House of Lords
Thursday 4 March 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leeds.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them brief and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Video-sharing Platforms: BBFC Ratings
My Lords, the British Board of Film Classification’s age ratings are currently used by a number of video-on-demand providers. Although adoption is voluntary, we welcome their use. The video-sharing platform regime, for which Ofcom is the regulator, came into force on 1 November 2020. UK-established video-sharing platforms must now take appropriate measures to protect the public, including minors, from illegal and harmful material. Video-sharing platforms may adopt age ratings as an appropriate measure; however, they are not obliged to do so.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply, but there is a wider issue with BBFC certification. The recently launched Disney streaming service ran a documentary originally certificated by the BBFC as suitable for those aged 18 and over. Disney chose to self-certificate it as suitable for 12 and over. Believe me, some scenes in that documentary were truly horrific. To protect children, will the Government, as a matter of urgency, bang heads together and get every streaming service to sign up to the BBFC system, which is tried and trusted?
I agree with my noble friend’s last remark about this system being trusted. The Government have great trust in the BBFC’s best-practice age ratings. On his suggestion that we bang heads together, we aim to approach things more gently, but we are actively engaging with the industry to encourage other platforms to adopt the BBFC’s ratings across all their content, and will keep the evidence for legislation in this area under review.
My Lords, I declare a past interest as a member of the first British video classification council, chaired by Lord Harewood. It was difficult then, so I ask the Minister how parents can be expected to manage their children’s screen time today, when there is such a lack of regulation and a slow government response.
My noble friend makes a valid point, and I know that parents have had extraordinary challenges in this area, particularly over the last year. She is aware that we are developing a media literacy strategy and that, last year, we published guidance on online safety for children. We should also remember that our broadcasters have educated, entertained and informed our children in the last year.
The Government’s response to the online harms White Paper says that:
“The regulator will be required to have regard to the fact that children have different needs at different ages when preparing codes of practice relevant to the protection of children.”
What powers will Ofcom have to provide sufficient oversight and ensure enforcement of these additional protections? Will they be set out in the online safety Bill?
In December, the Minister spoke of the voluntary nature of the BBFC scheme, which she reminded us of earlier for video-on-demand services. One of the strengths of the BBFC’s ratings is that they are well understood by parents and children alike. The same cannot be said for the inconsistent approaches adopted by platforms offering user-generated content. How do the Government plan to balance the undeniable need for change, to which noble Lords have referred, with their wish to minimise regulation, which is clearly not working at the moment?
The noble Lord will be aware that the adoption of BBFC ratings, particularly by Netflix, is a relatively recent development, so we have not yet made an assessment of its impact on both accessibility of content and other streaming services. As I said to my noble friend Lord Grade, we are keeping this under review.
My Lords, YouGov research confirms that 82% of parents and 73% of children want BBFC age ratings displayed on user-generated content on these video-sharing platforms. Given new duties under the revised audio-visual media services directive to protect children, and with the promised duty of care, is not actual regulation from the Government needed to make sure that these platforms work with the trusted ratings from the BBFC to better protect children? Are not the Government running against the tide?
My Lords, sensibly regulating the wild west of user-generated content on the internet is essential, but potentially a whack-a-mole exercise, given the risk that it simply displaces activity elsewhere. How will the DCMS work with Ofcom to ensure that its implementation of the video-sharing platform regime develops understanding of how to regulate online services, in advance of the online safety Bill coming into force?
My noble friend makes an important point. By the implementation of the video-sharing platform regime, as he suggests, Ofcom will build its experience in regulating harmful content while balancing freedom of expression. I understand that Ofcom is already preparing for its new responsibilities in relation to online harms by bringing in new technology and people with the right skills.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that for 10 years I was a vice-president of the BBFC. While the adoption of the BBFC’s age ratings is currently voluntary, does the Minister welcome the fact that Netflix announced on 1 December last year that it had become the first platform to achieve complete coverage of its content under the BBFC’s ratings, and that a number of other video-on-demand platforms use BBFC ratings for some of their content, including Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player? Will she continue to engage with the industry to encourage other platforms to adopt the BBFC’s ratings across all their content?
I refer the House to my interests on the register. Age rating is just one of the many tools needed to build the digital world that children deserve, but it is hugely important to children and families that are looking to curate an age-appropriate experience. Is the Minister aware that Apple and Google app stores routinely advertise apps and games as suitable for four-plus and nine-plus for services whose own terms and conditions state that they are only for 16-plus or adult use? This means that a child or parent will download an app on the false understanding that it is age appropriate. Does she agree that there is little point age-rating individual pieces of content if the largest companies in the world continue to mislabel products and services on an industrial scale?
I would be happy to discuss the matter that the noble Baroness raises with the relevant platforms and the Video Standards Council. We encourage online store fronts to follow the BBFC best practice for labelling online apps, which includes signing up to the international age rating coalition system.
My Lords, I declare my interest as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Esports. Does the Minister agree that in protecting children’s rights, the views of gamers, children and teachers should be taken into account when considering a combination of age labelling, filters and parental controls, and that tools such as URI which provide age ratings for UGC available via online video-sharing platform services are exceptionally helpful in this context?
My noble friend is right that the views of children, gamers and teachers are important. Under the video-sharing platform regime, UK-established platforms will be required to take appropriate measures to protect all their users from illegal content and minors from harmful content. Those measures could include a combination of age labelling, filters, parental controls and technical tools.
Data Protection Act 2018: Children
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to their call for views and evidence for the Review of Representative Action Provisions, Section 189 Data Protection Act 2018, published on 27 August 2020, what plans they have to reflect the views of the children consulted as part of the Review in changes to the Data Protection Act 2018.
My Lords, DCMS officials consulted children directly as part of the call for views. Children who responded pointed to a lack of awareness about how to complain to the ICO or take action against a data controller when things go wrong. That is why we have committed to work with the ICO and other interested parties to raise awareness about the redress mechanisms available to all data subjects, including children. Our focus is on improving the operation of current law, rather than making legislative changes.
I thank the noble Baroness for her response. However, the other thing that children said in the Government’s own review was that 96% of them thought that charities should be able to represent them—and that they had a “lack of support” and
“had not heard of the ICO.”
As the noble Baroness said, they also lacked awareness of how companies such as advertisers might use their personal data—so they may not even know that they have a problem. As such, I challenge the noble Baroness to say that only a handful people can successfully understand and challenge data protection law.
The other thing is that the Government’s reasoning was that children now benefit from the protections of the age-appropriate design code, so I ask the noble Baroness, as Minister for Youth Policy and DCMS: how do the Government reconcile wilfully ignoring the views of children—in favour of the business interests of the tech sector—with their duties under Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is that views must be heard in “matters affecting the child”? Are we to understand from this that—
I reject the noble Baroness’s suggestion that the Government are blocking off meaningful means of redress. Our current data protection laws already offer strong protections to people, including children and other vulnerable groups, and we will continue to assist them in exercising their rights. Through the review, we sought, and have listened to, the views of children and their parents, and we are working with the Information Commissioner’s Office to raise awareness of the redress mechanisms available to them. Finally, civil society groups can still make complaints on behalf of children, as the noble Baroness suggests.
My Lords, it is very hard to square the two strands that the Minister is dwelling on: that children were in favour of more legislation to help them challenge the issues concerned with their data, but also that there was not a strong enough case for introducing legislation. Given that the consequence of that decision, as has been said, is more children suffering from identity theft, online grooming, data profiling and microtargeting, can the Minister help us by explaining what would have been a strong enough case?
As the noble Lord is aware, we considered the views of children and business, but the real issue here is less what would be a strong enough case and more whether the existing law is adequate—which we believe it is—and whether it needs to be implemented in a way that allows all data subjects to seek redress more easily, which it does; that is what we are working on.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a pressing need for much greater levels of awareness and understanding? Furthermore, does would she agree that it is crucial that we enable our young people, and indeed all people, to be financially, digitally and—crucially—data literate and aware?
My Lords, is my noble friend aware of just how time-consuming it is for a young person to go through a complaint under the ICO rules, which is something I personally have done and have helped children with? Does she not consider it worth making it very clear to children that the civil society organisations representing them can do the bulk of the work, without constantly having to refer back to the child?
My noble friend makes a fair point about the complexity in this area, but the ICO has been very clear that it will investigate companies that do not comply with the GDPR concerns reported to it—and that it will accept referrals and complaints from civil society organisations, which can play an important role.
My Lords, as a family judge, I regularly talked to children, some of them very young, about what they wanted to happen to them at the end of the proceedings. May I urge the Minister really and seriously to listen to children—because they very often have something extremely valuable to say?
My Lords, when I read the government response to the call for evidence, it struck me that it is as important, if not more so, to take account of and reflect on adequate protections and to ensure that they are in place for young people, who evidently have a distinct lack of knowledge and awareness about, for example, how an advertiser might use their personal data. If the noble Baroness agrees with me on that point, what thought have she and her department given to delivering that extra protection by non-legislative means? If she has any examples to share, I am sure the House would welcome them.
The noble Lord makes an important point, particularly in relation to adtech. As he will be aware, the ICO has recently reopened its investigation into it, which it had to pause last year because of Covid-19 constraints. If it is to be effective, our media literacy strategy needs to cover all these points, including giving children and their parents an understanding of how their data is used.
My Lords, among millions of disadvantaged parents and children, awareness of data protection and online harms in general is very fragmented. Could the Minister assure the House that the children consulted came from all sorts of backgrounds to give a broader picture? Does she agree that we cannot leave it to parents and teachers to manage the complexity of data protection—particularly in the context of online harms and safeguarding children from grooming and sexual exploitation—without government leadership with structural safety legislation?
The noble Baroness is right that it is important that we always talk to a wide range of children, which we always seek to do. She is also right that the responsibility to sort this out should not fall to the child or parents; really, we need this to be addressed much earlier on, which is one of the reasons that, in addition to the age-appropriate design code, the Government are developing a one-stop shop to give companies practical guidance about keeping children safer online.
My Lords, can the Minister comment on what steps the Government will take to stop organisations’ growing use of “legitimate interest” to get around cookie refusals? What will HMG now do to help improve knowledge of data protection rights and the Information Commissioner’s Office among young people? It is clear from this review that they are, in the main, not aware of what is done with their personal data or that they can complain to the ICO.
[Inaudible]—2021, seek children’s views. They were rejected because they were asking whether children’s voluntary sector organisations should represent them in presenting those views. I understand that this was rejected because there was a lack of evidence; could the Minister explain this?
EU: Fishing Industry Negotiations
My Lords—[Inaudible.] During the negotiation of the trade and co-operation agreement, Ministers and officials met frequently with representatives of the fishing industry, including the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, to update them on the negotiations and discuss their views on them.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. The issue of fisheries was raised in your Lordships’ House last Thursday. The end of December 2020 saw us leaving the EU, and during that time, we had a rolling commentary on the Brexit negotiation on fisheries and how we would be taking back our waters. The truth is we have not—not to the extent that fishermen thought we would. Did members of the fisheries organisations take part in the Brexit negotiation? Does the Minister think that if they had been part of the negotiation, it would have had a better outcome? The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations had written to the Prime Minister on this matter back in February—
[Inaudible.] The noble Lord, Lord Frost, and other Ministers and officials were in close touch with the fishing interests. The trade co-operation agreement has made some progress, increasing quota, ensuring regulatory autonomy and no tariffs, and controlling access to fish in our waters.
My Lords, there is an overall improvement in the situation, but we all agree that more work needs to be done. That is why Defra has invited exporters to in-depth workshops, 11 of them in the past few weeks, on issues including export health certificates. We are also working closely with the Scottish Government, Food Standards Scotland and other government departments to learn from the establishment and operation of existing hubs in Scotland. Although the situation is improving, we in Defra and other government bodies are doing considerable work.
My Lords, there is an immediate, pressing problem for many of our fishermen, who are suffering. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to increase fish consumption in the domestic market? Do we need a fish and chips tsar or someone to encourage people to eat fish? More importantly, in the negotiations with the EU, will the Government work towards a flexible arrangement that allows for better quota swaps?
My Lords, we will be pragmatic and we will work robustly with the EU and, indeed, with Norway and the Faroe Islands. Importantly, Defra and Seafish are working together on the Love Seafood campaign precisely to encourage the domestic consumption of excellent fish that hitherto we may not have consumed.
My Lords, the situation seems to make a mockery of the Prime Minister’s claim that his Brexit deal would involve
“no non-tariff barriers to trade.”
May I take up with the Minister the worrying situation in my local port of North Shields, which is England’s biggest prawn port and heavily dependent on exports to France and Spain, where trade continues to be severely disrupted by delays, complicated red tape and, in some cases, prohibitive extra costs?
My Lords, I would like the noble Baroness to let me have further details on this issue, which I will speak to the Fisheries Minister about, because we are having daily conversations with, for instance, the French embassy. I would like to hear more about the situation in North Shields; our task is to resolve these matters.
My Lords, many parts of the industry are heading for bankruptcy, yet within the agreement we have the mechanism of a Specialised Committee on Fisheries, which has not yet met. The Minister, Victoria Prentis, recently said:
“Details on how the committee will function will be communicated once they are finalised.”
This is not good enough. Surely, the Government need to pull their finger out. In this third month of Brexit, when is this specialised committee actually going to meet?
My Lords, in February last year the Secretary of State wrote to the EU Commissioner raising concerns about its decision to ban the import of class B live bivalve molluscs. In a subsequent letter to food exporters, dated 10 December 2020, it was confirmed that exports of these molluscs would be prohibited. So, why did the Secretary of State claim in a parliamentary Statement this January that he had only recently been made aware of the situation, when, seemingly, he had known and done nothing about it for a year?
My Lords, I will look into this because that is entirely contrary to my understanding, which is that the European Commissioner made it clear that this was an acceptable trade. We were most surprised to hear that the export of live bivalve molluscs from class B waters would not be accepted. We think that that is not well founded in law and we have sought a meeting with Commissioner Kyriakides on this matter.
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in condemning recent illegal operations carried out by Greenpeace: dumping large boulders in shallow fishing waters, potentially causing great risk to fishing vessels and their crews? Can he assure me that adequate resources are being and will be made available to ensure effective protection of the UK’s fishing waters and fleet?
My Lords, everyone should take note of and abide by the regulations. The actions by Greenpeace within the Brighton Offshore Marine Conservation Zone are subject to a live investigation by the Marine Management Organisation. The Government have significantly increased the number of personnel and surveillance assets dedicated to fisheries protection.
My Lords, the Scottish seafood industry is world class but it has been let down by the lack of preparation for implementing this agreement beyond the negotiations, and by the political polarisation of the Scottish and UK Governments whenever these matters are discussed. Has the department, or the UK Government as whole, learned any lessons from this disaster? Will they seek a much more understanding, partnership-based, mutually respectful relationship with the Scottish Government in the future?
My Lords, again, I am interested in what the noble Lord has said because my experience, certainly at Fisheries Councils, is of strong collaboration between all the devolved Administrations. The Secretary of State has had regular dialogue with Fergus Ewing and that will continue, because we have a mutual interest in advancing the export and domestic consumption of excellent products from both Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, there is a balance to be struck between a thriving fishing industry and the conservation of fish stocks. The network of marine protected areas is at risk. Information from Greenpeace shows that destructive fishing boats spend hundreds of hours fishing inside places that are meant to be protected. While I do not condone the actions of Greenpeace, it is true that bottom trawlers and scallop dredgers are ripping up protected seabeds with impunity. What are the Government doing to correct this?
We are ensuring through our sustainability objectives that all of the marine environment in the UK system is protected. That is what we intend to do, and that is why there were deliberations on the now enacted Fisheries Bill. We will be working on ensuring an improvement in our marine ecosystem.
COVID-19 Vaccine Certification
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the statement by the Prime Minister on 23 February (HC Deb, col 627), when they will provide further details of their review of the potential role of COVID-19 vaccine certification; and what organisations will be involved in that review.
My Lords, as set out in the Covid-19 response document published last week, the Government will review whether Covid status certification could play a role in reopening our economy, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will lead the review, and he is currently considering the approach to its conduct.
Covid passports would make things easier for travellers, care homes, venues and businesses, but there are also concerns about confidentiality and straying into making vaccines compulsory. Proper consent for any system of certification is vital, and the Government need to consult on this quickly and widely. How will that be done? There are also other issues, such as the risks of forgery and of people borrowing other people’s certification. How will those inspecting a Covid passport know, in the absence of a proper ID card or identity assurance system, whether the person presenting it is who they say they are and whether the certification applies to that person?
My Lords, the noble Lord rightly sets out a number of issues that will have to be considered as the review goes forward. As the Prime Minister has said, there are deep and complex issues that we need to explore. We shall certainly draw on outside advice and opinion as we go forward.
My Lords, how will the Government mitigate the risk that introducing vaccine certificates will move toward a system of individual risk-scoring that could undermine public health by treating a collective problem as an individual one and reduce compliance with vital individual public health measures?
My Lords, again, the noble Lord raises important considerations. As I have said, my right honourable friend is currently scoping areas for the review, and many issues will come up on both sides of the question, which will have to be carefully weighed. I can assure the noble Lord and others that Covid status certificates would not be a form of national identity card.
My Lords, last month the Ada Lovelace Institute published a report on the potential of vaccine passports. Among other recommendations, it called for the Government to engage with the public on this topic in order to build trust and legitimacy and also to understand what trade-offs the public are willing to make. What plans do the Government, and the review in particular, have to engage with the public so that we can build trust, not distrust, around status certificates?
Again, there are obviously two strands here. There is the strand of international discussion about enabling international travel, which is subject to a review being conducted by my right honourable friend Mr Shapps, and there is the current review addressing the issues that noble Lords have been speaking about. As I have said, these are very early days—the review was announced only last week—but, as the Prime Minister said, we will seek the best scientific, moral, philosophical and ethical viewpoints on the way forward. Obviously, public opinion will be part of that.
My Lords, a Covid variant first identified in Brazil has been found in the UK. Some variants, like this one, appear to be more contagious, and there are concerns that current vaccines may not work as well against them. The UK Government have already announced a deal with the biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants, with a pre-order of 50 million doses. Can the Minister tell us what steps the Government will take to ensure that no vaccine will be approved unless the expected high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness are met as those new vaccines will be developed in as short a time as possible?
My Lords, obviously I am not the lead Minister on vaccines, but what I do know, and I think the public know, is that our standards in this country in terms of assessing vaccines are among the highest in the world, if not the highest. The Government would never in any circumstances do anything that would jeopardise the safety of the public.
On Monday the European Union announced plans for a digital green pass that will provide proof that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19, as well as details of tests, and will “facilitate Europeans’ lives”. Are Her Majesty’s Government in discussion with the Commission about this—about working together—and will it be part of the proposed consultation?
My Lords, as I say, there is a parallel strand here. The review that was announced is of the potential domestic application of Covid certification; the review of international travel is a separate strand. I can repeat what I have said before at this Dispatch Box: the Government are talking to all partners internationally about the work of trying to facilitate international travel when it is safe to do so. Obviously, we have to respond to the fact that other countries may decide that people need to show vaccinated status as a requirement for entry, but the Government are not currently looking to make it a requirement to have a vaccination certificate to come into this country.
My Lords, in considering whether to introduce vaccine certification, will the Government consult organisations representing patients who have been advised by their clinician that it would not be in their interest to take the vaccine? How would such patients be able to navigate a world in which vaccine certification was widely used?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, as ever, raises a very important and sensitive point. The Prime Minister has said that we cannot discriminate against people who, for whatever reason, cannot have the vaccine. I assure her that the review will certainly take that aspect into account.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register. I want to return to the vaccination certificate on a domestic issue, following on from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Can the Minister ensure that, whatever system we end up with, it is very narrowly and clearly defined and has the consent of those who are excluded from its benefits as well as those who would derive benefits from having such a certificate?
The noble Baroness makes an important point. As I have tried to indicate in this series of answers—I said at the outset that my right honourable friend is currently scoping the approach—your Lordships’ advice through all this will be very much valued and a range of opinions, including those just expressed, will have to be considered. As the Prime Minister has said, deep and complex issues are involved.
My Lords, in those various discussions, will my noble friend consider the plight of a family travelling together where the adults are vaccinated and have a certificate but the children, including adolescents, are not? Is there a concern that a modern Morton’s fork is created, so that the efficiency and effectiveness of any certificate is undermined identically whether the accompanying children have a Covid-19 test or not? Has my noble friend noted that this dilemma in countries which use a vaccine certificate domestically has resulted in the certificate having only a marginal impact?
Will the Minister ensure that the review considers the impact of introducing vaccine certificates on the cultural and entertainment sectors, and both the commercial and the ethical implications for them? Any form of passporting will likely impact disproportionately on those communities already excluded, and the integration of health data into cultural participation is a worrying shift from the social to the medical model of disability. Can the Minister confirm the review will include a full equality impact assessment?
My Lords, as I have said, my right honourable friend is currently scoping the approach to the review. On the point made by the noble Baroness, I repeat what the Prime Minister said: we will reach out to get the best moral, philosophical and ethical viewpoints on this issue. That will include all the points raised in this House today.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 2 March.
“Today marks 12 weeks since Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a clinically approved vaccine for Covid-19. She has since been joined by over 20 million other citizens of this country in the biggest and fastest vaccination effort the world has ever seen.
This is a phenomenal achievement. Our vaccination programme is a national success story for the whole United Kingdom, and the reason it matters is that it allows us to replace the protection currently given by restrictions on our freedoms with the protection from science.
The data confirms that this strategy is working because the vaccines work. The number of hospital admissions is falling faster than the number of new cases, whereas in the first peak it fell more slowly, and the fall in hospitalisations is faster among the age groups vaccinated first than in younger age groups yet to get a jab.
I can tell the House about some further analysis that backs up this excellent news. The halving time of hospital admissions is now every 18 days. Over the past fortnight, it has fallen for those aged over 85 from 18 days to 15. This morning, the Office for National Statistics published data showing the number of deaths falling by over a quarter a week in mid-February. More than that, the number of deaths each day is not only falling faster than after the first peak, but it is falling faster in the over-80s, who got the jab first, compared with the under-80s. The number of daily deaths is halving every 12 days, but among the over-80s it is now halving every 10, so while the fall in cases is decelerating, the fall in the number of deaths is accelerating. What all this shows is that the vaccine is working, reducing the number of deaths among those who were vaccinated first and preventing hospital admissions. This is real-world evidence that the vaccine is protecting the NHS and saving lives, that the 12-week dosing regime is saving lives, and that this country’s strategy is working.
As well as this real-world data, I would like to update the House on two new pieces of analytical research published over the last 24 hours. First, this morning the Office for National Statistics published new data on the levels of protection people have. They show that up to 11 February, one in four people is estimated to have antibodies against coronavirus in England, up from one in five. The levels are highest in the over-80s, the first group to be vaccinated, showing again the protection from the vaccine across the country. The second piece of research, published last night, shows that a single dose of either the Oxford or the Pfizer vaccine delivers protection against severe infection in the over-70s, with a more than 80% reduction in hospitalisations. It is great news that both vaccines work so effectively. In fact, the protection from catching Covid 35 days after the first jab is even slightly better for the Oxford jab than for the Pfizer, so people can have confidence that they will get protection, whichever jab they are offered.
I am grateful for the work of colleagues across the House in promoting vaccine take-up, which has helped to deliver some of the highest levels of enthusiasm for vaccination in the whole world, and I am pleased to inform the House that we are now inviting over-60s to be vaccinated too. Although the day-to-day figures for supply are lumpy, we have some bumper weeks ahead later this month. Given that our vaccination programme began 12 weeks ago today, from now we begin in earnest our programme of second vaccinations, which ramps up over the month of March. I can assure the House that we have factored these second jabs into our supply projections, and we are on track to meet our target of offering a vaccine to all priority groups 1 to 9 by 15 April and to all adults by the end of July.
Our vaccination programme means that we can set out our road map to freedom and put this pandemic behind us, but we must stay vigilant because Covid-19, like all viruses, mutates over time. Part of controlling any virus is responding to new variants as they arise, just as we do with flu each year. Knowing this, we invested in genomic sequencing right at the start of the pandemic, giving the UK one of the biggest genomic sequencing capabilities in the world. Thanks to that, we have been able to spot variants here at home and support others to detect variants in other parts of the world.
I would like to update the House on the six cases of the variant of concern that was first identified in Manaus in Brazil and that we have now identified here in the UK. We know that five of those six people quarantined at home, as they were legally required to do. We have been in contact with them, and I would like to put on record my gratitude to them for doing their duty and following the rules. Whenever we identify cases of a new variant, we respond fast and come down hard by bringing in enhanced sequencing and testing, so we are stepping up our testing and sequencing in South Gloucestershire as a precaution. We have no information to suggest that the variant has spread further.
Unfortunately, one of the six cases completed a test but did not successfully complete the contact details. Incidents like this are rare and occur only in around 0.1% of tests. I can update the House with the latest information on identifying this case. We have identified the batch of home test kits in question, and our search has narrowed from the whole country down to 379 households in the south-east of England. We are contacting each one. We are grateful that a number of potential cases have come forward following the call that we put out over the weekend, and I would like to thank colleagues from across the House who have helped us to get the message out there.
Our current vaccines have not yet been studied against this variant. We are working to understand what impact it might have, but we do know that the variant has caused significant challenges in Brazil, so we are doing all we can to stop the spread of this new variant in the UK, to analyse its effects, to develop an updated vaccine that works on all these variants of concern, and to protect the progress that we have made as a nation. This country is on the road to recovery and we have freedom on the horizon. We must proceed with caution because although we are moving quickly, the virus moves quickly too. Let us not waver; let us do whatever it takes to keep this virus under control.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for this Statement. I agree with the Statement in congratulating the NHS on its rollout of the vaccine, which continues to be a huge cause for optimism and hope, as does the science and research, in which the UK has played a leading role. However, we are still the country that has the third highest number of deaths in the world, at 124,000. Given the success of the vaccine and the strength of our science base, that is dismal. It must at least in part be attributed to decisions that the Government have taken or not taken, the failure of test and trace to do the job that we need it to do and the porous nature of our borders, on which we have again seen decisions taken too little, too late.
The concern about new variants means that, if the UK does not get on top of them, the valiant efforts of our NHS, our scientists and the vaccine could be terribly undermined. In January and February, cases here were running at tens of thousands a day and we were in lockdown, as we still are, because of our home- grown, new infectious variant. Nevertheless, people were allowed to fly in from abroad, bringing the P1 Brazilian mutation with them. Throughout history, epidemic after epidemic has exploited international travel. Surely it is obvious that tougher border controls should have been in place sooner.
The Brazilian variant cases arrived a month ago. They showed the problems of delays as well as the limitations of the pre-travel tests that did not catch those cases. Even now, 99% of the 15,000 daily arrivals are not covered by hotel quarantine. Most people can still travel home from the airport by Tube, train or even plane, mixing with others, as some of these travellers did, without being tested on arrival in the UK. Why are the Government still refusing to introduce additional tests on arrival and still allowing international passengers to travel onward on UK public transport? Does the Minister recognise that those gaps in the system will let more new variant cases spread? Is it also the case that there is a risk of cross-infection at airports where congestion is occurring? I understand that yesterday there were queues that lasted for several hours at Heathrow. What are the Government going to do about this? It is shocking that people are mixing, having arrived from a list of countries at risk, instead of going straight into hotels for isolation.
Of course, I welcome the progress that the Government have made in identifying the batch of tests from which that of the missing infected person came, but how on earth can a test be processed that does not collect contact details? What mechanisms have been put in place to fix that for the future? Some £22 billion have been allocated to this system, but it feels as though someone has vanished into thin air. How is the hunt for this person proceeding? Can the Minister assure us that this will not happen again?
Is there any information suggesting why this variant is spreading? The Minister might recall that John Edmunds from SAGE told the Home Affairs Select Committee in January that for every identified South African variant case, there were probably another 30 that had not been identified. Can the Minister tell the House, therefore, whether he has received any estimates of the number of unidentified cases in the wider community?
We are in a race against the evolution of this virus, so we have a long way to go. To be frank, nowhere is Covid-safe until everywhere is Covid-safe. None of us wants to yo-yo in and out of lockdown, so will the Minister guarantee that the lockdown easing will, as promised, be absolutely based on data, not dates, and that the assessment time between each step will not be compromised?
I welcome the extra surge in testing, but what is the current timeframe for genetic sequencing? How can it be speeded up? What steps will be taken to ensure that areas such as Ashfield, Leicester, Watford, Worthing and Hyndburn are not left behind when the national lockdown restrictions begin to lift, or will those places be put in localised lockdowns? Will the local authorities there be given extra resources to do more door-to-door testing and retrospective tracing? Will workplaces in those areas be inspected by the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that they are Covid-secure? Will people finally be given decent sick pay and isolation support?
On the Budget, it beggars belief that it did not include any detailed plans for the NHS. Indeed, the OBR highlights this, saying:
“The Government’s spending plans make no explicit provision for virus-related costs beyond 2021-22, despite its Roadmap recognising that annual vaccination programmes and continued testing and tracing are likely to be required.”
We know that the last reorganisation of the NHS cost £3 billion and that does not seem to have been put into the Budget either. Can the Minister explain how the NHS will catch up with the enormous backlog that has been created, as well as the ongoing pandemic-related costs? This is an urgent question.
It has also emerged that the Government appear to have delayed social care reforms until 2022, with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Barclay, telling campaigners that plans for sustainable improvement will only come next year. In January, the Prime Minister told Parliament that the Government would bring forward plans later this year, so will the Minister confirm whether it is this year or next year or when they actually intend to launch reforms on social care?
My Lords, from these Benches we, too, congratulate everyone involved in the vaccination process, including our brilliant teams of scientists, both in this country and abroad, who have been working—and continue to work—tirelessly on safe and effective vaccines for the world. We also congratulate the teams who are organising and managing the supply chains and all of those on the front line delivering jabs in arms, or supporting them to make it possible to reach the target of 20 million doses achieved this week. We will also not forget everyone working on Covid at the moment, whether front-line staff in health and social care or back-office staff who may not be visible to us but who are making sure that all these processes are working. We thank them all.
It is reassuring to hear that the second jab supply chain has been factored in, but can the Minister please tell the House if the supply chain and vaccination dose capacity is also protected for the next priority groups due to receive their first dose? This is critical to lifting lockdown.
It is good news that the clinical trials under way since before Christmas are demonstrating that the over-80s are developing good antibodies to resist the coronavirus and that this is now evident in the data. It is fascinating to see the vaccine gap in graphs, showing that there is a much steeper decline in cases in the over- 75s than there is in the under-60s. It is also encouraging to see reports that there have been very few side effects to both the AZ and the Pfizer vaccines. Can the Minister say if this information will be used to encourage those who have so far refused their first dose?
The Octave trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, is now under way, assessing whether those people with compromised immune systems are able to make antibodies. It was reassuring to read the details of this trial from some participating universities and university hospitals and I am grateful that Professor Chris Whitty was able to outline this project in a briefing to parliamentarians recently. I had understood it to be well under way already, although the press release makes it sound as if it is much more recent and still recruiting. Can the Minister say when the Octave trials are likely to publish their results, given that many people currently shielding are anxiously waiting for them?
The Statement refers to the Brazilian P1 variant and to the case of the individual who had not completed their form correctly. There has been silence over the last couple of days, and I wondered whether the Minister could update the House on the search for this individual. As I raised earlier this week, can the Minister help the House to understand why such an issue was able to happen at all? Is it correct that there are no processes in place to ensure that, as people come into the UK, border agency staff check their passports against the online forms completed in advance, so that personal details, such as addresses, are visible? The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made it plain—as have many others travelling into the UK—that these checks are rarely made, if at all.
Is it correct that local health and resilience forums are not given any details of people quarantining in their areas? This is important to ensure that care support teams would be able to check and provide help for those quarantining if they have any concerns. That might have helped with this particular case: a traveller from Brazil feeling unwell would have had a local contact to talk to about what to do.
Finally, as we wait to see if cases, hospitalisations and deaths have reduced enough to start lifting lockdown carefully in April, can the Minister respond to the report published today showing that test and trace has barely used the check-in app data from visitors to pubs, restaurants and hairdressers, resulting in thousands of people who have been checked in not being warned that they might be at risk of infection? The report states that the Department of Health and Social Care has noted that more than 100 million people have checked into venues since it went live in the autumn, but only 284 alerts have been sent to 274 venues—not 274,000 venues, just 274. Worse, the report says that the lack of guidance for local resilience forum trace teams on how to use the data has left businesses being asked to, or volunteering to, contact customers and visitors, which is technically a breach of GDPR and leaves those businesses and venues open to potential legal challenge.
After spending £40 million on the contact tracing app, encouraging the public to act responsibly, and the department saying today:
“The NHS COVID-19 App is an important tool in our pandemic response”,
can the Minister tell us which of these statements are true? Can he confirm that the guidance given to local authority health departments on how to use the data to notify people from the app is in full compliance with GDPR legislation? Is the figure of only 274 venues receiving alerts correct—yes or no? What steps are the Government taking to remedy this before pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and non-essential retail begin to open again?
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the questions from both the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton. I start by echoing both their tributes to those involved in the rollout of the vaccine. It is a remarkable national achievement and we should all be enormously proud. My own wife was vaccinated last week, and she told me that she cried as she left the GP’s surgery—so moved was she by the experience. That is something I have heard many times before.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, paid tribute to all those involved in science and research, and I absolutely agree. This has been a remarkable moment for British science. We will start celebrating British Science Week tomorrow, and I cannot think of a more apt moment to do that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the highest number of deaths. There are a number of reasons. Before I move on, I mention that today is World Obesity Day, and one of the most telling pieces of research that has come out in recent weeks is the work of PHE. We must all reflect on the nation’s health and whether obesity has played a role in Britain’s higher incidence of mortality. I look forward to reflecting on this issue more in the future.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked directly about the decisions that the Government have made, test and trace, and the borders. Let me tackle those head on. On the decisions that the Government have made, I share with the Chamber that the road map announced by the Prime Minister has landed extremely well. It is extremely conservative. It puts school openings first, which is undoubtedly the feedback we have had from both parents and the country at large. The easing of measures for the rest of the economy and civic activity is based entirely on the data that emerges from the infection rates and will be done in a way that contains the spread of the virus.
I reassure the noble Baroness that the test and trace operation has developed remarkable capacity, and both the turnaround times for the testing and the effectiveness of the tracing have now emerged as being fantastic. The tracing of the Brazilian variant pays tribute to the effectiveness of the test and trace operation, as does Project Eagle, which has been mainly focused on the South African variant. We believe that the spread of the South African variant has been largely contained by the tracing of the Project Eagle team working closely with local authorities and infection control teams around the world. It shows what we can do with this remarkable resource.
With regard to borders, the “red list” and managed quarantine system has been stood up in an extremely effective way. The families in south Gloucestershire and Aberdeen isolated themselves, as they should have done, and the handling of their variant of concern has been professional. I am led to believe that progress is being made on tracking down our Brazilian friend, the one stray person with the disease.
In answer to the question of how someone could have a test without filling in the form, we believe that there are two ways in which that could happen. Someone could walk up to a testing site, have their test but not fill in the form properly, or they could have had the test sent to them in the post and returned it without filling in the correct form. There are lessons to be learned from both potential models, and we are communicating with those who provide tests to ensure that barcodes are put on all tests.
We have to run a risk-based analysis on cross-infection at airports and infection control within airports. We could close all airports—that could be one way of doing it—but, under the circumstances, I applaud both the airlines and the airports for putting in mitigation and hygiene measures which the CMO’s office believes will be effective.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about sequencing. We have stood up an enormous amount of new sequencing—30,000 samples a week is our current capacity—and we have dramatically reduced the time it takes to do sequencing. The biggest problem with that is transporting the samples around the country, and therefore we are looking at distributing sequencing capacity to the Lighthouse laboratories so that once a sample tests positive, it can be automatically taken to a plate to be sequenced at the same location. We believe that that could make a big impact.
One lesson from Project Eagle I share with the House is that door-to-door tracing is quite effective, but by far the most effective means of tracing has been intelligence-led tracing. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about the check-in data, and this has been its power: it has allowed us to trace those who may have bumped into others in, for instance, areas of hospitality. It is not the objective of that check-in data to send out alerts to large numbers of people who may have been present in a location; it is more about empowering the forensic contact tracing necessary to track down potential connections.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about NHS plans. I will focus on one particular area and one of the lessons we have had from recent weeks. We have done an enormous amount to contain the spread of disease and we have seen—partly because of the lockdown, partly because of the wearing of masks, partly because of hygiene—a dramatic reduction in the amount of flu and gastroenteritis across the country. It is not an unrealistic ambition to hope that NHS resources could and should be focused on reducing contagious diseases across the piece and use the lessons from testing, hygiene and diagnostics generally to massively reduce the impact of contagious diseases. That will have huge benefits to the capacity of the NHS to combat sickness and ill health generally.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for her kind remarks on the contribution of those in the back office of the NHS. I am sometimes admonished by those who say that there is simply too much white-collar, managerial wastage in the NHS. I do not accept that criticism, and the rollout of the vaccine shows the immense management muscularity at the NHS which is able to organise such a huge national programme with such efficiency and courtesy.
The noble Baroness asked about clinical trials. I celebrate the fact that the large amount of really encouraging evidence that we have had has vindicated the decision by the JCVI, the MHRA and the CMO to prioritise the first dose over the distribution of second doses and to bring in the 12-week gap. That was a wise, pragmatic and impactful decision and we thank those involved.
The noble Baroness is entirely right that the large take-up among older people will have a big impact on younger people. The most influential people in anyone’s life are the people whom they love and live with. I cannot think of a better way of marketing it to younger people than the older people whom they love and live with taking the vaccine.
I also pay tribute to Professor Paul Moss and the team at Octave who are working extremely hard on the impact of the vaccine on those with immune deficiency. As the noble Baroness alluded to, the work at the University of Birmingham is at pace. It has been going on for some months, and its impact is already being shared among professionals. I am not sure whether there is an official report planned, but I reassure her that the insight and intelligence from their work is being shared across the system.
Finally, I give enormous praise to all those currently working on our borders. The situation in other countries remains extremely concerning. Variants of concern are rising in many countries, and in Europe infection rates remain extremely high. We have put in place measures on our borders that have the capacity to protect us from these variants of concern and I am enormously grateful to all those concerned who have strengthened those positions.
My Lords, the speed and scale of the vaccine rollout is indeed a remarkable achievement and reflects great credit to all involved. The House will have noted the publication this morning of the REACH study based on data from February. Among its findings was that there was some regional variation in prevalence, particularly in the later part of February. Will the Government on this basis consider regional variation in the pace at which restrictions are lifted, rather than necessarily assuming that it will be a uniform, national approach?
My noble friend is entirely right to raise the issue of regional variation. It had been our profound hope to be able to adjust and to focus lockdown arrangements on geographical locations so that national measures were not the only tool in our toolkit. The evidence from last year suggests that the amount of travel that individuals do makes regional and local lockdowns only partially effective. This has put a massive question mark over the way in which we can use regional and local lockdowns. There is more work to be done to understand exactly how that works but he is right to raise it as a considerable issue.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to congratulate the Minister on behalf of the Government on what has been achieved in lockdown. It is absolutely fantastic. I want to ask two questions. First, bearing in mind that some 20 million people have now been vaccinated, do the Government have any assessment of the number of people who still contract the disease after having had the vaccination? Secondly, do the Government have any idea about the relative impact of side-effects of the different vaccines?
My Lords, I have nothing but good news on both those important issues. The number of people who have mild or profound sickness, need hospitalisation or die after having the vaccine is extremely small indeed. There is some differential when we come to the variants of concern. Certainly, mild disease has been observed with the South African variant by sources in South Africa and we are working to understand that. However, severe hospitalisation and death are massively reduced by all the vaccines. The side-effects from all the vaccines on all age groups and on people with almost all comorbidities are extremely small. The yellow list information published by the MHRA is extremely reassuring and so far it has been nothing but good news about the vaccines.
My Lords, the House should be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, who is constantly being bombarded with our questions. However, I point out that within six hours of entering a cell this virus will have replicated, leading to millions of copies. Some copies will be imperfect, the so-called variants. Time is of the essence. The risk of dangerous new variants to which we have no defence is eventually likely to be inevitable. Will the Government now answer the question that has been repeatedly asked both in this House and in the other place since Christmas: as the red list of presumed points of embarkation is ludicrous and ineffectual, why do the Government not ensure that all those tens of thousands we have heard about entering the UK daily are effectively separated, screened, tracked, traced and isolated where necessary before they are lost within minutes somewhere in a British city?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his grim prognosis and I agree with his analysis. If there is one place in the world where a mutant variation is likely to happen, it will be in an area where you have high infection rates and a large amount of suppression of the virus by either a lockdown or a vaccine programme. If you look around the world, that country is most likely to be Britain. We must be on the balls of our feet to be prepared for unhelpful news on that front.
Can I reassure the noble Lord on the borders? The number of people travelling in and out of the UK has reduced dramatically and the traffic through our airports and seaports is down tremendously. The application of the red list programme is extremely effective and the use of quarantine hotels has been extremely rigorously enforced. The isolation, along with amber routes, has also had enormous resources and is much more effective than it once was. We are prepared to go further. We review the red list constantly and, should the threats mount up to being serious enough, we will extend the red list as far as necessary.
My Lords, vaccines are key to getting us to a position where we can live with the virus, but we really must listen to scientists telling us that we must control the virus everywhere. While our support for the COVAX initiative is to be applauded, it cannot work effectively without reliable supplies of the vaccine. The Covid-19 Technology Access Pool is designed to do just that. Are we fully engaged in C-TAP?
My Lords, we are taking a leadership role in COVAX, CEPI, ACT, Gavi and all the international, multilateral initiatives to roll out vaccine around the world. We are looking at what to do with our own stock of vaccines, and the Foreign Secretary has made it very clear that distribution of the vaccines we have bought is very much on the agenda. The AstraZeneca vaccine is being used as probably the default vaccine of choice around the world, as it is low- cost and easily distributed. Through our G7 chairmanship, we entirely support the agenda of preventing further pandemic by ensuring that vaccines are fairly and widely distributed around the world.
I join others in congratulating my noble friend and his colleagues on the brilliant success of the vaccine programme. However, why is everyone in the United Kingdom, on receiving the vaccine, not being issued with a card to show that they have had it?
My Lords, they are issued with a certificate. It is a digital certificate that is put in their patient record. In the modern day, that is by far the most effective way to ensure that people know that they have had the vaccine. A physical card has the potential for fraud. We have looked that extremely carefully, but we think the digital approach is the right one. Most people will receive a small card with their second dose appointment on it, but if my noble friend did not get one, I am sorry about that.
My Lords, following on from that question, the need for vaccination passports to travel abroad, discussed earlier, now looks very likely, including, of course, to the EU, which will have its own standard. All the talk is of a phone app, but will the Government ensure that a paper version will be provided which will be acceptable abroad? A significant minority of older people still do not have mobile phones, and why should OAPs have to buy one in order to travel?
My Lords, in this matter, we will be led by international standards, and collaboration with our neighbours is essential when it comes to matters of international travel. If a paper certificate is required for international travel, we will put in place arrangements for that. A huge amount of the work that goes on for foreign travel nowadays happens before you ever get anywhere near the airport to depart. Passenger locator forms, pre-testing and vaccination certificates are all necessary in order to book a ticket, and that is where, really, the responsibility of the individual lies.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the NHS and the Minister for the rollout of the vaccine, but with continued concern about the mortality rates. Churches, clergy and chaplains have been very involved in pastoral care and in support of the dying and the bereaved, even when buildings have been closed. There is now big concern with Holy Week and Easter coming up. Can the Minister offer a roadmap for when singing by choirs and congregations will once again be allowed, with sufficient time to prepare?
I am entirely sympathetic to the question posed by the right reverend Prelate. I cannot think of anything nicer than spending Easter at Salisbury Cathedral listening to the beautiful singing of the choir there. We will be led, however, by the public health practicalities on that. It has been one of the most heartbreaking aspects of this pandemic that those who seek sanctuary through worship have not been able to join the rest of their community, but the practicalities of the spread of the virus are unavoidable, so we will be led by public health advice in this matter. I do not have a date for his roadmap, I fear, but his considerations are very much understood in the department.
I thank the Minister for his continuing patience on this subject, and I am sure he did not mean to sidestep the two questions from my noble friend Lady Thornton. One was about the cliff edge for the social care sector, where the special funding is due to come to an end in March, and the apparent delay before we solve our care sector problem until 2022. The second was about there being no mention of NHS funding in the Budget, despite the fact that the roadmap recognises that annual vaccination programmes and continued testing and tracing are likely to be required. Does he have anything to say about those two areas of social care and NHS funding?
My Lords, we would not ordinarily expect a big announcement on NHS funding at a Budget such as this, and the truth is that we are not through the woods yet. It is impossible to predict what funds the NHS will need this year or next until we are through this pandemic, and while we are spending time today taking pleasure in celebrating the vaccine, the honest truth is that danger is still around the corner and we do not yet know that we are truly through this. When we are able to say that for sure, it will be possible to take a moment to decide on NHS funding. In the meantime, we remain committed to our manifesto pledges on hospital building and on recruitment, and on both those matters, we have made an enormous amount of progress. The Prime Minister has been crystal clear about his commitment to social care funding reform, and he stands by that commitment.
My Lords, given the undoubted success in the UK of the rollout of the vaccination programme, on which all involved are to be congratulated, our attention must turn, as my noble friend Lady Sheehan said, to consider the global operation because this disease is a global issue, not a United Kingdom one. The United Kingdom cannot live normally without the security of knowing that it is being tackled successfully globally. Will the Government use their chairmanship of the G7 to put in place and publish a global response action plan that goes further than what we have seen already and certainly further than simply donating spare vaccines?
The noble Lord puts it extremely well. We have four key themes in the health track of the G7. The first is pandemic preparedness in the round; the second is clinical trial data—that is an essential building block for pandemic preparedness; the third is medical data transfer—one thing we have tripped over repeatedly in our international collaboration on pandemic reform is the difficulty of sharing data; and the fourth is AMR, which is the threat on the horizon. If we have learned one thing from this pandemic, it is not to underestimate the threat from anti-microbial resistance.
My Lords, with the potential need for a rolling programme of booster injections or vaccination against new variants, can my noble friend tell the House what infrastructure is being planned so that we can protect our entire population for as long as is necessary?
I am grateful to my noble friend for looking forward. She is entirely right: the experience of this vaccination programme cannot stop when we have finished the initial rollout and we have to look to the future. As I said in my opening remarks, I am extremely hopeful that this can be an inflection point where we double-up on our commitment to rid the country of as much contagious disease as we possibly can. That will include booster shots, to which my noble friend alluded. It will also include a greater commitment to flu shots, and we very much hope that we can increase dramatically the take-up of flu shots at all ages, to stop not only illness itself but transmission.
Following on from the noble Baroness’s question and the importance of overall and ongoing vaccination coverage, can the Minister say how many people living in the UK are not registered with an NHS GP and therefore cannot be contacted for vaccination? We know that socially excluded groups, such as rough sleepers, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and vulnerable migrants, are less likely to be registered, and there will be people registered only with a private GP. What assessment have the Government made of the scale of this challenge—how many people are affected—and what efforts are under way to find them and offer them vaccination?
My Lords, the noble Baroness makes her point extremely well. It is an area that we have looked at extremely carefully. The proportion of people who are not registered is remarkably small, but the phenomenon does exist. For this particular vaccination round, we have put in procedures so that those who turn up at a GP or vaccination centre who are not registered can be registered on the spot, and I thank colleagues at NHS D, who have put the necessary arrangements into the NIMS programme to make that possible. There are also others who do not know their NHS number—well, an enormous number of them now do know it. That is one of the blessings of this vaccination programme. We are also working extremely hard to reach out to the people the noble Baroness alludes to—the homeless, the Roma community and those who are recent arrivals in the UK—to make sure that the vaccination is offered to absolutely everyone in the UK, whatever their immigration status, whatever their living arrangements and whatever their medical history.
My Lords, last month the High Court concluded that the Secretary of State acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the transparency policy. When did the Prime Minister become aware that the Government were failing to meet their policy, and will the Minister now provide this House with minutes of each Cabinet meeting at which the government failure was discussed?
My Lords, we should all be enormously grateful to those who have made the vaccination programme such a success. In our thanks, we should not forget Kate Bingham and her team. However, there are still inconsistencies. During the last lockdown, pre-vaccine, we could have services properly distanced in Lincoln Cathedral with a choir and a congregation. Post-vaccine, we cannot. Post-vaccine, we are still—I am back to my old hobbyhorse—allowing care home workers to attend to the most intimate needs of their patients having refused a vaccine. Can we have some consistency, please? I am grateful to my noble friend.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his question and I echo his comments on Kate Bingham. However, my Lords, we are not post-vaccine; we are, at best, mid-vaccine. Vaccinating 20 million people is an enormous achievement but there is a hell of a long way to go. There is still an enormous amount of infection in this country; nearly half a million people, or thereabouts, have the disease. There are variants of concern being generated in this country, such as the Kent virus, and overseas, such as the Manaus virus. Until we are truly through this, we have to show restraint and make uncomfortable decisions, and we must ensure that the NHS is preserved and we save lives. That, I am afraid, remains our priority.
My Lords, British science is indeed to be celebrated, as is government support of it, in vaccine development, genome sequencing and disease-specific registries such as UK Biobank. Will the Government use that experience to establish a national Covid registry to bring together the four main groups of data referred to by the Minister in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, to inform long-term planning to reveal links between new variants found on sequencing, different long-term complications, including long Covid, the risk factors behind it and other matters such as body-mass index, vaccine history and any associated other contagious diseases? Such a registry could act as a long-term public health research tool.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her insightful question about the obscure but vital question of data architecture. If there is going to be one powerful legacy of this awful disease, it will be the way in which data helped drive medical research, medical insight and the treatment of individuals. I am not sure if we need a new registry, a national Covid registry; what we need is for our existing data to be able to talk to itself. I can tell the Chamber that we are making enormous progress on that. I pay tribute to the unsung heroes, the CTOs who meet weekly at the NHS data architecture meeting, an obscure but vital forum where an enormous amount of good work is done by NHSX, NHSD, test and trace and others in primary and secondary care who are working incredibly hard, so that if one takes a test today, it goes into one’s patient record tomorrow and can be used the day after by a researcher looking at long Covid, dexamethasone, recovery or whatever. This is how modern healthcare should work. We have not done it well enough to date. We are making great progress on it tomorrow and we must not stop.
My Lords, like everyone else, I could not agree more that the NHS rollout has been absolutely brilliant. I should also say that the Minister has been resilient, and we all appreciate that. However, I return to what is a more uncomfortable subject, I suspect, and follow up the question on airport testing. The Minister said that far fewer people are travelling and that the pursuit of quarantine conditions is more effective than it was. Given that fewer people are travelling, is it not possible to do what my noble friend Lord Winston suggested and pursue those people through test and trace and airport testing, as many other countries are doing successfully? How can the Minister say that quarantine testing of people in self-isolation is more effective? Can he give us more details on that?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her questions. Perhaps I may tackle the specific question of airport testing, which has been raised a couple of times. The honest truth is that the arrival of families in south Gloucestershire and Aberdeen who had done a pre-flight test and subsequently developed symptoms demonstrates, I am afraid, that pre-flight and airport testing is not as effective as one would hope. If it were, we would not have to impose a 10-day testing regime with tests on the second and eighth days. That is the only rigorous way in which one can do it. It is estimated that airport testing catches perhaps between 10% and 20% of infection, and that is why managed quarantine is so important. The infection rate among those who arrive in the UK is high enough for us to be seriously concerned and to impose the kind of isolation that we have done. Until that infection rate is reduced, I am afraid that we have to look forward to managed quarantine and isolation being a part of the travel experience for some time.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those offered to all those involved in a remarkable national achievement. It has also been a personal triumph for my noble friend and all his colleagues. However, perhaps I may pursue the question that my noble friend Lord Cormack raised a moment ago. An alarming proportion of Covid infections have been caught by patients in hospital and those inside care homes. Can the Minister elaborate on government plans to require those who work in the NHS and care homes to accept vaccination if they are to continue to work among such vulnerable people? Why are so many of them so reluctant? Does he agree that the trade unions have some nerve in describing any suggestion of that sort as bullying?
My Lords, I completely acknowledge the concerns of my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Cormack about nosocomial infection. Undoubtedly, infections caught onsite in Britain last year and this year, and in every epidemic, are not only among the saddest forms of contagion but among the most dangerous. I want to reassure both my noble friends that we are absolutely focused on this point. It is, though, too early to make a call on professional mandatory vaccination. We have got through only the first 20 million people in the highest-risk and, therefore, the oldest age groups, and we have not moved through all the other age groups. The Cabinet Office is looking at this matter and has a review process in place. When that process has coughed up its findings, we will be in a position to debate the matter, and I look forward to that in due course.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the success of the NHS vaccination programme is a tribute to the efficiency and success of the public sector, in contrast to some of the private organisations involved in other aspects of dealing with the pandemic? I want to put a specific question to the Minister. He used the phrase, “Until we are through this pandemic”. Would it not be more sensible to say that we may never be fully through this pandemic, so our planning must be based on the fact that we will have to continue with the vaccination programme as new mutations develop for many years to come? Would it not be better to look that far ahead?
My Lords, I disagree completely with the noble Lord’s first point. The vaccine would not have happened without AstraZeneca and the other private companies that have produced, manufactured and delivered it, so I do not know where the public sector would have got its vaccines from. I completely reject that point.
I agree with his second point. I should not have said, “When we are through this pandemic” because we are going to live with its consequences for many years to come, and if it is not this pandemic, there may be others in the future. We have all, I think, taken on board the fact that in the modern world, there is a new, 21st century cost for the kind of global lifestyle that we have got used to, and that is the international spread of viruses. We can, I think, win the battle, but we will have to adapt. Learning how to do that is the challenge of this year.
I too would like to offer my congratulations to the Government on the speed and efficiency of the vaccine rollout. Due credit must be given to all our health professionals for their dedication in risking their own health in care homes and when visiting private houses. The sight of an end to the pandemic should not lead to smugness. We were caught ill-prepared when it began and, with environmental and climate change, along with the increasing movement of people, there will always be new threats. Does the Minister agree, as he has already hinted, that we should plan to use this experience to combat these new threats more effectively?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for teeing up what I hope can be an insight about the future. We will have to work much more closely with our international allies and colleagues on this matter. We must invest in vaccines, therapeutics and antivirals on a prophylactic basis to be ready for when the worst viruses, including coronaviruses, emerge. We will have to bring international flying standards up to a much higher level so that the spread of viruses when pandemics occur is kept under control. We will also have to put the necessary surgical capacity into our healthcare systems to ensure that they are much more resilient than they were in the past. These are just three examples of the kind of changes that are on the horizon. I am hungry to get on with them and I am sure we will have a fantastic impact in our battle against disease.
My Lords, did the Minister have time to watch the David Harewood documentary shown at prime time on BBC1 on Tuesday about the massive health inequalities in the UK, which of course the Marmot report and reviews have been documenting for a decade? Why have so many Covid deaths been among the poor and the BAME communities?
My Lords, I am not an epidemiologist who can totally nail that question, but I recognise and acknowledge completely the assumption. This disease has hit the least advantaged the hardest, but trying to understand the correlation and causation of that is extremely difficult. The evidence so far suggests that some of these causes are to do with the environment: the houses that people live in, the circumstances of their employment and their behaviour within that employment. But some of this is about comorbidities and healthy lifestyles, as well as weight, which I mentioned earlier. These are all matters of grave community concern. We have to take an interest in the public health of the whole nation and we are only as strong as the weakest part. I agree with the noble Lord’s implication: this is a wake-up call for the whole country and we have to address the health of absolutely everyone.
Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Welsh Forms) Order 2021
Motion to Approve
My Lords, I shall also speak to the Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Coronavirus, Nomination of Candidates) (Amendment) Order in the same speech.
Perhaps I may say at the outset how much I look forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Hannan, who will address us shortly. The instruments brought forward today make sensible provision to support the effective administration of elections. The mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections order amends the Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007, the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2012 and the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017. The purpose of the order, following representations made by my noble friend Lord Hayward and others, is to reduce the number of signatures required on a nomination paper for a candidate in the police and crime commissioner, combined authority and single authority mayoral elections. It is intended to reduce the need for person-to-person contact ahead of the May elections, given the specific context of the current pandemic. Similar provisions relating to local councillor and London mayoral elections have been made in a separate order.
In making these changes, we have taken the approach that the candidates should obtain subscribers on the basis of two per local authority area, whether for a poll within a single local authority or for electoral areas that contain a number of local authorities. Single local authority mayoral candidates must obtain signatures from two electors instead of 30; candidates for police and crime commissioner elections must obtain signatures from a number of electors which is twice the number of local authority areas within that police area. This is instead of the current requirement of 100 electors. For example, under the changes, for the Devon and Cornwall police area, which has 12 local authority areas, a candidate will need to obtain 24 signatures. Combined authority mayoral or so-called metro mayoral candidates must obtain signatures from a total number of electors that is twice the number of local authority areas within the boundary of the area. For example, the Liverpool City Region has six authorities, so the total number of signatures needed is 12. These signatures must be obtained from two electors registered to vote in each local authority area within the mayoral area. Currently, 100 electors in total are required at a combined authority mayoral election.
In making these changes, the Government have responded, after consultation, to the concerns of the electoral sector, candidates and political parties that the need to collect a high number of signatures for nominations for a candidate in some types of poll would encourage an unhelpful and unnecessary amount of interaction, as well as complexity for candidates. While it is essential that candidates in a poll can demonstrate a clear amount of local support, we must balance the importance of democracy with the need to protect people in these unique circumstances.
As I have explained, we are not removing the signature requirements completely. It is important that there should remain a democratic check and balance for candidates to demonstrate a degree of local support from electors in their area. These provisions will remain in force until 28 February 2022 to support candidates in any by-elections that may occur in the coming months as we emerge from the pandemic. The elections in May 2022 will automatically revert to the standard rules.
I am grateful to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments for drawing this to the attention of the House. The committee considered that there are some points where the drafting of the instrument and its Explanatory Note could have been clearer in certain respects. We welcome the views of the committee and are particularly interested to note its thoughts on how best to assist readers in understanding which provisions in an instrument will apply to different parts of the UK. We consider that the instrument takes a proportionate approach to a temporary rule change which has been introduced to reduce the number of face-to-face contacts required in the pandemic. I am gratified to see that the committee has agreed with the response of the Cabinet Office to its request for a memorandum has provided additional clarity.
We consider that it is clear from the context of the order itself when and to which elections it applies. However, in order to further aid clarity and certainty, we have published a note on GOV.UK on the order and its effect, particularly on the numbers of signatures required, and to assist candidates, their supporters and those administering elections. This includes tables that set out the number of subscribers needed for candidates standing at combined authority and London mayoral elections in England, and elections of police and crime commissioners in England and Wales. As I have explained, these are polls where the election is for an area covering a number of local authority areas and the tables set out the total number of subscribers that candidates will need in these areas, and whether a specific number is required from each constituent authority or not.
I now turn to the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Welsh Forms) Order 2021, which I hope will be welcomed by your Lordships. It introduces a set of prescribed forms and forms of words translated into Welsh in respect of the range of other forms already in use, in English, at PCC elections. These are in addition to the Welsh versions of the ballot paper and nomination form for candidates that are already provided.
The form and forms of words prescribed by this instrument are for use in any police and crime commissioner election that takes place in Wales. The Welsh forms in the instrument cover various stages in the electoral process and include poll cards issued to electors, the postal voting statement completed by postal voters, the declaration to be made by the companion of a voter with disabilities, guidance for voters and forms completed by candidates and their agents.
Some forms are in Welsh only and others are bilingual, in Welsh and English. The forms that are prescribed in Welsh and English—for example, poll cards and postal voting statements—are to be used in the bilingual form in place of the English versions. Forms that are prescribed in Welsh only—for example, the candidate’s consent to nomination form and the candidate’s declaration as to election expenses—are to be made available in Welsh where the person completing the form, such as the candidate, prefers to communicate in Welsh rather than English. The order also provides a Welsh version of the forms of words setting out guidance for voters that appears in polling station voting compartments. The effect of the order is that the form of words appropriate to the number of candidates will be displayed.
We have consulted the Electoral Commission on the orders, and it is supportive of both. We have also had support for the changes to the nominations process from the Association of Electoral Administrators and in discussions with political party representatives via the Parliamentary Parties Panel. We also shared a draft of the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Welsh Forms) Order 2021 with the Welsh Language Advisory Group, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and officials in the Welsh Government. There is broad support among these stakeholders for the proposed changes set out in these two instruments.
The question is that this Motion be agreed to. I should have made it clear at the beginning that the time limit for this debate is one and a half hours. The first debate is on the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Welsh Forms) Order 2021, and one other Motion later.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for his clear explanation. I too look forward to the maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Hannan—although we have disagreed fundamentally on Europe and will doubtless continue to do so.
The draft Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Welsh Forms) Order 2021 is not controversial, and I support it. The Government have made it clear that consultees have included the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, political parties, the Welsh Language Advisory Group, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and officials in the Welsh Government. But has the noble Lord or any of his ministerial colleagues talked directly to Welsh Government Ministers? I ask because that has often not happened on other issues. What did the Welsh Language Advisory Group say specifically? Were any modifications or large changes made as a result of its feedback?
I realise that the order sets out Welsh language versions of certain forms, and certain forms of words, to be used at police and crime commissioner elections in Wales, not least because only Welsh versions of the ballot paper and the nomination form for candidates at PCC elections in Wales have so far been covered in legislation, and other forms have not. The changes in this order follow pressure from electoral officials in Wales and Welsh language groups to bring consistency with other elections held in Wales over such matters as poll cards, postal voting and arrangements for voters with disabilities, and to ensure that all forms and guidance notes are bilingual, in Welsh and English, which is very welcome. The practice at previous police and crime commissioner elections was for the forms and arrangements to be left to local Welsh returning officers, using powers in Article 85 of the 2012 order, supported by guidance from the Electoral Commission.
Turnout in these PCC elections has been very poor indeed. In 2012, turnout averaged just 15.1% across all 40 police areas in England and Wales, measured as valid first preference votes as a proportion of the electorate. There was a welcome rise in 2016 to 26.6%, but that is still a miserably low figure. Presumably, the Government have lumped them together with key English and Welsh elections in May, for example to the Senedd—the Welsh Parliament—and for the London Mayor, in order to increase turnout.
Although relations between the Welsh and UK Governments on the running of elections are generally constructive, the fact that the PCC elections are happening on the same day as the Senedd election is problematic. The Welsh Government would have preferred to consider all-postal voting or to have early voting centres for the Senedd elections, but these were effectively ruled out because the Cabinet Office would not agree to them for the PCC elections. Can the Minister please say why? Was it because, like Donald Trump, who also opposed such measures for early postal voting to encourage turnout during the pandemic, they actually do not want to make it easy for people to vote? Is that the reason? I hope not, because it was clearly Trump’s reason.
Welsh Ministers are also pretty staggered that the UK Government have decided to permit not just leafleting but canvassing in England at a time when the advice is still to stay at home. Is it not extraordinary that we are saying to people, “You can’t see your loved ones but if someone pops up on your doorstep from the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties, or Plaid Cymru, please have a chinwag with them”?
To be fair, the Cabinet Office Minister, Chloe Smith, has made it clear that this change to the guidance is for England only and does not apply to PCC elections in Wales in respect of canvassing and so forth, since campaigning rules are part of the devolved responsibility for public health. But, surely, it remains perverse that in England you cannot see your loved ones but you can see a political party representative on your doorstep. Perhaps the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, could enlighten us all about that in his reply. In the meantime, I am happy to support this order.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has put before me a mirage of Trump-like volunteers wheeling wheelbarrows of votes for police and crime commissioner elections; I wait for the day.
I very much welcome this instrument. It has to be emphasised that the use of Welsh in government forms strengthens confidence in the general use of the language. The Welsh Language Advisory Group is doing a very good job and the use of Welsh is widening. I am currently on an excellent course in improving my language skills with students not just from the locality but from Swansea to Devizes, Manchester and Edinburgh; that is one of the joys of Zooming.
These forms are written in formal Welsh, possibly with a touch of tafodiaith y gogledd about them—I sincerely hope that they can be understood all right further down there. Of course, Welsh is not spoken everywhere in Wales and the bilingual forms are valuable. In my part of Wales, the response to the intervention of the police is more likely to be in robust Anglo-Saxon. My father recalled patrolling Town Hill in Wrexham as a young policeman, with a new recruit from a chapel-going, Welsh-speaking area further to the west. A local, tumbling out of the Vaults at closing time, started abusing them, Anglo-Saxon-wise. The new policeman took off his uniform jacket and handed it to my father, saying, in Welsh: “Here, Hywel, hang on to this. I’ve got my rights.” A fight broke out, with a crowd gathering around urging the local on while my father stood holding his mate’s coat. Those were the days of proper policing, before they invented those new-fangled police commissioners. History does not record what the magistrates said.
I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, on this topic. We shall certainly be looking forward to the results of the next police commissioner elections in north Wales, wheelbarrows of votes of not, with a better-informed electorate.
My Lords, it is a privilege to rise for the first time in this place among you. It can be somewhat unsettling arriving in the Palace of Westminster at the height of the lockdown and its associated restrictions. There are times, wandering down the empty corridors and seeing the black and yellow tape barring various entrances, when it feels almost post-apocalyptic, almost “28 Days Later”. But if the physical environment is necessarily sterile, the same cannot be said of the people. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of noble Lords on all Benches, who have always taken time to help a new Member.
The same is true of the permanent staff. It is not uncommon on these occasions to thank Black Rod and her excellent team, and rightly so. They have conducted themselves through these difficult times with exemplary briskness, efficiency and good cheer. Similarly, the doorkeepers are often rightly thanked on these occasions. Already, I have had more than once had occasion to be grateful to them for their good humour and their good sense. Perhaps your Lordships might indulge me if I thank a third group, less-often thanked: the canteen staff. There have been occasions when I have found the sheer weight of the lockdown and the emptiness almost oppressive. A sure cure to that mood is to be steered towards the rock cakes by the smiling canteen staff.
Allow me also to thank two noble friends who introduced me and whom I am truly proud to call friends—my noble friends Lord Leigh of Hurley and Lord Borwick, two immensely charming men whose characters are superficially different but who both have that sincere charm that rests on largeness of character, generosity of spirit and an unfeigned interest in other people.
I come here after 21 years in the European Parliament. I am one of many such on all Benches; I lost count at about a dozen. It is fair to say that I was a little bit less popular in that chamber than some of my noble friends and some of the noble Lords opposite who served in Brussels and Strasbourg. I had a dear friend, a French MEP, a terrific federalist and a great believer in a united states of Europe, who used to tease me by quoting the Book of Genesis. He would say: “You’re like Ishmael, you’re a wild man, every man’s hand against you and your hand against every man’s.” I am not sure that this was entirely true. Certainly I was in a minority in the European Parliament, but now, as that verse continues, dwelling among my brethren, like Ishmael, I look back and see that I have many friends, including great believers in a united states of Europe, with whom I have spent the past year Zooming disconsolately as we compare conditions in our various countries.
Throughout my time in Brussels, I saw my animating principle as being the diffusion, the decentralisation and the democratisation of power, which brings me to the debate before your Lordships today. I was given some advice before speaking. Somebody said that for your maiden speech you should pick an uncontroversial topic. He looked at me significantly, “You particularly, Hannan, should pick something uncontroversial.” I toyed with the idea of the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill, which we are due to debate next week. However, I felt that, in the current mood, that was too much of a hot-button issue and I did not want tempers to run high, so I have confined myself to the debate on today’s statutory instrument, which, as my noble friend the Minister ably set out, is about varying the number of signatures needed for police and crime commissioner candidates and about the use of the ancient, exquisite and euphonic Welsh language, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, reminds us, is part of the glory of all of us in these islands.
Pericles, treated so often as a guru by the Prime Minister, said that great issues can arise from small questions. The issue of maintaining and strengthening local democratic control of police strikes me as a very great issue indeed. It is perfectly true, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, pointed out, that turnout for police and crime commissioner elections has been disappointing. I feel the loss perhaps more than some in this Chamber, having been a very early advocate of the idea. In 2005, I wrote a book calling for what I then wanted to call sheriffs. I thought it great to revive the shrievalty as an institution. Eventually, in a very watered-down form, that idea took shape as policy.
I always quarrelled with the name “police and crime commissioner”. First, it is very boring. Secondly, it is technically inaccurate, making it sound as if you are the person in charge of the crime as well as in charge of the police. Thirdly, the commissioner is the opposite of an elected person, being someone who is given a commission. I took this question up with the then Police Minister, now my noble friend Lord Herbert. He said: “The trouble is, we focus-group tested it, and nobody liked ‘sheriff’. It sounded too American, too John Wayne—posses and stars and so on.” If that is true, what a sad comment it is on the ahistoricism of our country. Where on earth do people think that their cousins got the idea, the name and the institution from, if not from here?
I hope that with time we can strengthen the office, giving it not only more control over the police, but, ideally, the right to set local sentencing guidelines, while not interfering in particular cases. The answer to low turnout is to give more power and more meaning to the act of casting a vote in that election. As a general principle, we should strengthen and not weaken local democracy and local accountability. Perhaps this country’s proudest boast, the greatest gift that we have given to the happiness of mankind, is the idea that laws should not be passed, nor taxes raised, except by people who are answerable and that the people who pass and enforce the laws are in some way accountable to the people who are expected to obey them. That principle applies at local as well as national level. How to strengthen the police and crime commissioners—how to strengthen the shrievalty—is beyond the matter of this debate and well above my pay grade, but I hope that noble Lords will see an advantage nationally to us in trying to move towards greater local democracy and towards more purpose, meaning and honour in the act of casting a vote locally.
In many ways, your Lordships are the nation’s institutional memory. This Chamber is a repository for the accumulated constitutional wisdom of centuries. That imposes a commensurate obligation on us to keep intact and to improve where possible the freedoms that we were privileged to inherit and to pass them on securely to our children.
My Lords, we have just had a taste of eloquent things to come. It gives me great pleasure to welcome my noble friend Lord Hannan and to be the first to congratulate him on his maiden speech.
He is well known to your Lordships as one of the intellectual architects of Euroscepticism. He won the respect of his opponents but, to the dismay of many, he does not fit their cherished caricature of Eurosceptics as insular, Europhobic ignoramuses. Far from being insular, he was not even born on this island. Like Paddington Bear, he hails from darkest Peru, though I suspect that the London terminus via which young Daniel was dispatched to his schooling was not Paddington but Waterloo. He is not just the Waterloo bear of British politics, but a member of that little-recognised species—the Europhile Eurosceptic. He speaks Spanish as well as French, is steeped in European culture, and is a notable Shakespearean scholar.
He has reminded me that I first met him in the early 1990s at the Oxford Union, during the annual no confidence debate. I followed his rapid rise to fame in this country and then in Europe, where, as an MEP, he quixotically devoted 21 years of his life to extricating this country from the EU and doing himself out of a job. His abiding passion is freedom—the freedoms we invented in this country. I advise all noble Members to read How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters. It is about the freedom to govern ourselves and make our own laws—now largely achieved—and the freedom of trade as an engine of prosperity. I am sure he will make notable contributions on these issues in your Lordships’ House.
I turn to the statutory instrument. The whole purpose of elected commissioners was to strengthen links between our citizen police force and the public. Requiring candidates for this office to demonstrate a measure of public support by obtaining a spread of nominations is one aspect of that. It is understandable that, during the pandemic, this requirement has been curtailed. Once the pandemic is over, it is important that it be reinstated.
It is fair to say that the institution of elected commissioners has been slow to gather active public participation, though it is growing, but it is salutary to remember how remote and unaccountable police authorities—and watch committees before them—were to the public prior to these commissioners. The police authority typically consisted of nine councillors. They had been elected, but not for the specific task of representing the public in supervising the police force. There were also eight lay independent members, chosen by the authority itself from a list vetted by the Home Office. In my experience, the result was a committee which was almost entirely captured by the police force that it was intended to supervise, so the force set its own priorities rather than having the public’s priorities indicated to it. I recall the contemptuous way in which police authorities—in an echo of the police themselves—rejected public calls for more bobbies on the beat. They were unaware of the evidence from other Anglo-Saxon countries—or, when they were made aware, they rejected it—that bobbies on the beat, particularly if they patrol as individuals rather than in pairs and therefore have to talk to members of the public rather than to their colleagues, can be extremely effective both in garnering information and in deterring crime. As a result of the contempt with which that idea was held in professional areas and upheld by police authorities, police on the beat became as rare as cats’ teeth.
This was always brought home to be when reading PG Wodehouse—which I do several times a year. In almost every novel, the hero will go out into the street and hail the nearest bobby. Now he would have to wait for months or weeks to do so in this country. I hope that the result of police commissioners will be to bring to police forces an awareness that the public value their services so much that they would like to see more of them.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, on his maiden speech. I am sorry not to have been in the Chamber to enjoy it. I particularly welcome his warm words towards the Welsh language.
My contribution will be short, not least because some of the points have already been covered by the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Thomas of Gresford. As Plaid Cymru currently has two of Wales’s four police commissioners, I have a great interest in these matters.
I have two questions. The first is about the formulation of the Welsh language version. Can the Minister confirm that the wording which appears in the order has been run past precisely the same team as advised the Welsh Parliament on linguistic matters? From his introductory comments, I assume that this is the case, but I should be grateful for confirmation. I ask with a view to ensuring consistency in the usage of language—in particular, the treatment of gender. As colleagues may know—and some noble Lords participating today certainly do know—the Welsh language has gender-related nouns. Mutation is affected by the gender. In these days when we try to avoid unnecessary gender implications in texts which may relate to both males and females, we need to be particularly careful about this in the Welsh language formulation. My nose twitched in a couple of places in the text, but I shall be happy if those more academically knowledgeable than me on linguistic matters have given their blessing to the wording before us today.
Secondly, the Minister will be aware that elections to the Welsh Parliament will probably take place on the same day as the election of the police commissioners. Those parliamentary elections—and their regulations—are devolved to the Welsh Government and Parliament. The provisions made by the order to help certain groups cast their vote for police commissioners by means other than attending the voting booth may be different to the provisions made by the Welsh Parliament for its electoral purposes. With the two elections taking place on the same day, this could—at the very least—be confusing. How much co-ordination has there been between Westminster and Cardiff Bay to ensure that the two approaches are at least consistent, mutually compatible and not contradictory? I should appreciate the Minister’s response to both these points.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the orders. Having said that, we must never forget the years it took us all to get the Government to bring in satisfactory parity for the Welsh language. As a very young MP, I was entrusted by the Welsh parliamentary group to draw up a document—a review—so that we could persuade HMG of the need for parity. This was adopted word for word by Sir David Hughes Parry in his famous report.
I also want to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, on his excellent, wide-ranging maiden speech. He was obviously making it for the second time, having already made it in the European Parliament. Like many of us, I had to do this in both Houses. I am sure it will come as a big relief to him that it is over, and I am sure we all look forward to his future contributions.
I shall detain the House for only a few moments. I want to ask one question about the publicity for polling arrangements. Having successfully fought 11 elections in Wales, I hope the House will agree that I have a little knowledge of polling arrangements and polling booths. I will not embarrass myself, or the House, by reciting my majorities, save to say that I am grateful to my constituents for their support over the years.
My practice, invariably, was to go around all the polling booths. My wife and I would start in the morning, visit two stations before breakfast, then proceed up the valley, visiting each one in turn, and then go back down to the seaside for the evening. It was expected of me, and I enjoyed it. You went there to thank the polling officers and your own telling officers. If I had not gone, it would have been a huge mistake, and I am glad that, over 41 years, I took that step. I must say in passing that I hardly ever saw any of my opponents, who must have had better things to do, in their minds. However, that was my duty and that is how I carried it out. In 41 years, I never came across any trouble in a polling station. We should endeavour to ensure that there are no mistakes and no disturbances this time.
The point I want to make is that since there is a change in eligibility for Senedd elections—that is the Senedd’s province—allowing those aged 16 and over to vote but, on the other hand, there is no change in eligibility for the police and crime commissioners’ elections on the same day—it remains at the normal voting age—I am concerned that there is no disturbance. What steps are the Government taking to publicise the difference in advance of the elections to avoid confusion and embarrassment? I ask this against the background of never having experienced a disturbance in a polling station; I just want to avoid young men and women experiencing embarrassment when they turn up and are told that they are entitled to vote in one election but not the other.
It is confusing. I realise how it has come about: one decision is down to the Welsh Government and the other is down to the Westminster Parliament. I hope that the Government will publicise this issue sufficiently to ensure that there is complete clarification on young people’s rights well in advance so that they know they have only one vote. That will avoid any difficulty or embarrassment, particularly for polling officers.
My Lords, I follow other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Hannan on an excellent maiden speech. I wish him well for all his future speeches, which will, I am sure, be as eloquent as his first.
In relation to the two orders before us, I am reminded that the first time I ever cast a vote was in Wales and bilingually: it was in favour of ending the ban on Sunday opening. I still recall the wording on the ballot paper in both English and Welsh but, given the facility of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and others in the language, I will not attempt to produce what I believe was the Welsh phraseology.
As my noble friend Lord True said, this change arises from my efforts—I thank my noble friend for his comments about them—and those of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. It is significant that a proposal that enhances democracy in these difficult circumstances came from this House, not the other place. In my mind, there is no question that it would not have been sensible to require people to pursue a series of nominations by knocking on doors all over the place to get the relevant signatures. I also pay tribute to the officials and Sheridan Westlake at No. 10 for trying to frame the change to the legislation so that we get the appropriate procedures.
I note, as my noble friend Lord True pointed out, that this order expires in February 2022. There are those who would wish to see it end at that point; I would favour the continuation of the process beyond that date because what was originally intended with the requirement of 10 signatures has now disappeared in the mists of time.
I want to spend a moment congratulating the Government. The guidance issued by them is extremely well phrased and well guided. The clarification on how many signatures are necessary, in which local authorities and under what circumstances is very clear indeed; I hope that other government documents follow the same process. My one slight observation in relation to government documents is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, identified, the Government have issued The Government’s Approach to Elections and Referendums during COVID-19. There is no reference in it to the collection of nomination signatories; I wish that there had been.
Overall, I welcome the change and this statutory instrument. It has come about as a result of efforts from this House. I hope that, as a result of this and other changes in practice taking place between now and 6 May, the maximum number of people will feel able to participate in the elections, whether by post or in person.
My Lords, the Explanatory Memorandum for the 2012 order was prepared by the Home Office. It states that that SI
“prescribes bilingual (English and Welsh) versions of ballot papers to be used in Wales at Police and Crime Commissioner elections on 15 November 2012.”
It also states that the 2011 Act
“provides for the establishment of a directly elected Police and Crime Commissioner for every police area in England and Wales outside London. This Order is being made in exercise of the powers contained in the 2011 Act and the Welsh Language Act 1993 … This instrument applies to England and Wales … The Home Secretary has made the following statement regarding Human Rights: In my view the provisions of the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Welsh Forms) Order 2012 are compatible with the Convention rights … In June 2010, the Government announced its intention to replace police authorities with directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales by 2012 … English forms have already been prescribed in the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2012 … under the same power in the 2011 Act but, as is usual practice, bilingual forms are being established separately by this Order … This Order does not apply to businesses, charities or voluntary bodies … The legislation does not apply to small business.”
I fully support the order.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, on his maiden speech. We very much look forward to his future contributions to the work of this House. I want to pick out one thing from his speech. He said that we need to give more meaning to the importance of casting a vote; I agree entirely with him on that.
I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I have nothing to add to the points made by earlier speakers this afternoon on the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Welsh Forms) Order. However, I do wish to address the order being debated alongside it—the Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Coronavirus, Nomination of Candidates) (Amendment) Order—which is clearly sensible given the coronavirus pandemic and given similar decisions already made for other elections in May.
I want to put this order in context. When we discussed the West Yorkshire Combined Authority order in January, I referred to two matters, both of which remain highly relevant. One was the importance of scrutiny and the need to review how the new mayoral combined authorities have worked—that is, an assessment of how each is performing and what we can learn from their achievements or failures. When mayoral combined authorities were first introduced, their bespoke nature was understandable because it meant that different areas could take on powers and responsibilities that suited their local circumstances. From the perspective of the Government, it meant that further approaches to spreading power in England could be tested. That approach has proved valuable, but we need to review how more power and responsibility might be devolved from Whitehall and Westminster, and not just to those existing combined authorities. That could take place in the context of the promise by the Government of a White Paper on English devolution, which was due last year.
The Minister may also recall that, at the last election, the Conservative Party manifesto contained a commitment to a constitution, democracy and rights commission. I understand the reasons why these have not happened yet, given the pandemic, but perhaps the Minister might tell us what the Government’s plans are now.
The elections for police and crime commissioners, to which this order also applies, are the third set of elections since the introduction of the role and, as the Minister knows, there has been a consultation on police and crime commissioner powers recently. No doubt a number of proposals will arise from that in due course, but assessing the role of police and crime commissioners should not be done in isolation.
There are several issues of principle to consider. Should elected mayors have responsibility for policing or is that model too centralised? How should elected mayors and police and crime commissioners be held to account? London has an elected Assembly, but other parts of England do not. Is the police and crime commissioner model sufficiently resilient, and do police and crime panels succeed in holding police and crime commissioners to account? Do funding streams, divided between local government, mayors and police and crime commissioners, work as smoothly as they should? To what extent should governance of fire and rescue lie with police and crime commissioners?
There are many similar questions. In the past decade, we have seen a patchwork of new structures created. We have learned a lot from the many common approaches and the piloting of different approaches, but the time has come to try to review what has been achieved and what more should be done. This takes me back to the government plans for devolution in England and a constitutional commission. There would now be a benefit from the Government moving ahead with their White Paper on English devolution and saying more about their proposed commission.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest on the register as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. As other noble Lords have, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, on his excellent maiden speech. I wish him well in his time in this House. We will probably not agree on a number of issues, but I look forward to getting to know him and taking part in debates with him on important issues, as we both want to see our United Kingdom prosper in the years ahead. Even if you do not agree with other noble Lords, you can and should have respect for colleagues and the positions they are taking and advancing, and seek to understand those positions. In my nearly 11 years in this House, I have enjoyed the ability to work across the House and parties, and with Cross-Bench and non-aligned Members, to come up with sensible solutions to the problems that the United Kingdom faces, which we need to address.
I was delighted to learn that the noble Lord is a Shakespearean scholar. I have a love of Shakespeare. When I was elected at Southwark Council, my first vote as a councillor was to get Shakespeare’s Globe started and built in Bankside in Southwark, the borough in which I grew up and from which I take my title.
I am happy to give my full support to the two orders before us. First on the Welsh forms order, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, made valid points about the use of the Welsh language and ensuring that it develops and deepens in the community. The order adds to that aim, so I support it. We must always support all languages spoken in our islands. It is right, as the Explanatory Memorandum tells us, that the official forms for the police and crime commissioners are also provided in Welsh.
My noble friend Lord Hain made some valid points about the huge number of elections taking place on the same day across the United Kingdom. Like him, I would have preferred to see more consideration given to the use of all postal votes in some elections, as the Welsh Government suggested, but this has not been able to move forward and we are instead having elections as we are now, but it is important that we ensure that as many people as possible participate. The order seeks to ensure consistency with other elections held in Wales, which has its own discrete elections.
The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, highlighted that the turnout at PCC elections is still too low and I very much agree. The noble Lord, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, made the point that the name may not be right. I too am not convinced that “police and crime commissioner” is correct. We had many debates on that in this House, but I am also not sure that “sheriff” is right either. Sheriffs have judicial office in Scotland and there are still ceremonial sheriffs appointed throughout England and Wales, the most famous being the sheriff of Nottingham, an official appointed by Nottingham City Council. The noble Lord, Lord True, knows all about that; it is an important civic office there.
The second order before us sensibly reduces the number of subscribing electors who are required to sign a candidate’s nomination paper. Having acted as an election agent for the last 40 years, I am in favour of having as few names on the forms as practically possible. As the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, was saying, the proposal for signatures from 10 people is ideal. I support the order and hope, as he does, that we get to a more sensible number of electors rather than these large numbers.
It is important to recognise that the nomination process for these elections is safe, because it could put people at risk of exposure to and transmission of Covid-19, which we need to manage. Clearly the nomination process is part of that, so I fully endorse those points.
I also endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, about how important it is for people to go out and cast their votes. Because we had no elections last year, we will have enormous numbers of elections of very important bodies and parliaments. We want to ensure that people get out there, cast their votes and give us their verdicts on our parties and how things have been run, and put people in charge of the different institutions for the years ahead. I support the call for people to go out and vote in the elections.
I also very much endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about combined and mayoral authorities, because there is some confusion there: some mayoral candidates have police powers and others do not. The Government should look at that and be clear. I remember a comment once from the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, who is not in his place. He made the point that, living in Cambridgeshire, there were elections on everything—the parish council, the city council, the county council, the police and crime commissioner, the combined authority, and there is a new mayoral appointment there now. It was just a plethora of elections. We need to ensure that people understand who is in a position of power and how they relate to them. The Government should look at that carefully, but it is a matter for another day. I am happy to support both these orders and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken for the general welcome given to both these orders. I very much agree with the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, about the way in which things are best done in this House and our ability to reach across the aisle. He has always exemplified that and I will always try to live up to that standard.
It would be hard, however, to live up to the standard of speaking of my noble friend Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, who we all welcomed to this House. I congratulate him on his impressive and thoughtful maiden speech. He touched on things that are important to all of us—at least, some are important to all of us, and some to some of us. As was said by another speaker, his affirmation of the importance of casting a vote—of getting people to use democracy, particularly local democracy—speaks volumes to someone who has spent a lot of their time working in local government; I think I speak for the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on this as well. Without going into specifics, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, who also spoke eloquently about the importance of local democracy and devolution. I listened with interest to his remarks.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannan, spoke of a belief in freedom. As a child of the 1960s, I believe that almost every question comes back to freedom. I used to say that to my children when they were five years old and wanted to go out and play; they did not always see the point. It was good to hear him here today. Sometimes, in the pre-Brexit days, when some of us on these Benches were in a minority, we occasionally listened out for and watched his speeches in another place, which were an encouragement in difficult times. I wish him well in this House. He has instantly gained the respect of noble Lords on all sides.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed. I was asked a number of questions. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, ingeniously got Donald Trump into the question of police commissioner elections. I do not think that in any of this the Government were looking any further than the interests of democracy in this country and the Welsh language. The noble Lord asked whether Welsh Ministers were consulted and what the feedback from Welsh language advisers was. The answer is that the Welsh Language Advisory Group is content with the proposed changes. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, also raised this point. No major changes were made as a result of the consultation with stakeholders, who overall were content with the changes that we made.
I confirm that Cabinet Office officials sought the views of officials in the Welsh Government on the Welsh forms order. It is appropriate that there is consultation and effective activity on technical matters between the different Administrations in this country at official level. For that kind of contact to take place in no way denigrates the importance of intra-Administration contact.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, also claimed that the Welsh Government were staggered, as he put it, that the UK Government were obstructing voting approaches. The conduct of elections in Wales is devolved. So far as the UK position is concerned, the Government in this time of Covid seek to ensure that people will have the opportunity to vote in the way that they wish to: by postal vote, by appointing a proxy or at a polling station. The UK Government do not think that changes to these mechanisms are needed. It would not have been possible to move to an all-postal vote without changing the voting process to remove the use of personal identifiers for security, which would open up the risk of fraud, or otherwise require them for every elector, which would run the risk that people would not provide them and so not be able to use a postal vote.
There will be three ways to vote in the UK: in person at a polling station, by postal vote or by proxy and these will all be available in 2021. We recognise that the pandemic may change people’s needs and preferences as to how they cast their vote. Guidance is available to enable voters to make their choice. The UK Government have always been clear that it would not be appropriate to impose an all-postal vote for the elections, as this increases fraud risk and removes choice from voters who wish to cast their vote in person.
We are seeking to put in place a strong set of new measures to ensure that the polls are Covid-secure. As for why campaigning is allowed when people still cannot see loved ones, this is highly regrettable but these are the circumstances that Covid requires. I look forward with passion to the day when I can see my granddaughter again. But campaigning is an essential part of democracy. Voters deserve to be well informed before going to the polls and there must be a level playing field for candidates. Careful guidance has been issued.
On the collection of nominations, the view is that people should follow social distancing rules, so no specific guidance has been given on that. All persons involved in the electoral process must ensure that public health is protected. The Government have issued appropriate guidance to that purpose and will continue to do so.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, as I said, the Welsh Language Advisory Group was content with the proposed changes and translations and no major changes were made as a result. We have worked closely with our partners, including the Welsh Government, to support the delivery of Covid-secure polls in May 2021. I repeat, it is for the Welsh Government to take decisions around polls within their competence. We will continue to work with them to ensure an aligned approach to the polls.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, raised a particular and important issue and I undertake to write to him with guidance on how the circumstances that he described would be addressed.
There has not been major dissent and I am grateful for your Lordships’ support for the instruments today. I think most agree that they make sensible changes to support the effective administration of elections, reducing the number of signatures that candidates will need to be nominated, which balances the need to demonstrate local support for those wishing to stand as a candidate. I hear what some noble Lords said about the number of signatures. As I set out in my opening remarks, the previous position will come back in May 2022. I always found it rather congenial going around to get nomination signatures, because they occasionally came with a cup of coffee or even a glass of wine. I am sure we will listen to your Lordships’ advice on this matter.
To conclude, I very much welcome what has been said about the Welsh language. This order carries on a long process of work that goes way back. I remember working as a young adviser with Viscount Whitelaw in the days when the battle over Welsh language broadcasting was live. The work is never completed, but we are ensuring here that there is effective Welsh language provision at elections in Wales and consistency with other elections held in Wales. In a world that treks towards a drab uniformity of approved culture and thought, we should always cherish the richness of ancient cultures and language, among which the great Welsh language is pre-eminent. In that spirit, I commend the instruments to the House.
Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Coronavirus, Nomination of Candidates) (Amendment) Order 2021
Motion to Approve
That the draft Order laid before the House on 8 February be approved.
Relevant documents: 46th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and 41st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (special attention drawn to the intstrument).
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the time limit for the following debate is one hour.
Northamptonshire (Structural Changes) (Supplementary Provision and Amendment) Order 2021
Motion to Approve
My Lords, if approved and made, this order will make provision in relation to the two new unitary councils in Northamptonshire, which will be fully up and running from 1 April 20201, taking on all local government functions from that date. The order will ensure that there is a smooth transition from the predecessor to successor councils.
Following approval from Parliament, we legislated in February 2020 to abolish the existing Northamptonshire County Council and the seven district councils in the area and establish the new unitary councils of North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire. These local government changes were locally led, having been proposed by councils in Northamptonshire. We were satisfied that, if implemented, their proposal would be likely to improve local government and service delivery in the area; that they would have a good deal of local support; and that the new councils would have a credible geography.
I must pay tribute to all the local leaders and their officers who have worked so hard to implement both this restructuring in Northamptonshire and the successful launch of the new councils, all while responding to the Covid pandemic. I also offer my thanks to our commissioners there, who have done so much to stabilise the position of the existing county council and provide a stable base for the transition to the new authorities.
The order we are considering makes the following changes in relation to the new councils. First, it makes amendments to the Lieutenancies Act 1997 and the Sheriffs Act 1887 to insert in the relevant schedules references to the new local government areas of North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire in relation to the positions of Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff respectively. This will ensure the continuation of these important roles, which represent the Crown in Northamptonshire. There is no change to the boundary of the ceremonial county of Northamptonshire, and there is no change to the functions or jurisdiction of the Lord Lieutenant or High Sheriff of Northamptonshire.
Secondly, the order makes provision to ensure that the property, rights, assets and liabilities of the Northamptonshire pension fund transfer from Northamptonshire County Council to West Northamptonshire Council, which will be the new administering authority of the pension fund. This will ensure the continuation of the administration of the pension fund and avoid the crystallisation of any pension liability.
It further provides that the responsibility for assets and liabilities in the pension fund relating to the pensions of employees or former employees of the councils that are to be abolished transfers to successor councils in proportions determined by West Northamptonshire Council. This will ensure that there is clarity on who is taking over the responsibility for funding existing pensions accrued and preventing exit payments arising. In coming to a fair determination on these matters, the order provides that West Northamptonshire Council must take advice from an actuary and consult North Northamptonshire Council.
The order before noble Lords addresses two supplementary and incidental issues that could not be addressed in the existing regulations on generic application, which enable effective implementation of all unitary authorities. These specific provisions need to be applied directly with respect to these particular authorities. I assure noble Lords that we have worked closely on this order with the existing councils and shadow authorities for North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire, looking carefully at a number of issues raised and agreeing that the provisions of the order meet local requirements.
In conclusion, these provisions are necessary consequential changes in the light of the establishment of the new councils that Parliament has approved. They ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements and continued effective local government in the areas. I commend this order to the House.
My Lords, I support the Minister and thank him so much for bringing this order forward. My first involvement in local government goes way back to 1968, when I had the privilege of leading the team that won Islington Borough Council, in effect winning every seat. Admittedly, Harold Wilson was rather unpopular at the time—another turnaround situation.
My first involvement with Northampton itself started 1972, when new boundaries had been agreed and Northampton South and Northampton North were looking for candidates. I put my name in and was told that Northampton South was a long shot, but I was not put off and, while I was on holiday in the south of France in the July, I got a telephone call asking if I would come back for an interview. Obviously, I did, and I was selected and flew back to what turned out to be a brilliant holiday.
The election was in February 1974. Mine was a marginal seat: my majority was 179. On the first count, it was minus 200-odd. On the second count, it was near enough level, and on the third count, I got 179—a good win. In October 1974, there was another election with a swing against my party, and I succeeded by 141; there was no personal swing against me, and the success was primarily due to tracking those who had moved from my best ward. As such, I say a huge public thank you again to the electors of Northampton South, who stuck with me through thick and thin until the disaster of 1997.
I turn to Northampton itself and the county. Northampton is a fourth-generation new town—it made a huge success of that, and I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that we should do something similar today, though maybe on a smaller scale. I am still involved today: as president of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, the Steelbacks, and at the University of Northampton—which is doing so well—the Saints, the rugby team, and Silverstone racing track. That involvement is still there. I pay tribute to the leadership of those days: George Pollard, John Lowther, Bill Morton, Jack Corrin, Ann Addison, Anne Goodman and the aldermanic bench. There was good liaison in those days with the MPs; indeed, I remember marching along the Embankment in the early days, seeking proper funding for Northamptonshire in toto.
Turning to the specifics, there is little purpose going over what went wrong. Frankly, it is exceedingly embarrassing to see my county in such a difficult situation. To the outsider, it seems to have been a combination of poor leadership, not putting the council tax up to a realistic level, installing a corporate structure that was not suited and, I am afraid, the top councillors clearly not keeping their eye on the ball.
I must now, quite rightly, focus on the future. It is a wonderful, dynamic part of England—right in the middle, with wonderful connections. I wondered about the break-up of the unitaries, because I live in Bedfordshire, which has three—two big towns and the middle bit where I live—but having looked at the details of Northamptonshire, which has five significant towns and a middle bit straddling quite a long way, I think the proposal for west Northamptonshire and north Northamptonshire strikes the correct balance.
The split is there. It seems appropriate, although it is sad that the eight district councils have had to be wound up. That is pretty dramatic; I thank all the councillors on them who have given up so much time. After all the trials and tribulations, it was disappointing that we did not have some elections in 2020 to get going again, but now they are to go ahead in a few months’ time.
I have studied the order in some depth, as my noble friend on the Front Bench will understand. I see at paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum, as he has referred to, that there are amendments to the Lieutenancies Act 1997 and the Sheriffs Act 1887. I thank my noble friend for ensuring that, in other words, there is to be no change to the boundary of the ceremonial county of Northamptonshire or to the functions of the Lord-Lieutenant or the High Sheriff of Northamptonshire. I admire both present incumbents and many other previous ones.
I looked at the pension fund in some depth—I declare an interest as a trustee of the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund—and seek reassurance that this will be closely and properly audited before it is formally handed over. I am sure there is nothing wrong there; nevertheless, given that the county council’s financial situation got into such a mess, I and, I am sure, the people of Northamptonshire wish to be reassured that what is being handed over is in proper order and that the pension fund is solvent to deal with and look after our pensions.
I formally pay my thanks to the senior inspector, Max Caller CBE, for the careful work he did on analysing the situation, recognising that there was no way of carrying on as a county council and that we had to move forward.
I will now look at the future in a little more depth. It is a proud county, and there will still be many organisations county-wide. I have mentioned Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, in which I declare an interest as president, a really well-run club that is succeeding well. Equally well run are the Saints; both have good structures, with strong chairmen and active boards. We have a university that came out of a further education college and a teacher training college, today ranking close to the top of the second division of universities. I pay great tribute to the vice-chancellor and his team for what they have done there. There will also be other county things such as the arts world and music, so we can all hold our heads up proudly that the geographical dimension of Northamptonshire is still very much there.
I cannot resist a brief word about the Battle of Naseby, on 14 June 1645, where Fairfax and Cromwell defeated the King and, in effect, led our country to meaningful parliamentary government—hence why I took the name, with the blessing, I emphasise, of Naseby Parish Council. I am still deeply involved in many parts of the county. Mentioning the battle again, there is a wonderful trail with viewing platforms for those who are interested.
Every unitary council today, after Covid, faces a huge challenge, none more so than the two newer ones. Northamptonshire people and businesses have dynamism and respected companies, with names that are well-known worldwide: Church’s shoes, British Timken, Barclaycard, Silverstone itself—with wonderful companies such as Cosworth and all the others—to mention a few.
But there is an immediate challenge for the two new councils: the new wave of cash grants for hospitality and high street firms. Those councils will be in charge of the distribution and I know that others elsewhere have not been too good at that. I look to the two new unitary authorities to be in the vanguard, so that when the distribution has been done, my noble friend the Minister will be able to stand up and say, “They’ve done a good job.” I look to the two new Northamptonshire unitaries to be in that vanguard and I say to them publicly that I am available to help in any way possible, as I imagine all the Members of Parliament for the county are too.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, with his charming recollections of Northamptonshire and his evident commitment to the area that he represented for 24 years in Parliament and has continued to care about since he joined this House. That was a most impressive speech.
My interest in this subject, which I declare, is as a member of Cumbria County Council. I shall not comment on specific Northamptonshire issues, but I would like to engage the Government, if they are willing, in a debate about the general principles of their approach to local government reorganisation.
This May it will be half a century since I was first elected as a local councillor, in the then Oxford County Borough, which became Oxford District Council. For four years I was a member of Lambeth Council in the 1980s, where I led the SDP opposition to Ted Knight—someone who was as far away from the founding principles of the Labour Party as could possibly be imagined. For the last eight years I have been a Labour councillor in Cumbria.
My earliest political experience was living through local government reorganisation, when the county borough in Oxford became a district. Now I am living through it again, because on 22 February the Government formally announced that they were consulting on proposals to reorganise local government in Cumbria. I know that the Minister will not be able to comment on that in detail, but I would like to make some general points, which I hope he may be able to respond to in a letter.
I am a strong supporter of the unitary model. As I said, I was first elected to a county borough, but the problem with a county borough is that it did not reach beyond its hinterland. I believe that unitaries are the best model. The public do not understand two-tier local government: they talk about “the council” and do not know which council they are talking to. Two tiers also create artificial barriers to efficiency. It is nonsense to have local planning and housing issues decided at one level and highways and traffic at another. It is nonsense to separate housing from social services, where a lot of the preventive efforts relate to the housing service.
In the Covid emergency we have seen a split between public health, which is a county responsibility, and environmental health, which is a district responsibility. None of that makes sense and it involves a lot of duplication. In Cumbria we have far too many councillors —possibly including me. We have 350 of them. When we know—as we do from the Budget yesterday—that there will be no cornucopia of provision for local government in the next few years, it is important to make efficiency savings where we can.
People on the other side of the argument say that big unitary authorities mean a lack of democratic accountability. The answer to that, in my view, is to strengthen town and parish councils at the very local level. In the town I represent, Wigton, there is a very active town council and I would like to see its role extended. That would give very local accountability for very local decisions.
Moving to unitary authorities has my general support. The Government have so far adopted a mixed approach. In some places, such as Cornwall and Buckinghamshire, they have created a single unitary for the county. Why did they not adopt that approach in Northamptonshire? This clearly cannot be simply a question of geography and population size, because Cornwall and Buckinghamshire are very big areas.
There is also an issue about whether government policy and plans for local government reorganisation allow county boundaries to be crossed. Has that happened so far? In Cumbria there is now a proposal to create a Morecambe Bay authority—but the only snag with that is that it would deprive Lancashire County Council of its county town. What is the Government’s view in principle of proposals that cross county boundaries? For instance, in the case of Northampton, was the idea of creating an urban-based authority consisting of Northampton, Bedford and Milton Keynes ever considered? That would be logical if we were prepared to cross old county boundaries. What is the Government’s attitude to that?
In Northamptonshire the reorganisation has clearly involved breaking up services that were provided on a county basis. We know that that has been avoided for the lord lieutenancy and the pension scheme, but what has been the experience with children’s services? Has the trust model worked? Do the Government think that a children’s services trust can be held accountable when things go wrong? What are the lessons that they have drawn?
What reorganisation should definitely not be based on is political pressure from Members of Parliament who basically just want to hang on to existing structures. A lot of that is because they see district councillors as their grass-roots organisation. I do not think that should be regarded as a principle to prevent sensible reorganisation.
What criteria will the Government use in looking at all these different proposals for reorganisation? In Cumbria we have four proposals—one for a single unitary, which I support, and three different versions with two unitaries. That is a confusing situation and some order must be given to its consideration.
These are difficult questions and I am not expecting a clear answer from the Minister. I apologise for taking up the time of the House on these issues, but the Government have been rather slow and rather reluctant to show a bit of leg—if I might put it that way—in the reasoning behind local government reorganisation, which in principle I support. I believe in local government, as I know the Minister does. I have a passion for it, and I want to see a reorganisation carried out on a sensible basis, which can last for generations.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am happy to support the order before the House. As we have heard, it makes a number of changes and provides for the smooth transition to the new unitary councils that are to replace the old two-tier system in Northamptonshire. It also confirms that, for ceremonial purposes, the county of Northamptonshire remains in place; it is just the governance arrangements that will be different.
I thank all the councillors from all parties and no party, and all the staff, from all the local authorities, who have worked hard for the benefit of residents in Northamptonshire. I join the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, in his tribute. In particular, I pay tribute to, and thank, Councillor Tom Beattie for his leadership of Corby Borough Council over many years.
I lived and worked in the East Midlands for a long time. It is a wonderful place. Northamptonshire is a wonderful county, which the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, served with distinction for many years as one of its MPs. I agree with the noble Lord about what a wonderful, dynamic place Northamptonshire is. There is beautiful countryside, great businesses, such as Dr Martens in Wellingborough, Weetabix in Burton Latimer and Carlsberg in Northampton, world-class rugby with Northampton Saints, motor racing at Silverstone and Corby’s steel heritage and connections with Scotland. One of my dear friends was Mr Bob Wood, a leading figure in the Corby and East Northamptonshire Labour Party. Bob often told me of travelling down from Aberdeen with his family to get a job in the steel works. He remained at the steel works until they closed in 1979. That historic connection between Scotland and Corby is still there today. I remember taking Donald Dewar to Corby many times. He would have a lovely time there because he met people and families he knew from Glasgow because they had moved down to Corby.
At the risk of being accused of being party-political again, I think it is worth putting on record that this reorganisation has come about not through the coming together of local authorities, nor through the realisation by local authorities that unitarisation is the best way forward—though I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that it is—but through the financial mismanagement and near collapse of Northamptonshire County Council. We discussed those matters before the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, was a Minister and before he was in the House. I have great respect for the noble Lord, but I think I need to run through some of those episodes.
Here is one illustration of the shambles we have had in Northamptonshire. On 12 October 2017, the £53 million, bright, shiny, brand new county HQ, One Angel Square, was opened by the right honourable Member for Bromsgrove, Mr Sajid Javid, who was the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Secretary of State told the assembled guests that it was a wonderful building, the headquarters of a bright, modern, forward-facing county council. The video of that opening is still online; I watched it again last night, and the Secretary of State praises the council and the work it does. I must say that I always liked the old county council building; I do not think there was anything wrong with that at all.
Jump forward six months to 27 March 2018, and Mr Sajid Javid stands up in the House of Commons and announces that he is minded to send in commissioners to run the county council, following the publication of Northampton County Council Best Value Inspection which said that the council had
“failed to comply with its duty … to provide best value in the delivery of its services”
and should be scrapped, and that commissioners should take control of the authority’s finances and governance from day one. On 10 May 2018, the new the Secretary of State, Mr James Brokenshire, announces they have decided to send in commissioners to run the county council.
It is not good. It is financial mismanagement at its worst. It is letting down those you are elected to serve. It is letting down those least able to defend themselves. It is not good enough. Taken with the serious failures of governance at Northampton Borough Council, resulting in the loss of £10 million of taxpayers’ money in the Northampton Town loan scandal, it is a complete and utter disgrace. Now, to be clear, where Labour councils or councillors have failed to uphold high standards, I expect action to be taken by my party. I believe nobody should stand for election to North Northamptonshire Council or West Northamptonshire Council if they have played a leading role in any of these scandals. The Government should think about that carefully because we have let residents and the council taxpayers down.
It was important to put that on the record. Having said that, I support the order. I wish the new councils and councillors well, but there have been serious problems they have to deal with. Something has gone seriously wrong in this county over many years.
My Lords, we have had an interesting and brief debate this afternoon. I am grateful for the insightful and helpful contributions noble Lords have made. I would like to provide some further detail on some of the points that have been raised.
My noble friend Lord Naseby was clear about his considerable local government pedigree and distinguished parliamentary career representing Northampton South. He clearly has that close bond with the historic county of Northamptonshire, and I recognise his support for the proposed split into two unitaries. I give my noble friend assurance that there is an annual audit of the pension fund and that there has been a clear apportionment of the pension assets and liabilities to ensure it happens fairly and that the pension fund can continue to operate unaffected.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, was very passionate about the advantages of unitarisation, and I would point out that the devolution proposals are locally-led. The split followed the recommendation of an independent review of Northamptonshire County Council by Max Caller. It was supported by local leaders, and a significant consultation exercise was carried out. I can also assure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State will clearly evaluate the criteria for unitarisation and the results of the consultation against those criteria before making any decision. He will have regard for all the information that has been provided to him.
I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that it is important that we root out those few councils that let people down. It is the residents of the area that suffer. I am sure he would agree there are examples of Labour councils that have run up huge levels of debt. The most obvious is Croydon Council, which ran up a debt of £1.5 billion and did not have the reserves to be able to continue financing even basic services. So we need to make sure there is a framework in place and that local leaders who have taken those poor decisions do not have a future in the leadership of local government. I agree with him on that.
In conclusion, this order makes a significant contribution to support and empower local government to deliver public services to the people of Northamptonshire in an efficient and effective way. This order completes the legislative requirements necessary to implement a locally-led proposal for unitarisation in Northamptonshire. It ensures that necessary technical arrangements around ceremonial matters and local government pension scheme arrangements are in place so that there continues to be effective local government in Northamptonshire.
The new local authorities undergoing reorganisation are making excellent progress towards their go-live date, and I am confident the new councils, West Northamptonshire Council and North Northamptonshire Council, will be successfully launched on 1 April 2021, bringing about the improved local government and service delivery that the people of Northamptonshire need and deserve. I commend this order to the House.
We are just going to swap the speakers, and we are waiting for the Minister, so, rather than adjourn the House, we are going to take one minute, then move straight on.
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill
Commons Reason and Amendments
My Lords, I will call Members to speak in the order listed. As there are no counterpropositions, Members not listed may not speak and the Minister’s Motions may not be opposed. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are discouraged. A Member listed to speak and wishing to ask such a question must email the clerk.
1A: The Schedule, page 8, line 4, at end insert—
“1A In section 134 (restrictions in leases and licences), in subsection (8), for the definition of “lease” substitute—
(a) in relation to England and Wales and Northern Ireland, includes—
(i) any head lease, sub-lease or underlease,
(ii) any tenancy (including a sub-tenancy), and
(iii) any agreement to grant any such lease or tenancy;
(b) in relation to Scotland, includes any sub-lease and any agreement to grant a sub-lease,
And “lessor” and “lessee” are to be construed accordingly;”.”
1B: Page 9, line 21, leave out “, after the definition of “lease” insert—” and insert “—
(a) for the definition of “lease” substitute—
(a) in relation to England and Wales and Northern Ireland, includes—
(i) any head lease, sub-lease or underlease,
(ii) any tenancy (including a sub- tenancy), and
(iii) any agreement to grant any such lease or tenancy,
but does not include a mortgage by demise or sub-demise;
(b) in relation to Scotland, includes any sub- lease and any agreement to grant a sub- lease,
and “leased premises” and “lessee” are to be read accordingly;”;
(b) before the definition of “relevant person” insert—”
3A: Because the Commons do not consider it necessary for the Secretary of State to be required to carry out a review as set out in Lords Amendment No. 3.
My Lords, I am moving Motions A and B en bloc. When the Bill was introduced in early 2020, we could not have predicted the situation that we find ourselves in now. Over the past year, our telecoms network has allowed businesses to continue to operate, children to continue to learn and those in isolation to continue to see and speak to families and friends. As the Minister for Digital Infrastructure has done in the other place, I give wholehearted thanks to the UK’s digital infrastructure providers, internet service providers and mobile network operators. They have stepped up and worked with us to bridge the gaps in provision, be that through whitelisting educational websites, providing free data and devices to struggling families or coming together to deliver connectivity to the Nightingale hospitals and vaccination sites. As with any industry, there is a tendency to pay attention only when something goes wrong and to ignore the huge amount of effort and hard work it takes to keep things working normally. The industry’s efforts during this extraordinary time cannot and must not be forgotten.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has put into sharp relief the divide between the digital haves and the digital have-nots. This Government’s ambition is to support the delivery of fast, reliable, resilient broadband to every home and business in this country. Noble Lords will be aware—not least from our discussions during the passage of the Bill—of the myriad, complex barriers that face infrastructure deployment. There is no panacea, but the Bill provides a modest yet vital development. Despite having once been described by the Guardian as “an obscure technical bill”, it has within its initial scope some 10 million people in the UK who live in flats and apartments. It also contains the flexibility to bring still more people into its scope in the future, such as those in office blocks and business parks, where the evidence points to it.
We expect these provisions, once commenced, to make a real difference to rollout, along with other measures we are taking forward such as mandating gigabit connectivity to new-build developments and reforms to the street-works regime so that it better supports deployment.
I trust that your Lordships will have seen that a consultation on further potential changes to the Electronic Communications Code has now been published. We will carefully consider whether further legislative changes beyond those made in the Digital Economy Act 2017 are necessary as a result of what we learn from that consultation. These are all steps that, combined, will help operators achieve their, and this Government’s, ambitious connectivity targets. Crucially, these measures will take into account the interests of those needing greater connectivity, balancing those interests alongside those of landowners. Just as with the Bill, that balance is crucial to ensure that we continue to bridge that digital divide.
The Motion asks that this House does not insist on its Amendment 1 and does agree with the Commons in its Amendments 1A and 1B in lieu. As noble Lords will recall, Amendment 1 was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, following similar amendments by the Opposition Front Bench, here and in the other place. Its purpose is to clarify that people who rent their flat can make use of the policy in the Bill. While we maintain that the Bill has always provided for that, the strength of feeling on the matter is undeniable. To make it clear that the Bill serves the interests of tenants as well as leaseholders, the Government have tabled two amendments in the spirit of that tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. The amendments clarify the definition of “lease” in the Electronic Communications Code, to ensure that it includes, for example, any tenancy. I hope that your Lordships will support these amendments.
I hope that the House will not insist on Lords Amendment 3, to which the Commons has disagreed for Reason 3A. That amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, adds a new clause requiring the Secretary of State to commission a review of the impact of the Bill on the Electronic Communications Code. The proposed new clause requires the commissioned review to include an assessment of whether the code is sufficient to support the delivery of one gigabit per second broadband to every premise in the country by 2025. The amendment also requires that further, separate assessments be made of whether the code should be amended to
“introduce rights of access to telecommunications operators akin to those available to suppliers of electricity, gas, and water”.
The amendment also provides for an assessment as to whether the code should be amended to provide additional development rights and encourage collaboration alongside other works being carried out in the locality.
I recognise and appreciate the intention with which this amendment was tabled. It is important that the Government are held to account over their rollout targets, and it is frustrating that many parts of the country still do not have access to the digital services they need. However, we continue to believe that the amendment is unnecessary and seeks to introduce provisions which fall outside the purpose of the Bill and, indeed, the code itself. As I have said, there are already mechanisms in place by which the department’s rollout targets are measured and scrutinised.
Ofcom, the independent regulator, publishes its annual Connected Nations report, which it updates a further two times a year. This provides a clear assessment of the progress that this country is making in providing connectivity, both fixed and mobile. These reports provide detailed analysis of the connectivity available in the UK as a whole, in each of the nations and in urban and rural areas. They show the progress that is being made in the deployment of gigabit-capable networks and 4G and 5G coverage. They show progress in relation to connections to superfast services, as well as the areas in this country which are not yet served—for example, those premises unable to access a broadband speed that meets the minimum under the universal service obligation. Should the Ofcom reports raise questions, the Government continue to provide answers and clarity on any aspects of their work in this area, both in this House and in the other place.
Furthermore, there are established means of scrutiny through Select Committees. To take some recent examples, in December 2020 the DCMS Select Committee published its report, Broadband and the road to 5G; in January this year, the Public Accounts Committee published its report, Improving Broadband; and in February, the Science and Technology Committee published UK telecommunications infrastructure and the UK’s domestic capability. Ministers and senior officials have given evidence to Parliament on a number of occasions and have been asked to account for their progress towards achieving greater connectivity as part of these sessions.
Moving on to the more technical reasons why we cannot accept this amendment, I remind your Lordships that the Electronic Communications Code is technology neutral. It is not about what is being installed; rather, it is about where, when and how equipment is installed. It is about the rights of operators to perform these activities and the rights of those whose land is used for this purpose. It is simply not possible to judge whether the Electronic Communications Code supports access to 1 gigabit per second broadband, because it is not designed to facilitate just gigabit-capable connections.
By contrast, the code is about access to land to facilitate the installation, maintenance and upgrade of electronic communications networks, including gigabit-capable broadband but also mobile telephony. The only way to judge the code is to examine the availability of all types of connections. As I have mentioned just now, the independent regulator does exactly that and regularly publishes those reports.
With regard to comparing the powers of telecom operators with gas, water and electricity suppliers, the Government recognise that further changes to the code may be required if it is to effectively support the achievement of our coverage and connectivity targets. Shortly before Third Reading, we published a consultation on further potential changes to the code. That consultation seeks responses from interested parties on a number of different issues relating to access to land. These issues have been raised by us with stakeholders and go beyond the specific matter of unresponsive landlords that the Bill addresses. The consultation is open until 24 March 2021. The Government will look closely at all responses in evaluating whether further changes are needed and, if so, what those changes should be.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, goes further still and references permitted development rights and street works. DCMS does not have responsibility for these two policy areas, but I reassure your Lordships that DCMS officials work in close contact with the relevant parts of government to take a joined-up approach and to pursue the reforms that the industry is asking for.
Additional development rights are a planning matter which sits outside the Electronic Communications Code. However, many noble Lords will be aware that telecom operators are afforded significantly more flexibility in how they install their infrastructure. This includes, for example—under permitted development rights—exemptions from a number of requirements to request planning permission. My department continues to work closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in that regard, and in August 2019 we launched a joint consultation with MHCLG regarding potential reform of permitted development rights, particularly to support mobile network deployment. The Government published their response to that consultation in July 2020. The response announced that, subject to a technical consultation, we will take forward the proposed reforms. We expect to publish the technical consultation in the spring.
Finally, I reassure your Lordships of the work that the Government are already doing with regard to the co-ordination of street works and promoting greater collaboration between telecom providers with local authorities and the suppliers of gas, water and electricity. My department is working closely with the Department for Transport and last year released the new Street Manager digital service. This was the largest update to street works in a generation and has simplified and improved the planning and co-ordination of works throughout England. This service is used by utilities and highway authorities alike and is offering unprecedented opportunity for collaboration and joint works. The Government are continuing to assess what further reforms can be made to improve co-ordination and collaboration, including changes to both permitting and traffic management schemes. I also note that roads are an area of devolved competence, so they would not be an appropriate addition to this Bill, which applies throughout the UK.
I hope that the Government’s reasons for disagreeing with Amendment 3 are clear. We fully appreciate the intentions of this amendment, and the Government share your Lordships’ concerns that telecom operators must be given the best tools possible if they are to deliver world-class connectivity.
We are listening to the telecom industry very carefully, and I assure noble Lords that we are getting there and identifying and delivering the necessary reforms. However, this amendment is impractical. It aims to bring into the Bill issues that it has never been the role of the Electronic Communications Code to provide, such as gigabit-capable connections and improved planning and street works.
I hope that your Lordships will be reassured by the recent publication of the consultation considering potential reforms to the Electronic Communications Code. We remain very much open to ideas from the industry and landowners on how the Government can better support rollout, and we will take legislative action if the evidence demonstrates a need to do so. I therefore beg to move that this House disagrees with Amendment 3.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her thorough review of both the amendments, and of the scene.
The Bill seems to have been around almost as long as the Covid pandemic. I am almost minded to call it the “lockdown Bill”, because it surfaced from time to time and then disappeared from time to time. Looking forward, I hope that future Bills which may or may not emerge from consultations will perhaps have a rather more impelling momentum than this one, which seems to have been rather caught in the backwash of legislation.
It has been a Bill of essentially two debates. One was the huge concern that your Lordships demonstrated about the nature of the digital communications supply chain; the Minister may be pleased to know that I will not go back into that. The other debate—the Minister may not agree—has exposed the paucity of ambition in the Bill and, therefore, by extension, in Her Majesty’s Government. On the Minister’s own admission, it is a narrow Bill; I would say it is just about as narrow as the Government’s USO, which I remind your Lordships is just 10 megabits a second. Both the Government and the industry should be seeking to increase that.
When it comes to the digital communications supply chain, there is one thing that I should like to talk about. Much work is to be done in the sector as it comes to terms with the future absence of Huawei. Since we last considered the Bill, some of us have received letters from the Minister setting out plans for supply chain diversity. I hope that that letter is in the Library; if not, it would be appreciated if the Minister made sure that it was. Government support for the NEC open RAN trial is good and we welcome that. I remind the Minister that the Government’s stated aim is to have 5G open RAN up and running this year. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister were able in her closing words to let us know whether that is on track. I should point out in referring to the technical consultation being due in the spring that the first day of spring was Monday, so we are, as it were, already sprung.
I turn to the items on the Marshalled List. When addressing the amendment on leasehold status in the Commons, the Minister of State Matt Warman MP recognised the plight of people living in flats and apartments, which was welcome. He and the Minister enumerated about 10 million people as potentially benefiting from being able to seek better broadband in their homes. That point was thoroughly made by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones. The purpose of his amendment on Report was to clarify, as the Minister said, that people who rent their flat can make use of the changes in the Bill. It is gratifying that the Government have retained the spirit of that Amendment 1 in offering Amendments 1A and 1B instead. I am sure that my noble friend will have more to say on that.
Turning to Lords Amendment 3, the Government’s response is not supportive and that is disappointing. That amendment would have added a new clause requiring the Secretary of State to commission a review of the impact of the Bill on the Electronic Communications Code. It seems to me that in her rebuttal of that amendment the Minister enumerated the considerable weaknesses of the code and set out some areas of concern. Amendment 3 would have included an assessment of whether the code was sufficient to support 1 gigabit broadband rollout in every premises by 2025. In her rebuttal, she said that the code was not competent to do that. Given that so much weight has been put, not least by the Government, on that target, that would seem to be a serious issue. As the Minister set out, it would have required separate assessments to be made, as well as addressing the issue around utilities—that was well rehearsed on Report and I do not propose to do so again.
However, I am tempted to ask what the Government are scared of in terms of allowing that review to happen. They seem to be nervous about their ability to deliver on that 1 gigabit target. It was therefore not surprising that Matt Warman MP would politely denounce that amendment, as the Minister has done today. Both focused on the assertion that elements of the amendment fall outside the scope of the Bill. It is not beyond understanding that if that were the case the Government could have come back with an amendment that retained or created a review but also satisfied the need for the amendment to sit inside the Bill. Once again, we have fallen foul of the narrowness of the Bill.
It is partly surprising and perhaps gratifying that the Government have realised how narrow the Bill is, and it was almost remarkable that before the ink was dry on it, the next consultation came fluttering through the letterbox. Perhaps the Minister has, in a sense, already confirmed the recognition that the Bill was insufficient in the first place. It has taken us a long time for us to get not very far and now we have to start again.
On many occasions, the Minister has reminded us that the code is technology-neutral. I think we know and understand that. Therefore, the review has to grasp that within the context of how the code in future deals with the key issue: are people getting the connectivity they need, can we measure it, and can we make it quicker and better as well as cheaper? I hope that that goes beyond simply talking about access to land and that kind of issue. Let us get through this consultation as quickly and thoroughly as we can. Let us get another Bill so that we can create a code that does what it needs to do and is fit for purpose because, let us face it, the Government have an interest in delivering the gigabit target from their manifesto but the country has much higher stakes in this. We need it as soon as possible.
My Lords, I join the Minister in congratulating our telecoms providers on rising to the challenge of providing relatively comprehensive connectivity to the nation in response to Covid.
However, I am reluctant to speak to Amendment 3 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, other than to say that I do not support it, for the reason that it appears to place additional burdens and apportion impractical and potentially onerous rights. It would be injected into the Bill in its closing stages when we do not have the capacity as a House either to examine the issues or to reflect on the Electronic Telecommunications Code and the impact of the new rights being given to operators. My approach is that it is best not to introduce additional complexities to Bills during ping-pong.
However, I intervened on the Bill as far back as 19 May 2020 with my amendment to prevent vendors defined by the National Cyber Security Centre as high-risk. From the outset, I welcomed the aims of the Bill. My intentions were narrow and were to protect our critical infrastructure and, by definition, since that is built for the longer term—20, 30 or perhaps 40 years —to protect it from being compromised by firms that today might seem benign but in the long term may be able to jeopardise our security as technology becomes more complex.
My amendment was described as being anti-Huawei, although its wording was much broader. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to other noble Lords who joined me in that endeavour because I was constantly being told by the Government Benches that the amendment was inappropriate. However, the noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, and Lord Adonis, stuck with me as we continued to argue that Huawei or, indeed, any other future telecoms provider that might jeopardise our national security should be removed from being able to operate with impunity in this country.
I truly regret that the Bill was delayed in our seeking those safeguards, but that is what we exist for here as a scrutinising Chamber. We give the Government an opportunity to think again and that is what has happened through those amendments. We currently have before us in the Telecommunications (Security) Bill the right place to discuss those matters as we go forward, and the Government have also seen the light of day on the use of Huawei.
I therefore thank the Minister for her openness throughout the year in having given us valuable time and discussing where we might go with our amendment. I thank all noble Lords who participated in the Bill for having put up with us and a slightly otiose amendment. Nevertheless, we got there in the end.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her comprehensive introduction. I agree with her emphasis on the importance of internet services and the need to eliminate digital exclusion. It is hard to think what the consequences would have been if we had suffered this pandemic just 10 years ago, when our broadband services were less extensive and much slower than now.
In the name of inclusivity, I welcome the first part of today’s business, Motion A. Throughout the course of the Bill, my noble friend Lord Fox, the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Lord Liddle, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and others have been arguing for as inclusive a definition as possible of those who could be regarded as tenants, without straying into the territory of licensees or licences. It includes those with assured shorthold tenancies or assured tenancy agreements, as well as students living in short-term lets, where a tenant has, or tenants have, exclusive possession of the let property.
We have been concerned throughout to ensure that all tenancies such as renewable tenancies are included, even if they are not, strictly speaking, leases and that there should not be any grey areas that need to be interpreted by the courts. I am pleased that the Government have now produced an even more inclusive definition than the one that I argued for on Report. My sincere thanks go to the Minister and the Bill team for their care and consideration on what we have always regarded as an important issue.
However, I do not welcome Motion B. The original purpose of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, which was strongly supported on these Benches—I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that it was introduced not at ping-pong but on Report—was to ensure that the code is fit for the purpose of delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment of broadband capable of 1 gigabit per second to every home by 2025. The need for this has become even more important, particularly since the Covid-19 lockdown has demonstrated our increasing dependence on good broadband connectivity for remote working, education and many other aspects of life, as the Minister mentioned.
Sadly, it is clear that the Government are backtracking in their ambitions—the 2025 1 gigabit per second target has been watered down and the budget for rollout expenditure slashed by two-thirds. Even so, it is clear that the Electronic Communications Code needs regular review to ensure that the Government’s objective, however watered down, is met and that operators have all the rights under the code that they need.
My noble friend Lord Fox rightly commented on a universal service obligation of a miserable 10 megabits per second and I completely agree with him. However, looking to the future, I am glad that during the course of the Bill we have started a genuine debate around whether we can describe broadband as a utility and what the appropriate rights of entry are.
I am also grateful to the noble Baroness for answering what the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, described as a blizzard of questions on telecoms supply chain diversification in her extremely informative letter last month. Some of the work being carried out on open RAN, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Fox, is ground- breaking for the interoperability and competitiveness of our 5G networks. It is good to see that international collaboration is regarded as essential and is ongoing.
However, at the end of the day I am left with a sense of bafflement. This has been a ridiculously modest Bill, given the challenges of the broadband and 5G rollout ahead. Of course, as the Minister has mentioned, we now have Access to Land: Consultation on Changes to the Electronic Communications Code, which was issued in January. Notwithstanding this Bill, it seems clear the Government think that further changes are needed to clarify the position on rights to upgrade and share. Why not an earlier consultation? Why were these issues not considered before this piece of legislation? Are these long-standing questions or are they thoughts that have arisen during the course of the Bill? Is there another Bill on the way? We know from the representations made that the operators are calling for other changes that are not included in the Bill or the consultation.
I have another quote from Matt Warman. In his introduction to the consultation he says:
“The government is committed to ensuring that the Code is fit for purpose in order to deliver our digital connectivity targets.”
That is excellent. A review of the kind envisaged in our amendment would have been perfect for that purpose. The Bill has taken an inordinate time to get through, but it is clear that more reforms are in the pipeline. The question remains: could we have been spending our time better and enacting a more comprehensive Bill with a wider range of revisions, instead of this piecemeal approach?
My Lords, like others, I start by joining the Minister in thanking all our digital providers for the work that they have been doing during the pandemic, which, of course, will continue for some time to come. I hope that it will provide the basis for a learning experience about what it means to live in the digital economy that we all share hopes for.
As the Minister said when she introduced the Motions, this Bill is a modest one. However, when she says that it affects some 10 million people, that means that it has important implications. We never objected to the ideas behind the Bill and, indeed, wanted to help as much as we could to make sure that it became law as quickly as possible and allowed access to the digital economy that is so necessary in the modern world to people who otherwise would not have had it because of problems with their freeholder. We must accept that broadband is a utility.
I welcome the Government’s amendment. I think that the right word has been used, in that it “improves” the amendment originally moved by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on Report, which we also supported, to try to make sense of the definitions in terms of who was to be affected, whether it was leaseholders, renters or whatever. The language is much better as a result and that is good.
Unfortunately, the removal of the amendment just discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, seems to have a bit of a downside. I talked with the Minister before we got to this stage in proceedings and made it clear that we would not insist on our amendment being retained within the Bill. I think that we did that more in sadness than in a spirit of support, because it relates to important issues that have been raised in today’s debate.
The Minister was kind enough to praise our aspirations for the Bill, but she was also rather devastating in demolishing all the points that I thought that we had broadly agreed were important. She pointed out how inept our drafting was and how problematic it would have been had the amendment stayed within the Bill. Such are the joys of opposition. We are never going to achieve the skills of the draftsmen available to the Government. I wish that sometimes more credit would be given to the ideas that we have put forward, rather than worrying about their expression.
At the end of the day, I suppose that the consultation on the Electronic Communications Code announced by the Government in January does the trick on some of the issues underlying our amendment. However, as the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, said, it also exposes that fact that a large number of wider issues, often led by other departments in government, still have not been resolved. I urge the Government to push forward on the permitted development issues and on the street works, including the need for the antennae and cabinets that will be required if the 5G support for the 1 gigabit-enabled economy is ever to see the light of day.
I could delay the House with a further discussion of the need for much more ambitious targets, a better USO and more investment, but these have been covered and this Bill is not really the right place for them. I leave my comments with a question for the Minister: does she have in her mind a route map for how we are to achieve the 1 gigabit per second-enabled infrastructure? I am confident that, since this issue will not go away, we will be resuming discussion of it in the not-too-distant future.
Finally, I share the Minister’s concern that the telecoms operators, which we have praised already for the work that they have done during this pandemic, should continue to get the best tools and the best access so that they can continue to innovate and provide superfast quality broadband to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, I harbour a niggling concern, rather like the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Clement-Jones, that one problem that will get in the way of this delivery is the scope and scale of the current Electronic Communications Code. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement- Jones, said, is not the real question how we are to get beyond that to think again about how a utility as important as the internet can be allowed to be installed without the current plethora of planning and other restrictions, and control of the streetscape and the environment in which it has to be inserted, being in the hands of other departments? It seems to suggest that more work is required, but that is for another day.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their helpful contributions to the debate and I will respond to some of the questions that have been raised. I start by sharing the aspiration of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that future Bills should move more smoothly. I shall try not to take too much personal responsibility for the pace of this Bill, but I know he will accept that the breadth of Bills can slow them down. There is a tension between wishing that there could have been more in this legislation and the speed of its progress.
Along with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Fox, raised questions about our diversification strategy and its progress, particularly in relation to open RAN. I want to reassure all noble Lords that we have made early progress in our work to accelerate the development of open interface solutions by committing to work with NEC to launch the NeutrORAN test bed as part of the wider 5G test beds and trials programme that will showcase 5G open RAN technology. As noble Lords are aware, our strategy in this area is backed by an initial investment of £250 million to kick off this work. We are trying to take a balanced approach to this diversification, which will see measures introduced across three separate strands of activity; that is, by supporting incumbent suppliers such as Ericsson and Nokia, as well as attracting new suppliers into the UK market and, as I said, accelerating open interface solutions and deployment.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked why we are nervous about a review. I do not think we are nervous and I hope I have made it clear that we do not think that that kind of review is necessary given the level of scrutiny already given by Ofcom and Select Committees across both Houses.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, asked about the vital issue of network security. As she will know, the Telecommunications (Security) Bill being debated in the other place introduces a stronger security framework for all UK public telecom providers. It will ensure that providers design and manage their networks in a secure way. In response to her point about future-proofing the legislation, the Bill will introduce a new national security power to manage the risks posed by high-risk vendors in our telecom networks both now and into the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about the universal service obligation. We will keep the speed and quality parameters of the USO under review to make sure that it keeps pace with consumers’ evolving needs.
I must offer an apology to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, if I was critical of any of his drafting skills, which will certainly be vastly superior to anything I could manage. I am genuine in saying that the Government are very grateful to him for raising important issues, including how we should tackle the matters that cut across different government departments and their different legislative responsibilities, which are so crucial.
The noble Lord also challenged the Government’s ambition in this area. As he will know, by 2025, the Government are targeting a minimum of 85% of gigabit-capable coverage, but we will seek to accelerate rollout further to get as close to 100% as possible. That target is based on extensive engagement with the industry over the past year as well as the current industry rates of deployment and how those may be increased. We have also made a major investment of £5 billion in the UK gigabit programme, which has galvanised commercial build in the market.
In closing, I was reminded while listening to noble Lords of my low point on this Bill. It was when my own internet connection failed while we were all working remotely. I think it happened during the Committee stage and I was unable to use my video camera, so I have had a personal interest in this. I close by thanking again the Bill team, who have been enormously knowledgeable, professional and helpful in supporting me and, I know, a number of noble Lords through the passage of the Bill. I thank all noble Lords for their scrutiny, their challenge and the quality of the debate and I commend the Motions to the House.
Motions A and B agreed.
House adjourned at 4.36 pm.