Monday 7 June 2021
The Grand Committee met in a hybrid proceeding.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. We are not expecting a Division in the House but, if there is one, I will adjourn the Committee for five minutes.
Immigration (Collection, Use and Retention of Biometric Information and Related Amendments) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Immigration (Collection, Use and Retention of Biometric Information and Related Amendments) Regulations 2021.
Relevant document: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, the legislation that we are debating concerns two linked elements of our immigration system: the use of biometrics and the fees regime. I shall take each of them in turn.
The use of biometric information enables us to check and confirm the identities and immigration status of foreign nationals who come to or live in the UK. The Government are pursuing an ambitious programme of change to enable the UK to take back control of its borders and deliver a fair and firm immigration system that is much easier for customers to navigate and that works in the national interest.
Through the biometric regulations we will update our powers so that fingerprints can be enrolled once and retained for subsequent reuse, saving applicants the inconvenience of needing to re-enrol every time they make a new application to come to or stay in the UK, or to replace immigration documents. The regulations also provide us with the ability to restart the fingerprint retention period when biometrics are reused for an immigration application to avoid deleting them prematurely.
The regulations will support the move from physical to digital evidence of immigration status. We live in a digital age in which businesses and customers expect a swift, user-friendly service. With that in mind, we are developing a biometrically-enabled digital immigration system, underpinned by security and efficiency, which will provide real-time evidence of immigration status online. The regulations also clarify our powers to use and retain biometric information obtained from asylum seekers and foreign nationals who are unlawfully in the UK and who require leave but do not have it or who lack adequate documentation.
The fees order sets out the services that we charge for and the maximum amounts that we are able to charge for immigration and nationality products and services. I want to be clear from the outset that no fee levels will be changed through the order. Clearly, fee levels are amended through immigration and nationality fees regulations, which are laid before Parliament separately and subject to the negative procedure.
The changes in the fees order ensure that definitions within the legislation are flexible enough to enable us to evolve our products and services to meet the demands of our customers. The order will amend the definition of “transfer of conditions” to ensure that it covers the need to update digital services as well as changes to physical documents. The change to the definition of “premium services” will provide the department with greater flexibility to offer a wider range of optional premium services that relate to immigration or nationality where there is a demand to do so. These changes do not introduce any new services at this point or impact on standard services. The order also ensures that the related provisions in the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2018 are updated to reflect those definitions.
In reusing biometric information, the department continues to incur processing costs that need to be met. The fees order will therefore clarify and give assurance that the power to charge for biometric enrolment also includes the power to charge for biometric reuse.
I know that these are both quite technical areas, but I hope I have been able to explain how this legislation will help facilitate our ambitious journey towards a biometrically-enabled digital immigration system and ensure that the fees we charge for border, immigration and nationality services are supported by the right framework. With that, I beg to move.
The noble Baroness has explained that the draft Immigration (Collection, Use and Retention of Biometric Information and Related Amendments) Regulations 2021 are intended to improve the levels of assurance about the identities of those passing through or coming to the United Kingdom through the use and retention of biometric information obtained for immigration and nationality purposes. It is part of the Government’s move from physical documents to digital, despite the problems already identified where EU citizens with either settled or pre-settled status are being detained at the UK border. Many of these issues could be quickly and easily resolved if, as this House repeatedly told the Government, physical proof had been provided of settled status alongside digital recording.
While we are on the subject, what happens to EU citizens who have applied for settled status but who have yet to receive a response from the Home Office? I have some knowledge in this regard. I have an email from the Norwegian authorities to show that my application for residency in Norway has been submitted. I have to show it at the Norwegian border to prove that I continue to have the right of residence while my application is being considered. Can the noble Baroness please tell the Committee what happens at the UK border? What instructions are given to Border Force staff about pending decisions on settled status?
As the noble Baroness acknowledges, there is a wide range of different provisions in this SI, as we are accustomed to when it comes to immigration legislation, making it difficult to scrutinise—hence only Front-Bench participation in this debate, which is worrying for an affirmative procedure statutory instrument.
“Take back control of our borders”, the noble Baroness continues to say, and that prompts me to continue to say that visa-free entry to the United Kingdom has recently been extended to nine other countries, as well as being retained for EU, EEA and Swiss nationals. Therefore, the claim that we are taking back control of our borders has a certain hollow ring to it.
The regulations allow a photograph to be taken and retained in limited circumstances when someone passes through the border; for example, where a person cannot produce a photo ID document such as a passport or does not have leave to remain in the United Kingdom. That photograph can also be taken subsequently by appointment. Photographs can also be taken of the dependants of individuals in these limited circumstances. The photograph may be retained only where there is already a power to do so and can be used to investigate an offence or for other limited purposes. It must be destroyed when it is no longer needed; for example, when it is established that the person is a British citizen.
Retention of fingerprints is extended from 10 years to 15 years, as the noble Baroness said, with the ability to retain them beyond that date if necessary; for example, where the person is subject to a deportation order. Photographs are retained until the person obtains a United Kingdom passport. Biometric data can also be reused; for example, when a further application is made. The clock resets when the further application is processed. At the end of the 15-year period the fingerprints must be destroyed and digital copies must be made irretrievable, and someone is entitled to a certificate to prove that this has been done.
I understand that fingerprints do not change significantly during a lifetime, but the facial appearance of a person does, which is why photo ID such as driving licences and passports require regular renewal. Do the Government intend to require those whom they have taken facial photographs of to have a photograph retaken, say, every five years?
I am a little concerned that the regulations state that, where information is different in physical and digital forms, the digital information takes precedence. I understand that, if someone’s immigration status is revoked and the physical document is not in the possession of the Secretary of State, it can be changed digitally, and in such cases the digital record takes precedence. But is this always the case? Could there be circumstances where the digital record is wrong, for some reason? Should not cases therefore be decided on their merits, rather than by setting down in legislation that the digital copy automatically takes precedence? Aside from these concerns, we are content with these regulations.
On the draft Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2021, the Government seem intent on making immigration and nationality fees a money generator. Despite the fact that photographs and fingerprints can be reused at the press of a button each time someone applies for an extension of leave to remain, instead of a person being sent to an appointment to give their fingerprints and photographs, the Government still claim that
“as the departmental processing costs for reuse are similar to those for taking fresh biometrics the fee must remain.”
Can the Minister explain how the cost of copying and pasting fingerprints and photographs electronically from an existing application to a new applications is similar to that of arranging for a person to attend in person and an official taking their fingerprints and photograph? I know from personal experience of having taken many fingerprints from individuals that that can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Is this not just another example of digital efficiency producing more profit for the Home Office?
On premium services, can the Minister explain what impact people paying even more to the Home Office for optional premium services has on what the Explanatory Notes refer to as the “standard or basic service”? Does the Home Office employ additional staff to provide premium services, or is the time taken for the standard or basic service longer the more people avail themselves of the premium service?
It is noted that the definition of premium service, previously restricted to services in connection with immigration and nationality applications, is to be extended to immigration and nationality generally. While the Government provide the example of Border Force officers checking passports on carriers at sea, which some carriers choose to pay for, one can also foresee a situation where Border Force could charge a fee for fast-track immigration at airports. Can the Minister explain what impact premium services such as checking passports on carriers at sea have on the capacity of Border Force to process passengers at air and sea ports? Do the Government have any plans to introduce fast-track entry for a price at UK borders?
Will any income generated by these premium services be used to provide more Border Force officers, or will the already unacceptable waiting times at UK borders simply be extended for those unwilling or unable to pay for a premium service? We are very concerned about the widening of the definition of premium services as set out in these regulations.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these two instruments. The first—the Immigration (Collection, Use and Retention of Biometric Information and Related Amendments) Regulations 2021—makes a series of changes to the capture of biometric information on foreign nationals, including asylum seekers, those who arrive at the border undocumented and those who are detained or bailed under immigration powers. The second—the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2021—makes some technical changes to definitions to reflect the gradual movement of the Home Office from physical documentation to a digital system.
I have a number of questions, some of which replicate the questions just asked by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. In the policy statement published alongside the 2014 Act, the Government stated they planned to retain biometric information for up to 10 years. What is the rationale for now extending the limit from 10 to 15 years? It seems an arbitrary increase.
The impact of the regulations appears to be that sensitive biometric information can be held for significantly longer periods of time. Can the noble Baroness confirm that that is indeed the Government’s intention? The regulations provide for the general limit of 15 years, but also provide that the Secretary of State may retain information for as long as necessary, for immigration purposes. Is there guidance on what “necessary” means in this context? The examples given in the supporting documents of where information will be held for longer include where
“the person is subject to a Deportation or Exclusion Order.”
In what other situations should we expect data to be routinely held for longer than 15 years?
On the immigration fees order, it seems odd that the cost of processing data already held is the same as the cost of enrolling new biometric data. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made this point and gave a vivid example from his experience as a police officer. Can the Minister give a fuller explanation of this apparent disparity?
Photographs of facial images were raised by the Labour Party during the passage of the 2014 Act. Where a person is granted citizenship, their fingerprints are destroyed, but the photograph is kept until they apply for a passport. For those who never apply for a passport, this means their photo will potentially be kept indefinitely. Does the Minister know how many people this impacts and why a time limit has not been considered?
Regulations under the 2007 Act set out what information a biometric document may contain. The Explanatory Memorandum tells us:
“These Regulations provide that other information may … be included … limited to information connected with … immigration status or nationality.”
What other information is this expected to include?
On the power to prevent the use of a digital immigration document, is there a risk that a digital status could be cancelled without the person being notified, bearing in mind that the number of successful appeals demonstrates how often the Home Office makes incorrect decisions and that digital status is also a person’s access to work, healthcare and the right to rent, et cetera? What will be the system for effectively switching off a digital status, as it were?
A related issue following on from the Domestic Abuse Act, which we recently considered, is that Southall Black Sisters and more than 50 other expert organisations have raised concerns over changes to the enrolment of biometrics for migrant survivors of domestic abuse. They have been informed that victims of abuse must now travel to immigration centres, rather than the existing system, which used local post office locations. Southall Black Sisters and others have raised concerns over the impact on these extremely vulnerable victims of being required to criss-cross cities to access the service and over the resource strain that this will put on the specialist community organisations which would support them when they do this.
I have seen the letter to Marc Owen, who is director for visas and citizenship, dated 19 May 2021, and his response, dated 24 May. The expert organisations were not consulted on these changes and have requested a meeting with the Minister. Would the Minister be able to commit to looking at these issues and meeting those organisations, which have a specific concern regarding the lack of access through the Post Office system to these facilities? My understanding from reading the letter to Marc Owen is that the contract with the post offices is coming to an end, so they will not offer these facilities in future. Therefore, there will be some seven centres for the whole of England and Wales and only one in London, in Croydon, where the people from these centres would be expected to go to register their access, if I can put it like that. This will be very resource-intensive for the organisations supporting them, because they will have to accompany them and help them with their applications. It was a much simpler process when they were able to go to local post offices. That is the point that I am making to the Minister.
I thank both noble Lords for the points that they made. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I usually find that lack of Front-Bench participation means lack of controversy as opposed to lack of understanding. In fact, quite often a lack of understanding leads to a big showing at some of these SI debates.
I start with the final point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about the post offices. Clearly, being digital by default should make the whole system more seamless. However, I have previously engaged with Southall Black Sisters and am very happy to take those points back and look into them again.
On the first point from the noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Ponsonby, on the reasons for biometrics and face recognition versus fingerprints, they are both right in that the instrument will allow us to reuse the fingerprints that we already hold, whether the person makes an immigration or citizenship application. It will also allow us to reuse facial photographs, although in most cases we will require a new photograph, which most applicants will be able to provide remotely using the UK ID check app.
That goes back to the previous point that I made to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. Faces change, clearly, and the image needs to resemble the individual. We will deliver biometric reuse in phases, starting with applicants who apply for leave under the graduate route scheme, allowing them to use their biometric residence permit as proof of ID and use the app. They will upload a new facial image over the app, which will be displayed in the UKVI account and will enable them to use the online services to view and prove their immigration status. However, we will use the fingerprint data that they provided from their previous application; the regulations enable us to reuse the previously enrolled fingerprints for a new application and allow for the fingerprint retention period to be restarted as if they fingerprints had been freshly enrolled.
One of the noble Lords asked about destruction of images that are no longer in use—I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. My understanding is that they would be destroyed if not used. If that is any different, I shall confirm it in writing, but it is my understanding that they are destroyed.
We are extending the retention period to 15 years because we sought to strike the right balance between public safety, customer convenience and individual privacy rights. It will reduce the likelihood that a person’s fingerprints will have been deleted before they make a further application, thereby avoiding the inconvenience and cost associated with providing a new set of fingerprints while maintaining the principle that we will retain fingerprints only for as long as necessary.
In addition to customer convenience, the public safety aspect is of course a key priority, particularly our ability to identify foreign nationals who overstay their immigration permission and abscond. We have encountered individuals who have been in the country for more than 10 years and were identified as immigration offenders or found to have committed serious criminal offences, which would have triggered a longer fingerprint retention period, shortly before their fingerprints were due to be deleted. We do not want to delete the fingerprints of such individuals earlier then we need to, because it makes it harder to identify them and remove them from the UK.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about EU settled status applications, if your application is pending your rights will be protected. In any event, no action will be taken until post 1 July. After that, you will have 28 days in which to either start an application or have it concluded.
There have been many debates over the past couple of years on the transition from physical documents to evidence of immigration status in a digital format. The Government have made it absolutely clear that we will be digital by default and will move away from physical documents as evidence of immigration status to all migrants having access to online services to view and prove their immigration status. To answer a point made I think by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, the UKVI account can be accessed and updated more easily than a physical document, which, of course, has to be reissued. We started the process of providing access to the online “view and prove” services instead of a physical document as evidence of status for those granted leave under the EU settlement scheme. Those who are able to use the UK Immigration: ID Check app include those applying under most of the new points-based system routes and, of course, on the Hong Kong BNO route.
Replacing the physical immigration documents with access to online services to view and prove immigration status for all migrants at the same time would not be practical. Instead, we intend to phase out physical documents incrementally. That is why the regulations change the definition of a biometric immigration document to give us greater flexibility to issue documents in a range of formats, whether the biometric residence permit, a vignette in a person’s passport, or a digital product. The fees order will also amend the definition of “transfer of conditions” to ensure that it covers updates to online services as well as physical documents.
I should explain why we have included provisions relating to the taking of photographs under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. At the time of that Act, we did not consider photographs to be biometric information. Of course, technology has moved on and it is right that these regulations clarify the position to make it clear that photographs can be taken, used and retained in the same way as fingerprints are taken under the 1999 Act. This will ensure that photographs taken for these purposes will be treated in the same way as photographs provided for an immigration or citizenship application.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked about premium services. The order is not creating any new services or amending the fee that can be charged for any premium services. It will allow the Home Office to identify opportunities to further enhance the customer experience with the introduction of new, optional—that is the operative word—premium services. These services are not in connection with an application; they are provided over and above any standard or basic service in connection with immigration or nationality. The order will allow the premium services to be offered in connection with immigration and nationality more broadly, not just immigration and nationality services.
On the fees, it is government policy that those who use and benefit most from the immigration system should contribute towards the cost of operating the system, reducing the burden on the UK taxpayer. We think that our fee levels allow us to continue to attract the brightest and best to the UK, while enabling the Home Office to work towards a self-financing migration, border and citizenship service. We do not make a profit from applications where the fee is higher than the estimated unit cost, because all income generated above the estimated unit cost is used to fund wider migration, border and citizenship services, reducing the cost to the taxpayer.
I think I have answered all questions. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and I are staring straight at each other, and so he can say if he has any other points.
Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2021.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. The time limit for the next debate is one hour.
British Nationality Act 1981 (Immigration Rules Appendix EU) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the British Nationality Act 1981 (Immigration Rules Appendix EU) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.
My Lords, for ease, I will refer to this instrument as the “British Nationality Act SI”. The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020 ended free movement on 31 December last year. That Act enabled us to take back control of our borders for the first time in decades, delivering on manifesto promises to the British people and paving the way for the new points-based immigration system, which began operating from 1 January 2021.
Parliament also approved the Citizens’ Rights (Application Deadline and Temporary Protection) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020. These provide an additional six months—referred to as the grace period—in which an EEA or Swiss national and their family members resident here by the end of the transition period can still make an application to the EU settlement scheme by 30 June this year for the status they need to secure their rights under the citizens’ rights agreements, and have their existing EEA residence rights protected in the meantime. The Immigration Rules for the scheme, at appendix EU, also confirm that, in line with the citizens’ rights agreements, an application can be made after the 30 June deadline where there are reasonable grounds for missing that deadline.
The British Nationality Act SI reflects the ending of the grace period on 30 June 2021 and the scope for an application to the EU settlement scheme to be made after that date, or to be decided after that date having been made before it. The SI protects nationality rights for children born after 30 June but before the outcome of such an application. It is only after 30 June, and with the ending of the grace period, where there is a risk of parents losing status previously held and protected.
The British Nationality Act SI is made under the delegated regulation power in Section 5 of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020, the scope of which was debated extensively in both Houses during the passage of the legislation. The SI amends primary UK legislation as a consequence of, or in connection with, the provisions in Part 1 of the Act, which end free movement. It amends legislation relating to nationality acquired through birth in the UK. We are determined to ensure that children do not miss out on British citizenship through no fault of their own.
The very positive effect of the legislative change that we are discussing is to allow a child to automatically become a British citizen when born in the UK after 30 June 2021 and once the EU settlement scheme application submitted by their parent or parents is resolved through the granting of indefinite leave—known under the EU settlement scheme as “settled status”—which occurs after that birth. This might occur in two scenarios: where an application was submitted by 30 June but has not been resolved at the point of the child’s birth; or where an application is submitted after the 30 June deadline, based on reasonable grounds for missing that deadline, and is resolved favourably after the child’s birth. In this scenario, the parent would clearly need to demonstrate that they would have met the relevant eligibility requirements immediately before 1 July 2021.
The immigration rules and guidance already set out how any late applications to the EU settlement scheme should be considered and the approach to take to what may constitute reasonable grounds. The British Nationality Act SI provides clear protection for a child in this position without the need to make a separate nationality application, reflecting the unique position of those affected. The change will come into force on 1 July, immediately after the end of the grace period.
This SI ensures that there are no unintended consequences from the necessary deadline for the EU settlement scheme. It is basically an essential step in protecting the status of children, and I commend it to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction. I warmly welcome this measure, which is not always something that I can say about government legislation, particularly in the field of immigration and citizenship. The SI is practical, sensible and humane, as well as consistent with Article 18.3 of the withdrawal agreement, in safeguarding the right to acquire British citizenship for children born after 30 June to EU citizens who do not have settled status at the time of the child’s birth, either because the application has not been processed in time or because a late application was allowed on reasonable grounds, but who go on to get it later.
I have one question about the SI and then I want to raise some points on other aspects of the EU settlement scheme. The question is this: why is the concession being made only in respect of children born after 30 June? Can the Minister clarify the position for children born before 30 June whose parents have a gap in their immigration status after 30 June that is later resolved? What is the situation for those children? The Minister may tell me that I ought to know the answer, but I would be grateful anyway. Could she also explain what happens to children of parents who go on, in the scenario posited, to get pre-settled status? As far as I can see, they are not covered by the SI.
For children who are covered by the SI, I would be grateful to learn from the Minister what the communications plan is to make families aware of the citizenship opportunity under new Section 10A, and what evidential requirements will be imposed. We are all only too aware of what happened to many of the Windrush generation. Studies earlier this year by the JCWI and the Social Market Foundation found that high percentages of their interviewees in social care and low-skilled work were unaware of the scheme.
Of special concern among children would be those estranged from their parents. How many children in care entitled to British citizenship have not yet been registered by local authorities? Will the Home Office be able and willing to assist—through its records, whether of eligibility for settled status before 1 July or of the timing of an application for settled status and the reasons for a late grant of status—in confirming a parental relationship and the British citizenship or settled status of the parent at the relevant time? I believe that is required under Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 and by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Will the child, parent, adoptive parent, local authority or other carer with parental responsibility get access to those records if necessary? Obviously it would be inappropriate and unfair for the Home Office to insist that a child produced the original of the document, given that that original was issued by the Home Office to their parent. The child could produce a copy and explain the fact of estrangement.
There is also, of course, the question of the fees for applying for citizenship, which are over £1,000. That is a huge barrier for many people—an issue that many in this House regularly raise. That is compounded by the lack of legal aid for complex cases. Has there been any reconsideration of these matters?
Turning then to other, less benign consequences of a late application, it seems curious to me that, in contrast to the subject matter of this SI, a person applying after 30 June will face drastic circumstances: the loss of lawful status, and with it the loss of the right to work, to rent accommodation, and to get free non-emergency NHS care, benefits or homelessness assistance. In fact, the full hostile environment will fall upon them, with the possible risk of removal. This is the case, as I understand it, even for those who are accepted to have reasonable grounds for a late application. Can the Minister tell us whether, three weeks from the deadline, there is any inkling of a softening in the Home Office’s approach?
Will EU citizens and their family members who miss the deadline but continue to work or rent be committing a criminal offence? Would the employer or landlord themselves face criminal proceedings? My friend in the other place, Stephen Farry MP, asked the Prime Minister 10 days ago for clarity on this, but all he got in response was that the Prime Minister was
“sure the law will be extremely merciful to anybody who finds themselves in a difficult position”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/5/21; col. 369.]
Can the Minister spell out what on earth this means in practice? I hope that it was not one of those promises like the infamous, “There will be no paperwork for Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade”.
An article in the Guardian on 27 May reported a Home Office spokesperson as saying that
“Further information will be provided to employers shortly about what they should do if they have an employee who finds themselves in this situation.”
Similarly, an answer to another Parliamentary Question said that the Home Office would be
“updating … guidance and communicating with landlords in the coming weeks”.
Can the Minister tell me whether such information and guidance has now been provided?
I understand that an announcement is due later this week on new EU settlement scheme Covid-19 guidance, which will say that absences longer than 12 months for Covid-related reasons will not break “continuous residence”, so that affected EU citizens will still be able to build up their residence period for settled status. This would also be a welcome concession. If the Minister could tell me that the Home Office will continue to be in flexible mode, that would be most helpful—although of course guidance does not provide legal certainty, and there is a case for enshrining that concession in law.
In particular, there is a very good case to avert the status gap by granting the temporary right to reside during at least the period until those applicants recognised as having a good reason for a late application get a grant of status. Can the Minister give me a glimmer of optimism on that score? Surely if the Government can, as it were, freeze rights as they are doing on citizenship in this SI, they can do the same in respect of other rights, instead of the proposed drastic loss of residence rights even for those recognised to have reasonable grounds.
Will the Home Office also look again at the treatment of those judged not to have reasonable grounds? The Government have a huge set of discretionary powers and responsibilities in this area, and the worry is that there will be differing interpretations and applications of the caseworker guidance.
Could the Government also consider expanding the list of reasons considered reasonable for lateness to include, for instance, primary carers of children applying late; lack of capacity, as an automatic good reason; pregnancy and maternity around the deadline, which particularly during Covid have been even more stressful and preoccupying than they normally are; and having permanent residence, which many, however mistakenly, think is sufficient? Will the Home Office train all its decision-makers working on late application requests and monitor all decisions to ensure consistency?
Can the Minister give us an up-to-date figure on the number of outstanding applications not yet processed? In a recent letter to parliamentarians, the Home Secretary said that, as of 30 April, over 5.4 million applications had been received and over 4.9 million grants of status made. How many of the remaining half a million have been refused and how many are still to be processed? Will the Home Office publish figures on the time it is taking to process applications, the average wait and those waiting longer than, say, three, six or 12 months?
The “New Plan for Immigration” Statement of 24 May refers to the Government “Building on the success” of the fully digital EU settlement scheme. Many EU citizens are not so impressed that they are being refused a physical proof of status. Indeed, many worry about how they will prove their status after 30 June if they make a late application that is accepted on good reasons grounds. How will their prospective employers and landlords prove their right to work, rent and access healthcare and benefits? Article 18.3 of the withdrawal agreement states that:
“Pending a final decision … on any application … all rights … shall be deemed to apply to the applicant”.
How is that being complied with if they cannot generate an online “share code”? An employer or landlord required to contact a checking service will surely not bother unless they really want that employee or tenant.
EU citizens’ trust in a fully digital scheme which rests on confidence in the Home Office’s records and systems will not have been increased by the extraordinary move—to which my attention was first drawn by journalist Robert Peston—of British citizens being sent letters telling them that they need to apply for settled status. Can the Minister explain this mistake?
Lastly, press reports of extraordinarily harsh treatment of EU citizens newly arriving have not inspired confidence—far from it. Was it really necessary to detain and even deport some people, because surely even those seeking work had a right to attend an interview? What can the Minister tell me about what went wrong? Can she reassure me about training now for Border Force personnel?
My Lords, I again thank the Minister for explaining these regulations. As she explained, the draft British Nationality Act 1981 (Immigration Rules Appendix EU) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 seek to prevent children born after 30 June 2021 failing to acquire British citizenship as a result of their parents not having EU settled status at the time of their birth. As my noble friend has just said, it covers only late applications made or resolved at the end of the grace period on 30 June 2021. Although it is welcome, it raises a series of issues. British citizenship is granted on the date when settled status is granted.
I commend my noble friend Lady Ludford on her excellent questions to the Minister. As a consequence, I can be brief. First, can the Minister explain why British citizenship is not being backdated to the date of birth? If the parent was entitled to remain in the UK indefinitely when the baby was born, albeit that by reason of late processing or late application settled status was not granted until after the end of the grace period, surely the baby is entitled to British citizenship from birth. Secondly, how can a child born in the UK to a parent entitled to remain in the UK indefinitely be denied British citizenship because its parent did not fill in the right forms? The resonance with the Windrush generation, as my noble friend has just alluded to, is deafening.
Surely if the Government can amend the British Nationality Act 1981 by means of this statutory instrument to deal with a baby born in the UK to parents who do not at the time of birth have formal legal indefinite leave to remain but are subsequently granted EU settled status, they could amend the Act so that a baby born in the UK in such circumstances could be granted British citizenship from birth. The point I am trying to make is this: a differentiation is being made on the basis of an administrative process—the application for and granting of EU settled status—rather than on the right of the parent to remain in the UK as a result of living and working in the UK before 31 December 2020, for example. I understand that the Government’s position may be that EU citizens who do not apply for settled status before the end of the grace period without a reasonable excuse are not legally entitled to indefinite leave to remain, but that is a restriction that the Government have put in place.
In the case of the Windrush generation, the Government have quite rightly accepted that those who have lived and worked in this country for decades but who were undocumented because they did not apply for British citizenship or a UK passport were treated wrongly, and they are compensating—too slowly, and inadequately—those who were wronged. The Government have accepted that these people were entitled to indefinite leave to remain, despite the fact that they did not apply for proof of their entitlement. Why are the Government repeating the same mistake with EU citizens?
I am sure that this statutory instrument is meant to be a positive step, but for me it raises more fundamental questions. It demonstrates clearly what the Government can do if they so wish—and what they wish to do is to penalise EU citizens in a similar way to which they penalised those from the Windrush generation, not because they do not have every right to indefinite leave to remain in the UK but because they did not apply for it. We support this SI as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.
My Lords, I, too, welcome this instrument and, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I shall raise a number of questions, many of which overlap with the questions that they have already asked.
The British Nationality Act provides that a child born in the UK automatically acquires citizenship where, at the time of their birth, at least one parent is British or settled. A person waiting for their settled status to be resolved or who is eligible but has failed to apply would not count as settled during that time. This instrument amends the current law and provides that, first, a child born after the end of the grace period may be considered British from the date that their parent is granted settled status after a late application, and, secondly, that a similar protection is given to a child born after the grace period where their parent had applied to the scheme before the deadline but was still awaiting their status on the date the child was born.
We welcome this instrument, which seeks to fill a gap in provision for children born while their parents are still awaiting confirmation of their settled status or who are eligible but enter a late application. For absolute clarity, will a child born in the UK under these circumstances automatically—and by that I mean with no separate application—acquire citizenship when their parents’ status is confirmed to reflect the situation as it would have been before 30 June? Secondly, can I confirm that they will not have to register to access their citizenship and be charged the exorbitant fee, now declared unlawful, which children registering their British citizenship currently face?
Crucially, how will parents and children be alerted to the child’s right to citizenship? That was a point that was emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. We welcome the fact that the non-exhaustive reasonable grounds for a late application have now been published. What is being done to reach those people who are eligible but have not made an application? Will public services that expectant parents come into contact with be aware of and able to advise on this law change?
The organisations the3million, Amnesty International and the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens have written to Home Office Ministers to welcome this step of securing children’s rights to citizenship. They have asked them to seek to clarify the law under this instrument on a number of points.
One question is around what information will be made available to an EU citizen who becomes settled on or after 1 July about the provisions of new Section 10A, and what it means for any children of theirs. What records will the department maintain relating to: first, the timing of any application for settled status, particularly of persons applying by the deadline but whose applications are granted after that date; secondly, the eligibility of settled status immediately before 1 July of persons granted settled status on or after that date; and, thirdly, the reasons for a grant of settled status on or after 1 July? What records will be kept for those different scenarios?
A further question is whether the department will provide access to these records to the child to whom new Section 10A applies. What other steps will the department take to ensure that the child is able to confirm their British citizenship, whether during childhood or adulthood? This was a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, made as well. Will the department provide access to these records to the parent—whether the parent is an EU citizen or otherwise—adoptive parent, local authority or other carer with parental responsibility for the child?
On those still awaiting their settled status while the deadline approaches, what extra initiatives are the Government putting in place to handle the extremely high backlog of cases of people who applied in time but are waiting for a Home Office response? In May, the backlog stood at more than 300,000 cases. Can the Minister give an update on that figure? We know that people are already being impacted by the Home Office’s delay and that it is affecting their ability to get a mortgage or their university applications. These applications have been held up by the wait people are currently undergoing.
On child citizenship more widely, earlier this year, the Home Office’s £1,000 fee for children registering their citizenship was ruled unlawful by the Appeal Court. The court found that the Government had failed in their duty to consider the best interests of children impacted by this scandalously high fee. Can the Minister say what the Government’s action will be when they reconsider this unlawful fee?
My Lords, I will first answer the question on the citizenship fee from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, because it is at the forefront of my mind. We are doing a Section 55 assessment at this point in time, so that is being reviewed. It will not necessarily change the fee, but nevertheless we are doing that which the court asked of us and doing that Section 55 assessment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked how many children—I presume she means in local authority care—do not have settled status. I am afraid I do not know the answer, but I can tell her that a lot of effort has been made to engage with local authorities to ensure that children whose corporate parent is the state are signed up to the settlement scheme. In any event, should that fail, they would very clearly come under the reasonable excuses category. We are being very pragmatic on the reasonable excuses category; we are taking a sensible approach to people who for reasons of disability, domestic violence or the local authority just not meeting their obligations, for example, would very clearly have come under the category of being able to apply to the EU settlement scheme being in scope of that reasonable excuses framework.
On the right to work and the implications after 1 July, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, that landlords are under a duty to do those right-to-work due diligence checks. In line with that pragmatism from the Government, we will give people time, no matter what the issue—whether the right to rent or right to work—to prove their status. I think the time is 28 days, so people will be given time.
On whether the EUSS Covid guidance is being sent out this week, I certainly know it is being sent out. Again, going back to that pragmatism, people who have not been able to get here clearly have more than a reasonable excuse not to have been here.
To answer the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, yes, the guidance will be updated in the light of the statutory instrument. In line with other issues, we will try to communicate as widely as possible what those people who might be in scope of this statutory instrument will need to do.
Are we going to expand the reasonable excuses? The reasonable excuses guidance is, I think, one of those areas where, as time goes on, we may find that people will suddenly come into scope. We will keep that under review.
On outstanding applications, there is not actually a backlog because they are within three months of application; it is more that they are progressing through the system. About 300,000 applications are estimated to be in scope. I say to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that that work in progress might concern those who are going through the criminal justice system, and people who do not have national insurance numbers are another set who are in scope. To be pedantic, it is not actually a backlog.
On the British citizens who have been sent letters, I saw the tweet on Saturday—I was at the derby so I did not answer it, but I thought I might give the official answer today. If the noble Baroness looks carefully at the letter, she will see that it very clearly states that if you already have status or indefinite leave to remain then you can ignore the letter. If she refers to the tweet, she will see it. We are criticised when we do not do things and then we are criticised when we have duplications. In this situation, they are duplicates. For the people who do not need to apply, that is clearly stated on the letter.
Citizenship is not retrospectively granted, like much in UK law. It is from the date that their parents get settled status.
I cannot remember what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked, but basically, once the EU settlement scheme application submitted by the parent or parents is resolved through a grant of indefinite leave, known under the EU settlement scheme as settled status, which occurs after that birth, it is free of charge.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked why the date. It reflects the ending of the grace period, that being the last day on which EEA residents’ rights will exist for those persons resident here by 31 December 2020 and who have not made an application to the EU settlement scheme.
I think I have already attempted to answer the question on the number we expect. It is very difficult to know but, as I said, we are doing all we can to engage with people accessing things such as midwifery services to remind them to secure EU settlement scheme status for themselves and any expected children.
I think I have answered all the questions—I know the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, is not happy with all the answers, but I think I have answered them all. If there are any supplementary questions, I would be very happy to answer them, given that we have plenty of time.
I have noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, would like to ask a supplementary question for clarification. If the Minister is happy, and given the time, I suggest we proceed. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford.
I thank the Minister for her replies, and on the question of British citizens I confess I have not seen her tweet in reply, although it is true that I tweeted at her—I am glad she was actually enjoying herself on the day. But I could have got one of those letters. Why should a British citizen be judged to be within the scope of the cohort who should get a letter? I have seen some comments following that thread suggesting that there is some Home Office scoping exercise to see who it might be missing, but it does not inspire confidence that people with British citizenship who do not need to apply for settled status are getting letters. They are always official, if not officious, letters from the Home Office which put the wind up many people—and would do so for me if I got one—implying that there is something wrong with your existing status. If you are a British citizen and get this letter, you would be nervous. I do not understand what mistake, or deliberation, has led to British citizens getting the letter.
As a second point, I think the Minister—forgive me if I am wrong—did not address what happens to children born before 30 June whose parents make a late application, or do not make one at all, but where it is later resolved. The SI is all about children born after 30 June; if they are born before 30 June but their parents, for whatever good or not so good reason, are none the less delayed in getting their status, what happens to them?
A child born before 30 June whose parent has not applied to the EU settlement scheme—if it were just the child—would clearly have the reasonable excuse that their parent did not apply to the EU settlement scheme, even though they were born in the UK. That is the answer to that question. Clearly, we are now trying to capture those children born after 30 June whose parents have applied.
On the letter, the rationale behind it is that we wanted to capture as many people as we could, not as few people, so I acknowledge that people to whom it does not apply may have received letters. I can say to the noble Baroness that we are doing a data-cleansing exercise to try to reduce that duplication. We do not want to worry people, but we do want to make sure that as many people apply as possible.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person while others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. The time limit for this debate is one hour.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Other Provisions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and other Provisions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.
My Lords, on 17 May we moved to step 3 of the road map, which seeks to maintain a balance between our social and economic priorities. We need to save lives and prevent a surge in infections, and we need to relieve businesses that have suffered from closures and restrictions on social contact.
As ever, the decision to move to step 3 was informed by data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling and Public Health England. I express profound thanks to the analysts and academics who support these efforts. The surveillance evidence, epidemiological modelling and policy analysis that support these decisions are a tribute to the highest standards of the British Civil Service.
I want to seize this opportunity to set out some of the very latest data that has been presented to Ministers. As noble Lords will remember, there are four tests. The first is that the vaccine deployment continues successfully. As of 6 June, vaccination uptake is at 76.6% for the 18-plus UK population for the first dose and 52.5% for the second. These figures are aligned with the Government’s published plans and they are a remarkable achievement, but there is more to do.
The second test is that the vaccine continues to be effective at reducing hospitalisations and deaths. Data available at step 3 suggests that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine reduced overall symptomatic disease by up to 80% or 90%, hospitalisations by 90% to 95% and deaths by around 95%, with a similar effect reported for the AstraZeneca vaccine. This is hugely encouraging. In the week ending 21 May, when we moved to step 3, the weekly registered deaths had reduced by 70%. More recent figures show that between 31 May and 6 June there were 59 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test. That is clear evidence that the vaccine works. However, we must not be complacent. As restrictions ease and social distancing measures are relaxed, we must continue to be vigilant.
The third test is that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions, putting undue pressure on the NHS. This risk is massively mitigated by the progress of the vaccination programme across the UK. Daily hospital admissions continued to fall throughout March, April and early May. Since we moved to step 3, the number of infections has also been increasing. This is what we expected when lifting some restrictions on social contact. For the seven-day period ending 1 June there were 25,888 new cases across the UK, at a rate of 38 per 100,000. There are some regional variations, with particularly high case rates in parts of north-west England. Despite that rise, the positivity rate in England remains low and is currently at 1.3%. There were 151 daily hospital admissions in the UK on the last complete collection date of 1 June. It is steady as it goes.
The fourth test is that our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by variants of concern. For the seven-day period ending 19 May, there were 2,111 new cases of the delta variant recorded, making 3,424 total confirmed cases. In the same seven-day period there were 7,066 new cases of the alpha variant, making 249,637 total confirmed cases. At this point, the delta variant made up less than one-third of all VOCs.
With cases, admissions and deaths continuing to fall, surge testing in place, the vaccine rollout on track and vaccines proving effective, we judged that the tests to move to step 3 had been met. This does not mean that there is no risk. Indeed, we are extremely alert to the potential for new variants of concern to lead to a rapid worsening of the pandemic.
The assessment from SAGE and the evidence from PHE is that the delta variant is much more transmissible. We deployed a widescale test and trace response across the areas affected by the delta variant, including surge testing in areas such as Bolton and Blackburn. In addition to the existing test and trace support payment, local authorities have significant discretionary funding to offer additional financial support to those who need it. In Blackburn and Bolton, this will include trialling broadening eligibility during surge testing, so that all those who are required to self-isolate, who cannot work from home and earn under £26,000, receive a £500 payment. As ever, we continue to keep the data under close observation, and the Government will not hesitate to take firm action if necessary to protect lives and livelihoods.
That is the context of the decision, and it is a decision that has led to a real lift in the mood and optimism across the country, as a result of the changes made by these regulations. Many businesses have reopened and people are enjoying greater freedoms; they can meet more friends and family and more people can now attend funerals to say goodbye to their loved ones. Weddings, receptions and other commemorative events can be bigger, and we have moved from legal mandating and government rules to guidance which asks people to take personal responsibility when meeting friends and family. The regulations also made some important changes on face masks and table spacing, and we listened to the expertise of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and made some minor technical changes to clarify drafting.
I regret that we are debating these regulations only now, and I regret that they were not laid before they came into force, but, despite our best efforts to lay out a clear and timetabled road map with a predictable parliamentary programme, events moved very quickly—much more quickly than the processes of parliamentary procedure. Noble Lords will remember that the Prime Minister addressed the nation on 14 May to set out that the delta variant was more transmissible and there were some important unknowns. This gave us good reason to consider very carefully our approach and to fine-tune arrangements, and that delayed the smooth running of this process.
I know more than anyone the frustrations felt by noble Lords about those delays, but I very much hope that noble Lords will remember the concerns of that time and appreciate that we waited to have the appropriate data to make these vital decisions. We have sought to expedite these important regulations as much as we can while juggling a difficult situation. The easing of restrictions thus far is hugely welcome and, while we must continue to be cautious, we have good reason to feel optimistic about the future. We will remain vigilant and continue to manage the risk to safeguard the benefit of our collective effort so far.
Finally, I thank once again every person and organisation who is supporting the fight against coronavirus and colleagues here for their contribution to this Committee sitting. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, if ever we wanted an example of the farce that parliamentary democracy has become, these regulations should be an example that is studied for years. The Government had known for months that the date of 21 June was coming, yet still they decided to use emergency legislation to get their own way. Then they laid these regulations on the day they were to become law—in fact, at 11 am. Then they had to redraft them because parts of them were wrong.
This is a pattern of behaviour by the Government, using whatever means they decide to push through emergency legislation on Covid and using the signature of a Minister’s pen as a substitute for detailed parliamentary scrutiny and amendment. Emergency legislation was required on some issues, but not on this issue. The House and the other place need to stop nodding through this kind of emergency legislation as a matter of course.
An example of the potential unintended consequences of these regulations is the expiry on 20 June of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Local Authority Enforcement Powers and Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. These are the regulations that give local authorities the power to enforce Covid restrictions and give fixed penalty notices for breaches. As we move to a situation in which local lockdowns will become more important if we see clusters of cases around new variants, what powers will exist to ensure that local authorities can make sure local restrictions will be adhered to? Or will we have the perverse situation of more knee-jerk emergency legislation every time we see a local outbreak so that local authorities can fulfil their duties? Will the Minister please clarify this issue?
The reason all this matters is that Covid-19 will be with us for years to come. It is moving into the endemic stage. Emergency legislation is not acceptable, or indeed desirable, for managing an endemic. The Government now need to bring forward legislation about how we live with Covid as an endemic and stop relying on such regulations. The endemic means we move away from binary extremes and have legislation that is much more subtle and nuanced about how we deal with the complex issues for freedoms, health and the economy and that finds a new balance in this Covid world—a way of trying to keep as much open as we can while keeping the virus circulation and harm as low as possible. We have done it before with other diseases.
Very sensitive issues will have to be addressed as to what level of death the country accepts, as we do with flu, before more serious public health restrictions are enacted. Issues of ventilation and how it affects building standards and building control are important if we are to see large parts of the economy remain open every time we have a new variant or local surges.
What are the new ways of working for education, to keep access to knowledge and learning open and ensure that young people have access to their education? Again, the endemic stage will require changes that will have legal implications about when, where and how education takes place. At what stage is government thinking on this? When will proposals be brought forward for the legal implications for health, the economy and our freedoms of living in the endemic stage of Covid?
It also has big implications for the effect of self-isolation, which is an issue that has yet again to be raised because of the total lack of support, both financial and practical, for many who cannot afford to isolate for the whole period. I note that the Minister agrees that the present system is not acceptable, and that is why local authorities are piloting, but we need a national system of people being paid their salary, as in other countries, so that they can afford to remain isolated for the total period. What percentage of people asked to self-isolate carry out the full period of isolation required? How do the Government measure that? If the Government will not bring forward full financial support, such as paying people their wages, when all the evidence now shows that it is a barrier to people self-isolating for the full period, why not?
After 16 months of the country living with Covid, it is time for the Government to stop treating it as purely a public health emergency. They must bring forward detailed plans and legislation that deal with the ongoing implications of Covid as an endemic. The longer the Government refuse to do this and continue to bring forward only emergency legislation, the more the country will suffer and not be equipped to live with the long-term effects of Covid.
My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to follow the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, although I will not follow him in the criticism of process. I think the need for rapid legislation from time to time has meant that we are always catching up on some of the processes. I want to use this opportunity—which my noble friend has highlighted—to look at where we are and where we need to go in the week or two weeks ahead.
My first point, which I think my noble friend rightly emphasised, is that we are at the stage where we should move from legislation to guidance. One problem associated with the latest step 3 shift is that the public thought that everything the Government are asking them to do has to be in legislation. The enforcement of that has been quite burdensome from time to time. At the same time as moving to step 3, the Government added guidance, for example in relation to the eight local authorities that had the delta variant present. They did not publicise the guidance sufficiently and the confusion that arise from that was really regrettable.
Likewise, on 17 May, the ban on international travel was relaxed but at the same time Ministers were talking about the absence of international travel in ways that suggested that they were still enforcing a ban on non-essential travel. That was not the case. It is quite understandable that the public have become very confused. When the announcements are made for 21 June, we should stick with that date and make it very clear that we are shifting from a position where legislation has been required to one where guidance on future social distancing and preventive measures should be much clearer and consistent.
We should not be emphasising that from 21 June we are lifting all restrictions—we are moving to a new phase. In that respect, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is right, but I do not think that we need permanent legislation for this purpose. We need permanent adjustments in behaviour. We should be encouraging people to do things such as wearing masks, social distancing, working from home, ventilation, or having outdoor gatherings much more than indoor ones.
We have made enormous progress. I echo what my noble friend said about that. Obviously, vaccination is a really impressive achievement. Where testing is concerned, I do not share so many of the criticisms. The problem was not that test and trace did not expand its capacity but that people overestimated what it was capable of doing last year. We are at risk of underestimating what it is capable of doing this year.
When we shift the guidance, we should make large-scale lateral flow testing freely available, as we are doing now. On the basis of what we have seen in schools, we should encourage workplaces and employers to use lateral flow tests every other day to enable them to be confident that their staff are free of the infection. On that basis they can return to work, they can meet and they should be able to undertake international travel.
At this stage we need to make a distinction between travel for leisure and travel for work. British companies should be able to send people abroad and bring them back without long periods of isolation as long as they are having lateral flow testing. We have to get away from four PCR tests. That is a very burdensome thing to ask people to do, whether for leisure or for employment purposes. It is something approaching £400 per person, per visit and that should not be applied over the months ahead. We have a substantial vaccination programme that is giving people a high degree of protection. We are seeing every hope that we are breaking the link between infection, severe disease and hospitalisation. To the extent that that happens with doubly vaccinated people, we should go with it.
Finally, on international travel, I ask my noble friend why are we not including some countries on the green list? Look at Malta, for example. It now has no cases and the best vaccination record among European Union countries. It is iniquitous that we are not distinguishing those countries that should be on the green list and giving them the benefit of that designation.
My Lords, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I start by pointing out that we are yet again debating whether to approve a statutory instrument that came into effect three weeks ago, as part of a road map that was set out months ago. At this point in the pandemic, the urgency rationale just does not hold water, so it has become either a bad habit that the Government are unable to kick or simply contempt for parliamentary scrutiny. Neither is a good sign for a healthy democracy.
Turning to the substance, it feels somewhat ironic that these regulations bring back international travel for leisure. In recent days we have witnessed chaos over last-minute changes to the green list, causing huge problems for passengers and the travel industry alike. With long queues at packed airports in Portugal as people try to purchase tickets, often at vastly overinflated prices, on planes packed to seating capacity, and with people reporting difficulties getting pre-departure tests, is this really the best we can do?
As far as I can see, the amber list is simply causing confusion as to whether or not it is okay to travel to a country for leisure. We would not want to encourage people to drive through amber at traffic lights, so why are we giving this option for travel? Is not a straightforward “Yes, you can travel there” or “No, you can’t” easier for all to understand and plan around? Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to review the effectiveness of the traffic light system and our border control measures, including verifying test results for international travel?
Like others, I am sure, I was interested to read that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is now participating in a pilot offering daily lateral flow testing for seven days as an alternative to isolation, following his trip to Portugal. It appears from press reports that other football fans receiving similar such texts from NHS Test and Trace were told to self-isolate for 10 days. Can the Minister explain the criteria to qualify for this pilot, when it was introduced and when its results will be published?
Test, trace and isolate remains a hugely important weapon in our armoury for fighting this virus. As restrictions ease, surely we should adapt our isolation support and testing strategies to incentivise isolation. From these Benches, we have called time and again for financial support to enable people on low incomes to isolate effectively. With cases now thankfully at lower levels, can the Minister say what resources are being provided, and to which local authorities, to allow the isolation pilots he referred to—he referred to payments of £500—to happen?
Much store is being placed on the announcement the Government will make on 14 June regarding step 4 of the road map, currently scheduled for 21 June. Over the weekend, some leading scientists have been calling for the easing of restrictions to be delayed. We have been repeatedly told that the Government will be driven by the data on the four tests, including the risks posed by new variants of concern, rather than simply the dates in the road map. With some regulations due to expire on 20 June, as my noble friend Lord Scriven pointed out, what is the scope for extending these regulations if the data requires it? Will we have fresh legislation? What is the contingency plan? Finally, what additional resources are being given to handle variants of concern? I hope the Minister can reassure me on these points in summing up.
Finally—I think I am in very much the same place as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, on this—the stark truth is that the virus, with its inevitable mutations and variants, is not going away any time soon. Like it or not, we will have to find a way of living with Covid-19 for some time to come. That will mean changes in how we conduct our everyday lives, including how we do our business in this Chamber. This may be an inconvenient truth to some, but the alternatives are far worse. We need to get away from the current narrative that a so-called freedom day is coming fast and that everything can go back to precisely how it was pre-pandemic. We will have to learn to do things differently, and that needs a more grown-up, nuanced conversation which does not revolve around the two extremes of dropping all measures immediately or returning to lockdown. I think that is what most people want and expect.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield. I very much agree with her concluding comments about the fact that there is no freedom day: we will not go back to normal, certainly not in the short term. It is, as my noble friend Lord Lansley also said, a matter of accommodating our processes and adjusting to the new realities. I also thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out so clearly and concisely, as he always does, the effect of these regulations and for updating the Committee on the four tests or factors affecting the lifting of regulations.
I support the regulations but I regret that we are not seeing them in advance of their coming into force. I hope my noble friend can say something about a future scenario where we can perhaps expect that, as we move to a position where the regulations will not be so restrictive. It would be good to hear my noble friend’s views on that.
I support the regulations and the policy of stepped moves out of lockdown. That seems the right way forward. The easing of restrictions on outside gatherings and those attending funerals is absolutely appropriate. It is right that this phased approach is taken towards restrictions and that they are relaxed as the evidence demonstrates that a letting up on restrictions is appropriate. That is the right approach.
Like others, I congratulate the Government and my noble friend on the success of the vaccination programme. It has been outstanding. It is only fair that that should be acknowledged. It is at the centre of the Government’s success in this area and a tribute to the National Health Service, volunteers and all those concerned.
What remains a major challenge, as identified by others speaking in the debate, is international travel. This area of activity is relaxed by these regulations too. I will press my noble friend on this. A potential weakness identified previously is represented by travellers coming into the country from high-risk countries, who might pass on the infection before they are quarantined. This presents a challenge principally, though not exclusively, at Heathrow. I am pleased with the red country terminal arrangements at Heathrow. Could my noble friend update the Committee on their success and how they are working? Are we ensuring that special arrangements are made to split passengers from red list countries from other destinations at other airports too, where there is unlikely to be more than one terminal? It would be good to hear that these sensible arrangements are being applied across the country.
What arrangements are being made to ensure co-ordination with the devolved Administrations, particularly in this important area of travel and the operation of our UK airports, where a consistent approach is clearly needed? Could my noble friend comment on the recent summit between the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of the devolved Administrations, and any discussion that there was on co-ordination on coronavirus actions and policy?
Lastly, I make a plea for continued efforts to ensure that COVAX is working successfully to help countries across the world, particularly those unable to act as speedily and effectively as we have done. I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has this very much at the centre of his approach and is making it a central plank of the G7 summit coming up in Cornwall. It would be good to hear my noble friend’s thoughts on this. With those comments, I am very pleased to support the regulations.
My Lords, this SI has been prepared by the Department of Health and Social Care. The instrument revokes and replaces the health protection regulations 2020 and contains the legislative framework that will implement steps 1 to 3 of the Government’s road map out of lockdown in England. This instrument enables a number of public measures to be taken to reduce the public health risks posed by the spread in England of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which causes the disease Covid-19. The SI also amends a number of other coronavirus regulations.
This SI is made under the emergency procedure set out in Section 45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. Furthermore, this instrument is made without a draft having been laid and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. It is the opinion of the Secretary of State that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make this instrument without a draft being laid and approved, so that public health measures can be taken in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health posed by the incidence and spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.
This instrument was laid and published and came into force on 29 March 2021, and the measures will expire at the end of 30 June 2021. This instrument will cease to have effect at the end of the period of 28 days, beginning on the day it was made, unless during that period it is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. The Secretary of State must review the need for the restrictions imposed by this instrument at least every 35 days, with the first review taking place by 12 April 2021.
I support this SI as put forward by the Minister.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. As my noble friends Lord Scriven and Lady Tyler have said, once again we are reviewing and considering these regulations weeks after they have been implemented and published, in that order. It appears that even the routine renewal of SIs is a total surprise to the Government—or they may be treating our democracy with contempt.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee noted:
“These national provisions came into effect on 17 May. However the Government published guidance on 21 May which said that to combat ‘the Indian variant’ people … should meet outside wherever possible and travel in and out of those areas should be avoided. This change was not publicised by the Government and caused considerable confusion … It appears that this situation was in part caused by continuing confusion over the status of government guidance and in part by failures in how the advice was communicated.”
The committee says:
“Recent events have illustrated why this is a significant problem: Guidance associated with both the travel regulations and the changes to restrictions in certain areas … have this week caused confusion for the public and have given rise to questions about enforcement, both of which undermine the effectiveness of the advice given.”
The blurring of lines between guidance and regulation, combined with poor communications, is a serious error that made the regulations unworkable, as the Government discovered to their cost.
These SIs will expire on 20 June, as other noble Lords have said—when Ministers, members of SAGE and scientists are all saying to us on a daily basis that the complete ending of restrictions is now very finely in the balance because of the steady increase in Covid delta variant cases over the last month, with cases back up to over 5,000 a day. Is this the right time to lift the ban on pupils wearing masks, when we are now seeing evidence of high spread in schools, including in Cherry Tree Primary School in my home town of Watford?
We agree with the Government that data, not dates, must rule the next set of decisions. What additional resources are being given to local authorities and local resilience forums to help them handle surges in variants of concern? Our local directors of public health are doing an excellent job but, in the areas of high surge, there are requirements for substantial intervention, which costs money. Can the Minister say whether those areas of high surge are receiving extra resources over and above the planned allocation for this year?
The Minister knows that on these Benches we believe in the importance of test, trace and isolate to keep people safe. I was slightly surprised this morning to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, say on “Woman’s Hour” that she was dismissive of its key importance. We believe that it is clearly a vital tool to manage new variants and outbreaks.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, like Matt Hancock, talked a great deal about the progress of vaccination, and we applaud that progress. However, over the weekend the Secretary of State said that vaccination had “severed” the Covid link but “not broken” it. Pardon? The dictionary definition of “sever” is “break off”. Can the Minister explain what “severed but not broken” means?
The regulations are silent on advice for those people who, despite shielding being formally ended by the Government, are still under strict advice in letters from the Secretary of State to stay at home wherever possible, to get others to shop for them and not to go into any environment where social distancing is likely to be breached. The Government have been totally silent, but the charities Blood Cancer UK and Anthony Nolan have repeatedly asked for clear guidance for those who are immunocompromised and who have been told that, despite having two jabs, they are unlikely to have the antibodies for long. Will the Minister agree to meet me, them and other noble Lords interested in this issue? What provision is being made for this group of people, their families and friends to guide them through the next stage of learning to live with Covid? Total silence from the Government puts them in an impossible position, and possibly in unsafe surroundings.
We note that the regulations bring back international travel for leisure. We have repeatedly asked for clearer, broader rules, but today all we see is chaos at airports in Portugal as people rush back to avoid having to quarantine. Is this really the best way to do things? Can the Minister say whether the previously ineffective border measures—leading to queues at airports, people jumping on public transport to get home and people having to leave quarantine to get their tests done—have all now been resolved? In particular, are there improved checking arrangements to find forged test results?
The Minister has mentioned the pilots on isolation. Can he give us more details on those? What are “considerable payments”, and who is eligible? On the problem of people coming forward to self-isolate, the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said this morning that the problem was getting them to come forward to say that they had had a lateral flow test in order to be able to go on working because they needed to earn money. Surely now is the time to reassure people by paying them their wages for self-isolation rather than asking them to go through a ridiculously complex means-tested application procedure.
If the Minister cannot answer all my questions now, please will he write to me with details?
My Lords, by now the Minister must realise that we are very fed up at being asked yet again to retrospectively approve significant legislation that impacts on individual liberty, well-being and livelihoods, three whole weeks after they came into effect. Are we fed up? The answer is yes. However understanding and apologetic the Minister might have been in his pre-emptive words about this, it is time that this came to an end and the usual practice of accountability was reinstated.
My first question, which I suspect the Minister will say is above his pay grade, is: can he give the Grand Committee a date from which we can expect to discuss these important matters in advance of them being enacted? The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and other noble Lords are quite right that it is time to stop using emergency legislation for these issues and to use it instead when there is an emergency. The regulations were made on 14 May and came into effect on 17 May. While admittedly that is progress, it still falls woefully short of the threshold for using emergency-made procedures.
Of course, like the Minister and other noble Lords, I welcome the vaccine rollout and its increasing effectiveness. The regulations allow six people or two households to gather indoors, and up to 30 people outdoors. Weddings and funerals are now permitted, and all remaining outdoor entertainments and indoor hospitality can now reopen. All those things are of course enormously welcome.
The statutory instrument amends the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place) (England) Regulations to provide an exemption for gatherings for specified education and training purposes in community premises. This mirrors the policy for schools and further education providers. But given that cases in many hotspot areas are concentrated on school-age children and young adults who have not yet had the opportunity to be vaccinated, does the Minister think it might be premature to announce that face coverings will no longer be required in secondary school classrooms and communal areas from 17 May?
I am asking this because we can see that a number of local public health authorities in the north-west have issued recommendations to secondary schools about using face masks again due to the rising Covid-19 transmission rates across the community, largely due to the delta variant. That underscores the need for greater powers for local authorities to introduce measures as and when needed. In a way, that echoes the remarks from the noble Lords, Lord Lansley and Lord Scriven, about the transition we need to be in to live with this. That might mean that, in some areas, you might need to wear masks in some schools and not in others, for example.
I turn to the confused mess that is international travel, as mentioned by most speakers. These regulations remove the prohibition on international travel and the requirement for individuals to declare their reasons for travelling abroad. If this is a shift from regulation to guidance, it really has not worked. We on these Benches believe that the traffic light system, where the Government are advising people not to do what is allowed, coupled with very lax quarantine requirements when they come back, is flawed. Indeed, the Prime Minister said:
“It is very, very clear … you should not be going to an amber list country except for some extreme circumstance, such as the serious illness of a family member. You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday.”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/5/21; col. 692.]
Yet, travellers are allowed to travel to amber list destinations without proof of an essential reason and some holiday companies are offering holidays to amber list countries. Indeed, the confusion over the amber list has led to reports of more than 50,000 people travelling to the UK daily from countries with rising Covid numbers and only a tiny percentage going into hotel quarantine. Does the Minister accept that the system is leaving the door wide open to new strains of the virus and risks undermining the lockdown sacrifices of the British public and the success of the NHS vaccine?
I am sorry that the Government seem not to have learned from their previous mishandling of travel restrictions. We needed robust quarantine measures in place for people coming back into the country. Moving Portugal to the amber list is not the answer. Surely the answer is that the amber list should be scrapped—either countries are red or they are green.
We need the Government to be more vigilant about emerging threats. I want to talk about the C363 variant, which is linked to Thailand. It was designated as a variant under investigation on 24 May and 117 cases have been identified in the UK, with over 37% of cases originating from travellers into the UK. Vietnam is also experiencing a significant rise in cases, potentially as a result of this new variant. It seems that the delay in adding India to the red list made us vulnerable. I hope the Minister can assure us that Thailand and Vietnam should urgently be added to the travel red list.
Given that Ministers have promised to provide a week’s notice of changes, and with 14 June being next Monday, when will we hear from the Prime Minister about what happens next? Can the Minister assure the House that we will have the chance to see and debate these regulations before they come into force? We all know by now that lifting restrictions will lead to further spread. What is less clear is whether the increase in Covid hospital admissions will be a wave or a ripple. What is the Minister’s view?
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for a very thorough debate on these regulations and I will try to pick off the key points. One point is the question of guidance versus law, which almost all noble Lords spoke about. My noble friend Lord Lansley put it extremely well. He is right that it is the British way to seek to use guidance and to appeal to people’s best nature wherever we possibly can; it is our default setting in this country. I for one very much welcome the move from legislative impetus to guidance. I think almost all have welcomed that principle.
However, I am afraid that it is an inevitable consequence of moving from law to guidance that you leave a degree of interpretation up to the British people. That is a dilemma we have to wrestle with in government. I acknowledge the communication challenges. I have said from the Dispatch Box and that I thought one or two things might have been done better, but we have given the British public discretion on how they interpret some of the guidance, particularly on travel.
The truth is that the British public are very clear about the guidance we have provided and are incredibly consistent in their behaviour. Despite the suggestion made by some noble Lords, there has not been an explosion of foreign travel. Quite the opposite: the number of people who went to Portugal while it was open was relatively small. Adherence to isolation, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, remains incredibly high. For positive cases it is around 90%, and for contacts of positive cases it is around 85%. The British public are much clearer in their heads than perhaps some would give them credit for. The public understand that the Government sometimes allow people to do something while not recommending it, much like with smoking.
We are at a stage of the pandemic—the infection rate is currently relatively low—where it is proportionate and reasonable to use guidance over the law and to accept that there are some friction costs to that, but they are within the range of acceptable risk. We are at a stage where things are generally getting better. We hope that we are on a journey out of this dreadful pandemic. It is therefore entirely right that we seek to move away from legislation wherever we possibly can.
My noble friend Lord Lansley made the point on testing, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised my noble friend Lady Harding’s comments earlier. My noble friend Lord Lansley is right: the capacity of testing to make an impact on the infection is possibly underestimated at the moment. I cite the example of schools, where 65 million LFDs have been used since the beginning of the year to huge effect. We were extremely concerned about infection rates in schools on their return, and the presence of a new, highly transmissible variant is something we watch extremely closely indeed, but pupils, parents and teachers have worked incredibly hard to use the latest technology to keep a lid on transmission rates. That has worked incredibly well. I note my noble friend Lord Lansley’s points about business travel and will take them away with me. The cost of tests is coming down dramatically, and I would be glad to share details of that with him.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and others spoke about the late arrival of these regulations, for which I express genuine personal regret, but I push back against noble Lords who express outrage and concern. I remember the run-up to 14 May extremely well indeed. I have in front of me, on my computer, the chart of the growth of the Indian variant. Even now it puts chills down my spine as I look at it. Naturally, we were extremely worried about a relatively unknown variant for which we did not have a genomically sequenced example. We had no idea about its impact on hospitalisation and death, but we kept our nerve. We waited for the data to come in from the clinics and for the virologists and biologists to do their work. In the end, we had made the right decision and were able to proceed with these step 3 regulations as intended, and as very clearly outlined in the road map. Although there was a delay in the paperwork, we were able to deliver on our commitments in that area.
There is no way we can ignore the data. In fact, in other matters noble Lords are absolutely emphatic that we should follow the data. This is just a direct and unavoidable consequence of that commitment. We face the same dilemma today. We are not fully clear about the serious illness and hospitalisation impacts of the delta variant. We are waiting for NHS statistics to come in. The CMO has made it clear that he feels we will have significantly more information on that at the end of next week. Until then, we have to hold our course. This is the pattern of these waves and will continue to be so. The fact that our constitution allows us to have agile legislation that adapts to the circumstances is a benefit, not a disbenefit, of the British way of doing things.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that the Coronavirus Act will last until March 2022. The PCMs to which he referred are largely driven by Section 2 of the 1984 public health Act. Analysis of emergency powers is currently being undertaken by the Constitution Committee, to which I have already given evidence. I recommend that the noble Lord engages with it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talked about the immunocompromised, a subject that I am extremely concerned about, as I know she and other noble Lords are. I pay tribute to the work of Birmingham University and the Octave trial. This is a huge challenge for those who have little by way of an immune system. The vaccine clearly will not work in the same way as it does with those with a fully charged immune system. There are huge opportunities from therapeutics and antivirals. We are chasing those down very actively, but I would be glad to meet with her, Anthony Nolan, Cancer Research UK and any other charities she would very helpfully like to convene.
My noble friend Lord Bourne spoke about travellers from the red list. I pay tribute to the managed quarantine system. Last week, there were 115,000 passengers into the UK. Only 9,000 of them were from the red list; 92% of those were through Heathrow. I pay tribute to Heathrow and the creation of its new red terminal. We have to accept that the red list may well be here for some time, but I am very optimistic that we can make huge progress on foreign travel. The mutual recognition of double vaccination protocols is being discussed at the very highest levels and offers a way out from the impact of this awful pandemic. I am optimistic that foreign travel will be able to start soon.
By way of a wind-up, I shall address the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who said that the pandemic is not going away anytime soon and give evidence of how dramatically our lives will change, largely for the worse. I am much more positive. Ultimately, the vaccine does work. If it works on the variants we have today, there is every reason to hope that it will work on future variants. We have learned a huge amount about therapeutics, antivirals, diagnostics, tracing, surveillance and treatment of the ill. Where we have a challenge as a nation is in public health, which has been found wanting. The health of the nation is far too poor. We weigh too much, smoke too much and drink too much, and we go into illness in a poor condition. That is the challenge we face as a nation, and the one we will turn to once the pandemic is out of the way.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. The time limit for this debate is one hour.
Myanmar (Sanctions) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Myanmar (Sanctions) Regulations 2021.
My Lords, the instrument before us was laid on 29 April under the powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. It revokes and replaces the Burma (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which had previously established the UK’s sanctions regime in respect of Myanmar.
The 2019 regulations brought the policy effect of the EU’s Myanmar regime into UK law at the end of the transition period. This regime was designed as a response to the serious human rights violations committed by the Myanmar security forces, including widespread and systematic attacks on ethnic minorities and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in 2017.
As noble Lords will be aware, on 1 February this year the Myanmar military launched a coup which disregarded the democratically expressed will of the Myanmar people, arresting Aung San Suu Kyi among many others. Peaceful protest has been met with brutal force, with over 700 civilians killed and more than 4,000 people detained. There are credible reports of torture. Humanitarian relief organisations have been refused access. Internet shutdowns, and the intimidation and persecution of civil society, have restricted access to information and journalistic freedoms.
Her Majesty’s Government are pressing the military to return power to the democratically elected Government of Myanmar, to protect the rights and freedoms of the Myanmar people, including their right to political protest, to release all those arbitrarily detained and to ensure the unobstructed humanitarian access that is so desperately needed.
Targeted sanctions are very much part of our collaborative response. However, the 2019 regulations did not contain purposes or designation criteria that would allow us to make designations in relation to the coup. The Government therefore took the decision to revoke and replace the 2019 regime.
The new regulations we are considering today expand the purposes and designation criteria from those set out in the previous 2019 regulations. Our new regime aims to: promote peace, security and stability in Myanmar; promote respect for democracy, the rule of law and good governance; discourage the repression of the civilian population; and promote compliance with international human rights law and respect for human rights.
As for designations, the regulations enable us to designate not only members of the Myanmar security forces but any other individuals or entities that meet the designation criteria, including those supporting the military junta. We are now able to designate people not only for committing serious human rights violations but for undermining democracy, the rule of law or good governance, repressing the civilian population, violating international humanitarian law, obstructing humanitarian assistance activity or any other action, policy or activity which threatens the peace, stability or security of Myanmar.
Significantly, the regulations now give us the power to list entities under our geographic regime, allowing us to target the military’s economic interests and demonstrating that we stand in solidarity with the domestic movement to boycott businesses linked to the military. In this respect, on 17 May we used these regulations to designate the Myanmar Gems Enterprise. Gems are a multibillion-dollar trade in Myanmar, and a key source of revenue for the military junta.
In addition to expanding the purposes and designation criteria, the new regulations create another licensing purpose for financial sanctions, enabling the Treasury to grant a licence to conduct otherwise prohibited activities if they are in connection with humanitarian assistance activity. This helps ensure that the effects of the sanctions are targeted and that there is no unintentional impact on humanitarian operations. The substance of the regulations before us is otherwise the same as set out in the previous legislation, and the types of sanctions measures permitted—financial, trade and immigration—have not changed.
It is important to note that the new regulations retain the comprehensive arms embargo which the UK worked to secure while we were a member of the European Union. They also retain trade prohibitions on dual-use items for military use, as well as items that could be used to intercept or monitor telecommunications and repress the civilian population. Finally, the regulations prohibit the provision of military-related services, including the provision of technical assistance to or for the benefit of the Myanmar security forces, which are defined to include the Tatmadaw, police force and border force.
Of course, sanctions are only one element of our response to the coup. We have been at the forefront of the international response, drawing on our presidencies of both the G7 and the UN Security Council, as well as our positive relationships with ASEAN member states and others in the region. At the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ meeting on 4 and 5 May this year, we ensured that G7 countries were aligned in calling for the military to restore democracy to Myanmar. We also succeeded in committing all G7 countries—for the first time—to preventing the supply, sale or transfer of weapons, munitions or other military-related equipment to Myanmar.
Similarly, our leadership at the UN Security Council has kept the issue at the forefront of the council’s agenda. We have secured a succession of strong council statements which condemn the violence, call for the release of political detainees and support Myanmar’s democratic transition. Crucially, we are working closely with civil society to build community resilience and help create the foundations for a more open, inclusive and democratic Myanmar.
However, sanctions provide an important tool to take concrete and meaningful steps that demonstrate to the junta that its actions have a cost and it cannot repress the population of Myanmar with impunity. Our designations have already undermined the credibility of the military junta and its governing body, the State Administration Council. They have reduced their access to key revenue streams. We are also considering further possible designations that would meet our objective of targeting the military’s revenue streams—which I know interests several noble Lords and has been raised before—while mitigating risk to the wider population.
In conclusion, the UK considers the recent actions of the military junta and the Myanmar security forces to be, frankly, abhorrent. They have undermined democracy, brutally repressed protests, arbitrarily detained thousands and, tragically, killed hundreds of innocent people. The regulations expand our powers to impose sanctions in response. They demonstrate that we will not accept such egregious violations of human rights. They enable us to stand with our international partners and, most importantly, with the people of Myanmar in working towards what we hope will be a peaceful and prosperous return to a democratic future for the country. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Myanmar sanctions regulations—81 regulations and four schedules—are welcome and necessary. I thank the Minister for his opening speech and reassurances, but they will be of limited utility if they are not vigorously and robustly enforced. The pressure on the Myanmar military must be maintained, and I am pleased to hear about trying to stop the sale of weapons and all that goes with that. Which countries have signed up to not give weapons? It is also important that there should be transparency on this issue.
The Government should commit to reveal the assets that are frozen. It is imperative that we know that and the sanctions on individuals, because we know that members of the press who come from outside the country are now being imprisoned, tortured and subjected to secret trials. They are unable to be in touch with lawyers, or their families. We know that the local media are forbidden to use certain language. I am not sure why this junta is so afraid if it believes what it says about the world knowing what it is up to.
We know this is bad. They are depriving children of basic education and health. Further, there is the whole issue of women being murdered in the streets and in their homes. We have to be much firmer with our colleagues on the whole question of weapons and on human rights. I am very pleased with what the Minister has said to reassure us, but there is still much more to be done.
My Lords, it seems fitting to focus on Myanmar today, the first day of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial. The new regulations are extremely welcome, in that they are both comprehensive and stringent. The monitoring mechanisms set out in the regulations also appear to be circumvention-proof.
The generals who currently rule Myanmar appear impervious to international condemnation and even to the proposed severe sanctions imposed by the USA and France. It is therefore critical that external pressure be increased and sustained. The regulations would undoubtedly add to that pressure, but are there additional actions that the UK Government might take?
The UN Security Council is unlikely to be able to make any stronger condemnation than it already has, due to vetoes from China and Russia. This should not exclude other nations from adhering to the UN obligations under the responsibility to protect. The principles of R2P, accepted the world over at the UN General Assembly at 2005, make it clear that atrocities committed within Myanmar’s borders are not just a matter of internal business but the responsibility of all of us.
Concerted action by ASEAN states in the region to impose travel sanctions and be more vocal in their condemnation of the Tatmadaw regime would be welcome. Focus could also be given to those nations that are either unwilling or unable to monitor sufficiently the provision of resources that undermine democracy and contribute to the continued and severe repression of ethnic minorities in Myanmar as well as of peaceful citizens. What is the outcome of ASEAN’s recent discussion on the possibility of suspending Myanmar, an exclusion that would surely have a very marked effect?
It is clear that increased support is being provided to Myanmar by China and to some extent by Russia. Does the FCDO estimate that that support will in turn weaken the sanctions imposed by the UK and other nations?
The forthcoming G7 meeting, to which the Minister has referred, which will be hosted by the UK, is an opportune time to solicit international agreements and further action against Myanmar. Concerted and effective action to strengthen sanctions would have real impact on the regime’s behaviour. Furthermore, the comprehensive list of sanctioned materials in these regulations might form the basis of an internationally co-ordinated list of prohibited items.
Although the chances of the Myanmar crimes being referred to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council under the Rome statute are extremely slim, is the UK prepared to detain and try designated persons who may leave themselves open to arrest when travelling under the universal jurisdiction banner?
I have two further areas on which I would be most grateful to have the Minister’s answer. First, I understand that the impact of the new sanctions on UK businesses is considered to be minimal, and thus an annual review and report to Parliament is deemed unnecessary. What kind of estimate will be carried out of the impact of the sanctions, once enforced, on Myanmar itself? As I have said, there are comprehensive mechanisms to avoid circumvention of such sanctions, but inevitably loopholes will be there. Is the widely dispersed and hidden wealth of senior generals known and accounted for? It would be useful if the Minister could provide some idea of the actual cost to the regime in Myanmar when the sanctions are fully implemented.
Secondly, it is clear that humanitarian organisations are exempt from any of the sanctions set out in the regulations. Nevertheless, some international organisations work in extremely difficult areas—notably, the ethnic regions and among minorities including the Rohingya, the Shan, the Karen and the Mon—and are necessarily involved in providing resources such as food to communities that themselves contain armed militia, albeit working against the Tatmadaw machine. Is there any ambiguity that could limit the resources and the work of those humanitarian bodies? With all that said, I warmly welcome the regulations and thank the Minister.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend for opening the debate so clearly and with such conviction. I also refer to my interests in the register and, in particular, to my practice at the Bar involving cases to do with international human rights and sanctions law, as well as my recent appointment to the Taskforce on a Transatlantic Response to Illicit Finance, launched by the Royal United Services Institute only today.
These regulations are further evidence of a much-needed new approach to how the United Kingdom deals with regimes abroad whose activities offend the most basic of human rights and rule of law obligations. In permitting the Government to designate particular individuals, as opposed to countries or Governments, and to have a direct impact on their personal finances and ability to travel, they will have a direct effect on the people who lead the Governments or regimes through which and in whose name the abusive and criminal behaviour is carried out.
These regulations also reflect what the United States is doing. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, is adding regulations to implement a Burma-related executive order introduced on 10 February 2021. OFAC intends to supplement these regulations with a more comprehensive set, which may include additional interpretive and definitional guidance, general licences, and other regulatory provisions.
Clearly, sanctions regimes work better if conducted multilaterally and not just by one country, no matter if that one country is the United States, but it would have been unthinkable to do nothing in the face of the widespread evidence of serious human rights violations perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces following the recent military coup. Prior to the coup in February, the UN independent international fact-finding mission had established consistent patterns of serious human rights violations and abuses in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states and attributed responsibility to the Myanmar security forces, particularly the military. Atrocities committed by the Myanmar security forces include systematic burning of Rohingya villages, massacre, torture, arbitrary detention and targeted sexual violence.
These regulations give the Government the authority to designate particular individuals and to subject them to the restrictions listed in them; they do not identify the designated people. The sooner that the Government put into the public domain the names of the generals or other government leaders in Myanmar who have been found to have been responsible for the human rights and other abuses, the more effective the sanctions will be. I hope that my noble friend will shortly list the individuals caught by these sanctions so that the people of Myanmar, as well as those outside it, know what we have done and against whom the sanctions will bite. It would also be useful to specify the targeted assets and their value so that we can all see that these people are not only murderers and torturers but kleptocrats as well.
Myanmar is a relatively small country, and its leaders are an easy target. Hitting its generals may cause them some inconvenience—although, like the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, I should be interested to know whether any of them actually has assets or bank accounts in London. However, until China and Russia and a number of other larger countries are persuaded that supporting corrupt and cruel anti-democratic kleptocracies in Asia, eastern Europe, the Middle East or Africa is not good for their economies or the personal fortunes of their leaders, we will make very little progress, welcome as this small step may be. While congratulating the Government on these regulations, I therefore encourage them to do more.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and, like others, fear that for many in Myanmar this comes too late; they have been slaughtered by the junta. Along with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, I welcome the clear speech from the Minister.
I recall hearing Aung San Suu Kyi when she spoke to both our Houses here in Westminster Hall on 21 June 2012, as the first citizen of Asia with a long history of courage and resistance to a regime. Not one of us would have believed we would now be seeing the way that events have unfolded. We heard then of the history of unimaginable brutality in that country and of fear running through the veins of every citizen in Myanmar. We had cautious optimism then that under her leadership the people of Burma would be released from its history of violence.
Alas, that was not to be. Despite a landslide victory in the general election on 8 November 2020, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party rejected the results and, as has been said, on 1 February this year the coup happened with an imposed state of emergency. Since then, the brutality of the Tatmadaw has known no bounds. To do nothing and say nothing would be to endorse its actions.
The Minister has outlined much of what we know and described the need for sanctions targeted on the military regime. I suggest that these regulations need strengthening and that the complex politics of the region—it has close links with its neighbouring countries—needs clarification to best target the sanctions against Myanmar and particularly the military regime.
Anyone protesting, calling for the democracy that had begun to emerge a few years earlier, is a target for the regime. Medical professionals have been systematically targeted. Unable to treat patients in hospitals, they are trying to provide care in makeshift clinics, despite the threat to their own lives in trying to help others. Healthcare workers have been killed, and the regime is in breach of the First Geneva Convention relating to medical neutrality in conflict. In Yangon province alone, at least 100 medical students have been arbitrarily arrested. This is also a gross violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was ratified by Myanmar in 2017.
Despite the internet being closed down, reports have come out from Myanmar of people who are listed on the television then being taken from their homes at night, and the following morning their mutilated bodies are returned to their families. They have undergone torture. Some have been split open and their bodies roughly sewn closed, and the family is instructed to cremate them immediately. The poet Khet Thi and his wife were both arrested. When she was told to go to the hospital the following day, she found that his body had been split open and his internal organs were missing. There are reports of young protesters in the streets being shot in the head and then, groaning and wounded, thrown into the back of army trucks, never to be seen alive again. Small children have been shot, some in their own homes.
According to witnesses to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Myanmar crisis inquiry, 52% of the military hardware is supplied to the military regime by China, and the remainder mostly by India and Russia. As Britain holds the presidencies of both the G7 and the United Nations Security Council, as well as having a close relationship with Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states and others in the region, I ask the Government how we are using the leverage of these important positions to cut off the financial incentives to the junta’s regime of intimidation and terror.
My Lords, I thank the speakers who have preceded me for their contributions, all of which have been important, distinctive and supportive of what the Government are doing. The return of military dictatorship to Myanmar fills me with sadness and despair. So much hope that developed under democracy has been trampled in the dust, and violence and loss of life are widespread.
I have visited Myanmar several times, starting with a visit to refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border with the International Development Committee in 2007, when we also met representatives of exiled Myanmar activists in Bangkok. That was when the military was in full control. We learned then of the horrific atrocities committed by the army against its own citizens, including the killing of parents and children in front of each other, rape and the most brutal and degrading of sexual assaults, and severe deprivation, illness and starvation. The military knows no bounds in its depravity.
Subsequent visits over the following 10 years coincided with the transition from military to democratic rule. I went with the International Development Committee and with a cross-party visit organised by the then Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who has been a long-standing campaigner for democracy and the end of human rights abuses in Myanmar. Subsequent visits were with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to mentor parliamentary committees, and to look at development programmes. I met Aung San Suu Kyi—more than once—as well as Shwe Mann and other leading political figures.
Myanmar is complicated, and the building of democratic values has proved bumpy. Around half the population are ethnic Burmese living mostly in the centre of the country, surrounded by provinces populated by a number of ethnic minorities. This has led to a state of almost permanent conflict and civil war, which the armed forces use as justification for their intervention and control, but in return armed ethnic groups have ramped up the conflict.
The determination of young people and ousted politicians to secure their future after the current coup could see the country slide into an even more volatile and violent civil war. The peace process has made little progress and, while political reform along federal lines has been talked about, it has never been actioned.
Daw Suu carries her father’s name but, although adored by most of the Burmese, she is not an accomplished politician. She shares the prejudice that most ethnic Burmese have against Muslims, and she has been reluctant to stand up for one Burmese citizenship for all. I witnessed members of her party joining in criticisms of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine province and refusing to recognise them other than as Bengalis. I welcome the recent calls for the Rohingya to be asked to join in the resistance, but nevertheless the divisions are deep and bitter.
It was suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi was reluctant to press forward with reform out of fear of the military’s reaction. Some of her own MPs said she was distant and did not engage with them. Some may have had personal ambitions but most—certainly the ones I met—simply felt that the leadership needed to be broader than just “the lady”. Now the generals have reacted anyway, looking negatively to their poor showing at the recent elections and the NDF’s increased support, claiming, with no credibility, fraud.
It is not clear where this will end up. There were many people I had the privilege of meeting who were working to build a fairer and more inclusive society across Myanmar. Many were experienced people excluded from their professions, and many spent years in exile before returning. Throughout the period of military rule the UK remained engaged with the country, providing basic healthcare and education, of which the Tatmadaw rules deprive their own people. I hope, given the cuts to the aid budget, that we will not abandon the poor people of Myanmar, who will be hit by sanctions.
It is known that the military controls, and milks for its own benefit, most of the country’s economy. So how, if at all, can it be persuaded that it is in its long-term interests to turn away from its brutal, ruthless dictatorship? How can we ensure that the top brass suffer enough to think again? How can we protect the poor and vulnerable? Is it not correct, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, suggested, that we have to name, shame and pursue people who are identified as the perpetrators of these appalling atrocities and abuses?
How can we engage Myanmar’s neighbours to show support for the people rather than giving comfort to the leaders and helping circumvent the impact of sanctions? Instability in Myanmar has seen refugees stream into Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia, adding to pressures there. Is there common cause to bring Myanmar back from the brink?
It was thought that the military allowed civilian rule because it was weakened by the impact of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and believed that its own power and wealth would benefit from opening up the economy to tourism and investment. It never let go, of course, but what now makes it think that choking the country down is its better option?
These sanctions are welcome, appropriate and targeted but they will not be enough without sustained international action. There will be a long period of hurt, hardship and unrest—and much under-the-counter dealing will be needed—before Burma and its people can be brought back from this appalling, anarchic, brutal chaos, which sanctions may be aimed at stopping but by themselves cannot achieve. I welcome what the Government are doing but I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, that much more needs to be done and by many more countries.
My Lords, it is vital that we get the sanctions’ legal framework right so that as a country we can act with speed against those who seek to repress the population of Myanmar and who break international law. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, said, it is important that we act in concert with our allies; for sanctions to be effective, they must be internationally backed.
Recent events in Myanmar have been absolutely appalling and devastating, with more than 800 deaths of protestors and other crimes against humanity that were highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to stand up for the Rohingya people in the face of the military has been deeply troubling, but the fact remains that her party secured a landslide victory in the November election and the army’s claims of voter fraud are utterly spurious. The military coup is a flagrant breach of the constitution of Myanmar, and the barbaric killing of protestors is a scar on the conscience of the world.
I welcome the fact that the Government are seeking to make the scope of sanctions less restrictive than under the previous legislation. However, the sanctioning of Myanmar officials and military-owned companies has been too slow across the board. For example, the sanctioning of Myanma Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation did not come in until after the coup on 1 February, despite the appalling persecution of the Rohingya.
I draw attention to the leadership shown by Gambia in taking Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on allegations of genocide. The wider response from the international community, including, unfortunately, the United Kingdom Government, has been slow. The Minister in the other place, Nigel Adams, said that the Government
“have been clear about our support for the ICJ process.”
He also confirmed that the UK had
“provided funding to enable Rohingya citizens to attend the hearings in December 2019.”
and that the Government were
“monitoring developments closely, and will consider the legal arguments to establish whether a UK intervention would add value.”—[Official Report, Commons, Committee on the Myanmar (Sanctions) Regulations 2021, 27/5/21; cols. 7-8.]
What other practical support are we giving Gambia in support of the case? Precisely what are the disadvantages of the UK joining the case now? Are we not sending the wrong message by delay? The military has been emboldened by the tacit support that it has received from China; the Chinese Government simply noted the 1 February coup without condemning it, while the main state news agency described the coup as merely a “cabinet reshuffle”.
In considering further sanctions, will the Minister’s department work with NGOs, such as Burma Campaign UK and Justice for Myanmar, on getting the designations right? Clear moves to sanction military companies will be much more effective than simply sanctioning individuals in government. The Government should also use their international influence to seek to extend the arms embargo—and I welcome what the Minister said. Despite Russia and China, we must still seek to build the broadest possible international coalition.
Although I note that under the Vienna convention, the appointment by foreign states of an interim chargé d’affaires does not require UK approval, I am pleased that the Minister commended the Myanmar ambassador, Kyaw Zwar Minn, for his bravery on standing up for democracy and welcomed the strong condemnation of the bullying behaviour of the junta towards him. It is important that he is not only offered but given significant support, and I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that this afternoon.
As the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said, when the moment is right the UK should publicly declare that it is time to refer Burmese officials to the ICC via the United Nations and call on other countries to follow suit. Just because Russia and China can block the referral in the UN Security Council does not mean that the United Kingdom should be prevented from doing what is right.
Nigel Adams also said that the UK works closely with our international partners on Myanmar and we are in regular contact with ASEAN partners. He welcomed the five points that came out following their recent leaders’ meeting. Can the Minister give us further details of co-operation and action in the region?
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the shocking cuts to aid supporting the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The £27.6 million announced amounts to a 42% cut in aid to the refugees compared with what the Government contributed in October 2020. The coup makes it impossible for the Rohingya to return. The fact that the Government are cutting aid at this moment is an absolute disgrace.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their very insightful contributions and their support for the Government’s approach to an increasingly challenging situation. We heard from my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, about the hopes and aspirations of the people of Myanmar. Those who visited there saw rays of hope following the election of the first civilian Government under the stewardship of Aung San Suu Kyi. Indeed, in my previous capacity as Aviation Minister I remember being one of the first Ministers to go there after the election had taken place. The real challenge I determined was the lack of ability to govern. Basic training was required on government functions such as education, Treasury, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, we have recently seen a decline in the political space and, ultimately, the coup. I listened very carefully to the suggestions, as well as the support, that various noble Lords made on how we can further strengthen our position in this respect.
As I set out in my opening speech, the regulations give us real power to impose sanctions with real impact on individuals and entities, complementing our diplomatic and humanitarian responses to the coup. They ensure that we target not only members of the Myanmar security forces but civilian members of the junta and the economic interests that fund their activities without adversely affecting humanitarian operations. They also allow us to demonstrate that the UK will not stand by in the face of the junta’s unacceptable behaviour, recognising, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, reminded us, our important responsibility to protect something that is propagated by the UN. We are ready and willing to act as a force for good in the world and will stand by those who believe in democracy.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the ICJ case. The Government’s position, as given by my honourable friend in the other place, has not changed, but I will share a bit more detail on the ICJ referral, which I have looked at very closely. There are specific processes in the ICJ referral that the Gambia has made, including the response required from Myanmar, as I have mentioned before in your Lordships’ House. We will monitor the responses and the legal arguments once they are made available to establish where the UK’s intervention can add maximum impact and value, but I hear what noble Lords have said. I reassure them that we continue to support the action being taken at the ICJ.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked specifically about the ICC. This is something that we have often tested through channels. To go back in recent history, from 2017 to where we are today, we have seen movement at the UN Security Council under our penholder capacity, particularly on the issue of the Rohingya, whereas previously a public statement of any kind on Myanmar, but specifically on the plight of the Rohingya community, was subsequently blocked. I heard what the noble Lord said and we will of course continue to work very closely with international partners—we are great supporters of the ICC—to see how best we can act and hold those perpetrators responsible.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also rightly raised various issues about working with civil society. As I said in my opening remarks, we believe that is an important contribution. He specifically mentioned NGOs such as Burma Campaign UK and Justice for Myanmar, so we can get the designations right, as he rightly said. I assure the noble Lord that our officials are engaging directly with such civil society stakeholders, including Burma Campaign UK and Justice for Myanmar, which provide valuable insight on the ground into how we can take forward a number of these regulations.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, highlighted once again the importance of carefully ensuring the targeted effect of our sanctions to minimise any unintended impact. I alluded to this in my opening remarks but I reassure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that the licensing purpose within the context of these regulations ensures that humanitarian activity, primarily in Myanmar, is not hindered by sanctions and that the poorest and most vulnerable in Myanmar are not unintentionally affected.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, again asked about various levels of tests of controlled items of military goods et cetera. The broad use of items such as supplies is agreed through a range of regimes and is regularly reviewed. I assure the noble Baroness that we keep a very firm watch on the issue and the tests that apply to controlled items.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, asked specifically about transparency, as did my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier. I will just give some context to that. Following the coup, the United Kingdom laid new Myanmar sanction regulations to adapt to the changing context and to provide us with the greater powers that I highlighted earlier to target those involved in undermining democracy and repressing the civilian population. The new designation criteria provide expansive powers to target individuals and entities who have been involved in or supported activities, including the commission of serious human rights violations.
My noble and learned friend Lord Garnier asked specifically about frozen assets and the disclosure of information. I have a few specifics on that. The disclosure of information on frozen assets is limited to certain bodies such as financial institutions to disclose information directly to Governments and for compliance purposes. I hear what my noble and learned friend says and, as he will be aware, our obligations under SAMLA require us to provide details of those who have been sanctioned and the steps that we have taken in this respect.
Since the coup, under the Burma sanctions regime we have now remade Myanmar sanctions applying to nine individuals, including the commander-in-chief, who is also sanctioned under the global human rights sanctions regime—it is a double sanction. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, under the global human rights sanctions regime two further entities have now also been sanctioned: Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and the Myanmar Economic Corporation. I mentioned the Myanmar Gems Enterprise in my opening remarks.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the delay that may have occurred in our applying those sanctions to institutions. I assure him that they were taken once we had established the legal basis of any subsequent challenge that might take place. As he again acknowledged, he knows I strongly favour co-ordinated action with other key partners to make sure that the sanctions are most effective, as do my colleagues in the FCDO.
A number of noble Lords raised the international arms embargo and the influence that the UK can bring. The UK is a long-standing supporter of a UN embargo on Myanmar. We are clear that countries should not sell arms to the Myanmar military. In this respect, the UK played a key role in securing and strengthening an EU embargo on Myanmar following the 2017 Rohingya crisis. Since we have left the EU and it is after the end of the transition period, we have transferred this into UK law. I assure noble Lords that that UK will continue to explore all avenues to resolve this crisis and I assure the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that we are keeping this very much as a live issue on the UN Security Council’s agenda. It was the UK’s efforts that led to the council releasing a strong statement expressing specific concern at the coup.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, raised the importance of co-ordination with international partners. We have worked hard to co-ordinate our designations with partners, including, as I am sure noble Lords will acknowledge, two joint announcements with Canada and two with the US.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, asked about the effectiveness of US sanctions in constraining military actions, travel and business interests. It is our view that co-ordinated international sanctions on the military and their business interests have raised the cost of their actions and limited their ability to conduct business with the UK and the US. Sanctions have also ensured that prospective companies looking to invest in Myanmar avoid investments that benefit the junta directly and Myanmar security forces more broadly.
Obviously we will continue to work with international partners. The noble Baronesses, Lady D’Souza and Lady Finlay, gave us very detailed insights into the situation on the ground. I noted very carefully the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about the reports that are increasingly coming out of Myanmar about issues of organ harvesting and torture. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords when I say we strongly condemn the widespread use of torture by Myanmar security forces, including the horrific reports that we are getting of sexual violence. In my capacity as the PM’s special representative on PSVI, that is an area that I am looking at very carefully. I assure the noble Baroness and indeed all noble Lords that we will continue to call for those responsible for violations and abuses of international human rights law to be held accountable. That is illustrated in the language of the G7 communique of 5 May.
We are working very closely with ASEAN partners on the five-point consensus that has been agreed with ASEAN. We hope to secure strategic dialogue status with ASEAN later this year, which will allow us to further strengthen our support. I assure noble Lords in my capacity as Minister for South Asia that we work very closely with key partners, particularly on ensuring support for Bangladesh in that respect.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to today’s valuable debate. I value our debates, specifically on sanctions, as well as the ability to share thoughts, insights and future thinking with noble Lords outside the Chamber and the formalities of our proceedings. I will continue to engage with noble Lords, who bring great insight and expertise to the discussions that we have.
The situation on the ground, as has been described by all noble Lords who have participated in this debate, once again illustrates the vulnerability of democracies around the world, best illustrated by the fact that today, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza reminded us, is another day of a notable trial in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi. She brought great hope but unfortunately her own lack of recognition of the situation, particularly that of the Rohingya, was testament to the strength of the military and the coercion that it continues to exert on all democratic institutions, individuals and organisations within Myanmar. That said, we will work with international partners to strengthen the cause and we hope, through sanctions and indeed other support that we can give, to restore democracy to Myanmar. With that, and once again thanking noble Lords, I beg to move.
Committee adjourned at 6.53 pm.