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Lords Chamber

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021

House of Lords

Thursday 18 March 2021

The House met in a hybrid proceeding.

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Winchester.

Arrangement of Business

Announcement

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 Minister’s answers are also brief.

Office of Communications: Chair

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to appoint a new Chair of the Office of Communications.

My Lords, the process to appoint a new permanent chair of Ofcom is currently under way. The process will be fair, open and robust. As with all public appointments, it will be conducted in line with the governance code and regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The preferred candidate will also appear in front of the DCMS Committee. The Government are committed to finding an outstanding individual, and we very much encourage all qualified candidates to come forward.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Given that one of the most important functions of Ofcom is to uphold the broadcasting impartiality regime which lies at the heart of our most trusted media, such as the BBC, does she agree that it would be unacceptable for the new chair to be someone with a long record of extreme political partisanship, and who, as a newspaper editor, presided over such headlines as “Enemies of the People” in relation to our trusted and independent judiciary, and “Crush the Saboteurs” in relation to those who voiced opposition to Brexit?

I am sure that the noble Lord will understand that I am not going to speculate on any potential candidate for the role, but I absolutely agree that it is critical that Ofcom remain impartial, independent and an evidence-based regulator.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. Does my noble friend agree that just as important as the new chair of Ofcom are the new powers that Ofcom will have? The regulator will have significant extra responsibilities following online harms legislation and will have a vital role in working with the new digital markets unit to ensure that the platforms are subject to fair competition. Can she tell us what progress is being made on bringing forward the online harms legislation and, crucially, a Bill to give the digital markets unit the statutory powers it needs, particularly in the area of payment for content?

My noble friend is right that it will be extremely important in future for Ofcom to co-ordinate its activities with other digital regulators, including the new digital markets unit being set up in the CMA. We are working at pace to prepare the online harms legislation, which will be ready later this year. In December, the Government received advice from the CMA on design and implementation of the new regime. We are carefully considering this and will consult on it as soon as possible.

My Lords, we all remember the foundation of Ofcom, when all it was about was spectrum allocations and channel licensing—and now it has the BBC as well. However, the biggest elephant in the communications room is the urgent need for social media regulation, given its regularised misinformation and distortion of reality. Will the new chair and the ever-expanding Ofcom take on this duty, and should media literacy better fit with Ofcom than Ofsted?

Ofcom is the Government’s preferred regulator for the new online harms regime and the new legislation, which will be introduced later this year. The Government will announce their media literacy strategy later this year.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a great deal of concern about the Government’s stated attitude to the BBC and, indeed, to public service broadcasting generally? Ofcom has been particularly successful to date. Does the Minister agree that it would be a tragedy for the high standards of British television broadcasting if we lost the traditions we have had and denigrated the standards to those of Fox?

The Government are supportive of a modern system of public service broadcasting that remains relevant and continues to meet the needs of UK audiences in future. Obviously, Ofcom, with its regulatory role in this capacity, is a crucial part of delivering this.

My Lords, earlier this week the Government published their external review, which said that the BBC is the most trusted broadcaster in the world. Is it not about time they started showing that they believe that in their statements and policies?

The Government have been very clear about the value of the BBC, particularly in the pandemic, during which it has served to educate, inspire, inform and act as a crucial and reliable source of news.

Several noble Lords have already referred to Ofcom’s expanding remit and the additional responsibilities to be introduced through the online safety Bill and the challenges they will bring. What conversations has the Minister had through her department with Ofcom’s new chief executive about the body’s current and future resourcing? Can she assure us that the various changes envisaged in the forthcoming legislation will be accompanied by commensurate increases in staffing budgets, training opportunities and, vitally, political support?

The noble Lord raises a very important point. Work is already starting within Ofcom to recruit the appropriate skills and experience that will be needed to deliver on the online safety regime, including the recent recruitment of a head of emerging technologies from Google.

My Lords, can the Minister give the House any valid reasons why the committee wants the power of veto over such appointments?

They will need an understanding not only of fast broadband connectivity issues in rural areas, which Covid homeworking has highlighted, and the pressing questions of online security and harm, but of the far-reaching changes in the television sector with the streaming of content by international providers such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Does the Minister accept that the appointment must be future-proof and not given as a reward for yesterday’s achievements?

The role profile for the chair of Ofcom was discussed, including with the DCMS Select Committee, and updated with exactly the intention the noble Lord suggests.

Does the Minister recall that the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, was appointed to an NHS position without any proper scrutiny? Her main qualification was being a member of the Jockey Club. The main qualification of the acting chair of Ofcom, Maggie Carver, is being chair of the Racecourse Association. Can we have an assurance that this appointment will be made in a proper fashion and that the person appointed will have knowledge of the communications industry and not of the racing fraternity?

If the noble Lord looks at the role profile, he will see that it is extremely clear about the level of professionalism and experience required—although, it being Cheltenham week, I cannot exclude racing connections.

My Lords, moving away from Cheltenham, does the Minister agree that the only independent member of the board’s being closely associated with the Murdoch stable might make us a little nervous about the results of any appointment?

The process regarding the independent panel member to which the noble Lord refers has been carefully considered. The Commissioner for Public Appointments has approved them and they are recusing themselves from all areas of discussion where they have a conflict of interest.

My Lords, what expectations do Her Majesty’s Government have of a new chair of the Office of Communications in enhancing Ofcom’s role in preventing online abuse?

This will be a very important part of the new role, but I stress that the role of the chair is to lead the independent board. It is for the board, together with the chair, to deliver on that responsibility.

Food Prices: Agricultural Policy

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on food prices of the changes to agricultural policy set out in The Path to Sustainable Farming: An Agricultural Transition Plan 2021 to 2024, published on 30 November 2020; and what plans they have to mitigate any such impact on lower socio-economic groups.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and take the opportunity to declare my farming interests.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Our assessment is that consumer food prices are not likely to be significantly affected by farming reforms. The main drivers of food prices include import costs, exchange rates and domestic production and manufacturing costs. We regularly monitor prices, and the food security report will inform any appropriate policy responses. The Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his valuable response. With action necessary to address climate change, biodiversity, food waste, diet, trade issues and much more, it all points to higher food prices, which have a disproportionate effect on the poorest, largest and elderly households. Ensuring a safety net is essential. Who in the Government will be accountable for co-ordinating the actions of departments to achieve the desired but sometimes conflicting outcomes around food, health, farming, land use and trade?

My Lords, that is one reason why, since the Covid outbreak, the Department for Work and Pensions has established a working group on the cost of living, where food vulnerability is discussed alongside other issues by all Ministers whose departments have a role in ensuring food security. I accept that farming will have to do many things, one of which is to produce very healthy food. There has been £280 billion of support since March 2020 to families and children, which I think is a good record from the Government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, has withdrawn so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of concern about the impact of potential trade deals on food prices and quality. Is my noble friend aware of a recent Sustain LSE report which showed that obesity rose in both Mexico and Canada following their trade deals with the United States? Does he agree that, if the Government were tempted to solve the problem of rising food prices by importing cheap, poor-quality food, it would nudge lower-income families into buying it, thereby exacerbating the obesity problem?

My Lords, the Government are very clear that our trade deals will not compromise our food standards. All food, regardless of agreement, will have to meet our import requirements. Clearly, obesity must be addressed. The Government’s strategy of July last year took forward actions of the childhood obesity plan, setting out measures and ambitious targets to halve by 2030 the number of children living with obesity and to get the country fitter and healthier.

My Lords, the level of home production could well have an impact on food prices. Can the Minister confirm what assessments the Government have made of the effect that their current policies will have on the level of self-sufficiency of homegrown food? What efforts are the Government making to increase the volume of homegrown food in public sector procurement?

My Lords, clearly it is important that there is strong domestic production. We currently produce 66% of our national supply and 77% of indigenous foods. Food production is extremely important and, with Section (1)4 of the Agriculture Act in particular, we will be working with farmers on that as well as on the environmental enhancement we want.

My Lords, 8.4 million people in the UK live in food poverty. It is no coincidence that those worst affected are precisely those who were most hard hit by Covid—minority ethnic communities and older and disabled people. Research by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, of which I am a commissioner, makes it clear that future agriculture needs to deliver food, particularly fruit and vegetables, that is healthy, environmentally sound and affordable. How will the Government amend the agricultural transition plan, which is strangely silent about food, to prioritise not cheap food but healthy food grown in agroecological systems and ensure that this will be widely available at accessible prices?

My Lords, noble Lords will remember, and as I have said, Section 1(4) of the Agriculture Act is precisely to ensure that financial assistance schemes are within that context, and it is the duty of the Secretary of State to consider food production. Our purpose is to ensure that there is healthy food for all to eat at affordable prices.

My Lords, the Government’s ambitious plans to move farmers from direct farm payments to a system whereby they manage their whole business differently to deliver profitable food production and the recovery of nature must be a step in the right direction. However, as other noble Lords have said, we are currently seeing the queues at food banks increasing as people struggle to feed their families. Surely food prices are likely to rise and increase the cost of food for those on low incomes. The Government say they have strategies to deal with this but give no details. Can the Minister give some detail on how feeding those on low incomes will actually happen?

There are two points. In the last year, food prices have fallen by 0.8% and, as I mentioned, there is the £280 billion of support. Obviously with a successful economy, recovery from Covid and more people returning to work, matters will improve. There will always be a safety net and that is why I mentioned that £280 billion has gone towards supporting the vulnerable.

Does my noble friend agree that every grain of evidence, from the Corn Laws onwards, shows that free trade and innovation provide more plentiful food, of a higher quality and at a lower price—thank you Aldi, Lidl, Tesco and all the others—and that systems of trade protection in the past have led to higher prices and shortages for poorer families? Does he agree that, once we have sorted out the inevitable adjustments that we face in leaving the protectionist common agricultural policy, British consumers can expect to feed themselves better and for less, rather than paying higher prices to subsidise inefficient farmers in other countries? For the many, not the few, you might say. Do not we all have a great deal to look forward to?

My Lords, we will champion free and fair trade and lower barriers at every opportunity. There are great opportunities for British food to be exported. In all the trade agreements that we negotiate, we will stand up for British farming and we will always ensure that the UK FTAs are fair and reciprocal. There is great opportunity for our domestic producers to export as well as have very strong production. Yes, I agree that free trade has been a great success over the centuries.

My Lords, as we know, the sustainable farming proposals are for England only. The devolved nations are drawing up their own proposals for reform, which could lead to differential food prices across the UK. Can the Minister update the House on the progress of the joint working group set up to carry out market surveillance and ensure that the UK internal market does not end up with winners and losers in the food price sector?

My Lords, we have set up the UK agricultural support framework precisely to ensure that there is non-legislative collaboration and co-operation on agricultural support between the four UK Administrations. We will continue with this effective co-ordination and dialogue, so that the internal market of the UK is secure.

Does the Minister agree that a low- wage economy is one reason why we have food poverty? If we look at the agricultural industry, we see some of the lowest wages in the UK. How are we going to square that one? We want cheap food, but we want it by having cheap labour in the countryside.

My Lords, agricultural innovation will make a considerable difference to the qualifications and skills of the next generations of agricultural and horticultural workers. This is going to be an area of great expansion.

China: Treatment of Uighurs and Taiwanese Airspace Incursions

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to reports of the government of China’s (1) treatment of Uighurs, and (2) incursions into Taiwanese airspace, what discussions they have had with other governments about what action can be taken in response.

My Lords, the UK has led international efforts to hold China to account for its gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang, working closely with a wide range of international partners. In October, 38 countries joined the UK in a joint statement at the UN, expressing deep and shared concern, sending a powerful message to China. We do not support any action that risks undermining stability in the Taiwan Strait and are in regular touch with partners.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. The integrated review of UK foreign policy makes it clear that progress on any of the major issues of today, including democracy and human rights, will be achieved only by co-operating with new and old allies. Will HMG now engage with national, regional and international groups, such as the Five Eyes, the quad, D10 and ASEAN, to deter China from continuing its ever-increasing threats to Taiwan’s sovereignty and the Uighurs’ integrity?

The noble Baroness is right to point to the integrated review, which sets out how we will work with international groupings, including our Indo-Pacific tilt and our international leadership of the G7 and COP 26 this year. The UK has led international efforts to hold China to account, including by leading the first two joint statements on this issue at the UN. Last week, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary released a joint statement with his G7 counterparts, expressing their concerns at the continued erosion of rights in Hong Kong.

Following on from the noble Baroness’s question, is it not true that the Foreign Secretary still thinks that we should continue to trade and not worry too much about human rights, as he said to members of Foreign Office staff yesterday, which was leaked to the Guardian? Secondly, can we take note of what America is doing with companies that are trading with China and other countries that are causing genocide? Should we not be putting on the same pressure and asking the same questions of companies here, particularly those in the garment trade?

The noble Baroness should see what my right honourable friend said in full, at least what he said in his speech at the Aspen Security Forum this week or what we say in the integrated review, which makes clear that open countries such as the UK need to engage with China and remain open to trade and investment. We will engage with confidence, which is important because China is an increasingly important partner in tackling global challenges, including climate change, biodiversity and preventing future pandemics.

My Lords, the integrated review sets out that open trading economies such as the UK need to engage with China, but we must also protect ourselves against practices that have an adverse effect on prosperity and security. We will do so standing up for our values and human rights. The integrated review sets out that these are all held in balance.

My Lords, what is the present situation with Her Majesty’s Government joining the quadrilateral security dialogue of the US, Japan, India and Australia? If so, what does the Minister see as our potential role?

My Lords, there are no plans for the UK to join the quad although, as set out in the integrated review, we will continue to look positively at ways to increase our engagement with regional security groupings in the Indo-Pacific. We noted with keen interest the outcomes of the first quad summit, convened by President Biden last week, notably on vaccine distribution, climate change and technology co-operation.

My Lords, will we be laying before the United Nations Security Council the 25,000-page report on the Uighurs published last week? It said that the Chinese Communist Party had breached every article of the 1948 convention on the crime of genocide. Or will we, as the House of Commons votes on the House of Lords genocide amendment next Monday, continue to shelter behind the fiction of an imaginary judicial mechanism capable of declaring a Uighur genocide—a declaration that has been made by the Canadian and Dutch parliaments, the United States and elsewhere?

On the noble Lord’s second point, as he knows, it is a long-standing policy of the British Government that any judgment of whether genocide has occurred is for a competent court, rather than governments or non-judicial bodies. The UK has led international efforts to hold China to account at the United Nations, including by leading those first two joint statements on this issue at the UN. The Foreign Secretary addressed the Human Rights Council, in February, calling for China to grant urgent and unfettered access to Xinjiang for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding expert.

My Lords, the Minister keeps repeating that the UK is leading the way on this issue. Yesterday’s FT reported Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, identifying 24 officials whose actions have reduced Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy after China passed its law last week. Blinken warned that any financial institutions that had significant business with these officials would also be subject to sanctions, so why can we not mirror our strongest ally on this issue? Why can we not work together?

My Lords, I repeat the point that the impact of our diplomacy is reflected in the growing number of countries supporting the statements that we are leading at the UN and elsewhere, and that we are working with our closest allies. Earlier this month, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement about the decision to charge Hong Kong politicians and activists. In January, he released a statement with his Australian, Canadian and American counterparts underscoring our concerns at the arrest of politicians and activists under the national security law.

My Lords, when in discussion with other countries, will the Government promote Taiwan as an observer of the UK-proposed D10 alliance?

As the noble Lord knows, the UK’s long-standing policy that we do not recognise Taiwan as a state remains unchanged. But we have a vibrant unofficial relationship and support Taiwan’s participation in international fora where statehood is not a requirement.

What consideration have Her Majesty’s Government given to the suggestion of a diplomatic and economic, rather than full-scale, boycott of the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics, in response to China’s ongoing repression of the Uighur Muslim minority?

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear that we are not normally in favour of sporting boycotts. The broader question of the participation of the national team at the winter Olympics is a matter for the British Olympic Association, which is required to operate independently of the Government under the International Olympic Committee regulations.

My Lords, I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to help ensure that no British companies are complicit in the appalling human rights abuse in Xinjiang. However, a BBC investigation earlier this month reported that Uighurs are being forcibly resettled around the country, and women are being sterilised, raped and assaulted. Can my noble friend reassure me that these reports have been taken into account and will be reflected in further government guidance?

I thank my noble friend for her support for the action that we have taken to ensure that UK businesses are not complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang. They also show China that there is a reputational and economic cost to its policies there. As well as the financial penalties for organisations that fail to comply with the transparency obligations of the Modern Slavery Act, we have funded research to help build the evidence base and provided guidance to help UK businesses to conduct due diligence to ensure that their supply chains are free of forced labour.

My Lords, how will the Government ensure supply chain transparency and determine links to Xinjiang and its human rights abuses, so that we have up-to-date evidence that is accessible to members of the public who are rightly concerned about buying ethically? How will the Government commit to full transparency about where official development assistance funding is being used in China, so that no government or taxpayer funds are contributing to these human rights abuses?

On the noble Baroness’s second point, all UK ODA spend, including to China, complies with the OECD’s ODA rules. Relevant details are provided in the statistics on international development, which are published on GOV.UK. The action that my right honourable friend outlined in January is strengthening the transparency of supply chains for UK consumers and businesses.

My Lords, the Minister surprised me with a catalogue of compelling evidence, revealed in yesterday’s BEIS Committee report, that many major companies with large footprints in the UK are complicit in the forced labour of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Does he agree that a Minister-led campaign of business engagement—as the noble Lord the Minister of State at the FCDO proposed on 19 January at column 1139—is an insufficient response? Simply put, companies that do not meet their obligations to uphold human rights throughout the supply chains should not be doing business in the UK.

The noble Lord refers to the work we have been doing to strengthen the overseas business risk guidance to make clearer the risks to UK business. That applies as well to the public sector: we have increased support for UK public bodies to exclude suppliers where there is evidence of human rights violations from their supply chains. He refers to the BEIS Select Committee report, which was published only yesterday in another place, and we will of course look at that with interest. The department will reply to it in the usual way.

UK-EU Trade

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the United Kingdom– European Union Trade Cooperation Agreement on the reduction in trade with the European Union since 1 January.

My Lords, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement provides for 100% tariff-free and quota-free access to each other’s market for the UK and the EU. It is first trade agreement in the world to do so. A unique combination of facts has made it inevitable that we would see a reduction in trade with the EU in January, and we should use caution in drawing any conclusions from the initial figures released on 12 March.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. We are, of course, where we are, but I am sure he would agree we have a particular problem at the moment with the export of animals, meat and shellfish, where exports are down by between 56% and 83%. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other noble Lords from across the House who are acutely concerned about this issue and wish to see it sorted, including the possibility of the Government negotiating a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement similar to that which Switzerland currently enjoys with the European Union?

My Lords, I am always happy to meet anybody to talk about the issues relating to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. We have, of course, pulled out all the stops to help businesses deal with the changes to our trading relationship with the EU, whether they are operating in these fields, whether they are SMEs or whether they are working in the agri-food or any other area.

My Lords, new figures released last week, as the Minister touched on, show that UK exports to the EU have plummeted by 40% since the transition period. Do Her Majesty’s Government take responsibility for that and, more importantly, will the Minister elaborate on the plans to rectify that reduction in trade?

My Lords, there are several potential factors affecting trade with the European Union, as well as any direct impact coming from the TCA. There is clear evidence of stockpiling at the end of last year, which will of course affect the flow of trade, and obviously there is the general economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has depressed economic activity in many ways. That is why we must be cautious before drawing any firm conclusions from the January figures.

My Lords, the TCA gives us the freedom and the opportunity to develop our own regulatory regime for the City, to maintain and enhance its position as the leading global financial centre. Does the Minister agree that we should be bold and swift in making necessary changes to our EU legacy regulatory framework, while taking a proactive leadership role in international fora such as IOSCO in developing proportionate principles-based rules at the global level? Does he also agree that it will manifestly not be the EU’s interests to continue to try to prevent European companies raising capital and accessing services provided in the UK’s financial markets?

My Lords, I very much agree with the thrust of my noble friend’s question. I endorse his view that we should use our freedom to develop our financial services industry, and the framework that regulates it, over time in a way that suits us, and build the City’s huge advantages as a global financial centre.

My Lords, last year I asked the noble Lord, Lord True, what work the Government were doing to forecast an assessment of the various complexities that the Minister referred to. He wrote to me on 19 May, saying:

“A call for evidence will open in the coming months, and we will provide further details in due course. The call for evidence will capture complexity and represent the varying impacts that will be felt across different parts of the economy. We will continue to keep Parliament informed.”

There was no call for evidence, and the Government have not kept Parliament informed. Does there exist any forecast from the Government that shows that by value to the UK economy, UK trade with the EU will grow?

My Lords, the question of the economic benefits or disbenefits of our relationship with the European Union has been extensively debated over the last few years. There have been many publications on the subject, including from this Government. The economic situation last year, the impact of the pandemic and the huge uncertainties made it very difficult to conduct an analysis. We of course continue to keep this question under very close review.

My Lords, there are clearly problems with companies not being used to the new procedures. I know from experience how helpful BEIS and HMRC can be to a European company that has made a pig’s ear of its paperwork. Are their European equivalents being similarly helpful to British companies which have not got the procedures right?

My Lords, it is true that there have been some problems and some overzealous enforcement in isolated cases, which have been well publicised. However, I take this opportunity to say that generally the European authorities have been very supportive and pragmatic in the way they have dealt with issues at the border, and we welcome that fact. Operational co-operation with member states, in particular our closest neighbours, has been excellent.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the huge problems in relation to work in Europe confronting our valuable music sector. Jobs have already been lost and tours cancelled as a result of the lack of suitable arrangements in the TCA. Is the Minister aware that the main ask of the performing arts is for a separate, bespoke visa waiver agreement, which would go a long way to resolving key concerns? Will he promise to discuss such an agreement with Maroš Šefčovič at the earliest opportunity?

My Lords, the Government of course recognise the importance of the UK’s cultural industries. We made proposals during the negotiations last year that would have allowed musicians to travel and perform in the UK and the EU more easily without work permits. They were rejected by the European Union. Now that negotiations are over, we are working with the sector to help it adjust to this new relationship. We have a working group with industry representatives which is feeding into our process. We are of course discussing a range of issues with Maroš Šefčovič as regards the implementation of the TCA.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, on the issues he raised, but in response to my noble friend Lord McNicol, he seemed reluctant to admit that there was a problem and he certainly did not answer the part of the question about what the solutions were, so I shall try again. Your Lordships’ House has been fully engaged in preparing the UK for its new relationship with the EU. There has been an unprecedented number of documents, Bills and statutory instruments that we have all waded our way through to get to the detail, but all behind ensuring support for the Government’s border plans. Yet here we are, less than three months in, and that model is creaking. The Minister is now tearing up plan A in order to push back implementation dates. Can he tell us what he thinks has gone wrong?

My Lords, as I say, it is too early to draw conclusions from any figures in January; there are too many other factors influencing the economic situation. We have always made clear and are assiduously implementing our plans to get businesses the support they need to manage the changes to our trading relationship with the EU. There is a new Brexit support fund and a Brexit business taskforce. We are supporting the fisheries industries and many others through the initial difficulties of the change in relationship.

My Lords, rather than trying to deny the reality of the massive drop in exports to the EU, the Government need to address how practical improvements can be made regarding Brexit red tape. So far, their approach to solving border problems is simply to refuse to apply the rules that they agreed to. How will the Government establish trust and a good relationship with Brussels and member states that are essential to getting those improvements to help business and consumers?

My Lords, of course we seek a constructive relationship with our European friends in all areas relating to the trade and co-operation agreement, and we look to build a friendly relationship between sovereign equals. That is what we intend to do. That is what we are working towards. We are acting constructively when we can, but we are standing up for our interests when we must.

My Lords, after leaving the EU, the UK has the advantage of trading with any country around the world. The EU has already negotiated a trade agreement with China and, considering our present relationship with China on account of human rights, can the Minister tell us whether the UK will be able to sign a trade agreement with China? If so, when is it likely to happen?

My Lords, the Department for International Trade made a huge and successful effort last year to roll over many of the trade agreements that we benefited from as an EU member and is negotiating a large number of new agreements at the moment. I note that in its 12 March press release relating to the trade figures the Office for National Statistics noted that there was already a visible potential benefit from our agreement with Singapore and markets in Asia. That shows the benefits we can gain from such agreements in future.

Sitting suspended.

Levelling Up

Statement

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 March.

“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a Statement on levelling up. Levelling up is central to the Government’s agenda, and we are working with local areas to ensure that every region, every city and every town will recover from Covid-19 and level up. Investing in our local areas has the potential to improve lives, give people pride in their communities, bring more places across the UK closer to opportunity, and ensure that everywhere can build back better.

Economic differences remain between places across the UK, and those economic differences have real implications. They affect people’s lives through their pay, their work opportunities, their health and their life chances. Tackling them, and driving prosperity as part of levelling up the UK, remains a priority for the Government. As set out in the spending review, the Government’s capital spending plans for the coming financial year, 2021-22, will total £100 billion—a £30 billion cash increase compared with 2019-20. That is part of the Government’s plans to deliver more than £600 billion in gross public sector investment over the next five years, delivering the highest sustained level of public sector net investment as a proportion of GDP since the late 1970s. In the Budget, we published the prospectus for the new £4.8 billion levelling-up fund. The fund will operate UK-wide, extending the benefits of funding for priority local infrastructure across all regions and nations. This cross-departmental fund represents a new approach to local investment and will end silos in Whitehall that make it difficult to take a holistic approach to the infrastructure needs in local areas.

The fund will invest in the infrastructure that matters to local areas, creating economic benefits and bringing communities together as we recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. The levelling-up fund will invest in regenerating our town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and investing in our cultural and heritage assets across the UK. That could be repairing a bridge, investing in new or existing cycling provision, upgrading an eyesore building, regenerating key leisure and retail sites to encourage new businesses, or even maintaining museums, galleries and community spaces that are important to the local area.

The fund will create opportunity across the country, prioritising bids from those places in need of economic recovery and growth, improved transport connectivity and regeneration. In order to target those places in need, an index has put places in categories 1, 2 or 3, with category 1 representing places with the highest levels of identified need. However, it is important to stress that the bandings do not represent eligibility criteria, nor the bid amount or number of bids that a place can submit. Bids from categories 2 and 3 will be considered for funding on the merits of their deliverability, value for money and strategic fit.

We published the index, and the methodology used to develop the index, to help the fund to deliver its core objective of improving local communities by investing in local infrastructure that has a visible impact on people. The Government recognise the important role of Members in championing the interests of their constituents, and we expect them to be consulted as part of wider local stakeholder engagement on bids, although it is not a necessary condition for a successful bid. Members can have a positive role in prioritising bids and helping to broker local consultation. When considering the weighting given to bids, the expectation is that an MP will back one bid that they see as a priority, and any bid may have priority backing from multiple MPs and local stakeholders. Members may also want to support any bid that will benefit their constituencies in the usual way.

Where appropriate, the UK Government will seek advice from the devolved Administrations as part of bid assessments in their geographical areas on shortlisted projects regarding alignment with existing provision. The fund is part of a broad package of complementary UK-wide interventions. Along with the levelling-up fund, the UK shared prosperity fund will create a package of UK Government support which invests in skills, infrastructure and innovation at local, regional and national levels, enabling the Government to provide the same support to communities in all nations as we build back from Covid-19. To help local areas prepare for the introduction of the UK shared prosperity fund, the UK Government are also providing an additional £220 million of funding through the UK community renewal fund. This fund aims to support people and communities most in need across the UK to pilot programmes and new approaches. Through these funds, we will establish new ways of working between the UK Government and places right across the UK.

The UK Government will work more directly with local partners and communities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are best placed to understand the needs of their local area and more closely aligned to the local economic geographies to deliver quickly on the ground.

In the Budget we also announced the eight successful locations in England, which will move to the next stage of freeport designation. Teesside, Liverpool City region, Humber region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames, Felixstowe and Harwich and East Midlands Airport will benefit from this investment. Freeports will bring together ports, local authorities, businesses and key local stakeholders to achieve a common goal of shared prosperity and opportunity for their regions, and they will allow the UK to take advantage of the benefits of leaving the EU.

As part of the towns fund, 101 towns were selected to develop proposals for town deals. All towns have now submitted their proposals, and 52 towns have so far been offered town deals, meaning that we now have committed £1.28 billion to the programme. Assessment continues for the remaining towns, with further announcements expected in due course. Through the towns fund, we will invest up to £25 million in each town, or more in exceptional cases, to drive the economic regeneration of towns to deliver long-term economic and productivity growth. We are also creating a new £150 million community ownership fund to ensure that communities across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can support and continue benefiting from the local facilities, community assets and amenities that are most important to them.

From summer 2021, community groups will be able to bid for up to £250,000 match funding to help them buy or take over local community assets that are at risk of being lost and run them as community-owned businesses. In exceptional cases, up to £1 million match funding will be available to help establish a community-owned sports club or to help buy a sports ground that is at risk of being lost without that valuable community intervention.

Working with mayors and local enterprise partnerships, the £900 million Getting Building fund will also deliver jobs, skills and infrastructure across the country, targeting investment at those areas that are facing the biggest economic challenges as a result of the pandemic.

We want to devolve and decentralise to give more power to local communities, providing an opportunity for all places to level up. Through an ambitious programme of nine devolution deals, £7.49 billion-worth of investment is being unlocked over 30 years. The recently implemented West Yorkshire devolution deal will give the newly elected mayor control over an annual £38 million investment fund, as well as new powers over transport, education, housing and planning.

The department has also recently announced plans for more homes in urban areas and on brownfield land, as well as changes to our funding rules to ensure that we level up all parts of England as we progress towards 300,000 new homes every year. The Prime Minister announced that seven mayoral combined authorities were each receiving a share of the £400 million brownfield housing fund. That will help unlock 26,000 homes by bringing under-utilised brownfield land back into use and contribute to levelling up our country.

I hope that honourable Members will agree that this demonstrates the importance that this Government attach to the levelling-up agenda and the many ways in which we are addressing the causes of inequality. I am confident that the measures that I have set out today will make a real difference to people and places across the whole of the United Kingdom. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

The levelling-up fund is a UK-wide £4.8 billion fund announced at the spending review, with a view to investing in local infrastructure that has a visible impact on people and their communities. It should drive regeneration in places in need: those facing particular challenges, and areas that have received less government investment in recent years. Some £600 million will be available this year for projects that have the support of their local community, and up to £4.8 billion will be available by May 2024.

All local authorities across Britain can bid for the fund, but they were placed in three categories of need, with the first more likely to get funding, including help to construct their bids. Areas were selected through a deeply flawed methodology that ignores most measures of deprivation, including the Government’s own index of multiple deprivation, which takes into account income, levels of crime and health, and instead favours areas with low productivity and where people have long commutes to work—typical characteristics of rural areas.

Covid-19 has had a catastrophic effect on the finances of local government. The LGA estimates that because of the pandemic up to a further £2.6 billion of support will be needed to cover the cost pressures and non-tax income losses of 2020-21 in full. The Government’s long-term neglect of the UK’s high streets and local businesses, with footfall down 10% since 2012, had left around one in 10 high street shops standing empty even before the coronavirus hit. Councils in England have seen their core funding from central government reduce by £15 billion in the last decade, and 773 libraries, 750 youth centres, 1,300 children’s centres and 835 public toilets in England have closed.

Not a single one of the 200,000 starter homes that the Conservatives promised in 2015 has been built, despite nearly £200 million being spent. The Government have now been forced to concede that they will not keep their promise to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband rollout by 2025, and now look highly likely to miss even their reduced target of 85% coverage. Unlike the Welsh Government’s highly successful 21st-century schools building programme, the UK Government have refurbished less than half of the schools that they had promised by this year; the programme has been delayed by four years and is running £300 million over budget.

A list of local authority areas grouped and prioritised according to economic need has been published, but with no real detail as to how that was calculated. In November the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published its report into the towns fund, announced by MHCLG in the summer of 2019, and which invited 101 English towns—out of 541 assessed—to apply for money from the fund. The committee found that the process by which towns were selected was “not impartial” and that the department

“has a weak and unconvincing justification for not publishing any information on the process it followed.”

The Government’s treatment of the levelling-up fund is symbolic of their divide-and-rule approach: Richmondshire is in the top level, while Sheffield and Barnsley, both of which have notably higher deprivation levels, are in tier 2. The funding metric must be published. The list as it currently appears is proof that this Government’s actions are levelling areas down, pushing regions and nations and some of the poorest places in the UK to the back of the queue for investment. It appears to be about this Government using the money to level up the Conservative Party’s electoral prospects rather than the economic realities of left-behind communities. I call again on the Government to publish the methodology behind the allocation and then revise how Whitehall makes these spending decisions.

Out of 45 areas allocated money from a pre-existing £3.6 billion towns fund by the Chancellor, 40 have Conservative MPs, and five of them are Cabinet Ministers. Can the Minister explain why the Government’s bizarre formula for determining priority areas appears to use car-journey distance over levels of poverty? The Chancellor has said that the metric was based on an index of economic need that is transparently published, but the fund’s official prospectus says that the information is coming “shortly”. Again I ask: when will this metric be published? Last year the National Audit Office said that the choices in 2019 of which towns could access the towns fund were based on “sweeping assumptions” and may have been politically motivated, as a number were marginal constituencies.

The actual amount of money being distributed by the levelling-up fund is just a drop in the ocean compared with what the Conservatives have taken away from the public realm over the last 10 years. I am afraid it looks weighted towards the interests of the Conservative Party rather than the interests of the British people, who have suffered over a decade of austerity. The past year has shown us how woefully unprepared public services in the UK were to deal with the onslaught of the pandemic. If you keep taking and not putting back, eventually the edifice will crumble. This time last year, when Covid hit us with such force, it found a weakened UK in every corner of its public services.

So what would Labour do in order to bring about fairness in distributing public funding? We support funding for every region and nation, but it is crucial that it is done transparently, fairly and with a say for local communities. This fund fails on all those counts. All regions and nations should get their fair share of investment. This fund pits regions and nations against each other for crucial funding, and hands money to wealthy areas held by Cabinet Ministers ahead of those in greater need. We need to be pushing power down to spread prosperity, but the fund puts control in the hands of Ministers in Whitehall instead of local communities.

This piecemeal funding does not make up for failure over the past decade, which has seen services decimated as £15 billion of cuts have been made to local government. Under the fund our regions will be getting less than they did before the crisis and, unlike before, they will have to fight against each other for every penny of investment. We should have transparent funding metrics in place and leave every part of this country a good place to grow up and grow old in.

The Government’s failure to invest for the past decade has meant that the UK has had the worst crisis of any major economy. The Government now need to secure our jobs, support our high streets and strengthen our communities through investment that truly delivers the aspirations of people in every region. If the Government care about levelling up, why have they not come forward with a plan to fix social care, which in some areas of the country is close to collapse?

Does the Chancellor’s approach to prioritising funding for the levelling-up fund not show that, if you vote Conservative, your money will go to wealthy areas? How can this Government claim to fix regional imbalances when the fund pits regions and nations against each other? What assessment have they made of reports that Cornwall Council will take the Government to court over the decision not to prioritise its area? Does the Minister expect further court cases?

What about the positions in the nations? The fund bypasses the devolution settlement by directly allocating funding for regional and local development in Wales, directly counter to the expressed position of the Senedd and directly contrary to what was announced at the 25 November spending review, when the Chancellor said the £4 billion commitment in England

“will attract up to £0.8 billion”

in funding

“for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the usual way.”

This is the UK Government taking funding that would previously have been allocated to Wales to spend in line with the priorities that the Senedd—elected by the people of Wales—has identified. Decisions are to be made by Whitehall departments with no history of delivering projects in Wales, no record of working with communities in Wales and no understanding of the priorities of those communities. In practice, this means that the UK Government will be taking decisions on devolved matters in Wales without being answerable to the Senedd.

The Governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland now face the prospect of a centralised, Whitehall-led approach instead of a regional and nation-focused approach. The UK Government are going out of their way to take money away from the nations and pick a needless constitutional battle to weaken devolved powers in the middle of a global pandemic. Their fixation with undermining democratic devolution is driving a cynical attempt at rebranding existing spending as new and rolling back progress on a model of national and regional development by democratically elected Governments and councils across the United Kingdom. They are indeed levelling down.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a member of Kirklees Council. I read the Statement on levelling up with great interest. My own area of West Yorkshire includes towns and cities that, by any fair measure, will qualify for focused help to support their residents. I am therefore particularly keen to understand what it is all about.

“Levelling up” is a rather nebulous phrase. I want to understand precisely what it means and, more importantly, what is hoped to be achieved by it. Perhaps the Minister can help, as I have not been able to find anywhere either a definition or an explanation of how improvements will be measured. Can the Minister please provide a definition of levelling up and the metrics that will be used to determine whether the funding allocated has been a success? I appreciate that sharing metrics data orally is not easy, so will the Minister provide that information and make it available to all colleagues through the House of Lords Library?

The tools that the Government are proposing and which are outlined in this Statement are resonant of previous attempts to improve the lives of parts of our country that do not enjoy the same level of well-being as the more affluent one. Previous Governments have used similar funding packages. There was City Challenge, the Single Regeneration Budget and then SRB2. This was followed by investments through the regional development agencies. The common feature was infra-structure investment, although some aspects of SRB had elements of support for jobs and skills. Will the Minister provide the data that demonstrates that the areas that benefited from the funding packages I just listed have prospered as a result—or, better still, data that explains the reasons why some of the same places are still suffering from multiple deprivations? I can name them if the Minister is not sure which places they are. I ask these questions because the Government are in danger of repeating some of the less successful aspects of past attempts at regeneration. They need to explain whether providing shiny new roads and revamped town centres is the way to improve lives and level up.

The Covid pandemic has shone a bright light on the areas of our country that suffer from considerable deprivation. There is a strong link between deaths from Covid and living in deprived parts of our country. Can the Minister explain why some of these areas will not benefit from any of the funding packages outlined in the Statement? Are these places just going to be ignored? What plans do the Government have for providing support for them? Does the Minister agree that reviving local government by enabling local authorities to provide self-help may well be the best way forward? Of course, that depends on adequately funding local government and devolving to councils the right to bring in local knowledge and talent to take responsibility for making the towns that they represent proud places once again. Does the Minister agree?

What we do know is that people who live in areas of multiple deprivation have lives that are literally limited. They die younger; they live in poor-quality housing; their access to healthcare, training and well-paid jobs is limited. Does the Minister, with his wealth of local government experience, agree with this? If he does, can he also explain the reason for these measures not being the main ones used to determine which places will benefit from the funding packages outlined in the Statement?

This brings me to the selection of the places that are due to benefit from those funding packages. Of course, metrics can be carefully selected to ensure that the towns that the Government wish to benefit from additional funding come out top of the pile. That is clearly what has happened in these instances. Using the metric of distance to travel to work will target those places that are of a more rural nature. If that is the aim, the Government should be honest about it and focus on improving public transport in rural areas. If the heart of so-called levelling up is providing focused support to places suffering from multiple deprivations, the Government should use the metrics that enable that to happen. If they do not, they are being hypocritical and make those of us looking on regard what they are doing with some cynicism.

Much of the content of this Statement is of packages that are being announced as new yet again. The miserable levels of funding to mayoral combined authorities of £30 million or so a year in areas that serve, say, 2 million people, is just another example of re-announcing old packages of funding. The support for the well-to-do areas that can raise £250,000 as matched funding to buy and run a community asset has been re-announced. These packages are not new and not aimed at poorer parts of our country.

I want those post-industrial towns that have experienced considerable decline—economically and socially—to benefit from long-term and sustained support that will revive their communities, improve the health and well-being of their residents, enable training and skills that lead to well-paid jobs, and bring hope for the future. Unfortunately, the package of funding announced does none of that. I look forward to answers to my questions when the Minister replies.

My Lords, the Front-Bench speakers have taken most of the 20 minutes allowable, but I can confirm that the Minister has plenty of time to reply and that the Bank-Benchers will still get their 20 minutes.

My Lords, I point out that, in order to assess the efficacy of something like the levelling-up fund, we need to recognise the overall policy objective, which is to deal with the long-standing variation in economic performance between different areas and within areas.

The Government have set out their approach to the wider levelling-up agenda through a number of critical documents, such as the National Infrastructure Strategy, which focuses on energy, digital and transport, and the recent spending review, which announced £27 billion for those areas. There is also Build Back Better: Our Plan for Growth, published by Her Majesty’s Treasury, and the capital spending plan, which will be £100 billion— £30 billion more than in 2019-20. So, the overall package of funding around capital and infrastructure projects is at unprecedented levels.

The approach to levelling up needs to be seen as a package of measures. The levelling-up fund is more capital-focused and follows on from the £3.6 billion towns fund, while the community renewal fund—the precursor to the UK shared prosperity fund—is more revenue-focused. Alongside that, we have the increasing devolution of funding, which amounts to around £7.49 billion over 30 years for the nine currently agreed devolution deals.

The approach to the levelling-up fund has focused on making it very clear how we allocate funding. The index and the methodology used to develop it have been published. It focuses on areas that need economic recovery and growth, improved transport connectivity and regeneration. I am absolutely clear that Ministers did not see a list of specific places before agreeing the metrics; no changes to the index’s weightings or metrics were made as a result of Ministers having sight of the list of places.

We are also clear that this needs to be seen as a package of measures and that the levelling-up fund focuses on productivity, unemployment, skills and transport. Richmond scored low on productivity, which is one of the reasons why it is a category 1 area. Newark, which was also mentioned, scored “average to low” on productivity, skills and the unemployment rate. The approach we have taken has yielded those areas that are highest on the index. However, I repeat: all areas, in all categories, can apply to the fund and should be encouraged to do so.

With regard to the devolved Administrations, let me make it absolutely clear that we are seeking advice from them as part of this fund, and they will be consulted at the shortlisting stage. At least £800 million is being set aside for the devolved nations. On regions such as the north and north-west, a significant amount of funding, beyond the levelling-up fund, has been committed to the north to help level up, such as the £319.7 million from the Getting Building Fund. I point out that the UK infrastructure bank will be headquartered in Leeds and will play a key role in the levelling-up agenda.

We now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to levelling up those parts of the country that, by general consent, have been left behind. I also welcome the very substantial sums of money that the Minister has just referred to. Further to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, when the Minister in another place was asked how we would know whether levelling up was achieving its objectives, he basically said that the next general election would provide the answer. Are the Government working on a measurement, or system of measurements, that would enable us to measure value for money for the levelling-up agenda in the meantime?

I reassure my noble friend that the Government have established a series of provisional priority outcomes and metrics, which has been published as part of the spending review. Table 2H is a particular example of an outcome that will help to measure the success of the fund.

My Lords, the Statement rightly recognises the disparities in wealth and earning opportunities across the country, and it contains some imaginative funding initiatives. What is missing is any quantification of existing disparities and any targets to measure the success of the levelling-up programme. One way of doing this is to state what would constitute success or failure. Does the Minister agree that the initiative will have failed if there is no visible diminution in the need for food banks or in the number of homeless on our streets?

We can be very clear that the objective of levelling up is to deal with all the issues the noble Lord raises. The metrics are clear: for instance, the performance metric that I mentioned in my previous answer concerns the

“Economic performance of all functional economic areas relative to their trend growth rates”.

My Lords, in answer to Clive Betts on Tuesday, the Minister, Eddie Hughes, clearly stated that the way of measuring the success of this programme will be at a general election. Is it the intention to circulate table 2H, as previously mentioned? What is the open, accessible way that the electorate will be enabled to judge whether this programme is a success—or, indeed, not a success, as some of us suspect may well be the case?

My Lords, I refer to my previous answer: there is a series of provisional outcomes and metrics. I just pointed to table 2H as an example of one that affects my department. Those metrics are then captured by departments in their outcome delivery plans.

My Lords, at the last election, people voted Conservative, some for the first time, because they believed in levelling up and our vision of spreading prosperity to areas neglected by Labour. Does my noble friend agree that, by ensuring that every part of the country can bid for, and benefit from, the levelling-up fund, we are accelerating our transformational levelling-up agenda?

My noble friend is right that the levelling-up fund will operate right across the United Kingdom. It will invest in infrastructure and improve everyday life across the United Kingdom by regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and investing in cultural and heritage assets.

We know that a commonality among people who suffer poverty is, on most occasions, that they did not do very well at school. This leads to a low-wage economy, low-wage health and low social mobility and opportunity. We are talking about poverty —it is the only reason you would talk about levelling up. If are going to level up and to address poverty, then is this not the chance we have to take to excel with our schools and to put an enormous amount of investment into our children and the children of the next generation?

My Lords, I completely agree that education is very much the engine of social mobility and addresses the points that were raised. We need to judge our levelling-up agenda against a package of measures that could also support skills development through things such as the new community renewal fund and the UK shared prosperity fund.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether the levelling-up fund will accept bids containing social infrastructure elements such as funding to transform family support into a family hubs model? Transformation typically requires revenue funding to redeploy senior staff and backfill their roles, the development of missing services et cetera, as well as capital funding to refurbish buildings. Is this fund open to both capital and revenue funding bids?

My Lords, local government does tend to separate capital and revenue, and the UK levelling-up fund will have more of a capital focus. However, this could include community spaces important to local areas that support the family policies that my noble friend has raised.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that England is the most centralised democratic country, and that the greater the centralisation that a country has, the greater the regional inequality. Here we have competitive funding decided by Ministers in London as the answer to devolution. Can the Minister tell us what he understands by the word “devolution”? Can you have devolution without transferring real power and long-term finance to local and regional governments?

My Lords, I fear that this is a mixing up of issues. We need to see that the levelling-up agenda is around the duty of a national Government helping to level up all areas of the United Kingdom, while devolution of funding is also occurring, as I have already mentioned.

My Lords, while I warmly support the Government’s levelling-up plans, would my noble friend acknowledge that, regardless of their geographical location, perceived prosperity or supposed political affinity, too many parts of the country are still unreached by digital connectivity and superfast broadband? They would appreciate their own bit of levelling up in this increasingly important respect.

My Lords, the Government recognise the need to deal with the wider issues around the levelling-up agenda. I have pointed to the national infrastructure strategy, which is putting some £27 billion towards issues such as the zero-carbon agenda, transport infrastructure and, importantly, digital connectivity and infrastructure.

My Lords, Cornwall is in complete shock. Until last year, we were regarded as one of the poorest places in the whole country, with incomes 25% below the national average and 17 areas in the bottom 10% of the index of multiple deprivation. Miraculously, in the new index, we appear to be as rich as Bath, which is in the top 25% in the UK. Can the Minister explain how this algorithm can possibly be correct, or is this not actually, quite clearly, an error as poor as the algorithms used for last year’s exams?

I have attempted to explain several times that, as opposed to the index of multiple deprivation, the metrics of the levelling-up fund focus on productivity, unemployment, skills and transport. Its approach is to improve, in particular, transport infrastructure and other capital projects, as opposed to general deprivation levels.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House supports the Government’s agenda in what it is seeking to do with levelling up. I confess that I am always slightly nervous of the habit of successive Governments of judging success by financial input. My noble friend has already mentioned that there will be an ongoing assessment of these projects. Can he reassure me that, should that ongoing assessment demonstrate that the projects are not delivering a return for the taxpayer, they will be stopped and the money reallocated?

My Lords, I can give that assurance that, as we go through the rounds, we will make assessments and judge on outcomes. That is why it is terribly important to have an outcomes framework, as has been published, and that we continue to see progress against those metrics identified in that framework.

My Lords, the levelling-up fund was a bit West Midlands-light, but there is still time for this to be remedied. When the Minister looks at success and repeats that the framework is about productivity, skills, transport and unemployment, I urge him to pay particular attention to the 50% of young people who do not go to university. If we do not deliver for them, whatever other levelling up we are doing, we will have failed.

My Lords, I point out that this fund is available to all authorities, including those in the West Midlands. Those not in category 1 should apply. All bids will be judged on their deliverability, strategic fit and value for money. I am sure that there will be opportunities for the West Midlands Combined Authority to be one of those who will be a beneficiary of the fund.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while we are levelling up, we also have an important opportunity to advance the UK’s green objectives? In that context, will the Government ensure that the bid criteria are designed to encourage bids that would help increase biodiversity and tackle climate change?

My Lords, I have been clear that the focus of this fund is to prioritise those areas where there is a need for economic recovery, transport connectivity and regeneration. I am sure that this will be done in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Levelling up is about ensuring that we strip away the barriers stopping people and places from achieving their full potential. As evidenced in numerous reports—some commissioned by the Government—race has, sadly, been a de-leveller for many in our country. Does racial equality inform the Government’s levelling-up agenda and, if so, how?

My Lords, in order for there to be a reduction in economic disparity, of course that needs to touch on the issues that my noble friend raises. The proof of the pudding will be that we see those left-behind areas with large minority communities level up with those areas that are economically more successful.

My Lords, as chairman of the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, I welcome these levelling-up initiatives. As the Minister has pointed out, levelling up is not simply a northern or an urban challenge. As has been pointed out, the headings of expenditure described in the Statement are a mere drop in the ocean of what is needed nationally, but they are a start. Can the Minister tell the House how, and in what specific ways, public expenditure and policy will be recalibrated to take this levelling-up agenda forward, at the same time ensuring that this is not done at the expense of global competitiveness?

My Lords, I do not see the levelling-up agenda as being anything other than helping us to be more economically competitive at a global level. I am sure that there will be opportunities to refine the outcomes frameworks and the metrics used to ensure that we are successful in our desire to raise all boats.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the time to travel to work in a car, such as a Bentley or a BMW, is a weighted factor worth nearly 20% of all weighting to steer funding for levelling up economic recovery, growth and regeneration of an area?

My Lords, I do not think that it is entirely fair to categorise an area with poor transport infrastructure by reference to the speed and distance travelled in a Bentley. The focus of this fund is to deal with the challenges that we have around the need for greater connectivity, and it is those projects that will be funded.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the superb structuring of this fund: the insistence on collaboration; the way in which councils and MPs are involved; and, in particular, the seeking of support from civil society in all its forms. In the context of Eastbourne, this has produced a ferment of ideas and enthusiasm which will do us a great deal of good going into the future. But as a seaside town whose income has been wiped out by Covid and which is staying solvent only by the grace of my noble friend’s department, how are we allowed to fund our 10% share of the bid that is asked for? If we bid now for phase 1 of our regeneration, can we include 5% or so of our bid to finance the feasibility study for phase 2? For that, we ought to have widespread public consultation and consideration of alternatives to give our larger plans a firm base, but in our current financial state we do not have the revenue out of which to take that funding.

My Lords, I know that my noble friend will be delighted that Eastbourne is within category 1 in terms of being prioritised within the index of places. That means that Eastbourne and its council can draw on support, where there is an absence of capacity or perhaps not enough funding available, of up to £125,000 for the preparation of the bid. I point out that councils are merely encouraged to put some of their own resources towards the bid funding; it is not necessarily a prerequisite. In the case of Eastbourne, the Government are providing that funding to make sure that there is the best possible opportunity for the council to be successful in its bid for the fund.

My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked and answered. Congratulations to the Minister and congratulations to the Back-Benchers.

Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2021

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Regulations laid before the House on 19 February be approved.

Relevant document: 47th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the instrument before us prevents enforcement agents—bailiffs—attending residential premises in England to execute a writ or warrant of possession, except in the most serious circumstances. The House will be familiar with the structure and content of the instrument. Although I will deal with the content of the instrument in due course, I want to begin with its duration, because that matter was raised by several noble Lords in the debate we had on 2 February about this SI’s predecessor.

This instrument applies to enforcement action in England and will be in force until 31 March this year. It extends restrictions on the enforcement of evictions that have been in place since mid-November. The current SI expires on 22 February. On 2 February, when we debated the previous statutory instrument, a number of noble Lords raised concerns that the ban was not in place for long enough and that both landlords and tenants would benefit from greater clarity about how long the restrictions would be in force. We have had to balance that need for clarity against an ongoing and changing pandemic, but we have listened to the views expressed by noble Lords. On 10 March, the Government announced that we intend to extend these protections until 31 May, and we will lay legislation to do so shortly. So although the formal position is that this SI takes us up to 31 March, the legislation we will bring forward, as we have already announced, will give people clarity and assurance until 31 May.

That 31 May date is broadly in line with the roadmap out of lockdown. Noble Lords will need no reminding from me that step 3 of the roadmap will be taken no earlier than 17 May, following a review of the data as it appears at the time. Step 3 sees a number of restrictions lifted, including the ban on domestic overnight stays, which is relevant in this context. Noble Lords might ask why the proposed date is 31 May and not linked to step 4, which is scheduled for no earlier than 21 June. The short answer is that we have to remember, when looking at 31 May, that in most cases, bailiffs are now required to give 14 days’ notice of an eviction. In practice, protection from enforcement of evictions will be afforded, in most cases, until mid-June. We believe that that strikes the right balance in the circumstances.

The substantive provisions of the instrument are the same as in the one we debated on 2 February, apart from the duration, which I have already addressed. As I set out on 2 February, the Government have put in place unprecedented financial support to protect renters directly through measures such as these regulations and increasing the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of local market rates in each area. We have made £180 million available to local authorities in discretionary housing payments. Of course, there is also the furlough scheme, support for the self-employed and bounceback loans.

While I will not go through the detail of that again, let me highlight two provisions in the Budget that are relevant in this context. First, as noble Lords will be aware, the furlough scheme was extended until the end of September. Secondly, the support for the self-employed was extended in scope—600,000 people who were not previously entitled are now entitled—and duration, to the end of September. We continue to provide limited exemptions from the ban on enforcement. They are, as previously set out, broadly as follows: where the claim is against trespassers who are persons unknown; where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of antisocial behaviour, nuisance, false statements, domestic abuse in social tenancies or substantial rent arrears equivalent to six months’ rent; and where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of the death of the tenant, and the enforcement agent is satisfied that the property is unoccupied. Those exemptions are applied by the court on a case-by-case basis.

The critical point is that given that broad sweep of financial support, we consider it unlikely that a full six months of arrears would have accumulated solely because of the effects of Covid-19. Rather, where that exemption applies, it will likely involve significant levels of rent arrears that predate the pandemic, where landlords may now have been waiting for over a year without rent being paid.

In addition, where the court applies an exemption, bailiffs have to give tenants at least 14 days’ notice of an eviction in most circumstances and have been asked not to enforce evictions where a tenant has symptoms of Covid-19 or is self-isolating. In addition, we have introduced a requirement in the Coronavirus Act that landlords in all but the most serious circumstances must provide tenants with six months’ notice before beginning formal possession proceedings in court.

Previously, in Section 21 cases, two months’ notice was needed, and other grounds required as little as two weeks’ notice. The requirement for longer notice was to apply until 31 March, but the Housing Minister laid an SI last week to extend that period also to 31 May. Extending the notice period obviously gives additional protection to tenants. Taking this in the round, that requirement to provide six months’ notice in the majority of cases means that most renters now served notice by a landlord can stay in their homes until September 2021. Our statistics show that the number of possession cases has fallen significantly. In the last quarter of 2020, they were down 67% compared to the same quarter the previous year.

In the limited time I have, I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to the Civil Procedure Rule Committee for addressing the challenges the coronavirus pandemic has caused the justice system and for the considerable work done at some pace by both that committee and the working party under the chairmanship of Sir Robin Knowles. Since I mentioned the judiciary, I extend my respectful welcome to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, a former chancellor of the High Court and, more recently, Master of the Rolls. Like all noble Lords, I look forward to his maiden speech later in this debate.

So far as the courts are concerned, temporary arrangements remain in place to ensure appropriate support. We have introduced new review stages and a requirement that cases have to be reactivated, and we are piloting a new, free mediation service until August this year. We are conscious that we also have to think about landlords. We consider that the best way to protect landlords is to provide the financial help we have been providing to help renters pay their rent. We are grateful to landlords for their forbearance during this unprecedented time, and we encourage all renters not only to pay their rent but to have an early conversation with their landlord if they are in difficulties.

This instrument provides tenants with protection from eviction up to 31 March. We have announced that we will bring forward legislation to extend that to 31 May. We are trying to strike an appropriate balance during an unprecedented public health crisis to avoid placing additional burdens on the NHS and local authorities. For those reasons, I commend these regulations to the House.

My Lords, I should have added that there is time in this debate for the maiden speaker to have a whole extra minute and the welcomer a whole extra 90 seconds if they wish to be so indulgent.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, Nye Bevan’s home village, for his cogent, clear summary of this extension of the ban on bailiff-enforced evictions in England during the Covid-19 pandemic. I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton.

The regulations are welcome, but I am afraid that other Covid-19 regulations have morphed to create police state-type restrictions on legitimate, peaceful protests. The police’s dreadful handling of Saturday night’s Sarah Everard Clapham Common vigil was because of the Government’s coronavirus regulations, argued Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball. Of course, social distancing must be maintained, including in public protests, though it is worth noting that last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in some 300 US cities did not cause a spike in cases, according to the US’s National Bureau of Economic Research, partly because the outdoor air helped dispel any threat of the virus.

Protest is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. Everyone should have the right to stand up to those in power and make their voices heard. Coronavirus-safe, socially distanced, peaceful demonstrations, with participants wearing masks, are perfectly feasible, and the police should have a duty to facilitate, not to block, them. It is a real indictment of the Government’s harsh curbs on protest in other regulations that the organisers of the Sarah Everard vigil last Saturday, who engaged openly in negotiations with the police, were unable to proceed with the peaceful, socially distanced vigil they intended. Tragically, coronavirus has precipitated a fundamental erosion of the right to protest in Britain, and I hope the Minister will respond to that point.

My Lords, I too very much look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, this afternoon.

A further extension to the ban on bailiff enforcement is right, given the long duration of the pandemic, but the previous debate on private rented sector evictions was only a few weeks ago, which makes me ask why the Government keep coming back with short extensions. It would be better to draw up a policy now for addressing the underlying crisis, which is not going to go away, which is the huge level of debt of many tenants who will continue to be dependent on the private rented sector. At its heart, this is an issue of low incomes and job insecurity caused by the pandemic. So, are the Government going to keep their promise, made by the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, a year ago, that

“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”?

Why are tenants with more than six months’ rent arrears not covered by the ban on eviction, when the pandemic has now lasted for just over a year? The Government should increase the budget for discretionary housing payments and local housing allowance and reassess the housing benefit cap. There is then a need for a Covid rent debt fund—a level of £300 million has been suggested—to compensate landlords, as proposed by both the National Residential Landlords Association and Generation Rent. The problem is that without this policy change, debt levels will continue to rise. The Government should look at the subsidies they give for owner occupation and compare those to the subsidies they give to the rented sectors. There is an imbalance which the Government will have to address.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, who always has something of value to say—indeed, I agree with much of what he said today. I thank my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar for setting out these regulations. I declare my interests as set out in the register. Like other noble Lords, I look forward very much to the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, a fellow member of Gray’s Inn.

These regulations are familiar; they repeat earlier, similar restrictions. I predicted last time that we would be here again—no great insight, I admit. It is clear that we will be here again. I asked last time why we could not look at this on a longer timeframe; the problem will not disappear. Of course, I do not oppose the regulations, but the Explanatory Memorandum states, somewhat misleadingly:

“This is a temporary measure lasting less than 12 months”.

Well, yes and no, Minister. It keeps being renewed in very similar terms and, as I say, I am sure we will be here again. When will the Government look at a medium to long-term solution for tenants who cannot pay and landlords who are not being paid? We are kicking the can down the road; the debt remains. These regulations do not stop the debt accruing. The tenant still owes the money; the landlord has still not been paid. The tenant is developing a poor credit rating and their ability to re-enter the housing market will be shot. As I say, I do not oppose the regulations, but they do not provide a long-term solution. The Government need to consider something along the lines of tenant hardship loans or grants. Sooner or later, this problem will need dealing with. I suggest that it should be sooner.

My Lords, it is a great honour to make my maiden speech in this debate and I thank the Minister and other noble Lords for their warm welcome today. That I am in position to make my maiden speech today is due to the support and kindness of many people. Time constraints mean that I can mention only a few by name. I thank, in particular, my supporters, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hallett; the Lord Convenor and his private secretary, Kate Long, and executive assistant, Daisy Christy; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and Donna Davidson. My thanks go also to the Clerk of the Parliaments, Black Rod and all the staff who have been so helpful to me.

I do not wish to comment directly on the merits of the statutory instrument, as that might be considered to be raising a controversial issue, but as Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice until the beginning of this year, I would like briefly to remind the House of what the judges were doing in relation to residential possession proceedings from the first lockdown in March last year. In that month, I issued a direction requiring a stay of possession proceedings for 90 days. The object was initially to consider how possession actions could proceed appropriately in the pandemic and the lockdown. There were extensions of the stay until September 2020, the final one to enable the courts to consider, once the stay ended, how best to determine the anticipated thousands of residential possession actions that had to be heard. I asked Mr Justice Knowles to chair a unique cross-sector working group to advise on new court procedures in light of the extraordinary conditions. It advised me on a new procedural framework which would, in particular, support vulnerable tenants in the litigation process and encourage compromise and restraint on the part of social landlords, in particular.

Following the ending of the procedural stay, the Government in November 2020 secured the implementation of the first of their three successive statutory instruments restricting the carrying out of evictions by bailiffs. I pay tribute to those judges, overwhelmingly district judges and deputy district judges in the county courts, effectively the civil justice front line, and the members of Sir Robin Knowles’s working group, who have worked and continue to work so hard in seeking to make residential possession proceedings as appropriate as possible in the present, difficult circumstances.

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and congratulate him on an important maiden speech. As Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice, he has been no stranger to controversy, and I suspect has many admirers among your Lordships for the line he has taken on several high-profile issues. In December, the Lord Chief Justice’s valedictory speech for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, noted that he had been a great champion of access to justice and of support for vulnerable people in the civil courts, not least during the months of the pandemic. We have heard his wise comments from that perspective today. In recounting the noble and learned Lord’s treatment at the hands of the Daily Mail following the two famous Miller judgments, the Lord Chief Justice quoted JK Rowling’s comment on that “Enemies of the People” article:

“If the worst they can say about you is you’re an openly gay excellent Olympic fencer top judge, you’ve basically won at life.”

We are indeed fortunate to have such a distinguished addition to your Lordships’ House and hugely look forward to further contributions from the noble and learned Lord.

I declare my housing interests as on the register, and I want to address the underlying cause of the problems which these regulations seek to mitigate. The arrears and eviction situation resulting from the pandemic has shown up the fundamental fragility of the private rented sector. The PRS has doubled in size in less than 20 years to around 20% of our homes, with over 2 million landlords. Now many landlords, as well as tenants, are facing difficulties coping with the consequences of Covid-19. Meanwhile, the social housing sector—housing association and council housing—has halved in size, from some 32% to 17% of the nation’s homes, yet the pandemic has underlined the need for this sector to provide far more decent, secure and affordable housing.

Does the Minister now see merit in last year’s proposal from the Affordable Housing Commission—I declare my interest as its chair—for a national housing conversion fund, which would enable private landlords wishing to exit the market to sell to social housing landlords who are equipped to withstand financial difficulties and provide permanent homes that are affordable to those on modest incomes?

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Best, and to echo his tributes to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for a very modest but model maiden speech. He even did it within the extended time limit. He will bring lustre to our Benches, as well as experience and expertise, and he is most welcome.

I also congratulate my noble friend the Minister for the clarity and precision with which he introduced this order. It was admirable and exemplary. I am sure he will understand, however, that I share a certain dissatisfaction with the way in which Parliament has been consistently marginalised when we have had to deal with coronavirus regulations. I fully understand the terrible problems under which the Government have had to operate, but Parliament must not be marginalised, and we have to do something about retrospective legislation. This order, introduced and laid a month ago and debated today, was due to expire in a fortnight—although I was glad to hear of the extension to 31 May.

I have a brief suggestion to make to your Lordships’ House. I know that we cannot vote in Grand Committee. It is important that we have the facility to vote on these orders—even though I would never vote against this one or, indeed, most of the others—but I suggest that it would be a good idea, in the new Session of Parliament at the latest, to have a special Grand Committee for coronavirus regulations which can vote. Therefore, the regulations could be dealt with more expeditiously, and we would not have so much retrospective legislation which, I am sure, cannot commend itself to our new colleague, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. While I welcome this short extension, it is only kicking the can down the road. As we have heard, private renters have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Research has found that twice as many private renters—who often have little or no savings—have suffered job losses compared with homeowners since coronavirus restrictions began.

As a Londoner, I note with real concern that one in seven London renters are in arrears, and women are twice as likely as men to have lost their job in the first lockdown. I am greatly concerned that women will be hardest hit by the end to the eviction ban. Before the pandemic, average rents took up 43% of women’s median earnings, compared with 28% of men’s, which reveals an invidious gender divide.

Simply suspending repossessions does nothing to address the underlying rent debt problem in the sector. It is vital that the Government develop an urgent financial package to help all those renters affected to pay off arrears, otherwise many tenants will have debts that are unsustainable, as we have heard. If they cannot pay them off, they will have to move home and face significant damage to their credit score, making it more difficult for them to access housing in the future.

The cost of rent debt is estimated to be around the £300 million mark, which is frankly relatively modest compared with the £1.6 billion that has been wiped off stamp duty for homeowners. Up to £3.8 million of funding was announced in the Budget to pilot no-interest loan schemes to help vulnerable consumers who will benefit from affordable short-term credit to meet unexpected costs, something I very much support. While we are still waiting to hear the details of this scheme, surely it would be possible for a scaled-up version of it to form the basis of a model for renters.

My Lords, evictions should be viewed as a last resort, only after all other avenues have been exhausted, and even more so at this time when the global pandemic is having a serious adverse impact on household incomes and employment.

Affording sufficient breathing space to tenants who have found themselves in financial difficulties through no fault of their own during Covid-19 is, therefore, a constructive and compassionate gesture. This reflects separate measures taken across the UK to suspend insolvency proceedings and protect commercial tenants from eviction where their circumstances have been directly influenced by Covid-19.

It is appropriate that we encourage landlords not to issue any new notices to evict or quit at this time unless absolutely unavoidable. Collectively, landlords, tenants, local authorities and departments should be able to examine what steps can be taken, short of eviction, where a tenant is in arrears due to financial difficulties arising from Covid-19. Having that early, joined-up conversation can help to prevent situations escalating and chart a better way forward.

However, it is absolutely right for us to recognise that continuing enforcement of eviction or repossession will be entirely justified in some cases. This includes cases of anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse or where rent arrears are at such an advanced stage to pose a disproportionate burden on a landlord. The Government are right to highlight the need for practical discretions in these situations.

The pandemic will ultimately have a negative and long-lasting impact on jobs and prosperity right across the province, and therefore I believe that these regulations are appropriate.

My Lords, I welcome and support this regulation, laid before the House on 19 February, which further extends the eviction ban during the Covid-19 restrictions. I do so, however, with some trepidation about the long-term implications of this crisis for renters and landlords in this country.

Figures from Generation Rent show that one in three private renters have lost income because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and half a million of these people are currently behind on rental payments. We know that increasing numbers of young people are in private rental accommodation, but so, too, are many older people—there are more than 750,000 private renters over 60 years of age in the UK. The extension of the current eviction ban through this regulation does not apply to tenants who are six months or more in arrears. We know that many of these people will be in dire financial situations or at a very high risk of becoming homeless.

At the start of the pandemic, the Government managed to house all the homeless people in London in temporary accommodation, meaning that, for the first time in decades, there was a significant reduction in the number of rough sleepers in the city. But more recently, the number of people sleeping on the city streets has increased again. Given the number of empty office buildings in the city—many of which may remain empty even after restrictions lift due to increased levels of remote working—we now need to look at how buildings can be repurposed to house the homeless. Also, how can we support businesses to facilitate this change where appropriate?

This is not an easy issue and the Government have done the right thing in stopping evictions at this time —but other measures are going to be needed to ensure that there is no explosion of rough sleeping and homelessness, once this eviction ban ends.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, on a quality maiden speech, which has whetted our appetites for his future contributions.

It is a disgrace that the Government have consistently failed to give Parliament time to debate regulations such as these before they come into effect; it is a disgrace that Parliament has acquiesced in this; and it is a disgrace that both the Government and Parliament have agreed on measures to curtail freedoms way beyond those needed to tackle the pandemic and for which there is no scientific evidence. The ban on outlawed demonstrations, for example, lacks any evidential justification. Not one of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations throughout the world resulted in a detectable spread of infections. We saw at the weekend how such ill-thought-out legislation put the police in an intolerable dilemma.

The measures in these regulations are desirable and necessary, but the justification for stopping evictions is economic and social, not medical. It is to prevent the evictions of people who are unable to pay their rent because they have been prevented from working. Yet the legislation pretends that it is necessary to stop evictions simply to avoid the spread of the virus. That is palpable nonsense. Because of lockdown, we would have wanted to prevent evictions even if we had absolute certainty that they would not result in the spread of infections—just to prevent hardship.

I take it that the assertion by the Minister in the preamble to the legislation that it is necessary purely for medical reasons is to justify bringing this measure under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. This provides further evidence that we should be operating under the Civil Contingencies Act, not under the control of disease Act. If we were, Parliament would have had far greater control of these matters and the measures would have been carried out on a cross-United Kingdom basis.

My Lords, these debates are interesting because I find myself agreeing so much with Members with whom I often do not agree, including the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. I agree with everything that he has just said. I also agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, regarding bans on protests. That does not relate to this particular statutory instrument but nevertheless needs to be stated. I also agree with the comments of my noble friends Lord Shipley and Lady Tyler, who said many of the things that I might have said.

My noble friend Lady Tyler said that this is kicking the can down the road. A better metaphor would be that it is shunting the issue further along the track—and the track is actually a siding, so sooner or later it will hit the buffers. When that happens, there will be a major problem.

The debt advice organisation StepChange says 150,000 private sector tenants are at risk of being evicted within 12 months. Then, of course, there are all the children, dependants and other members of those families. Do the Government have a figure on the number of people they think are seriously at risk of eviction when this particular truck finally hits the buffers and the Government stop shunting it down the track because there is no track left?

The Minister referred to the road map out of lockdown, but the question for so many of those people is: what is the road map out of debt? Many of them cannot see one at all.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. His metaphor is tragically apt.

I join others in welcoming the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, to the House. Given the Government’s now regular practice of playing fast and loose with the law and destroying long-cherished freedoms, we certainly need the legal reinforcement.

We debate the details of this SI while facing an epidemic of homelessness. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has already detailed how the Government are breaking their promise of ensuring that no-one becomes homeless as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I want to look forward. The Minister referred to the support that the Government have supplied through furlough schemes and to the self- employed. However, millions have missed out on the latter and the former will come to an end, leaving many facing a deeply uncertain future, even while 80% of their salary has not been enough to keep many afloat.

A survey two months ago by the National Residential Landlords Association warned of a “rent debt crisis”. Among renters, those aged between 18 and 24 are particularly likely to be in trouble, as are a significant number of the self-employed—unsurprisingly, given the gaping holes in the Government’s support for that group. So I have a simple question for the Minister. Can he confirm that the Government are at least considering a fund to deliver grants to those who cannot, and will in no way be able to, pay rent arrears?

We have a huge problem with our housing sector, as noble Lord, Lord Best, outlined. Individual tenants are victims of a system that has treated houses primarily as financial assets, and which has privatised public assets at huge cost to the common good through right to buy. This is a problem caused by policies of successive Governments over decades. It requires government action to assist the victims and, in the longer term, a major shift in policy to stop treating homes as assets to be sweated for maximum profit.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I also congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, on his thoughtful maiden speech.

Every coin has two sides but, in respect of this measure, one side has been ignored and the other not properly thought through. Clearly, private renters have been hard hit, but this measure ignores the likely build-up of arrears by renters, giving rise to eventual court cases and repossessions. This will result in serious damage to their credit score and ability to access housing. It also does not consider the position of those renters who can afford to pay but hide behind these measures and decide not to pay their landlords.

The National Residential Landlords Association, representing landlords who account for 20% of UK households, reports that 60% of its members have lost rental income. We are talking about a sector in which 94% of the properties are owned by individuals who, in the main, own only one property and regard it as their pension. This is not about the Cadogan or Grosvenor estates, and these landlords continue to have financial obligations regarding their properties. This is not healthy for either side, but to regard landlords as bankers to their tenants is totally inappropriate.

One solution to avoid that situation is for the Government to provide tenant hardship loans along the lines of the schemes in Scotland and Wales, supported by a range of bodies such as the charity StepChange, Citizens Advice and the Resolution Foundation. Loans would be interest free, government guaranteed and paid directly to the landlord, with repayment due as the affected tenant recovers. It would enable the orderly recovery of the renter and would protect his credit rating. The landlord would be able to continue to invest in his property and the courts would be free from a deluge of cases leading to hardship for all concerned.

I join in the congratulations to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. The more decent lawyers we have in this place to call the Government to account, the better.

The Explanatory Memorandum to this SI beggars belief. It states:

“The purpose of this instrument is to protect public health and reduce the public health risks posed by”,

Covid-19. This is a complete and utter nonsense. Perhaps I may mention that the point made by my noble friend Lord Cormack is very sound. We need a proper committee to look at these SIs before they come into force, not when they are almost at the date of expiry.

Most of all, we need to get back to normal. The way in which this House has functioned in the past year has, frankly, been sub-optimal—to put it mildly.

We are now asked to endorse this measure. It provides for limited occasions when people can go to court to get possession. However, what it does not say is that the whole court system is in chaos and meltdown, and it is almost impossible to get a date in a court. Can the Minister tell us what is being done to free up the courts for landlords?

There is a small amount in the budget—£3.8 million—and, we reckon, something like a hundred times that much is needed. How will that gap be covered? Finally, is this system being played by people who just do not want to pay their rent? Have the Government made any estimates, and if so, what are they?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, on his maiden speech, and I thank the Minister for his explanation of these regulations.

I believe that the Government should strengthen and extend the ban on evictions and repossessions until the restrictions are over; extend the mortgage holiday; raise the local housing allowance to cover median market rents; reform housing law to end automatic evictions through the courts; reduce the waiting period for mortgage interest payments support; make the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent and end the five-week wait; and suspend the benefits cap. That would help enormously the many people who are trying to exist in very difficult circumstances and facing eviction.

There is also a need to address the rent debt problem in the social housing sector, particularly for private renters. What steps will the Minister and his colleagues take to develop an urgent financial package to help all those affected renters pay off arrears built up since the pandemic began? We have to be able to assist people and not encourage the perpetuation of debt, which is detrimental to them later. If this does not happen there is a concern that many tenants will have debts that are unsustainable for themselves, their families and their children—and for the landlords.

My Lords, it is so good to see my university friend the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, at the Dispatch Box. I also congratulate my noble and learned friend Lord Etherton.

When these regulations were debated before, in February, it was the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, I think, who pointed out that Citizens Advice had estimated that close to 500,000 renters were in arrears and at risk of Covid-19-related eviction. Already, more than 174,000 private tenants have been threatened with eviction by their landlords or letting agents. Even at the start of the pandemic, a year ago, two-thirds of private tenants had no savings, and 45% of private renters have lost income since March.

The Government are right to say that nobody will lose their home because of coronavirus. We understand that the majority of residential evictions are on hold until 31 May. It is right to continue supporting renters with the cost of living and to align ourselves with the timelines of the Prime Minister’s road map, particularly as tenants may continue to be on furlough, or working in sectors that cannot reopen, for some weeks yet. With around 49% of hospitality workers and 36% of retail workers currently renting, the new measures will protect jobs as businesses reopen and many more renters can return to work. The hospitality industry has been decimated over the past year.

Landlords may be asking how, in some cases, the growing rental debt will be managed after the protection ends. The issue cannot be addressed if the parties fall out with each other the moment the protection ends. Does the Minister agree that the Government should seek to avoid a cliff-edge in June for residents and landlords, and, where possible, help them to work together to secure fair tenancy agreements as we move forward? That should be the priority.

Does the Minister also agree that the Government have promised mediation support for resolving disputes, and that that must be available to all who need it? We could reduce a heavy caseload for mediation if the Government published guidance for tenants and landlords. It would help negotiations to be conducted fairly and transparently and in good time, ahead of the end of May deadline.

As President of the CBI I know that the Government have provided huge support—£400 billion over the past year—and that in the Budget two weeks ago the Chancellor rightly extended that support into the summer, with measures that included extending the furlough, business rates relief and a reduction in VAT to 5%. This will give businesses the chance to bounce back and emerge from the pandemic. It will save jobs and businesses.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar for introducing this SI so clearly. I also express my appreciation for the Government’s efforts to strike the difficult but important balance between the essential need to protect tenants during this pandemic, when many may have lost jobs and businesses, and enabling property-owners to exercise their rights to the properties that they own. An individual has a legitimate expectation of being able to protect their rights and income, with many pensioners, for example, having relied on a property, such as a buy-to-let, to support their retirement. I declare my interests as set out in the register.

I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, on his masterful maiden speech. I am also pleased to welcome exemptions to this ban for squatters, anti-social or abusive tenants, and those with severe rent arrears. Will the Minister, however, consider another exemption: one for the rising number of landlords who need to move into their own home, which they had rented out before 2019? They may have lost an overseas job, or need to move near to loved ones, and are unable to move into their house or apartment.

It is, of course, important to help tenants pay their rent, and tenants need to feel secure during their tenancies. The help available, however, is perhaps in need of improvement, given that these measures are going on for much longer than had previously been expected. The National Residential Landlords Association and Generation Rent are calling for more support. Landlords have worked hard to help tenants wherever possible. Can my noble friend comment on the mediation pilot that is in progress for possession cases, which seeks to achieve compromise rather than court proceedings? That could be a very welcome step, given the situation in the courts.

My Lords, this SI has been prepared by the Ministry of Justice with the purpose of protecting public health in England and reducing the risks posed by the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome that causes Covid-19. This instrument prevents the enforcement of evictions, including the serving of notices of eviction, against residential tenants, other than in the most serious circumstances, until 31 March 2021.

By restricting the enforcement of evictions at a time when pressure on public services is acute and the risk of virus transmission is very high, this measure will help control the spread of infection, prevent any additional burden falling on the NHS and avoid overburdening local authorities in their work of providing housing support and protecting public health.

This instrument was made on 17 February 2021 and came into force on 22 February, at the same time as the previous regulations expired. Having been made under the emergency procedure, it will automatically cease to have effect at the end of 28 days, beginning with the day on which it was made, unless during that period it is renewed by a resolution of each House of Parliament. It applies only to England. It is a temporary measure that lasts less than 12 months, and because it is a part of the Government’s coronavirus emergency response, requirements for a formal regulatory impact assessment do not apply.

I believe that this is a good and proper instrument and will protect not only tenants and local authorities but also the NHS.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. I thank him for his maiden speech and congratulate him on his work in his former role on easing repossessions, which helped to ease a difficult situation. I also welcome my noble friend to the Dispatch Box yet again. I look forward to his robust defence of the statutory instrument, the main thrust of which I support.

In the catalogue of support that my noble friend outlined, I do not think that there is any cover for directors who have been caught in the trap of taking a low salary and relying on dividends. I do not know whether there is any evidence that they will be caught by the thrust of this statutory instrument; I would be interested to hear whether there is any support in the pipeline for them. Like my noble friend Lady Altmann, I am quite excited about the new free mediation service that is being piloted; it is very welcome. What does my noble friend the Minister expect to happen at the end of the pilot? Does his department plan to roll that out more widely from August? What will the legal situation be after 31 March? If this order is extended until 31 March but the Minister is not expecting to bring forward the replacement until the middle of May, will there be a legal vacuum? Can he clarify what the situation is in those circumstances?

I join noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Bourne, in raising the issue that has been brought to the Floor by Generation Rent. We do not appear, as a Government, to be tackling the underlying problem of rent debt. Does my noble friend the Minister have a long-term solution? Finally, does he share my concern about the non-payment of council tax? Will this jeopardise the future payment of rent arrears as well?

My Lords, I welcome and congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton.

I echo the wise words and advocacy of the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Lilley. I send my heartfelt respect to the family of Sarah Everard. I agree and am in solidarity with all those families whose children have been lost, and the peaceful protestors. It was an appalling application of lockdown policies and strategies.

The CAB helps someone every two minutes regarding privately rented housing, and half a million renters are in arrears and facing eviction. While I acknowledge the Government’s promised extension of support, is the Minister aware of the research by Generation Rent, the Resolution Foundation and StepChange? It indicates that the debt crisis is compounding the health of our most vulnerable communities, which are often charged high rents for appalling housing conditions; this leads to the considerable deterioration of their health and mental well-being, particularly among women-led households.

We all agree that no one should lose their home or be evicted during this pandemic. What are we to say to the more than 200,000 families that have sought council assistance over the threat of homelessness in the last six months? Generation Rent says that we may not know the true extent of the harm caused, particularly to those who are most vulnerable. Does the Minister agree that these stop-and-start, ad-hoc outbursts, have been inconsistent? Uncertainty regarding packages places immense burdens and pressures on families. The only solution is to eradicate the debt incurred during the pandemic.

I hope that the Minister will heed the call of all parliamentarians.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the welcome extension of the ban on bailiff enforcement until 31 May, and I thank all noble Lords for participating in this debate. I also thank the Minister for his letter to me, dated 10 February, following the previous SI debate on 2 February.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and my noble friends Lord Shipley and Lord Greaves have said, it is regrettable that we continue to have this piecemeal approach. For us, it is regrettable, but for thousands of tenants teetering on the brink of eviction that often ends in homelessness, this piecemeal approach can be devastating—and for the children involved, it can be life-defining.

Perhaps the Minister looks to the devolved nations with a little envy as he goes through this Groundhog Day experience once more. The Northern Ireland Executive, for example, have just announced an extension of eviction protections to the end of September, providing tenants with greater stability. Can he consider the feasibility of an extension of that nature? In possible anticipation of the response, I recall the Government’s argument against ending the unfairness of tenant fees—already introduced in Scotland—which was that it was a different marketplace. In the end, it was not a different marketplace, and they did introduce that change. Can the Minister share with us what evidence he has that landlords are applying this only in the most egregious of cases? Does he acknowledge that, over the winter lockdown, 500 households were evicted from their homes?

In his letter to me, the Minister makes the case that the policies are working because only 7% of tenants are affected. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, described, the astonishing growth in the PRS over the past decade alone means that this 7% are the 460,000 tenancies that have fallen behind on their rent, as StepChange reported only this week. Indeed, 150,000 private sector tenants face the risk of eviction in the next 12 months. Given that one of the main causes of homelessness is the end of a private tenancy, and given that the Government are committed to ending rough sleeping, prevention in this area is fundamental.

The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said that evictions are on hold. That is not the case. This SI stops bailiffs at the final stage of an eviction, but your landlord still may serve an eviction notice and you still may have to go to a hearing. Often, when a Section 21 notice is served, it finds no resistance because it is a fait accompli. Therefore, they are often not measured or known about. Can the Minister undertake to re-examine the issue of allowing judges to have discretion to prevent an eviction if rent arrears are due to the Covid pandemic, thereby fulfilling Robert Jenrick’s promise, referred to earlier? The discretion on such issues of judges such as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, would be most welcome, as evidenced by his considered and eloquent maiden speech. I look forward to hearing many more speeches from him, hopefully with more generous time slots.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, made the case that the majority of landlords are not businesses, but the Government’s English private landlord survey shows that over half of all tenancies now are with landlords who own five or more properties—and that number is growing. The same research shows that the main reasons why people become landlords are a preference for investing in property over other investments, and as a pension contribution. Only 4% became a landlord to let property and rely on that income as a full-time business.

I thank Generation Rent and the NRLA for their briefings. Landlords and charities are united in their calls for the 800,000 renters in arrears to get urgent help with their debt crisis, which is damaging their credit scores and will make it even harder for them to access housing in future. Generation Rent goes on to propose, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, described, a Covid rent debt fund. It would cost £288 million, clear rent arrears and compensate landlords for up to 80% of the rent owed. However, these must be grants, not loans, because so many renters started this pandemic without any savings, as the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, described. They were already spending a third of their income on rent. Citizens Advice tells us that the tenants who use its services would take seven years to pay off their current arrears.

The Minister has already told us about the unprecedented package of financial support, but £180 million for discretionary housing payments was at the start of this pandemic; it has not been increased to recognise the significant increase in universal credit claims. The local housing allowance is now frozen, and that is for only the bottom 30%. This level of spend pales into insignificance when compared to the stamp duty holiday that cost the Government £1.5 billion, whereas Generation Rent’s proposed scheme to help tenants would cost £288 million. The shocking disparity in subsidies to home owners in comparison speaks volumes about the attitude of this Government. What we need is a similar level of subsidy and support for those who rent.

My Lords, I open by congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, on his maiden speech. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described it as a modest maiden speech. I assure the noble and learned Lord that that was a compliment. I thought that it was a very good maiden speech, as well as a modest one.

There have been various themes to today’s debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, said, it is a bit like Groundhog Day. We have had a number of statutory instrument debates on this subject; we have also had a regret Motion. The themes have been similar—not surprisingly —but the numbers are growing, and that is not surprising either.

Before I come to that, I want to pick up a point made by the noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Cormack, about possible procedural changes so that we are not in the position we are in now where we are debating measures that have already come into place and which will expire fairly shortly. I was interested in the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that some sort of Grand Committee should be set up where these matters could possibly be debated and voted on in good time.

The themes of this debate have focused on urging the Government to come up with some sort of long-term plan to get round this mounting debt problem. We have all received the same briefings from Generation Rent, Citizens Advice and the National Landlords Association. The figures have been quoted by a number of noble Lords. The central point, which all noble Lords have made, is the need for a plan to get out of this problem, whether by low-interest loans or giving people who are in debt money. There are different solutions, and I understand that there are pros and cons to each solution. What I would like to hear from the Minister is the plan. How are the Government trying to address this issue so that there is a solution and so that, as landlords and tenants emerge from the pandemic, they are not lumbered with a lifetime of debt, which they will find very difficult to get out of? If they have court orders against them, that will make it even more difficult for them.

I do not want to repeat all the numbers that have been quoted, but the central point—on which I hope we will hear something from the Minister—is whether the Government are looking at solutions that have been adopted in other countries in the United Kingdom and whether they are looking at a long-term solution so that we will not come back here again wondering how to find a way out of this massive and mounting debt crisis.

My Lords, I fear that the somewhat innocuous title of these regulations ought to have a health warning below it along the lines of “Light blue touchpaper and stand well back” because some of the speeches have taken us far and wide.

Let me start with some of the central points. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, said that we live in a police state. We do not. We live in a state with police. I assure the noble Lord and the House that, as I have said on a number of occasions, the rule of law runs through me like “Blackpool” runs through a stick of Blackpool rock. I acknowledge the importance of protest; we will debate that issue in other Bills. I assure the noble Lord and other speakers that that is not an issue so far as I am concerned.

As I have mentioned the rule of law, I want to take a moment again to welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. I regret that he had such limited time for his maiden speech, although at least he got to the Chamber—I was stuck in Grand Committee. He made two points in the short time he had. First, he used the word “unique”. We are indeed living in unique times and must have unique responses. Secondly, he talked about a cross-sector working group. Indeed, a number of the points made by noble Lords in this debate show that what we are talking about is not just a Ministry of Justice issue; it is really an MHCLG issue, and a number of the issues will have been heard by that department. I will personally make sure that they are passed on because, although the Ministry of Justice is responsible for courts and procedures, underlying housing policy, which a lot of contributions have gone to, is not the responsibility of my department. However, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, is right that, in this area, as in so many areas of government—in my short time here, I have realised this—the acronym OGD, standing for “other government departments”, is about the most important acronym there is. In fact, it seems that all acronyms in the Civil Service are three letters. It loves its three-letter acronyms. I might start calling them the TLAs.

My noble friend Lord Cormack and other noble Lords made another broad point about the way we deal with coronavirus business in this House. I say with great respect that that is well above my pay grade, not least because my pay grade is an unpaid pay grade. I am sure that that point will have been heard by the relevant authorities, but I hope that my noble friend Lord Cormack and others will forgive me if I do not respond to them particularly.

My noble friend Lord Lilley made a broad point about the pandemic measures. In so far as I was included in his charge of palpable nonsense, I respectfully but firmly disagree. What we are seeking to do here is within the public health regulations. We are seeking to provide a balance between the undoubted needs of renters and the undoubted demands of landlords.

Turning to some of the points that are more relevant to this SI, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about short extensions. That is why I indicated to the House—clearly, I hope—that we will extend this to 31 May. I assure my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering that there will not be a gap. We will ensure that the regulations are seamless.

Why do we not want to put a loan system in place? It is because we do not think that adding more debt is the way out here. We prefer to proceed as the Chancellor has proceeded by giving non-repayable finance to renters and enabling landlords to benefit from such things as mortgage payment holidays, which are available until July.

My noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth— I am also a former tenant of Gray’s Inn, though I should make it clear I was not evicted—asked whether we are putting something in place for the long term. That is, as I have said, a matter for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but I assure my noble friend and the House that, while it is always a pleasure to speak from this Dispatch Box, I do not want to have to come back time and again with Groundhog Day regulations either. That is why I have done my best to ensure that everybody now has visibility until the end of May.

I will pass on to my colleagues at MHCLG the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Best, that housing could be sold to social housing landlords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, said that stamp duty helps homeowners; it helps homebuyers, and the reasons for the stamp duty holiday were set out in the Budget. We are trying to maintain a fair balance here between renters on the one hand and landlords on the other. In that context, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, is absolutely right. Evictions are the last resort, which is why we have structured the exemptions in the way we have. The exemptions list is designed to ensure that evictions take place only in cases where they are really required.

One exemption, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, is the six months of arrears. As I said in opening this debate, those arrears must be looked at in the context of the unprecedented financial support that this Government have provided to renters.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said that we are playing fast and loose with the law. I assure her that that is the last thing I would allow to happen. She may disagree with my views on legal matters, but I can assure her that respect for the rule of law is, as I have said, part of my very being.

Ultimately, as a number of noble Lords mentioned, including the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, we have a balance between renters and landlords. He was right to highlight small landlords. Although I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, that some landlords own a number of properties, there are vast numbers of landlords who own only one or two properties and look to the income from them to pay their outgoings and, for a number of people, their pension income. Although I heard with respect the passionate speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, she looked at it only—I say respectfully—from the point of view of renters.

Our measures have had significant results. The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, said there were over 500 eviction orders in the last quarter of 2020, but that must be compared with the last quarter of 2019—a normal quarter—when there were 22,444. These measures have had a very significant impact. As this debate has shown, I am assailed on the one hand by renters for not doing enough and on the other by landlords for not considering their position. In response to my noble friend Lady Altmann, I am afraid we do not see overseas landlords coming home as a special case; their right to possession will have to be found in the regulations as they are set out.

I conclude the time I have available on a more positive note. A number of speakers mentioned the mediation scheme. Mediation is quite new to our system of law but, in the time that we have had it, it has proved its worth time and again. This is only one area where I am confident that mediation schemes can in many cases achieve far more than a formal court process, and I am proud that we have started the pilot. I confirm that we will look at its results very carefully to see whether we can roll out mediation not only in these cases but across civil justice much more broadly. My experience from my previous incarnation as a practising lawyer and the materials I have read as a Minister show that, in many cases, mediation enables people to resolve their disputes and vindicate their legal rights in a better way than a formal court process can.

In the short time still available, I will respond to a couple of points which I have not yet referred to. When at university, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, squeezed a five-hour essay into two hours’ preparation; today he squeezed a five-minute speech into the two minutes he was allotted. He highlighted the balance we are seeking to draw, and that is the response I give, with respect, to the two Front-Bench speakers, the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. We will look at what other parts of the country do; I am a great fan of Scots law and will impress on my MHCLG colleagues that they should look at Scotland and other parts of our United Kingdom for answers on this as well.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that there is work on what he calls a long-term plan. It is not for me—a mere humble Ministry of Justice Minister—to reveal on a Thursday afternoon the details of that plan, but I am conscious that it is being worked on. Of course we do not want a cliff edge. We need to work out what the response will be from 31 May onwards.

Given the time, I hope that the House will permit me to respond in writing to the points I have not been able to deal with orally. I apologise to those speakers to whom I have not been able to respond personally. I acknowledge the strength of feeling across the House which goes beyond these regulations but, if I may ask the House to focus for a moment on these regulations, I commend them to the House and beg to move.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.

Arrangement of Business

Announcement

My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask Members to respect social distancing. We come to the joint debate on the three Motions relating to the Drivers’ Hours and Tachographs (Temporary Exceptions) Regulations 2021. The time limit is one hour.

Drivers’ Hours and Tachographs (Temporary Exceptions) Regulations 2021

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets that the Drivers’ Hours and Tachographs (Temporary Exceptions) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/58) will have a detrimental impact on heavy goods vehicle drivers and the hours they will be required to work, and does not provide clarity for such drivers on how the temporary exemptions to requirements for rest breaks will operate.

Relevant document: 44th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

This instrument was laid on 21 January and came into force on 22 January. As a negative instrument, we had no opportunity to debate it here before it came into effect. It was an extension of the temporary suspension of regulations on drivers’ hours and tachographs which applied from 23 December to 21 January. These regulations allow an increase in the maximum drivers’ hours from nine or 10 hours to 11 hours driving per day. They also allow a weekly rest period to be taken after seven days rather than six, and the fortnightly limits on hours driven increase from 90 to 96 hours.

These restrictions were initially introduced in the face of disruption in December due to coronavirus restrictions and the very heavy traffic to the ports caused by pre-Brexit stockpiling. There were long queues on the motorways in Kent and elsewhere, amid stories of drivers stuck in their cabs for days with the accompanying lack of toilet and washing facilities. There was an expectation, which I think we all shared, of further disruption to traffic through the borders as the additional Brexit bureaucracy kicked in during January. The last-minute nature of the agreement had not allowed time for hauliers to prepare.

However, what happened was rather different. Although it takes much longer to deal with the paperwork, the lorry queues did not materialise because many hauliers and many companies, particularly SMEs, simply opted out of the market and ceased to send goods to the EU. Hence, the officially confirmed 41% drop in EU trade during January. Covid has had an impact as well, of course, but trade within the EU dropped by only 10%.

Let me remind noble Lords why we have these strict rules on driving hours. They are part of our previous EU membership. They are there for road safety reasons, based on accident statistics. As a country, we have always been very proud of our road safety record. It is nevertheless true that some of our worst motorway accidents have been caused by lorries, where a significant factor has been driver tiredness. Limits on drivers’ hours are also an issue of decent, humane working conditions. This is especially important in an international industry with lots of small companies and solo operators.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. Given that long queues have not been a problem, why is it necessary to renew these exemptions? The Government cite shortage of drivers as a reason why longer hours are necessary. However, the Road Haulage Association reports a fall in the number of drivers—especially foreign drivers—willing to drive in the UK because of border bureaucracy. Does the Minister have any figures on this?

The Government talk about temporary teething problems at the borders but Brexit is permanent, and so is the bureaucracy that comes with it. Can the Minister give us an assurance that she will not be back here next month asking for further relaxation? This decline in road safety standards and erosion of workers’ rights cannot become permanent. If she cannot give us that assurance, can she at least ensure that in future this will not be slipped through by negative procedure. The trade union Unite emphasises the cumulative impact of fatigue, so the longer this goes on, the more dangerous it becomes.

When the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee drew our attention to these regulations, it emphasised how vague some aspects are. Can the Minister provide clarity on the meaning of the guidance that these exemptions should be applied only “where necessary”? How has it been enforced? The DVSA monitors and checks these records, so can we have an analysis of those checks from the last couple of months?

The exceptions are very broad and apply across the country, not just on particular routes to the ports. Why not? Are checks being undertaken outside port areas to see if there is any abuse of these laxer rules? The relaxation of the rules was requested by industry bodies and Defra. Can the Minister confirm that road safety bodies were consulted? What was their view?

I put down this regret Motion primarily out of concern for road safety, but also because of concern about the situation at our borders. Can the Minister update us on progress with the inland border facilities the Government are building? Those are designed to allow drivers to rest up as well as to process loads and provide border paperwork facilities. Those facilities should solve any problems and make further relaxation of these rules unnecessary. I do not intend to call a vote at this time. My purpose is to seek answers and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Baroness and to speak to my regret Motion on these regulations. I share many of her concerns. I find the Explanatory Memorandum particularly arrogant and vague on the reasons for the need for this regulation. Paragraph 7.2 says that

“disruption to … supply chains could occur at very short notice.”

There has been no evidence of this happening—I shall come on to the number of vehicles going through in a minute—or even of any fear of it happening ever since the new regulations came in at the beginning of January.

Everybody knew that there were new regulations. We had spoken before in this House about the fact that many people were unprepared and that the Government were pretty unprepared as well, but there is no change likely to happen at the moment. As for the situation having worsened substantially during the last month, how has it worsened?

The Explanatory Memorandum says:

“Some usual mitigations (such as training more drivers) are not available.”

There has not been a need for more drivers because the traffic has dramatically dropped. Then it says:

“The situation is exacerbated by the impact on vehicle flows of changes to border controls following the end of the transitions period of the UK’s exit from the EU.”

Where is the evidence for that? There have just been fewer trucks because a lot of people are deciding not to go, for reasons that we have debated.

The noble Baroness talked about the extension of hours permitted in these regulations. On the face of it, it is not very great but, on the other hand, it comes on top of some pretty long hours limits anyway. As she so rightly says, this is actually a serious road safety issue. Can the Minister tell us whether there is any evidence of further accidents due to this? How much enforcement of the longer hours has taken place, and has any action been taken? I suspect that, as with most other tachograph issues, it is done only very rarely.

I think the real issue here is that we have fewer drivers, and we also have many fewer trucks. I want to spend a minute or two looking at the chaos that I think there has been over the statistics of how many trucks have been counted going out of the UK. The Government published a press story on, I think, 7 February disputing the figures published by the Road Haulage Association. The Road Haulage Association looks after its members’ interests, and it suggested that the loads to the EU— I quote from its press release—had

“reduced by as much as 68 percent”

since January this year. It wrote to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster explaining this, and the Government are basically saying it is not true. Somebody must be able to count; it is surely pathetic. I tend to believe the RHA because it has an interest in looking after its members’ interests—they do not want to see delays—whereas the Government are trying to say that everything is all right. This has gone on, with an argument in a letter between the Office for Statistics Regulation and Richard Laux, the chief statistician of the Cabinet Office, talking about whether the data is published or not. The Cabinet Office then published a note to accompany the original press story. In other words, this is damage limitation. The key, to me, is a quote from the Port of Dover on 8 February that said:

“Traffic continues to flow smoothly through the Port of Dover post-Brexit transition.”

Does that not tell us that there is no problem that needs to be cured?

As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned, I hope the Minister will assure the House when she responds that this will be the last time that they try to extend these regulations, and there will be no more of these because, as the noble Baroness said, this is a road safety issue. The limits that were necessary before the Covid epidemic and before Brexit are still necessary now. It seems to me that, in the eyes of the Government, the supply chain is more important than road safety, and that is a very serious issue.

These regulations have the effect of increasing the fortnightly driving limit from 90 hours to 96 hours. They also, as a result, raise the likelihood of a driver not being able to take proper rest away from work—that is, away from the cab of their vehicle. There have been other relaxations of drivers’ hours since April 2020, with this latest one following the UK-EU agreement being for the longest period of time. Normally, such relaxations are for very short periods of time and have been very specific to particular sections of the industry. However, due to the definition of “exceptional circumstances”, this latest relaxation in reality covers practically every professional HGV driver in the country, including those delivering to the UK from other countries.

It also needs to be said that the key purpose of drivers’ hours regulations is road safety and the welfare of drivers. Any relaxation potentially puts not just the drivers covered at risk but all road users as well, through HGV drivers either not having appropriate periods of rest or working for longer periods of time or both. Could the Government indicate in their response whether these latest regulations, which come to an end in about two weeks’ time, are going to be further extended beyond then? If so, why?

In laying these regulations, the Department for Transport said that the relaxations

“continue to be required because of both delays at the borders and the reduction in driver numbers due to Covid-19.”

Could the Government in their response say what these delays at the border are and what has caused them? The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee considered these regulations and concluded:

“Although a contingency provision may be needed, we were not clear about the conditions in which these exemptions are intended to be used and where the responsibility for implementing these decisions lies. The House may wish to ask the Minister to provide a fuller explanation.”

That is what I am now doing. Expanding on this, the committee said:

“These relaxations are not restricted to port areas or to essential supplies, and the definition of when they can be used, ‘when necessary’, is very vague. There is also some blurring in this policy between the responsibilities of the driver and the operator in deciding when to use the extended hours, and we are concerned that drivers may feel under pressure to use them. A submission from Unite the Union illustrates the problems likely to arise. The sector is very diverse, with both employed and self-employed drivers, and the balances of risks and advantages may differ between these groups.”

No doubt the Minister will wish to comment on those observations from the committee.

Could the Government also say in their response to what extent the increase in the fortnightly driving limit—from 90 hours to 96 hours—has actually been used, and whether it has been used more in relation to some routes than others, whether it has been used more by some firms than others, and whether it has been used more by some sectors than others? Could the Government also say under what circumstance and why the allowable increase in hours has been applied, so that we can have an idea of how and address what situations the “where necessary” criteria has actually been brought into play.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee referred to the submission from Unite the Union. One gets the impression that the committee gave rather more consideration to what Unite had to say than perhaps the Government did. When asked by the committee who had been consulted, and whether any drivers’ representatives had been included, the Department for Transport replied:

“Relaxations to drivers’ hours rules were sought by a number of individual firms, representative bodies and Defra … Unite the Union was consulted informally — and for the record was not in support of the relaxation as made.”

What a dismissive response. The view of Unite—and the drivers’ regulations are there for safety reasons—was simply “for the record” following informal consultation as far as the DfT was concerned, not views that should be reported with reasons given why they were not taken on board. How revealing that we have to turn to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to find out the concern of Unite, since there is nothing in the Explanatory Memorandum, which simply states:

“There has been no formal consultation on this Instrument, although advice has been taken from representatives from the logistics and retail sector”,

and that

“an impact assessment has not been produced”.

Could the Government tell us what their assessment was, and the basis of that assessment, of the potential impact of this instrument on safety, bearing in mind that a key part of Unite’s concerns was that, the longer the period of relaxation from the drivers’ hours rules—now some three months—the greater the potential risk to safety? It is not enough to say that, under the relaxation,

“Drivers should not be expected to drive whilst tired”.

If that is deemed a responsible approach, then there is no need for any rules at all beyond that. In its submission to the committee, Unite expresses concern about the ability of enforcement officers to be able to enforce the relaxed regulations effectively, not least in respect of international drivers whose operating base may be in another country. No doubt in their reply the Government will wish to provide the hard evidence that enforcement officers had enforced the regulations effectively.

Unite welcomes the fact that drivers and their unions should be involved in managing any relaxation, but said that

“in reality drivers are not given the choice, operators simply plan drivers’ routes and then apply a relaxation if needed.”

Do the Government accept that that is the reality? If not, could they provide the evidence that it is not the case?

Concluding its submission to the committee, Unite said it understood

“that there are often genuine reasons for using a relaxation in very limited circumstances. This relaxation, however, is far more than that and in our opinion goes much further than is actually necessary even under these very difficult circumstances”.

Unite believes this could be

“the start of watering down vital safety rules for professional drivers.”

This is now the opportunity for the Government to provide the hard evidence to prove that these potentially safety-compromising regulations, applicable to practically every professional HGV driver and for a longer period than normal, have been necessary and that it was not a case of bringing them in simply because some firms wanted them so that they were there if required across the board without the Government really knowing either whether they really were required across the board or the extent to which they would be required.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have introduced this debate. Before speaking to it, I remind the House that I still drive heavy goods vehicles under the drivers’ hours rules from time to time and for private purposes. Some of these vehicles are very heavy indeed and are not just a horsebox. However, the new regulations in question are very unlikely to affect me.

In the distant past I have driven more extensively for commercial reasons under the drivers’ hours rules. Many years ago, either under military authorisation or on international aid operations, I drove hours far in excess of what are allowed under civilian rules. The House should know that the military nowadays adheres— I would say slavishly—to the civilian rules, even on operations. It may help the House to be aware that I am a qualified HGV driving instructor, although I accept that I might be a little out of date.

There are two reasons why we have limits on drivers’ hours. The first and most important is safety, as observed by many noble Lords. Clearly, if a driver drives for too long or takes insufficient rest, there is a direct safety consequence. However, there is another important reason for having the rules, and that is to set an economic level playing field. Road haulage operations are extremely competitive, and one easy way of securing an economic advantage is to make the drivers work harder for longer and to take greater risks with fatigue. The combination of the drivers’ hours rules and the working time directive sets a floor so that drivers are not abused, safety is maintained and, most importantly, operators have to find other ways of being more competitive. The Minister is helping in that regard by looking more closely still at longer and heavier vehicles.

The rules have been carefully set and devised over many years, perhaps before we even joined the EU, so that a competent driver, adhering to the rules over many years, can earn a living while not putting himself or herself or others at risk of fatigue, and, as I have already indicated, the rules set an economic baseline. This means that relaxing the rules very slightly for a few months will not create a safety problem, and I do not believe the Minister would have made this order if that were the case. These are very minor flexibilities designed to cope with the current situation, or with one that could arise. I do not believe that businesses will build them into their business model because they are such temporary exemptions, nor do I believe that they will plan their day-to-day transport operations taking account of the flexibilities. The flexibilities are designed to deal with something that goes wrong; they should not be regarded as normal.

Another point that should not be overlooked is that it can be very stressful for conscientious drivers to adhere to the drivers’ hours rules, especially in the face of disruption. Avoidably stressing drivers is not, I suggest, a sensible course of action.

From my direct personal experience of these matters, I can tell the House that the amending regulations do not compromise safety. I urge the House to kindly reject the Motions and support the Minister and the sensible, temporary flexibilities that she has provided the industry with.

My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend. I will be supporting the regulations before us, but I have a number of questions for the Minister.

The regulations expire at the end of March but, as we learned when the Minister summed up the debate called by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach on 4 March, controls are to be introduced at UK ports for the first time in April and again in July. Does it not seem simple sensible to keep these extensions on the table until the new controls have had the chance to bed down, so that we can see whether they cause any serious delays at ports?

The exceptions are marginal; it is an extension of six hours in every fortnight, so I imagine the Minister will say the impact is quite low. I note the dismay that was expressed by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on a number of issues in looking at the this instrument, not least, I understand from paragraph 6 of the report, that Parliament was not one of the bodies notified of the exception. Could the Minister confirm whether the Health and Safety Executive and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents have been involved in the drafting and reviewing of the measures before us?

Like the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I have a number of concerns, which he has eloquently addressed, about the level to which the measures are deemed to be necessary and about why the legislation is all framed in relation to the driver, putting a lot of emphasis regarding enforcement and the understanding of what is necessary on the driver. The Minister will be aware that there is a severe shortage of drivers of heavy goods vehicles in this regard. I note in passing that a number of these drivers, based in North Yorkshire, come from Poland and other parts of the European Union, meaning that, at least initially, they are not used to driving on the left-hand side of the road. I do not know whether that is a factor that the Minister has taken into consideration.

Is it the Minister’s intention that, when the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency looks at the operator records, including tachographs, following on from this extension, the checks will be reported to Parliament so that we in both Houses can form a view as to whether the system has been abused in any way? That would enable both her department and this House in particular to come forward with simpler, clearer legislation without the need for so much administration, as called for in paragraph 16 of the committee report.

The normal restrictions on drivers’ hours are based on accident statistics for safety reasons. So why will they be lifted? On what basis? Have there been fewer accidents?

Does the Minister stand by the remarks that she made on 4 March that the measures taken regarding the Northern Ireland protocol are temporary, technical steps? Were they perhaps ill advised, given that we have now been taken to court by the European Union in this regard?

I will add two further questions. Is the Minister in a position to address the issue of a potential shortage of drivers? There is also a particular problem of trucks returning empty from the European Union. Are these issues that the Government are likely to address?

I welcome the fact that the Minister is committed to communicating, as she put it on 4 March, with the interested parties in the UK and with our European Union counterparts. It would be helpful to know what communications she is having in connection with the further controls in April and July.

This is quite a nostalgic journey for me, as I started my days in politics as a staffer for the European Conservatives in the European Parliament, working with eminent spokesmen such as the late James Moorhouse and, latterly, Bill Newton Dunn. I take a close and continuing interest in these matters before the House this afternoon.

My Lords, the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee had, if not harsh words, some words of doubt about the Government’s proposals. Partly for those reasons, I support some of the sentiments expressed by those who seek to oppose these regulations. Among the concerns that the committee raised was the lack of parliamentary scrutiny before these exceptions came into force—a familiar source of complaint. I do not particularly blame the noble Baroness for this, as it seems all too typical of the present Government that the only chance the House has to debate these regulations is when they have come into force and there is not much we can do about them. There seems to be a continuing pattern here, which Ministers should look at.

The committee went on to ask about the guidance to use the exceptions only “where necessary”—a vague phrase. On its behalf, we seek a definition from the Minister on when a “where necessary” situation will arise. It went on to talk about whether the system would be abused for commercial advantage. Most heavy goods vehicle operators in the United Kingdom are perfectly reputable people, but there is a fringe element within the road haulage industry where pressure on drivers to exceed permitted hours happens from time to time and it is difficult for drivers, particularly for smaller operators, to resist.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley mentioned consultation, particularly with the primary trade union involved in heavy goods vehicle operation in this country, Unite. A piece of Civil Service wording came back about that consultation. I forget the exact words, but it was that the union was not kindly disposed to the proposals on excessive hours. That was one way of putting it. In December, Unite issued a press release about the increase in drivers’ hours, under the heading

“Unite condemns ‘dangerous and useless’ relaxation of HGV driving rules in response to Dover delays”.

That is a bit stronger than we were led to believe from the committee’s wording and a lot stronger than the Government might like. I wonder whether that informal consultation with the trade union was genuine or consisted of a telephone call from the Minister’s department saying, “This is exactly what we are going to do”.

What we are talking about is a solution in search of a problem. It is not a lack of drivers or drivers’ hours causing delay but a lack of customs officers in the Port of Dover in particular. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, referred to the number of empty vehicles coming back from the continent. It is no secret that the Road Haulage Association is annoyed by what it sees as a failure of the Government to recruit the necessary number of customs agents to ensure that these delays do not continue. It is not as though this problem has arisen unexpectedly; it is over four years since the country voted to leave the EU, yet we seem no nearer to recruiting sufficient customs agents to help prevent these delays.

I draw the noble Baroness’s attention to last Sunday’s Observer. Under a heading about how delays at ports would go on for months, Mr Richard Ballantyne, the head of the British Ports Association, said that most ports had seen a recovery in shipments over recent weeks, although the delay to import checks had

“put off a problem rather than resolved it”.

The Road Haulage Association says pretty much the same. The noble Lord, Lord Frost, who has been appointed by the Government to resolve these problems, says that they are temporary and that, since January, things have picked up. I go back to the point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh: there are still a heck of a lot of heavy lorries passing between this country and the European Union. The trouble is that too many of them are empty, for the reasons that I have just outlined. Increasing drivers’ hours and the consequential impact on road safety are not going to help that. I hope that the Minister can reassure us this afternoon and tell us how many extra customs agents—a question I put to her some weeks ago, but no answer came—have been recruited and whether she is tackling the real problem, rather than the Government sending up a smokescreen, as these proposals appear to be.

My Lords, while it is inevitable that, in debating these regulations, one might legitimately feel that we have missed the bus, it would be more appropriate to apply the term déjà vu. Taking note of something that has already happened is of rather less value that scrutinising proposals and offering advice before implementation. It is now only a matter of a few days before these temporary provisions end. I assume that we might hold a similar debate in a couple of months if we see a further extension of the provisions but, with déjà vu, we can at least look back at the approach to drivers’ hours and conditions to contrast and compare. In doing so, perhaps we might better judge the validity or otherwise of these regulations.

Since the 1930s, Governments have recognised that commercial pressures can lead transport operators and drivers to indulge in excessive driving that can endanger themselves and other road users. Fatigue and its effects on driving safety were first properly recognised in the Road and Rail Traffic Act 1933, which, incidentally, was two years before we even had driving tests in this country. It was introduced to protect us all from the negative effects that I mentioned, and it began a process in which Governments ever since have followed some basic principles, namely: promoting road safety by requiring drivers to have adequate rest and breaks, and preventing excessive driving; a desire for common international rules and to ensure that competition between hauliers and coach operators is fair; and giving drivers reasonable conditions of work and leisure, and stopping exploitation.

UK legislation on drivers’ hours was introduced by the Transport Act 1968. When the UK joined the then EEC, it adopted the European social regulations of 1969. The use of tachographs had been compulsory in the EU since 1975, but the UK initially failed to implement this requirement until obliged to do so in 1981. The only major changes since then have been to incorporate the provisions of the working time directive in 2005, limiting total working time, although we have introduced many detailed provisions of implementation by statutory instrument since then. By and large, with the agreement of business and the unions, we have adhered to these provisions, with the drivers’ hours regulations being especially strictly followed.

In 2009, the then Government held a consultation on the clarity of the rules which indicated that the complexity and finer details were still misunderstood. Governments have expressly stated that only in exceptional circumstances could there be any amendment to the rules. Looking back, that policy has been correctly followed. Examples of variance and relaxation came about with the foot and mouth disease in 2007, a derogation for military reservists, also in 2007 and the proposed fuel tanker drivers’ strike in 2012. The current Government introduced emergency relaxation, as we know, to protect the supply chain because of Covid-19 between March and May last year. They are continuing to pursue this by successive extensions, citing not only the Covid situation but the effects from us leaving the EU. To the extent that the pressures are temporary, the regulations can be accepted but, as we move out of the pandemic, any wish to continue these arrangements to cover ongoing problems brought about by our new EU status and our cross-border trade should be examined more vigorously.

There are some concerns that there could be either repeated temporary easing of regulations, or a longer-term or permanent situation. I would like the Minister to give greater assurances on this in her concluding remarks. I would also be grateful if she could confirm that the proposals we are looking at today change only drivers’ hours and rest periods, and that the more extensive rules and regulations dealing with the way in which driving periods and rest are allocated in the course of any week, and compensation arrangements for reductions in rest periods, are not being affected by these provisions. Employers and operators need reassurance on this point. Employers in particular have great difficulty in interpreting anything that is not crystal clear as to the legal position. It would be most unfair if these changes encouraged unfair competition. We all have a duty to protect both employers and employees, just as was described and hoped for back in 1933—but, of course, I will support my noble friend on these measures.

My Lords, first, I have listened very carefully to the comments made by the noble Lords who put down the regret Motions that triggered this debate. In particular, it is very good to see the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, again—albeit virtually —as we met regularly over many years during my time as an MEP. He is indeed very expert on these matters. Today, however, I will be taking a rather different point of view, I am afraid.

I begin by echoing many of the points made by my noble friends Lord Attlee and Lord Kirkhope. A few days before Christmas, the President of France took the arbitrary decision to announce a travel ban on all lorries travelling between the UK and Calais. Around 3,000 drivers were thrown to the wolves and told that they would need a Covid test before they would be able to proceed. They were left high and dry in the most appalling circumstances. Despite the heroic efforts of our Armed Forces, the NHS and volunteers, it took several days and more. None of those drivers would have ever seen their families at such a special time.

Should I put these delays down to a force majeure or exceptional circumstances? Was there inclement weather? No, there was not. Was there industrial action, or were there blockades? No, there were not. Actually, it was neither: it was, unfortunately, blatant politicking of the worst order. The drivers ended up as pawns in a political game that still continues. This was an avoidable catastrophe.

No noble Lords have so far mentioned what I am about to say. The main thing about the temporary exemptions is that they had already been agreed and put in place by the European Commission as well as the UK Government because, of course, our Regulation 2021 No. 58 is a combination of EC Regulations 561/ 2006 and 1071/2009, which deal with drivers’ hours and tachographs. Enlargement in 2004—plus Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia latterly—highlighted the challenges that the hauliers faced as, geographically, the routes became more challenging. Annexes one to four of COM(2017) were compiled following the Council reports of 2013-14 on the performance of each member state. The UK always rated highly, with top marks on roadside checks and compliance—just to dispel the myth. Agreement followed to update the regulation.

For international transport to operate, flexibility is paramount. My former career was in the most highly regulated mode of transport: aviation. I negotiated the terms and conditions of thousands of crew over many years, including their scheduling agreements, as well as the regulation in the European Parliament on flight time limitations. I am therefore fully aware of the planned and unplanned operations that are required. I also covered road, rail and maritime, and was heavily involved in the regulation that we are discussing today. Just as an aside: if it were not for the flexibility of crew and supply chain and ground staff in maritime, road, rail and all these sectors, I doubt that any of us would ever get from A to B, and neither would the goods that we receive or send.

Sadly, Covid-19 has wreaked havoc across the globe. There is a Europe-wide shortage of drivers. Small operators with one or two lorries have been particularly badly hit, yet they have kept going throughout this pandemic, delivering medicines, food, fuel, essential goods and much more. They deserve better than this. There is no evidence to suggest that these temporary measures jeopardise lives. These drivers are highly professional and use their best judgment every day. They are hugely concerned about the lack of safe parking, which still exists, for their trucks across Europe. They are now being dragged into this appalling weaponising of the vaccine by the EU and have been caught up in the backlash.

I am pleased that my noble friend the Minister is updating the House today. This is required and maintained throughout the implementation, rather than delegated, rules, which the European Union frequently favours to keep Parliament out of the loop. I hope that the whole House will support the regulations but, more importantly, actively show its support for and gratitude to our road hauliers for the invaluable work that they have done and continue to do.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Berkeley, for giving me the opportunity to explain the Government’s position. Of course, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.

Let me start by saying that we are absolutely committed to ensuring the welfare of drivers and protecting road safety. This Government recognise the importance of the long-standing drivers’ hours rules to achieving both of those objectives. We therefore deploy these relaxations with care.

It is worth considering the landscape back in mid-January when these regulations were laid. New customs arrangements had recently been put in place, and both traders and hauliers were adjusting to the new environment. This was still the case in mid-January. Covid infection rates were high, at 376 per 100,000, which might well have caused localised disruption to the availability of drivers. The training and testing of new drivers had stopped, causing additional pressures on a tight labour market for HGV drivers, and we were seeing a changing pattern of domestic retail demand due to lockdown. Finally, there remained the potential for unilateral interventions from third parties, as noted by my noble friend Lady Foster. For example, we saw the French Government unilaterally requiring Covid testing for hauliers. Other interventions clearly could have happened too. That was the landscape with which we were faced when we took this decision.

Furthermore, we heard concerns from those in the supply chain that localised disruptions might occur, and possibly at very short notice. We heard the concerns of Unite the Union and tried to mitigate them as much as we possibly could to ensure that any action we took was limited. The Government concluded that there was significant evidence to suggest that disruption could occur; therefore, as a precaution, we took the decision to continue with the temporary, limited extension to drivers’ hours.

The 44th report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee published on 4 February also acknowledged that contingency measures were required to deal with these risks. I thank the committee for its work on this SI, and I apologise if there was information missing from the Explanatory Memorandum that should have been included. I will encourage the department to do slightly better next time.

Some of today’s debate has focused very much on international haulage, which a number of noble Lords have mentioned; the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about fewer trucks going across via the short straits. However, this is not just about international haulage: the issues I have just outlined from the landscape that we were faced with also impacted domestic haulage, which is why it was so important that we put these changes in place. A couple of noble Lords have complained that Parliament was not able to scrutinise this SI, but this is a negative SI, which is a standard parliamentary procedure. We are scrutinising it today, but noble Lords will understand that we will have to follow parliamentary procedure, as we have in this case.

I turn to the actual implementation and the safety and welfare of drivers. It is important to remember that these changes are very limited in nature. In terms of the requirements in the rules, whether it be breaks during the day, daily or weekly rest periods or weekly and fortnightly driving limits, none of these have been removed. Some have been relaxed in a limited and controlled way, and I confirm that compensatory rest arrangements, which are all related to weekly rest, stay in place, and working-time rules for drivers are unaffected.

This previously unprecedented approach of relaxing drivers’ hours had already been used in the UK, in spring 2020, at the start of the pandemic. This approach was also taken by many parts of Europe at the time. The extent of the relaxations now in force is based on that experience, but it is even more limited, especially for domestic road transport. The guidance states that relaxation should be used “only where necessary” and not at the expense of driver or road safety. While we did not consult specific external parties on road safety, the Government are content that these measures are consistent with our ambitions for improved road safety.

Turning to the guidance that we published on 20 January, before the SI was laid, I note a number of concerns over the definition of “necessary”, when allowing the relaxations to be used. The guidance makes it very clear that any relaxation of these rules emphasises the necessity of the relaxation, particularly when other supply-chain management interventions may be available to alleviate issues. “Necessary” is not defined in the regulation itself, and it is liable to vary significantly case by case. Published guidance assists the consideration of what is and is not necessary, but the circumstances for each use will be different. Operators using domestic relaxation are required to indicate that they intend to use, or have used, the relaxation, which assists transparency and the later checking of compliance, including the context of necessity.

The guidance is material to whether the relaxations have been used correctly and reputably by operators and their transport managers—and, if they have not been, they can be held to account. The DVSA has extensive powers to investigate: it can investigate domestic and international hauliers and domestic operators, and it does this across the country, not just at the ports. Of course, it can issue penalties and refer operators and transport managers to the transport commissioners if there are infringements.

The guidance about relaxation explicitly confirms that

“employers remain responsible for the health and safety of their employees”.

It also confirms:

“Driver safety must not be compromised. Drivers should not be expected to drive while tired”.

It clearly states:

“The practical implementation of the temporary relaxation should be through agreement between employers and employees and driver representatives”,

such as Unite the Union. As noted, a requirement of the use of the current relaxations for domestic journeys is that the operator informs DfT that the relaxation will be used. Reported use of the current domestic relaxation has been very limited.

There are 16 haulage firms still using the relaxations that end on 31 March 2021—that is a total of 25 operating licences because, of course, one haulage company can have a couple of them. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked which sectors these companies are in. I do not have a detailed breakdown, and I am not entirely sure that, with 16 haulage firms, it would be useful, but most of them transport freight, and the rest supply fuel. As such, the information about the people using these relaxations is passed to the DVSA—obviously, its enforcement operators will be aware of who is using these relaxations, and they can check how they were used. It is also the case that drivers using them must note on the back of their tachograph charts or the printouts the reasons why they are exceeding the normally permitted limits.

There was also a comment in the SLSC report about the initial exceptions that the Government made in December, and I reassure noble Lords that, as with these regulations, we followed the agreed process. These were put in place administratively for up to 30 days—that is the process set out in the regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Snape, returned to the subject of customs agents, and I am delighted to be able to return to it again. Noble Lords will be aware that the Government have set out a new timetable for introducing border control processes to enable UK businesses to focus on recovering from the pandemic. This will also give us time to ensure that the inland border facilities are fully functional. Full border control processes will now be introduced on 1 January 2022, six months later than originally planned.

The Government do not directly employ customs agents or customs intermediaries, and we do not have a target for the number of customs agents. However, traders and hauliers are responding to customs requirements in a wide variety of ways. Many in the sector have innovated and brought in IT solutions to automate the process. This has reduced the number of staff required. We have helped by making more than £80 million of support available, including flexible grants that can be used for IT and training, as well as for recruitment.

There is an alternative universe. For a moment, let us assume that the Government had not taken this precautionary action and that, for whatever reason, freight flows had been impacted—perhaps to the extent set out in the Government’s reasonable worst-case scenario. In such circumstances, I could quite understand being hauled before your Lordships’ House to explain why, if we saw the possibility of freight disruption coming, we did nothing about it and were negligent in not temporarily extending drivers’ hours. Hindsight is a truly marvellous thing—and there has been a fair dollop of it in today’s debate. I remain content that we made the right decision and I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and to all noble Lords, that we will not be extending the relaxations beyond 31 March 2021, when this SI expires.

In summary, by enabling and extending the relaxations when we did, we reduced risk and enabled the supply chain to function. If there is a vote on the regret Motion, I respectfully ask noble Lords that they vote not content.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. I will look carefully in Hansard, and I am sure that she will write to us in her usual courteous manner to answer any questions with which she has not been able to deal. I appreciate the detail and her final reassurance. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Motion to Regret

Tabled by

That this House regrets that the Drivers’ Hours and Tachographs (Temporary Exceptions) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/58) will allow the continuation of relaxed restrictions on the normal rules on heavy goods vehicles drivers’ hours without evidence having been provided of the need for such a continuation or of its effect on road safety.

Relevant document: 44th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

Motion not moved.

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the Drivers’ Hours and Tachographs (Temporary Exceptions) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/58).

Relevant document: 44th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.

Arrangement of Business

Announcement

National Bus Strategy: England

Statement

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 15 March.

“I would like to make a Statement about bus services. Britain is often described as a railway nation, but if we have a national form of public transport, it is definitely the bus, carrying more than 4 billion passengers a year in England—more than twice as many as rail—over a vast network. No other type of public transport comes close for convenience, affordability and popularity. If anyone needs persuading of the bus’s value, surely the 2020 experience has provided us with the evidence we need. Without buses operating day and night, many key workers would have been unable to get to work, so we owe a debt of gratitude to the bus industry and, in particular, to the magnificent bus drivers for keeping this country moving.

Covid has shown that buses provide Britain with far more than just a means of travel. They are a lifeline for millions. In normal times, they help students to get to college, they help those without work to attend job interviews, they help the elderly get to the shops and they help us all to get about. They are crucial for the survival of our high streets, for rural businesses and for the planet, too. For many disabled people, they can be an accessible way to stay mobile. In all these ways, buses are not just an industry but almost a social service. Fundamentally, they help us to level up the country.

Buses can and should also be the transport of choice, in my view. London, Brighton and Harrogate have already proved this, with frequent modern services and dedicated lanes attracting millions of journeys a year from the private car. We want to do that everywhere throughout the country, yet in most regions outside London services have been in decline for decades. Successive Governments before this one have failed to prioritise buses, either with sufficient investment or with a workable plan. That is why this Government are taking action to revitalise bus services, and why today we have published the national bus strategy for England outside of London, with its bold vision for the industry to reform the way it has managed to deliver tangible benefits for passengers, and this is all backed by £3 billion of government investment.

Covid has hit the bus sector hard, as it has all transport, but it has also provided an opportunity to put better bus services at the heart of the community. Throughout 2020, bus companies and councils have had to co-operate as never before to keep services running for key workers. Now we want to harness the same sense of partnership and change the way the industry fundamentally works by putting the passenger and the environment first.

Passengers want simpler fares, more routes and services, easier information and greener buses, and this bus strategy reflects people’s lives. In cities and towns, this means that travelling when we want and where we want becomes easy to do on a bus. We expect councils and operators to bring in simple, cheap flat fares with contactless payment by card or by phone. Up-to-date information should be available immediately on our phones, on board the buses and at bus stops. We want closer integration of services and ticketing across all forms of public transport, so that people can seamlessly travel from buses to trams to trains and we end the absurd situation where different operators do not recognise or accept each other’s tickets. We want to have much more of the “turn up and go” type of service—the kind of frequency that means you do not even have to look at the timetable before you get on the bus—and more services in the evening and at weekends.

In rural areas and out-of-town business parks, we sometimes need to be able to provide buses that are available on demand from an app on your phone. Today, I am pleased to announce £20 million of investment from our rural mobility fund to trial on-demand services in 17 different locations, including minibuses booked via an app that people pick near their home at a time that is convenient to them.

I want anyone who happens to be disabled to be able to confidently travel when and where they want, so this bus strategy will make sure that all local services have audible and visible “next stop” announcements. We will consult this year on improving access to wheelchair space and priority seating for those who rely on them. A series of new bus passenger charters will define precisely what all bus users can expect in their particular areas.

Before Covid, the way in which buses were organised made it hard to arrest the decline in bus ridership—a decline that has been going on since the 1960s. The pandemic has brought councils and the industry together, and we want every local transport authority in the country and its bus operators to be in statutory enhanced partnerships or in franchising arrangements throughout. The franchising system is used in London. For example, Transport for London sets the routes and the fares, but that will not be appropriate everywhere. That is why enhanced partnerships will be required, whereby the operators and the councils reach negotiated agreements on how buses will run, with local authorities taking greater responsibility for bus services, whichever solution they choose.

By 30 June this year, we want all local authorities to commit to one of those two options, with the bus operators’ support. We will need that commitment if they are to receive further emergency funding from the Covid bus services support grant. I can confidently predict that they will all be on board. Local authorities, in collaboration with operators, will then produce bus service improvement plans by the end of October this year.

These plans are pretty ambitious. By looking at the best bus services around the world and striving to match them, we expect to see how bus priority can best work without increasing congestion. We want to create plans for fares and ticketing, and we want to see how they will deliver urban, town and rural users to the bus network. Future government financial support will depend on local authorities and operators coming together under an enhanced partnership or franchising agreement. For our part, we will work with councils to introduce bus priority schemes this year, and we will roll out marketing to attract millions of new passengers to the network—people who have never used buses before.

The strategy also sets out our road map to a zero-emission bus fleet. Bus operators have invested £1.3 billion in greener buses over the last five years, which has been supported by £89 million of government investment, and we will commit to delivering 4,000 zero-emission buses. I expect to release funding for the first all-electric bus city very soon. However, only 2% of England’s bus fleet is fully zero-emission today, so after our historic move to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, this bus strategy sets out our plans to end the sale of new diesel buses in England too. We have launched a consultation to decide how and when that will happen.

This strategy marks a new beginning for buses. We will not only stop the decline that has been going on historically for decade after decade; we want to reverse it by making buses a natural choice for everyone, not just for those without any other travel options, and we want to put the passenger first. We want to build the stronger road partnerships that I have been talking about by channelling £3 billion into better services. Such a sum has never been seen before in respect of bus investment and will help us to transform buses throughout England and, by doing so, to transform our country, too. I commend this Statement to the House.”

I first express our thanks to all those involved in the bus industry for the invaluable work that they have always done and continue to do, not least during Covid-19, to provide a vital service to the nation which brings enormous social and economic benefits that extend way beyond crude calculations of whether a bus service is “viable” based on revenue from fares compared with cost incurred. This Statement appears to recognise that point when it says that

“buses are not just an industry but almost a social service.”

I hope that this does not prove to be just a gimmicky phrase.

Over the last decade, we have seen the loss of 134 million bus miles, and some 3,000 local authority-supported bus services have been cut over the same period as a result of government policies that have led to ever-increasing fares—way above inflation outside London—and cuts in local government finances. Bus coverage in Britain is now the lowest it has been in 30 years, despite a rising population. Office for National Statistics figures appear to show that, in January, bus fares were up by 21% on the previous year—the highest yearly increase since figures began. I invite the Government to comment on that. If that is the case, the increase in fares has been some 70% over the last decade.

The Statement says that there will be £3 billion of government investment in the industry to deliver what is said in the Statement about passengers wanting

“more routes and services, easier information and greener buses … simple cheap flat fares”

and

“the kind of frequency that means you do not even have to look at the timetable before you get on the bus—and more services in the evening and at weekends.”

How much does that £3 billion amount to per year, and how did the Government come to the conclusion that £3 billion was the required figure? How many of the 134 million lost bus miles will be restored as a result of that investment?

The Secretary of State said in the Commons on Monday:

“We … would not be putting £3 billion in if we did not expect, as the bus strategy says, to make buses more affordable. It is central to our vision that they are not just practical, but the affordable means of transport.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/3/21; col. 52.]

Do the Government regard bus fares outside London as affordable at present? If not, what does making “buses more affordable” really mean in terms of reducing existing fares?

The Statement says that, by the end of June, all local authorities, with the bus operators’ support, will have to commit either to a statutory enhanced partnership with their bus operators or to franchising arrangements along the lines of those that apply in London. Local authorities, in collaboration with operators, will then produce bus service improvement plans by the end of October this year. What happens, though, if there is a difference of view between the local authority and the bus operators, since future government financial support would depend on there being no difference of view on whether there should be enhanced partnership or franchising arrangements? The Secretary of State appears to be keeping the power to himself to decide who has the capability and capacity to run franchising, which does not sound much like devolving responsibility, and rather more like continuing with tight central control. If the local authority wants franchising arrangements but the bus operators do not agree, against what criteria will the Secretary of State decide whether the local authority can or cannot run franchising?

The Statement also says that

“we will work with councils to introduce bus priority schemes this year, and we will roll out marketing to attract millions of new passengers to the network—people who have never used buses before.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/3/21; col. 49.]

How much will the Government invest in this marketing, and what form will it take? How many millions of new passengers will have to be attracted to the network—

“people who have never used buses before”—

for the Government to deem this marketing to have achieved its objective?

The Statement refers to passengers wanting greener buses. The Government promised 4,000 zero-emission buses over a year ago, but very little appears to have happened yet. There are over 30,000 buses in England alone. Under this new bus strategy, what percentage of the bus fleet will be zero-emission in two, five and eight years’ time, and how many new green jobs will be created in the bus and coach sector? We have already seen more than a thousand jobs lost in the bus and coach manufacturing industry since the pandemic started.

At the moment, this Government’s bus legacy is ever higher fares, ever fewer passengers, ever fewer bus services and little or no progress on zero-emission vehicles. If the new strategy delivers a major reversal of that policy, that will be very much welcomed, certainly when it happens. The Government’s responses to the issues and questions I have raised will give an indication of whether the new strategy is largely words, or whether it reflects a clearly thought through delivery plan with clear, specific and ambitious timetabled targets and the resources already committed to enable them to be delivered.

My Lords, this Statement is obviously welcome because it is so long overdue. We have been expecting it since 2019, and in the meantime the bus crisis has worsened in ways that we could not have imagined. At this point, I must specifically thank all who work in the bus industry and, in particular, remember those who have died from Covid during the last year. They have all undertaken a difficult and unexpectedly dangerous job. Because of the virus, the Government have spent the last year discouraging us from using buses, and it will be a hard task to get us back into the habit.

We welcome this strategy because it inherently accepts that the deregulation of the bus services outside London in the 1980s was a failure. It is a pity that it has taken so long to recognise this.

For the sake of the climate, to reduce congestion, and to reduce harmful emissions and their effects on our health, I welcome the intention to move to zero-emission buses. It is just a pity that it comes a week after the Budget which froze fuel duty and proposed reductions in APD, neither of which suggest a strategic approach to our climate change commitments.

The Government apparently do not have a firm date in mind for an end to sales of diesel buses. The Campaign for Better Transport suggests that 2025 is a reasonable and feasible date. Can the Minister explain how long they expect their consultation on this to run? Every week of consultation eats into the preparation time for the industry.

Encouraging British-built zero-emission buses is an excellent scheme. The Government announced in 2020 that they would invest £120 million in 4,000 zero-emission buses. More than a year on from that announcement, we still see nothing productive from this promise and await an announcement in the spring. The Government have already lost a lot of valuable time on this and the Minister herself recognises that only 2% of our bus fleet is electric. For a more just and equal society, I welcome the commitments to cheaper fares and more regular and frequent services. What the strategy lacks is any detail on how these cheaper fares will be paid for.

Fares are the result of a combination of factors that include several separate funding streams from the Government. They are hopelessly outdated and none of those funding streams incentivise greener vehicles or relate to the number of miles travelled. The emergency funding for bus services increased the confusion, with funding based on historical concessionary fare payments for passengers who were not actually travelling. I can see no detail on this but would welcome any proposals for reform that the Minister can tell us about. For certain, we will not see a significant step towards improvements in fares, such as integrated ticketing, simply by relying on current funding streams.

Most bus companies do not make excess profits. Indeed, in rural areas many have a problem just surviving. Local authorities already point to a £700 million funding gap on concessionary fares and the Government must deal with this long-standing underfunding before they can start to expect a commitment from local authorities for improvements to services. So this Statement needed to be ambitious, and indeed it is, but it lacks a level of detail and realistic steps towards targets that are essential if it is to be useful. For many local councils, the level of bus services is now so low that recovery will require a total revolution in funding. The £3 billion sounds a lot, but as there are 4.2 billion bus journeys a year in this country, I think that sets the scale of things in perspective.

This strategy is really just a skeleton. It has taken the Government two years to produce and lacks so much necessary detail. Therefore, it is way out of kilter to expect local authorities to sign up to either enhanced partnerships or franchising by June—that is less than three months for a decision requiring major financial and legal decisions. Moreover, local authorities are expected to produce bus improvement strategies by October. Many local authorities no longer have the expertise among their staff to responsibly make those decisions—but, if they do not opt for one or the other, they will not get further funding. That is a decision with a gun to their heads. So my question is, will they have the scope to change their minds after they initially opt for one or other route?

Franchising is a complex legal process. The Bus Services Act 2017 restricted franchising to authorities with elected mayors. I never understood why, and strenuous attempts were made to try to broaden this, but that is the law. Can the Minister explain if and when we can expect fresh legislation to allow a broader sweep of local authorities to franchise bus services? Do the Government now accept that some of the best services in Britain are council run and owned, and that the restriction on councils setting up and owning their own services needs to be lifted?

The Statement also refers to very welcome improvements to disabled access, and I want to press the Minister on this. The 2017 Act improved and clarified access priorities. There were further improvements proposed, which the Government did not accept at that time. Can the Minister give us details of what she plans and whether we can expect legislation and when? I would also welcome more details on government proposals for encouraging on-demand services. I agree that such innovation will be important for modernisation. The Minister referred to 17 trial areas. I am very keen to know how these areas will be chosen—or have they been chosen already? What are the criteria? Do they include average income levels, car ownership and so on? Was it a bidding process? Some of the Government’s ambitions rely on new infrastructure, such as bus lanes. Does the £3 billion cover that as well as buses themselves?

Finally, you cannot buy a painting-by-numbers kit and expect to produce a Rembrandt. This Statement is the bare outline of a vision for the future, and there is nothing wrong with that vision, but the Government seem to be leaving local authorities and bus companies to fill in the picture without making it clear where the resources will come from.

Oh, my Lords—my officials and I spent a year working really hard on this strategy and it has been welcomed by bus operators, local authorities, passenger groups and groups representing disabled people. I am afraid that the response from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, completely took my breath away. I have never heard such a negative response to a strategy that has been so widely welcomed by pretty much everybody else. It may be that she has not fully read it. However, I hope to address some of her concerns, because I am really proud of it and I think it will do a really good job.

To be honest, we know that successive Governments have not prioritised buses. They have put them to one side and focused on more shiny things. That includes Labour, and the Liberal Democrats in coalition. What is different is that this Conservative Government are stepping up and delivering for buses. This is the biggest reform and support package for buses in decades. I am astonished that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, does not see that. The strategy will result in improved journeys for millions of passengers. It brings local authorities and operators together to get the best from both worlds to provide for passengers.

The noble Baroness said that we could not provide these services on current funding streams. Of course, “we are not gonna”. We have said that we will put in £3 billion over the course of this Parliament and I am sorry that she does not feel that that is a lot of money. It think it is very significant, and substantially more than bus already gets. So perhaps I can delve into some of the topics that were brought up and I am sure we will have the opportunity to do a bit more.

The noble Baroness, for example, said that there was no expertise in local authorities to develop the plans for buses. However, we have committed £25 million in the coming financial year to ensure that local authorities have access to the skills and capabilities that they need. We will be setting up a bus centre of excellence where people can share their learning on how to set up enhanced partnerships, on how to do franchising and on how to get the most from their bus services improvement plans. All that is in the strategy if she cares to have a look.

An important thing to understand is that we want to break the vicious circle for buses. What has happened in the past has meant that congestion has increased, buses have got slower, journey reliability has gone down and, therefore, passenger numbers have declined. We have to break that. By encouraging these bus service improvement plans, which will set out ambitious plans from local authorities for bus lanes in their area, we are trying to break that vicious circle. Therefore, not only will people know when a bus is going to turn up, they will be able to get on it and know when they are going to arrive. That will lead to a greater number of people using buses and higher demand, which will also result in lower fares.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about enhanced partnerships on franchising. It is the case that mayoral combined authorities can currently franchise, and other local transport authorities can ask the Secretary of State whether they can franchise. Given that franchising takes a lot of time, we would ask that an enhanced partnership is put in place in the meantime. However, the strategy is about giving local control over buses to local authorities, and it will be for the local authority to decide, in collaboration with operators, what type of statutory arrangement it wants to pursue. Of course, the decision by the Secretary of State will depend on the case put forward by the local authority.

On the question of marketing, it is important to remember, in the first instance, that we must get people back on to public transport as a whole. Therefore, when it is safe to do so, we will ensure that the messaging includes buses. We do not want a car-led recovery.

A number of questions were raised about zero-emission buses. I am incredibly proud of where we have been able to get to. Some £50 million is available in the current year, which we hope will be invested very soon in an all-electric bus town. Then there is £120 million for next year, which we expect, combined with the £50 million, will support up to 800 zero-emission vehicles. Further details on that will be available extremely soon.

The consultation for the end of the sale of diesel vehicles is already out there—in the wild—and the end date is 11 April. The noble Baroness said that that would eat into preparation time. We are talking about five, eight, 10 or 15 years hence—I do not think that will eat into the preparation time.

The noble Baroness also mentioned reform of BSOG. It is currently a fossil fuel-driven subsidy and clearly not fit for purpose. We will reform it and consult this year on how we can incentivise the outcomes that we particularly want to see, such as environmental ones.

There is an awful lot in the bus strategy on the needs of disabled passengers. We will roll out the audiovisual announcements, backed by £1.5 million of funding for small operators. We will require every local authority to have a bus passenger charter, to ensure that disabled passengers get the services that they need. We will review the public service vehicle accessibility regulations by the end of 2023 to ensure that they meet the requirements of disabled passengers, and we will consult on improving access for wheelchair users and on priority seating.

I have much more to say about the national bus strategy, but unfortunately I am out of time.

We now come to the 20 minutes allocated to Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers. I start with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

My Lords, it is very nice to have three minutes each for Back-Bench questions. I hope to take less than that. I start by congratulating the Minister on the publication of Bus Back Better. It is the most powerful transport policy document of recent years. I will put my hand up for on-demand autonomous buses when they come—they will be ideal for low-density south-coast towns.

My question for the Government is: to help those LTAs that are less successful, will the DfT move quickly to set up the dissemination of practical best advice? Will it ask the star performing LTAs how bus lanes were handled on shopping streets with delivery requirements; how narrow streets requiring the removal of parking were dealt with; and how fast but meaningful consultations could be carried out? These are all things that good LTAs have done well, as page 18 of the report makes clear, showing

“an average benefit-cost ratio of 4.2”

among 33 major bus schemes. The DfT knows where a lot of good practice is; it should not be hard to share it.

I thank my noble friend for his warm words about the bus strategy—it is nice to have some. The noble Lord also makes a very important point: because we are giving more local control and accountability for bus services, the ability of local transport operators to put in place their bus service improvement plans will be critical. The noble Lord spoke of their need to share best practice. That is absolutely in the plan: the bus centre of excellence will combine learning from not only the Department for Transport but bus