Suella Braverman well in her forthcoming maternity leave, and this Bill is welcome. It is notable for both ensuring her income is fully protected, and for the actual cover it gives her, meaning that she can devote herself to caring for her child without worrying about being on demand 24/7, as is required for the post of Attorney-General.
The Bill is also a big improvement on the predicament faced by my Government colleague Yvette Cooper when she was a Minister, as she explained in the Commons on Second Reading:
“When I needed to take maternity leave as the Minister for Public Health in 2001, I asked the Health Secretary what I should do. He did not know, and said, ‘Ask the Prime Minister.’ He did not know, and said, ‘Ask the Cabinet Secretary.’ He had absolutely no idea, and as Ministers are Crown appointments, he said it was really a matter for the Queen, but nobody thought we should be asking Her Majesty”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 552.]
The fundamental problem is that the Bill benefits only a tiny number of women at a time when life is more difficult for mothers with babies than at any time in modern history. I wish to ask a series of questions, for which I would be grateful to have a reply from the Minister.
Does this Bill mean that maternity leave is merely a perk granted by an employer if only this legislation is passed? Thousands of women right across the country are having to leave work to care for a child. Stella Creasy MP has pointed out that during the pandemic,
“one in four women who are pregnant or a new mum have said that they have faced discrimination, and that they are losing their jobs or being furloughed”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 542.]
Surely this Bill effectively establishes a two-tier system for maternity leave. Where does it leave women MPs of childbearing age? Why does it not extend to them, or, for that matter, to all staff in this Parliament, as other speakers have said? Where does it leave women who are self-employed and who take maternity leave, some of whom have had to take the Government to court to resolve the injustice of the predicament they face? Where does it leave fathers over paternity leave, especially those partnered by women who wish to return to work straight after childbirth?
Surely we need a Bill to give at least every woman in the Palace of Westminster, if not in the country, the same rights that this Bill is giving to the Attorney-General. That being the case, can the Minister indicate whether any advice has been given about whether, once this Bill is enacted, the Government could be vulnerable to judicial review for not granting the same right more widely? As the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Maria Miller MP, argued during the Commons Second Reading
“being forced to leave a job for being pregnant is exactly what happens to thousands of pregnant women. In righting this wrong for Government Ministers, will the Paymaster General also undertake to right it for women throughout our country? Codifying the protection of a pregnant woman’s job is exactly what thousands of women need now. The people we represent want to know that Ministers are being treated no differently from them. Routinely identifying pregnant women for redundancy is too familiar a problem … We cannot ignore the fact that for thousands, current legislation provides protection only in theory but not in practice.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 544.]
That, in a nutshell, coming from a senior Conservative supporter of this Government, is exactly the issue that I ask the Minister to address in his response.
My Lords, I am not the only Member of this House to have been lobbied about the wording of this Bill. I entirely approve of its practical purpose, but I too question the use of the word “person”, when “lady”, “woman” or “mother” would be normal usage in relation to maternity issues or pregnancy and childbirth. I understand the desire to avoid any insensitive use in legislation of gender-specific words, but that convention is not inviolate. We do not stop using the word “Lords” to include all who are Members of your Lordships’ House. The Government’s justification in the other place was that
“the convention that we are now operating under … was introduced by Jack Straw in 2007. The intention of the guidance on using gender-neutral language was to avoid demeaning women by implying that only men could undertake certain roles, and that drafting convention has remained.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 594.]
Jack Straw used a ministerial Statement, and a future Parliament is not committed to a convention; it is not law. My personal experience of this was a ministerial Statement by Jack Straw when he was Lord Chancellor in 2008, specifically drafted to enable me to withdraw an annulment Motion, which has since been set aside. In December 2013, answering a short debate about wording and grammar in legislation, the much-respected noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, said from the very Dispatch Box in front of the Minister—it is worth repeating in full:
“The guidance also recognises that there must be some flexibility and that there will be some Acts where only gender-specific drafting can be usefully applied. In a case where a person has to be of a particular gender—male or female—gender-neutral drafting does not require drafters to avoid referring to the gender. I think your Lordships would agree that that would be the case for legislation about maternity.”—[Official Report, 12/12/13; col. 1014.]
Does that clear statement not say it all?
Common sense, reflecting the biologically unique role of a mother who bears a child in her womb and brings it to term, says there is no conceivable discourtesy or demeaning of a woman or womanhood by using the corre