House of Lords
Tuesday 8 June 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing and wear face coverings while in the Chamber except when speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Message from the Queen
My Lords, I have the honour to present to your Lordships a message from Her Majesty the Queen, signed by her own hand. The message is as follows:
“I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.”
Disability Benefit Claimants
The DWP has a range of methods in place to ensure that front-line colleagues follow the guidance correctly when supporting vulnerable customers. These include quality checking of calls with claimants, examining notes and other actions, as well as checking the technical aspects of a case. DWP staff also have clear escalation routes in place to help colleagues support vulnerable customers. These include referral to vulnerable customer champions and advanced customer support senior leaders, who can help where additional support needs are identified.
My Lords, I welcome that reply as far as it goes, but what we need to know now is what measures the Government have in place to identify vulnerable disability claimants who have died, some by suicide and some by serious harm in which the DWP or its contractors may be implicated.
We feel very sad about anyone who takes our DWP welfare and is made sick or, sadly, dies; our hearts go out to them. However, we have made a range of improvements, increasing staff awareness of the vulnerability of claimants and how to respond to that. Training now includes mental health awareness, unconscious bias training and how to manage specific vulnerabilities such as homelessness and domestic abuse.
Does the Minister agree that the problems relating to welfare benefits are less to do with staff guidance and more to do with the low levels of benefits, along with the inflexibility of the system? Does she accept that however well trained front-line staff are, they cannot compensate for a system that Disability Rights UK has described as unfit for purpose?
I am sorry, but I do not agree with the noble Baroness. Over the past 18 months we have invested heavily in welfare. The most important thing we do is to look after our vulnerable customers and make sure that they get the welfare they are entitled to.
My Lords, front-line staff will deal not only with people with disabilities but those suffering with mental health conditions. Many of these conditions may not be obvious to staff. What training do front-line staff receive on mental health conditions?
My noble friend is correct that this is also about mental health conditions. Since 2018, the DWP has provided training on supporting vulnerable customers. That training goes out to all new staff in service delivery. We have also been rolling out further training on mental health behaviour and relationships. This is supported by comprehensive guidance covering a range of different complex needs. For disability benefits assessments, health professionals will have undergone comprehensive recent training on functional disability and mental health conditions. Mental health function champions provide additional expertise to those teams within the assessment centres.
My Lords, there is a history here of the first interview not going well and not establishing the underlying problem. What training—training is not the right word—what freedom is given to the initial interviewer to say, “I do not understand everything that is going on here”, and to be able to call for help? Will this be taken as a benefit and not something that is simply slowing down the system?
I know that the noble Lord understands these systems very well. All health professionals receive comprehensive training in disability analysis, which includes an evaluation of how medical conditions affect claimants in their day-to-day activities, as well as awareness training in specific conditions. He probably knows that with regard to autistic spectrum disorder, staff are working with the Autism Alliance to develop further training specifically to help people who find those first interactions with the system very difficult. We are also putting clear markings on assessments when they are first made in order to identify those people with vulnerabilities.
My Lords, the Serious Case Panel was established only last year—2020. It has now met five times and it is going to meet very soon—later this month. The panel does not investigate individual cases; it considers themes arising from a range of sources, including internal process reviews and front-line feedback, which is important. It also agrees recommendations for organisational learning, where needed, and will assign a director-general for committee accountability for delivering these recommendations within the department. It may be useful for noble Lords to know that the panel’s terms of reference and minutes from all its meetings can be seen on GOV.UK.
My Lords, I declare my registered links with Mencap. Does the department have any staff members specifically trained to communicate with people suffering from learning disabilities? If so, does the department take proactive steps to make known to such people, and to their carers, that this facility does in fact exist?
My Lords, yes, we do. We have mental health function champions. The assessment of mental, cognitive and intellectual function is an integral part of all disability benefit assessments. Health professionals have undergone comprehensive training in the functional assessment of disabilities and that includes mental health conditions.
My Lords, we have a systemic problem. The NAO found that at least 69 suicides could be linked to problems with benefit claims and that the DWP had failed to investigate many of those cases properly or learn from them. The Minister mentioned the Serious Case Panel. I have looked at those minutes and I am sorry to say that they are so brief and redacted as to be pretty much entirely unrevealing. How can the House be assured that every recommendation from an internal process review will in future be implemented?
There are three different panels here. We have the internal review panel, which looks, as the noble Baroness said, into specific cases. Then there is an internal process review group of senior officers and leaders in the DWP who will look at the IRP actions and feed into the wider organisation. That is important. Then we have the Serious Case Panel, which considers systemic themes and issues coming from IPRs and learns from them and acts on them.
My noble friend raises an important issue. Comprehensive guidance is available to all work coaches and case managers on how to deal with threats of self-harm. This guidance applies to all methods of communication, including the online journal. When a threat of self-harm is identified, agents follow a six-point plan and I am happy to let my noble friend have that. The plan helps them take the right action, at the right time, to ensure that the customer receives the support they need.
My Lords, the Minister has given us an extensive account of mental health training. I am sure she is aware of the Z2K #PeopleBeforeProcess report which looked at PIP payments. One of the respondents to the survey behind that report said that the assessor
“noted in the report that I couldn’t have mental health problems as I wasn’t rocking back and forward.”
How does the Minister account for that statement and many others in that report in the light of the training she outlined?
Clean Energy Transition Guidance
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact their document Aligning UK international support for the clean energy transition guidance, published on 31 March, will have on international fossil fuel investment; and what discussions they have had with other Governments about implementing such guidance.
The Government are grateful for the positive response from international partners to this new world-leading UK policy position. We have held productive discussions with like-minded countries on this agenda, including through our G7 presidency and broader initiatives, such as the E3F export finance coalition. It is encouraging to see an increasing number of similar commitments from key partners, such as the United States, in aligning their support towards clean energy.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s new policy ending support for overseas fossil fuel projects, but the CDC is able to make investments in financial institutions, which, in turn, will continue to make investments in fossil fuels. How are the Government going to stop public money supporting fossil fuels in this way?
The noble Baroness will understand that the CDC has an independent board, but its policy is fully aligned with the Government’s by excluding fossil fuel investments, except under certain tightly limited circumstances. As such, the policy excludes future investment in the vast majority of fossil fuel subsectors, including coal, oil and upstream gas exploration and production. It has invested over $1 billion of climate finance in the past three years and set a target for 30% of all new commitments, in 2021, to be on climate finance.
The Government’s guidance states:
“Support for unabated gas fired power generation is conditional on: a country having a credible NDC”—
nationally determined contribution—
“and long-term decarbonisation pathway to net zero by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement”.
There are other conditions. How do the UK Government reach this determination? Is this made known to companies and published before any applications for export finance support are made? Will the Government have a traffic light system for this?
As I said, the guidance document was very tightly worded and there is a set of tightly defined criteria that must be met before any support for unabated gas power is approved. This judgment as to whether the criteria are met will be based on all available evidence sought from the relevant project sponsor, the financing institution, the partner Government and the advice of experts in the relevant department or departments. Based on this evidence, and in borderline cases with the approval of relevant Ministers, proposals will be judged either to meet the tightly defined criteria and approved or not. I am afraid I have no knowledge of the intention to introduce a traffic light system.
Will the Government use the opportunity of the G7 meeting later this week and COP 26 at the end of the year to seek international support for reform of the capital requirement and Solvency II regulations, so that risk weightings relating to the funding of fossil fuel exploration and exploitation adequately reflect the macroprudential risk that such activities pose to the international financial system and the global economy as a whole, not to mention the future of the planet?
I thank the noble Lord for his question and might write to him on some of the detail. I can say that the UK is a leader in ambitious climate action, both domestically, with the most ambitious emissions-reduction target in the group, and internationally, doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion from 2021 to 2025. This policy decision and its swift implementation demonstrate our commitment and, over the coming months, we will work closely with like-minded partners to see similar principles adopted elsewhere. When the Prime Minister launched the UK’s presidency of COP 26 in February last year, he pledged our ambition for COP 26 to be the point where the world comes together,
“with the courage and the technological ambition to solve man-made climate change”.
We want to see our policy act as a catalyst for others, while still providing finance for the right projects in countries that desperately need power.
My Lords, if, as we are told, power from renewables is cheaper than power from fossil fuels, would this measure not be unnecessary, since no developing country would want to build fossil fuel power stations? If, however, that assertion about the cheapness of renewables is a fib, and our policy is to reduce the supply of cheap fossil fuel power and to force countries to rely on more expensive renewables, how will this help poor countries to develop?
Solar and wind are indeed now cheaper than existing coal and gas power plants in most of the world. Investments in fossil fuels will become increasingly risky, including for developing countries. Shifting away from fossil fuels is compelling, from both a climate and an economic perspective. The priority for the UK is to support renewable energy as the default choice, enabling us to continue to support developing countries to meet their growing energy needs and increase access to electricity, in line with both the sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement. The UK has launched the Energy Transition Council to bring together political, financial and technical leaders, but one still has to remember that 600 million of the population of Africa have no access to any electricity.
My Lords, I am delighted to support this policy and welcome its emphasis on renewables. Will my noble friend take this opportunity to confirm that there will be a moratorium on fracking activities, either in this country or abroad, which the Government might be tempted to support? While I support helping countries urgently in need of power, it seems odd that UK Export Finance provided £47.6 million of support to build two of the largest solar plants in Spain. Will my noble friend confirm that there were no worthy projects in this country that were perhaps deprived of support from UKEF, as a result?
I can confirm to my noble friend that there is already a moratorium on fracking in the UK. I have been told that the UK also does not support international fracking. The moratorium came in following events during fracking operations at the end of 2019, and the Government confirm that we will take a presumption against issuing any further hydraulic fracking consents. This sends a clear message to the sector and to local communities that, on current evidence, fracking will not be taken forward in England. I am not sure of the exact details of the solar project in Spain, but I can confirm that export finance is given to projects where there is a significant benefit to the UK supply chain. If I have got that wrong, I will write and correct.
My Lords, in announcing the ending of support for fossil fuel projects abroad, there was mention of exceptions for some projects. I wonder whether the Minister could give a list of these or, if more appropriate, just mention a few now and write to me with a complete list.
There are a number of exemptions from this, one of which is providing support and promoting exports that improve the efficiency, health and safety, and environmental standards of existing assets. We will also support projects that assist with the decommissioning of existing fossil fuel assets and support gas power where it is part of a credible emissions-reduction plan, in line with the Paris Agreement. This goes back to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, on how we will evaluate these projects. The investment must not delay or diminish the transition of that country to renewables and there must be no risk of it becoming a stranded asset due to climate change factors.
The Mozambique project is one of huge controversy. It was supported by UK Export Finance in July 2020 under previous policies and would not be approved today. It has now contractually committed to that support. UKEF will continue to monitor that situation closely. All support provided by UKEF has been in line with the scope of the new policy since March, which ends new direct financial or promotional support for the fossil fuel energy sector, other than in the limited circumstances I have outlined. It aligns support with clean energy.
My Lords, one of the many exemptions to the policy is for countries that do not have a reliable or complete electricity grid—for example, Nigeria, where the UK recently invested in a gas and diesel power company. Do the Government intend to put an end date on this exemption or will we continue to support fossil fuel-generated power indefinitely?
I know that there are agreements in the policy to review it at certain intervals and I suspect that we will allow these exemptions until the next policy review. But, as I said, there are 600 million people in Africa with no access to electricity, and we cannot hold back development where we can assist by providing some form of grid or power system in the interim.
Destination Management Organisations
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role destination management organisations can have in support the recovery of the (1) national, and (2) international, visitor economy from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; and what support they are providing to such organisations.
My Lords, in March the Government commissioned an independent review of the destination management organisations in England to look at these issues. The review is ongoing and will report later in the summer. It will make recommendations on how DMOs might best be structured and funded to support the post-Covid recovery of the tourism sector. Last year, the Government provided £2.3 million in financial support to England’s DMOs so that they could continue to carry out vital business support roles during the pandemic.
I thank the Minister for that response. Local connections and knowledge of place are key for DMOs. Does the Minister agree on the importance of community-based action for DMOs and that freedom from hierarchical structures is key in helping them undertake their role effectively—for example, freedom from the constraints inherent in local government structures and strengthening connections with LEPs, town funds and future levelling-up opportunities?
The noble Lord will be aware that there are several different models of DMO, but the Government recognise the point that he makes about the important role that DMOs currently play in supporting local communities, sharing their expertise and building connections across destinations. The review will consider the points he raises, taking into account current examples of best practice, and will make recommendations based on that.
The Government recognise and regret the disruption to travellers, particularly those who had been planning trips to Portugal recently. We have provided £2.3 million in the last year specifically to support the destination management organisations in recognition of their crucial role.
My Lords, in this country we are very lucky to have so many museums and art galleries that are free to the public. And yet, on occasion, DMOs have included in the list of things they can do for visitors “entry into the British Museum”, et cetera. Will the Government undertake not to support any organisations that market themselves in this way?
My Lords, local authorities deserve praise for their work during the pandemic to promote staycations: getting people to fall back in love with the great British holiday either by exploring new places in our rich and varied country or revisiting childhood destinations. Are the Government considering giving these hard-pressed councils and destination management organisations additional financial and other support, at a time when the UK desperately needs to grow domestic tourism and the hospitality industry is suffering?
The noble Baroness will be aware that the Government have given huge support—over £25 billion—to the tourism, hospitality and leisure sectors. We made an additional grant of £425 million specifically to local authorities, making clear that tourism and events were eligible for that funding, at the discretion of local authorities.
My Lords, a recent survey of tourism businesses by the Tourism Alliance highlighted some severe staffing problems: only 18% of businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector say that they have enough staff, and almost one-third have had to reduce their capacity, services or hours because they simply cannot get the staff. What action are the Government taking with DMOs to rectify this situation, which is wrecking the recovery not just of the tourism industry but of local economies?
The noble Baroness makes a good point, but the picture is slightly more complicated than the one that she paints. She is right that there are areas of shortage, but in significant portions of the industry staff are still on furlough. There are great geographic variations on that, and we are working closely with the sector to assess how we can respond to the challenges it faces.
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how the stronger towns funding, the future high streets fund, the levelling-up fund, the UK shared prosperity fund, the welcome back fund and the coastal community fund are being co-ordinated to provide a coherent strategy for tourism and, specifically, for seaside towns?
I thank my noble friend for highlighting the varied and sustained support that the Government have been offering in the range of funds that he cited, some of which have been available since 2019 and others which are yet to be launched. We are working across Whitehall and with local and regional stakeholders, including DMOs, to make sure that ongoing investment in places reflects their local priorities and needs.
My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, there is a question about how much the Government appreciate the important role local authorities should be playing in the visitor economy. The news of further job losses for visitor and museum staff, such as the 50% losses currently threatened in Harrogate Borough Council, is hugely worrying. Local authorities need to be given the resources to do the job intended for them.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that regional transport authorities have an important role to play in welcoming and facilitating both national and international tourism? I am thinking, for example, of the sorts of visitor welcome centres that Transport for London has habitually maintained at major London rail termini. Will she take steps to ensure that funding is directed at keeping these in operation?
The Government recognise the role that regional transport authorities can play in providing information and assistance to visitors, as my noble friend has outlined, particularly when they co-ordinate that work with the DMOs. I have already mentioned the £25 billion provided to support the sector, which has been one of the worst hit; we have supported over 87% of businesses in this area.
The Government’s support in that respect is very welcome. One of the themes of these questions is greater co-ordination between DMOs and greater co-ordination of funds. Are the Government planning a big domestic marketing campaign, given that Matt Hancock has turned us into a captive audience for domestic tourism?
We are currently working with VisitBritain, VisitEngland and local partners, including DMOs, to champion the diverse tourism offer we have in this country through the Enjoy Summer Safely campaign. We spent £19 million on domestic marketing activity last year, and much more is planned for this year.
My Lords, given that many visitors wish to see international artists, how much does the noble Baroness think this question is bound up with post-Brexit rules on touring, and the difficulty of getting artists to this country and getting our artists to other countries?
My Lords, in its recent submission to the Independent Review of Destination Management Organisations, the Local Government Association proposed that local councils should be given the power to reinvest the money generated by tourism into their local areas. Can the Minister comment on whether this recommendation will be supported by the Government, since local councils need to pay for the facilities to support such tourism?
NHS Digital: Primary Care Medical Records
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the plans by NHS Digital to collect primary care medical records; and in particular, the arrangements for (1) patient consent, and (2) the sharing of patient data with third party organisations.
My Lords, data saves lives. We have seen that in the pandemic, and it is one of the lessons of the vaccine rollout. The GP data programme will strengthen this system and save lives. That is why we are taking some time to make sure it is as effective as possible, so the implementation date will now be 1 September. We will use this time to talk to patients, doctors and others to strengthen the plan, to build a trusted research environment and to ensure that the data is accessed securely.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the Minister’s reply, especially hearing that this is all to be put back until 1 September. That is a very good decision, because we have heard that patients have not been able to get their GP to accept the information on the form for them to opt out of the proposed system. The system is not working at the moment, and we are very concerned. There was a thought that the system would be anonymised, but that is not what is proposed. It is pseudo-anonymisation, with NHS Digital having the capacity to identify individuals. There is no capacity for people to unanonymise. It needs a really thorough rethink. I very much congratulate—
I am enormously grateful for the noble Baroness’s endorsement of our decision to delay the rollout. As the absolute epitome of the patient safety cause, she knows more than anyone the importance of data to that cause. I completely endorse the points she made.
My Lords, informed consent is at the heart of good patient care. Can the Minister tell us what plans Her Majesty’s Government have to inform patients that they have the right to opt out of having their personal medical information collected in this way? How will this be advertised?
My Lords, engagement with the Royal Colleges, the BMA and GPs on a one-to-one basis has brought about a system that has a national data opt-out and a tier 1 opt-out with GPs. This is fully explained in all our materials and there has been a campaign to raise awareness among patients. We are taking a brief pause to ensure that patients have almost as much time as they could possibly have to make the decisions they would like to make. That is a wise decision in the circumstances.
My Lords, by coincidence, I received a text from my GP surgery yesterday inviting me to click on a link if I wished to opt out of having my data shared. I do not. Does the Minister agree that data sharing plays a vital role in advancing diagnosis and cures for a range of diseases and illnesses? Of course we need to ensure that there is public trust on anonymity. Can he give us more information on that and on cybersecurity?
I am grateful for the noble Lord’s anecdote. It is no coincidence that he got the text yesterday. We have energetically promoted this opportunity to patients and we are grateful to those who have engaged. He is entirely right. Patient data played a critical role in the development of the shielding list during Covid, in the recovery clinical trials programme and in the vaccine priority list. Clinical data is essential for patient safety. That is why we are modernising the system by which we access it.
My Lords, the choice on the opt-out preference form is either:
“I do not allow my identifiable patient data to be shared outside of the GP practice for purposes except my own care”,
“I do allow my identifiable patient data to be shared outside of the GP practice for purposes beyond my own care.”
The big question is: what is identifiable? For some people with disability, mental health and/or trauma histories, data might be easily identifiable. I knew nothing of this until last week. I await with interest the noble Lord’s reply.
The nature of the data is very explicitly described in the documents that the noble Baroness will have referred to. If she likes, I would be very happy to send her a full set of details. Of course, many patients have engaged with the process and, like the noble Lord, Lord Young, have made the wise decision to remain enrolled in the system.
My Lords, my honourable friend Jon Ashworth called for this delay yesterday in the Commons. It is not often that we can say thank you to the Minister at such short notice, but it is very welcome that the Government have agreed to this delay. The eighth Caldicott principle—I assume that the Minister is aware of the principles—makes it clear that it is important that there are no surprises for the public around how confidential information about them is used. If GP data can be used by a third party, be they public or private, how will that principle be fulfilled?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. As she knows, there is an incredibly rigorous system for ensuring the safe curation of this data, and I pay tribute to the Caldicott Guardians, the ICO and the IGARD board, which has put in place a very tough and rigorous surveillance system to ensure that all the data sharing that goes on within the NHS complies with the legal requirements and the guidelines laid down by law and by the NHS. These are tough conditions and they are applied very rigorously.
My Lords, it is a relief to hear that there will be a delay, but I am astonished that the Government have left it this late. When will the data protection impact assessment for this be published, and will the Minister place a copy of the DPIA in the House Library, so that Members can read NHS Digital’s own statements about the privacy risks and the impact of the programme? It might help the ICO in its deliberations about whether the system proposed is safe.
My Lords, I am fully behind the sharing of information, for the reasons that the Minister explained. But does he agree that to ensure public confidence, the Government have to do something about the current clunky opt-out approach that they have taken and make it easier, and publish the names of the companies to whom this information will be given and what they are paying for it? The Government must not hide behind commercial confidentiality. We as patients have an absolute right to know this.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the opt-out system deserves to be looked at. We are undertaking a review of the opt-out system to streamline it along the lines that he described. However, he peddles a slightly false impression. There are extremely detailed considerations in the IGARD minutes, available online—39 pages from the last meeting—which go into great detail on the arrangements for the sharing of each piece of data. On payment for the data, I remind him that—as I am sure he already knows—these are payments for costs and not payments for any kind of charge. All data is shared for very strict reasons to do with research and planning. There are no other reasons for sharing the data.
My Lords, we urgently need better flows of clinical data between different parts of the NHS, but the public are understandably anxious, given the well-publicised data leaks and thefts of recent years, and particularly given that the proposed scheme is not limited to the NHS but includes external third-party commercial enterprises. Why have the Government done so poorly at explaining to the public the need for such information flows and the health benefits that they bring? Why have they not, at least in the first instance, constrained the sharing of data more narrowly, in order to build up the necessary degree of public confidence?
My Lords, I contest the premise of that question. I have not had a single complaint from anyone who has had the vaccine or been on any prioritisation list for the vaccine. Tens of millions of people have had it and they embrace the fact that their clinical data was used to roll out the vaccine. I accept the noble and gallant Lord’s point on explaining. We can do more to explain to the public. We want to engage the professions and the public in a story about how they can use their clinical data more emphatically. On the way in which the data is shared, it is already extremely tightly controlled. I would be glad to go through that with the noble and gallant Lord if that would be helpful.
G7 Global Tax Agreement
Private Notice Question
My Lords, the reforms agreed by the G7 countries include a global minimum tax of at least 15% and changes to profit allocation rules that mean large digital companies will pay more tax in countries where their customers are located, including the UK. The detailed design of the new rules is still under consideration, so it would be premature to provide revenue estimates. When the rules are implemented, the revenue impact will be formally assessed and certified by the OBR.
I congratulate the Chancellor and the Government on reaching this landmark agreement. It is a positive step towards a global level playing field and an end to the unjust practice of offshoring. While this is a welcome starting point, does the Minister agree with the Chancellor’s assessment that this is a fair deal, given that the proposal now outlined clearly favours high-income countries at the expense of lower-income ones? Would it not be fairer for the Government to pursue a path on which additional tax revenues are distributed without preference being given to the countries in which multinationals are headquartered?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for his words of welcome. This is indeed a significant agreement. I disagree with his assessment of what has been agreed so far. It will benefit all countries, including lower-income countries. As he will know, this is not the end of the process. A key part of this process so far and going forward is the OECD inclusive framework, which means that less economically developed countries have an equal voice in the final agreement to those that are more economically developed.
My Lords, the global tax agreement is to be welcomed, despite inevitably leaving some unanswered questions. As we know, the agreement was struck among the G7—generally the most sophisticated and prosperous of Governments, with more developed tax systems. The tax avoidance industry has yet to be put loose on the detailed proposals to see how resilient they are. Concerns have already been expressed about a loophole being identified, with minimum tax applying only to profits exceeding a margin, and different business models—
My Lords, as I just said to the right reverend Prelate, the UK robustly supports the BEPS initiative being taken forward by the OECD’s inclusive framework group, which includes more than 100 jurisdictions and ensures that less economically developed countries have an equal say in developing international solutions. I assure the noble Lord that the UK Government also put resources into developing countries to help them to build the tax resources they need, so that they can ensure the effective enforcement of rules and collection of taxation.
My Lords, a lot of the attention has been on the minimum tax rate announced as part of the agreement—I hope the Government will not be tempted to go above the 15%—but more important than the rate is what will be taxed. Does the Minister agree that the UK must not allow global rules to override our freedoms to incentivise investment through things such as freeports and super-deductions?
I reassure my noble friend that the UK Government’s freeports will not be affected by this announcement. Freeports are not about corporation tax directly but are designed to support a wide range of businesses with a wide range of tax offers focused on local regeneration, such as full relief from SDLT, enhanced capital and building allowances, business rates relief and NICs relief.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the US has used its might and played a blinder? Countries such as the UK will of course see increases in tax revenues under the new global corporate tax schemes, but the overwhelming winner is the US Treasury. Could a better system to benefit the UK—and indeed many other countries, including developing countries—have been devised?
My Lords, I am afraid I again disagree. The agreement we have reached, although only at a G7 level, is hugely significant and represents progress on work that started five years ago on this initiative but a lot longer ago under other initiatives. A key part of that work for the UK has been the inclusion of both pillars of this agreement. That is something the US had not always signed up to and is a key shift in its position from previous negotiations.
The initiative of President Biden, supported by the G7, is very warmly to be welcomed, but a number of potential loopholes have already been exposed—for example, that this tax would not apply to profits below 10%, when it is perfectly possible for companies to manipulate their figures so that in particular countries their profits are below 10%. Are the Government committed to closing off all those loopholes, so that these big corporations really do pay their fair share of the tax?
My Lords, I emphasise again that the G7 agreement was a really important milestone in progressing this international work on tax. It is only the first step towards that agreement, and there is much more detail to be worked on. The next step will take place at the G20 next month, when more details will be discussed with a wider range of countries.
I will pick up on the point made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. While we all welcome the progress made, does my noble friend not agree that companies, such as Amazon in particular, will generate less than a 10% margin, mainly due to their monopolistic position, therefore avoiding the tax? Would it therefore not be sensible to retain the digital services tax and beef it up so that the tax cannot be passed on to suppliers, as is currently the case, and more importantly so that profits made on goods sold outside the marketplace are also fairly taxed?
My Lords, I cannot comment on individual companies. As part of the further work we are doing, we are considering how pillar 1 will apply to groups that have different activities and business lines, some of which may meet the scoping criteria and some of which may not. Pillar 1 is designed to respond to concerns around international tax rules not adequately dealing with digital businesses generating profits in countries where they do not have physical presences. Online sales businesses are not necessarily within that. We recognise the concerns about tax treatment of online retailers; that is why we are doing other work across the tax system, such as the fundamental review of business rates. In the call for evidence we asked about the scope and potential impacts of an online sales tax, for example.
My Lords, that is also subject to ongoing negotiations, including at the G20 next month. I assure the noble Lord that the digital services tax is intended to stay in place until we have implemented the new international agreement, not just agreed it in principle, so those revenues will continue to flow.
My Lords, could my noble friend answer the question that was put previously: is it not the case that the US is the main beneficiary in tax revenues from this? Could she deal with the point about Amazon? She says she cannot deal with particular individual taxpayers, but the whole point of this measure is to deal with Amazon, which is destroying retail businesses across the country because they have to pay rates. On the digital service tax, could she confirm that Amazon reacted to it by simply passing on the 2% to its third-party retailers, and that there was no disadvantage to it at all? As my noble friend Lord Leigh has pointed out, Amazon would not be covered by this measure. How can you enter into a deal without knowing the detail in advance?
My Lords, as I have said, a lot of the detail is still being worked out. However, I reassure my noble friend on a number of fronts. As part of the work on the detail of the agreement, we are considering how pillar 1 will apply to groups that might have different business lines, some of which may fall within the criteria and others outside them. I would say to both my noble friends, as indeed I did, that the agreement is designed to address specific concerns about digital companies, or companies that do not have physical presences in the countries where they have activities. We are doing other work to address concerns around online retailers; for example, I mentioned the fundamental review of business rates that the Government are currently undertaking.
My Lords, as the Minister has said, these are very early days. From the information that she has given us today in reply to very specific questions, we are not sure whether we have a framework that is good, bad or indifferent. It is a bit like the curate’s egg: it is good in parts. Could she give us some idea of when the discussions will be sufficiently refined so that Chancellors of the Exchequer in national countries can begin to consider the income stream that they have to assist with their own domestic problems of fixing a budget?
My Lords, perhaps I can clear up some ambiguity. The Government view the agreement that we have reached this week as completely good and in the interests not just of developed countries but of developing countries. It is a significant agreement. It is the first time that there has been G7 alignment on the core parameters of a two-pillar solution to this issue. It sets out the scope and effect of pillar 1, a minimum rate of corporation tax across the world and the application of that minimum rate on a country-by-country basis. So there is a level of detail but there is more work to do. As I have said, the next stage of that work is in July at the meeting of the G20.
My noble friend has rightly said that the next stage is that G20 meeting. What assessment have Ministers made, and what assessment was made at the discussions last weekend, of the likelihood of countries outside the G7 agreeing to these plans without some changes having to be made?
My Lords, we recognise that this represents the basis of a potential agreement and compromise between different countries, but obviously it is important that those countries have their say and their voice in the process. The fact that this is the first time the G7 have been aligned behind a set of parameters provides important momentum but there is more work to do.
My Lords, I assume the Government did some economic modelling before entering into this agreement and making a written promise to abandon the digital sales tax upon the implementation of pillar 1. If so, when will the Government publish the details of their modelling so far so that we can examine their policy in detail?
My Lords, the digital sales tax was always intended to be a transitional approach. The UK Government’s preferred solution has always been an international agreement. We are only part of the way through negotiating that but the agreement reached at the weekend represents important progress.
My Lords, I can reassure a number of noble Lords that the noble Lord is correct that we will be removing the digital services tax only once we have full agreement and a plan for the implementation of a new international system. That is the position of the UK and it is supported by several other countries in the negotiations, such as France and Canada.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision for leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom to be granted to the family members of refugees and of people granted humanitarian protection; and to provide for legal aid to be made available in such cases.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Ludford, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Onshore Wind Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision about planning applications for onshore wind installations.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Hayman, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Agricultural Exports from Australia: Tariffs
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 27 May.
“Our trade agreement with Australia is very likely to be the first from-scratch deal that we have struck outside the European Union. It is a major milestone for global Britain and a major prize secured for our newly independent trade policy. It is on course to slash tariffs on iconic UK exports, saving business potentially about £115 million a year.
The deal will be the most advanced that Australia has struck with any nation bar New Zealand, and will, we expect, be particularly forward-leaning in areas such as services, procurement and digital trade. It will be a great deal for the UK, and our farmers will continue to thrive. The agreement is a gateway into the massive CPTPP—Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—free trade area in the Asia-Pacific, and opens doors for our farmers into some of the biggest economies of now and the future.
Our food is among the best in the world and incredibly competitive. We should be positive about, not fearful of, the opportunities that exist for our agriculture and our farmers. We give the EU preferential trading terms, which I do not recall those on the Opposition Benches objecting to. We should be unafraid of giving our Australian cousins something similar, taking the chance to deepen trading ties with one of our closest friends and allies.
Australian meat is of high quality and produced to high standards, and it arrives here in low volume. Meanwhile, Australia has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. The UK accounts for just 0.15% of Australian beef exports, and our analysis suggests that any increase in imports is more likely to displace food arriving from the EU. Any deal we strike will contain protections for our farmers, any liberalisation will be staged over time, and any agreement is likely to include safeguards to defend against import surges. Negotiators are now working to agree the outstanding elements with the aim of reaching agreement in principle in June.
This is not the end of the process. Later this year, Parliament will be given ample opportunity to scrutinise the agreement—we welcome scrutiny of the agreement—as well as any legislative changes that may be required before the agreement enters into force. Parliamentarians will also receive an independently scrutinised impact assessment. Mr Speaker, you will know that our scrutiny arrangements are among the most robust, and in line with other parliamentary democracies. Indeed, in some areas we go further still.
This will be a great deal for our United Kingdom. It will deliver big benefits for both countries and will help us build back better from the Covid pandemic. I commend it to the House.”
In the UQ Answer, the Government were adamant that:
“Any deal we strike will contain protections”
and said that
“any liberalisation will be staged over time, and any agreement is likely to include safeguards”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/5/21; col. 549.]
Can the Minister now provide any details? Has any information been provided? We need to know the elements of any agreement now.
Is there any independent governance of trade deals and tariffs? Your Lordships have received any number of letters co-signed by the Minister and his counterpart in Defra; there was one dated 1 November on trade and standards. Does any parliamentarian have access to independent and expert advice when reviewing the impact of each trade deal on agriculture? Is there any impact assessment? Is there any trade and agriculture commission to provide any report? Why is there any disagreement in Cabinet? Why do the Secretary of State for Defra and the previous Secretary of State disagree? Does the Minister have any answers?
The noble Lord has made a number of points, but I will deal with the most significant. On the TAC, both the Agriculture Act and the Trade Act require the trade and agriculture commission to be in operation before the FTA is implemented. It is currently being established and expressions of interest to assemble the commission are out, so it will be able to report on the Australia free trade deal if it comes into effect. That report will be made available to the House. On safeguards, of course we recognise the need to reassure farmers and rural stakeholders that our market access proposals will not threaten sensitive sectors. The deal will include safeguards to defend the industry against import surges and the precise details of these are still being negotiated.
ONS data from two weeks ago showed that the UK lost £1 billion in goods exports in just one month in January to our nearest trading partner, Ireland. This is more than the entire £900 million gain the Government are forecasting over 15 years for their agreement with Australia. The Government’s own scoping document stated:
“A trade agreement with Australia could increase UK GDP in the long run by around 0.01% or 0.02%”.
The EU scoping exercise for its own agreement with Australia in 2018 suggested 0.01% to 0.02%. Can the Minister explain why the Government are failing to secure any increase on their agreement with Australia than the UK would have had before Brexit? Why has there been such a collapse in trade with our nearest neighbour and trading partner, Ireland?
With due respect, I do not think January can be taken as a representative month. I do not think any trends are yet fully established. As noble Lords know, there was some stopping beforehand and there was particular disruption as people got used to the new system. With regard to the Australia free trade agreement, we intend to secure reductions in tariffs on UK exports to Australia, which will save UK businesses millions of pounds. The deal will support over 15,300 business which already export goods to Australia, and I am sure the noble Lord would like to welcome this.
My Lords, will my noble friend accept congratulations on the fantastic work he has done on negotiating this trade deal together with Liz Truss, the Secretary of State, who seems indefatigable in her energy? Could he perhaps remind the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, of the enormous benefits this deal will bring to the Scotch whisky industry—not least in having tariff-free access to Australia, but also in opening the door to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will offer huge opportunities to Scotland’s biggest export industry?
I thank the noble Lord for his kind words, which I will certainly pass on to my colleague the Secretary of State. The noble Lord is completely right: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which this is a gateway to, will be of huge benefit to UK businesses big and small. This is something we should all welcome.
My Lords, following on somewhat from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, how will the Government include Northern Ireland in the Australian agreement if it is unlikely that the EU will accept Australian meat and phytosanitary standards?
As noble Lords know, the Northern Ireland protocol is still subject to discussion and refinement between the parties. Clearly, Northern Ireland stands to gain in many ways from a trade agreement with Australia; for example, machinery and manufactured goods account for around 90% of all goods exported from Northern Ireland to Australia and are used extensively in Australia’s mining, quarrying and recycling sectors. These exports will certainly benefit from reduced tariffs in this deal.
My Lords, as MP for Kilmarnock, the home of Johnnie Walker, I lobbied for the lifting of all tariffs on Scotch whisky, so I welcome an FTA with Australia that removes that 5% tariff—but not at the price of unfettered access on beef and lamb, which NFU Scotland says will devastate family farms and is wholly unacceptable to farmers and crofters. Bearing in mind what Brexit has done to the Scottish seafood industry, despite repeated government assurances, is Ministers’ rejection of what they say are farmers’ invalid fears based on an objective impact assessment, or is it just an alternative opinion?
My Lords, as a fellow whisky drinker, I share the noble Lord’s sentiments. Fears about a flood of cheap imports affecting our agricultural sector are, with due respect, overstated. Australia, of course, is a much smaller market than the EU so we expect low volumes with high standards. For example, we currently import 250,000 tonnes of beef each year, with 91% coming from the EU and 190,000 tonnes from Ireland alone. Less than 1% of Australian beef exports come to the UK market. Even if that figure was to increase, as we expect it will, it will still not dent these much larger figures from the European Union.
My Lords, I draw attention to my registered farming links. Is the Minister aware that the president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales, Glyn Roberts, has written to the Prime Minister stating that if Welsh farmers were to employ the land and management practices commonplace in Australia they would face prosecution or even imprisonment? Michael Gove has previously stated that importing meat in such circumstances represented a red line that would not be crossed. Why have the Government betrayed that pledge?
My Lords, I am not familiar with the letter the noble Lord refers to, but I will make sure to study it after this Question. As I said earlier, we do not believe that this deal will mean a flood of cheap imports. We will use a range of tools to defend British farming. I want to emphasise the opportunities that this deal will give to British farmers in terms of their exports, whether they are large or small and whichever part of the United Kingdom they come from.
My Lords, we do not reduce tariffs on imported food as a favour to Australia, we do so as a favour to ourselves—which may incidentally happen to benefit some Australian exporters. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that reducing the cost of food makes everybody better off, especially people on low incomes for whom the food bill is the highest proportion of the monthly budget? In doing so, this gives us more money to spend on other things and thereby stimulates the whole economy.
My Lords, this trade agreement contains an ISDS mechanism, which provides private corporations with the right to bypass the laws and courts of both parties. During the passage of the Trade Bill, the Minister confirmed government support for reforms to the ISDS through the UN Commission on International Trade Law’s proposals for a multilateral investment court. Can he update us on progress?
My Lords, the precise details of the UK-Australia free trade agreement are a matter for ongoing negotiations. In respect of ISDS, the UK Government consider the inclusion of ISDS provisions in FTAs on a case-by-case basis and in light of the unique UK-Australia investment relationship. We are huge investors in each other’s markets and appropriate ISDS will benefit investors on both sides.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many noble Lords are absolutely thrilled at the announcement that this deal is about to be agreed? If we are to grant the European Union unfettered tariff- and quota-free access to the United Kingdom market, what possible objection could there be to allowing the same to Australia—an advanced, civilised country with high standards? There can be no objection at all. Does my noble friend agree that if the National Farmers’ Union continues to resist every change consequent on Brexit in such a curmudgeonly fashion, it will be losing and forfeiting opportunities for its own farmers and members to export throughout the world and, in this case, to Australia?
My Lords, my noble friend is completely right. We should all recognise that British beef and lamb are among the best in the world and the Australia-UK FTA will bring new export opportunities to British farmers. We should be proud that the UK produces high-quality premium produce that is globally sought after. A deal with Australia is a gateway to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and there will be a growing demand for UK meat in these markets.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Covid-19: Government Handling and Preparedness
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 27 May.
“What we have done to handle this coronavirus pandemic has been unprecedented in modern times. Throughout, we have been straight with people and this House about the challenges that we as a nation face together. The nation, in my view, has risen to these challenges. Of course, there were unprecedented difficulties that come with preparation for an unprecedented event.
This pandemic is not over yet. Our vaccination programme has reached 73% of the adult population, but that means that more than a quarter still have not been jabbed; 43% of adults have had both jabs, but that means that more than half are yet to get the fullest possible protection that two jabs give.
Yesterday, we saw 3,180 new cases of coronavirus—the highest since 12 April—but thanks to the power of vaccination, in which I have always believed, the link from cases to hospitalisations and deaths is being severed. About 90% of those in hospital in hotspot areas have not yet had both jabs, so the continued delivery of the vaccination effort and the ongoing work to control the virus through testing, tracing and isolation are vital.
Yesterday, we saw the opening of vaccinations to all those aged 30 and above. I am delighted to tell the House that the vaccination programme is on track to meet its goal of offering a jab to all adults by the end of July. It has met every goal that we have set. Setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in government.
As a nation, we have many challenges still to come. I know, and one of the things I have learned, is that the best way through is to work together with a can-do spirit of positive collaboration. The team who have worked so hard together to get us this far deserve our highest praise. I am proud of everyone in my department, all those working in healthcare and public health, the Armed Forces who fought on the home front, the volunteers who stood in cold car parks with a smile, colleagues across the House who have done their bit and, most of all, the British people. Whether it is the science, the NHS or the people queuing for vaccines in their droves, Britain is rising to this challenge. We have come together as one nation, and we will overcome.”
My Lords, research released for Carers Week makes sobering reading. During the pandemic, 72% of carers have had no break whatever and, of those few who have had a break, many used the time for housework or their own medical appointments. With the risk of a third wave still a cause for anxiety, what plans are in place, or indeed in development, to ensure that unpaid carers can have restorative breaks and that their needs are at the heart of the Government’s plan for social care reform?
My Lords, I absolutely join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to all carers, particularly unpaid carers, who have shouldered a huge burden in the past 18 months. The role that they have played has been a real example of the sense of service and commitment that characterises the social care community in this country. We have put in place a large amount of resources through local authorities and payments to local authorities to support carers. That has helped in infection control and to reduce the itinerant nature of some social care in order to prevent the spread of the disease. But it is undoubtedly true that the burden on unpaid carers remains immense, and we continue to support, both through local authorities and through charities, the work that they do.
My Lords, in the national Carers Week, it is worth remembering that the 2017 report on Exercise Cygnus said:
“Local responders also realised concerns about the expectation that the social care system would be able to provide the level of support needed if the NHS implemented its proposed reverse triage plans.”
It also recommended that local support should be developed and planned for social care and health. Was that recommendation put into practice? Were the concerns expressed by local responders borne out last year? Will the Government now publish their internal review of pandemic preparedness to ensure that the lessons have been truly learned?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is entirely right. It was known at the very beginning and it was clearly understood that those in social care—and those who support those in social care—were in the gravest possible danger in such a pandemic, and we were focused from the beginning on giving them the right amount of support. The Cygnus report correctly identified that, and that was why we put provisions for social care into our action plan from the very beginning. It is unfortunately a truism that those who are most vulnerable are, I am afraid, at greatest risk from such a pandemic, and those who support the vulnerable will shoulder a huge burden. That is why we have put in a large amount of resources to support those people and why, when the inquiry comes, we will undoubtedly focus on how we can improve those processes.
My Lords, I will move on to another point. At the end of May, Portugal was deemed safe to host the Champions League final; five days later, it was not, despite 100,000 tests by the authorities with only six positives. This caused tens of thousands of people and businesses horrendous disruption and distress. Will my noble friend, on my behalf, kindly remind the Secretaries of State for health and transport that using emergency powers with no debate and with both Houses not sitting yet again is wholly unacceptable and can no longer be tolerated?
My Lords, I completely share my noble friend’s frustration at the situation. Of course we all enormously regret the fact that our efforts to open up international travel were unfortunately reversed because of the presence of dangerous variants of concern in the Portuguese community—in this case, particularly the Nepal variant of concern. However, I cannot agree with her that quick decisions based on accurate data are not appropriate in the depths of a pandemic. It is absolutely right that we move quickly to close down a change of transmission and that we protect the vaccine from variants that may present a severe danger to this massive national project.
My Lords, this is rather relevant to the previous question: how many additional Covid cases in the UK were caused by the delay in closing our borders to travel from India after we knew about the new variant? Is the Minister making representations to the Prime Minister and appealing that no such delay should occur again as variants emerge in different countries across the world, to protect the health of the people of the UK?
My Lords, I am not sure whether I have the data that the noble Baroness has asked for. I also contest the premise of her question. We have moved extremely quickly when presented with clear data, as my noble friend rightly pointed out, and I hardly need go over the timelines for the decisions around Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, which have been gone over many times indeed. I reassure the noble Baroness that we are absolutely determined, at this delicate phase of the pandemic, to ensure that our borders are extremely tough and that we do whatever we can to keep the variants out. At the same time, we are cognisant that people do have commitments overseas and we are leaning, wherever we possibly can, to opening up the borders.
My Lords, does the Minister recall the independent review by Dame Deirdre Hine, presented to the coalition Government in 2011, which said:
“The planning for a pandemic was well developed, the personnel involved were fully prepared, the scientific advice provided was expert, communication was excellent”?
She reported on the exceptional level of preparedness the UK had attained. Why, by 2020, had all that careful preparation by our Labour Government been so catastrophically eroded, despite the fact that the pandemic remained top of HMG’s risk register?
My Lords, I am not sure that any Government, even the Labour Government in the noble Lord’s time, could claim to have some kind of forecasting ability that could possibly have predicted the precise shape and impact of this pandemic. Even now there are things about this virus that we do not know. At the beginning, in January, February and March, the precise features of this virus were not fully understood, and it was not possible to prepare for this particular pandemic in its precise shape and nature. To pretend otherwise is doing this House a disservice.
My Lords, I will follow on from that. The Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces are often accused of being prepared for the last war rather than the next one. In truth it is impossible to be ready for the next war unless, of course, you intend to start it. The best you can achieve within finite resources is to be ready for “a” war, not “the” war. You must then adjust what is inevitably a generic preparedness to meet a specific set of circumstances. Might the department of health’s preparedness for a global pandemic be more sympathetically viewed if this important subtlety were better explained and better understood? Might the criticisms that are made therefore be more objectively assessed as those that are fair and those that, frankly, are somewhat vacuous?
My Lords, we will need to wait for the inquiry for a thorough post-mortem on what was or was not thoroughly prepared for. It is fair to say that the developed nations of the world had invested a huge amount in modern clinical medicine, yet that did not serve to prepare us for the precise circumstances of a respiratory pandemic. I pay tribute not only to those in the public health profession but to those in the military, who did so much and moved so quickly to deliver the kind of protection that this country has benefited from during the pandemic.
My Lords, when the pandemic hit this country, one of the reasons we were so badly hurt was the shortage of intensive care beds, the number of which had been run down progressively for many years, despite the World Health Organization pointing out the inherent dangers in that. So could the Minister say, without waiting for the inquiry, what our policy on intensive care beds is now?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness probably knows, we are investing hugely in new hospital capacity, but I would question whether it was simply the lack of ICU beds that was at the heart of the challenge. The truth is that this was a virus that hit our population massively, and even if we had had double the number of ICU beds, we would have been hard hit and could not have avoided the kind of NPIs that eventually stopped the virus in its tracks. Modern medicine can do many things, but it cannot fight a virus from the wardroom.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 7 June.
“I would like to update the House on our work to beat this pandemic and to make sure that the world is prepared for the pandemics of the future.
Tomorrow, we mark six months since the world began vaccinating against Covid-19 at Coventry Hospital. In that time, we have vaccinated over 40 million people here in the UK, and 2 billion doses have been delivered across the globe. As of today, 76% of UK adults have been vaccinated at least once, and 52% of adults have had two jabs. The pace of the vaccine rollout has been extraordinary. This Saturday alone, the team delivered over 675,000 jabs, and I am delighted to be able to tell the House that, from this week, we will start offering vaccinations to people under 30, bringing us ever closer to the goal of offering a vaccine to all adults in the UK by the end of next month.
From tomorrow morning, we will open up vaccination to people aged 25 to 29. Over the remainder of this week, the NHS will send texts to people in those age groups, and, of course, GPs will be inviting people on their list to come forward. I am sure we have all been cheered by the images we have seen of so many eligible young people coming forward and lining up to get the jab, showing that the enthusiasm for the jab is not just the preserve of older generations. The people of this country know what it takes to keep themselves and the people around them safe. The latest estimates indicate that the vaccination programme has averted over 39,000 hospitalisations and over 13,000 deaths. So the vaccination brings us hope, and I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking people for their perseverance and patience as they have waited for their turn.
For all that great progress, there is no room for complacency. The delta variant, first identified in India, has made the race between the virus and the vaccination effort tighter. Although the size of the delta variant’s growth advantage is unclear, the recent best scientific estimate is of an advantage of at least 40% over the previously dominant alpha variant—the so-called Kent variant. The delta variant now makes up the vast majority of all new infections in this country.
Over the past week, we have seen case rates rise, particularly in the north-west of England, but we know also that our surge testing system can help hold this growth. In Bolton, case rates over the past fortnight have been falling. We have expanded the approach taken in Bolton to other areas, and we will roll it out to other areas as necessary. I encourage everybody in those areas to get the tests on offer, no matter where they live. Regular tests can help to keep us all safe, and we know that the test, trace and isolate system has a vital role to play in keeping this all under control.
Of course, the most important tool we have is that vaccination programme. We know that the vaccine is breaking the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths—a link that was rock-solid back in the autumn. Despite the rise in cases, hospitalisations have been broadly flat. The majority of people in hospital with Covid appear not to have had a vaccine at all. I want to update the House on some new information that we have on this. As of 3 June, our data show that of the 12,383 cases of the delta variant, 464 people went on to present at emergency care and 126 were admitted to hospital. Of those 126 people, 83 were unvaccinated, 28 had received one dose and just three had received both doses of vaccine. We should all be reassured by that, because it shows that those vaccinated groups, who previously made up the vast majority of hospitalisations, are now in the minority. So the jabs are working, and we have to keep coming forward to get them. That includes, vitally, that second jab, which we know gives better protection against the delta variant.
The confidence in our jabs comes from the fact that they are working and the knowledge that they are the best way out of the pandemic. No one wants our freedoms to be restricted a single day longer than is necessary. I know the impact that these restrictions have on the things we love, on our businesses and on our mental health. It is still too early to make decisions on step 4. The road map has always been guided by the data and, as before, we need four weeks between steps to see the latest data and a further week, to give notice of our decision. So we will assess the data and announce the outcome a week today, on 14 June.
I know that these restrictions have not been easy. With our vaccine programme moving at such pace, I am confident that one day soon freedom will return. To do this, we must stay vigilant, especially at this time when schoolchildren are returning to classrooms after the half-term break and when we are seeing the highest rises in positive cases among secondary school-aged children. With schools returning today, it is vital that every secondary school-aged child takes a test twice a week to protect them, to help keep schools open and to stop transmission. That is crucial to stop the spread and to protect the education of their peers. While the evidence shows that the impact of Covid on children is usually minimal, we also know that there is higher transmissibility among children, so the message to all parents of secondary school-aged children is: please get your child tested twice a week to help keep the pandemic under control and to help on the road to recovery.
The House will also be aware that our independent medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, has conducted a review of the clinical trial data for the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. Having already concluded that the vaccine is safe and effective for people over the age of 16, it has also now concluded that the jab is safe and effective for children aged between 12 and 15, with the benefits of vaccination clearly outweighing any risks. I can confirm to the House that I have asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the committee that advises us on immunisations, to come forward with clinical advice on vaccinating 12 to 17 year-olds, and we will listen to that clinical advice, just as we have done throughout the pandemic.
People in this country know that vaccines are the way out, but this pandemic will not be over until it is over everywhere. This week, the Prime Minister will host G7 leaders in Cornwall, where he will work to persuade our allies to join the UK in our historic commitment to vaccinate the whole world against Covid-19 by the end of 2022. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has already proved to be a vital tool in this effort, with more than half a billion doses now released for supply around the world and, crucially, delivered at cost. In my view, this approach—providing vaccines at cost—is the best way to vaccinate the world. Developing a vaccine and allowing countries to manufacture it at cost is the greatest gift that this nation could have given the world during the pandemic.
In Oxford, ahead of this week’s G7 leaders’ summit, I met G7 Health Ministers and guests from some of the world’s largest democracies. Our new clinical trials charter, agreed in Oxford, will help end unnecessary duplication of clinical trials and ensure greater collaboration across borders, resulting in faster access to approve treatments and vaccines. We reached agreement with industry leaders to cut to just 100 days the time that it takes to develop and deploy new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. As a result of what we have agreed in Oxford, there will be people who will live who otherwise might have died, and I can think of no greater outcome than that.
In summary, beating this pandemic is not only an international imperative but a domestic duty that falls on each one of us. We must keep up the basics, such as hands, face, space and fresh air, get regular tests and, of course, when we get the call, get both jabs, because that is the way that we can stop the spread and get out of this and restore the freedoms that we hold dear safely and together. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for this update today and congratulate him on yet another long stint at the Dispatch Box.
We face some uncertainty, as we often have throughout the past 15 months, but we know the delta variant is now the dominant variant in the UK; we know that 73% of delta cases are in unvaccinated people; we know that one dose offers less protection against this variant; and we know that, although hospitalisations are low, an increase in hospitalisations will put significant pressures on the NHS as it tries to deal with the care backlog. We also know, of course, that long Covid is significant and debilitating for so many people. As the Statement makes clear, this is a race between the vaccine and the new variant. I therefore invite the Minister to narrow the timeframe between the first and second dose, given that we know that one dose is not as protective as we would like. We have seen that Wales will be vaccinating everyone who is over 18 from next week. Could the Minister tell us when England will follow?
We all know about the outbreaks among schoolchildren and young people. We know that children can transmit the virus and that children can be at risk of long Covid. In that context, why is mask wearing no longer mandatory in secondary schools? It is good that the JCVI will be looking at vaccination for children. Could we please know the timeframe for when the JCVI will report?
I turn to Nepal. UK Ministers justified the decision to move Portugal from green to amber in the travel list owing to the threat of the new Nepal Covid variant—a mutation of the delta variant—which experts believe may have the potential to make vaccines less effective. Some 23 cases of the Nepal variant have been detected in the UK, up to 3 June. Can the Minister confirm whether these cases are all associated with travel, particularly from Portugal?
In this, Carers Week, from these Benches we join the Minister in paying tribute and are grateful to the 6.5 million people who are carers. Making caring visible and valued is the aim, and this year of all years we need to support them in doing so. Our carers across the country have faced huge challenges during the pandemic; three-quarters of them confess to being exhausted, and a third confess to feeling unable to manage their caring responsibilities.
I am sure the Minister has already read the report produced by the Commons Health and Social Care Committee which addresses the issue of NHS and care staff in England being so burned out that it has become an emergency that risks the future of the health service. This is a highly critical report which said that workers are exhausted and overstretched because of staff shortages. It said that the problems existed before the pandemic, although coronavirus has made the pressures worse. It reports that one of the main problems is that there was no accurate forecast of how many staff the NHS needed for the next five to 10 years—something that we know as “workforce planning.” NHS workers, traumatised and exhausted, need to know there is a solution on its way to fix staff shortages. When will there be an NHS and social care workforce plan? How will the Government respond to the urgent situation that this report reveals? How will the NHS stop the haemorrhaging of its staff, which is already happening?
Combined with all this is the fact that we know that the NHS estate is in urgent need of attention and investment, and so Labour is today calling for a new rescue plan. Data also reveals the scale of the pressure on hospitals before the pandemic and how much worse it is now. Freedom of information requests show that the pressure on A&E was already very serious, with waits in ambulances jumping by 44% in the year preceding the pandemic. We know that the underfunding of the NHS, and the unpreparedness of the UK for a pandemic, has been paid for by people’s lives and by the exhaustion of our NHS. Surely these things call for a long-term NHS rescue plan, with the staff, equipment and modern hospital facilities that we deserve.
I turn briefly to the issue of data again. I record that I welcome the delay in proceeding with this proposal from the Government, but I think the Minister and the Government need to address the transparency that is vital around two things. The first is that somebody should be able to retrieve their data if they want to and pull it back; and the second is that, if their data is being used by a third party, they need to know who that party is, what the data might be used for and who benefits from that. My contention has been, for many years from this side of the House, that NHS data is a gigantic asset that we have that can be used to benefit the world, but we need to make sure that it is the NHS that benefits from the sale of our data—not private sector companies or individuals but our NHS.
Finally, I recently visited the Covid memorial wall myself. I would like to ask the Minister whether he has visited the wall of red hearts that we have opposite Parliament. The Covid memorial wall is immensely moving and a poignant reminder of the scale of loss that we as a country have experienced. Does the Minister believe that the wall should become a permanent memorial? If not, what should be a permanent memorial of the loss that we have sustained?
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I also want to thank the Minister for his long stint at the Dispatch Box, yet again.
I want to start with the issue about consultation on NHS Digital patient data, which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, just alluded to. In 2013, the Government wrote to every household to explain the care.data project. This new scheme has had no such communication with the public. As people hear about it, they are increasingly concerned about the breadth of data that will be captured. Will the Minister agree to use the delay to ensure that every adult in England is written to as a matter of urgency, including an opt-out form they can use if they so choose?
I also want to pay tribute to our health workers and carers—paid carers and especially the unpaid carers—who have gone not just the extra mile over the last 14 months but a whole marathon. Can the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to help the exhausted staff and carers who know that there are many miles still to go before we are through this? Help is needed right now for them in an emergency plan that does not just focus on getting back to work as normal.
The Minister is right to say in the Statement that there is no room yet for complacency. The delta variant will not be the last variant trying to wriggle between those who are protected and those who are not. We are concerned that there is not a focus on communicating to the public about how we need to find a way to live with Covid circulating, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said yesterday. We have moved into Covid being endemic, and the public will want and need to know what they should do over the next few months.
Communication about the vaccine figures is cheering to hear, but still too many Ministers talk about the one-dose level, not the two. The Minister in the Lords, to his credit, usually make that point, but the Prime Minister and many other Cabinet Ministers do not make it clear that we need 90%-plus of adults to have had two doses before we are anywhere near safe, and that social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing will still need to happen.
I thank the Minister for giving more information yesterday on the isolation support pilots. He said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 7/6/21; col. GC 202.]
That is still only £50 a day if you are expected to self-isolate. If you are told to isolate on a Monday, and usually work nine to five, this works out at £7.81 per working hour—less than the minimum wage. If the minimum wage is the very minimum that the Government believe an individual can live on, why are they paying less than this to people for doing the great public good of self-isolating? What about people who work in risky occupations and have been told to isolate multiple times over the last year? For them, it is not just one period of 10 days.
From these Benches, we believe that the Government need to pay people’s wages. Now that fewer people should be required to self-isolate, as community cases are lower, we should be diverting resources to really get right what the Government have been getting wrong all along. We must stop Covid in its tracks. Examples from other countries show that paying wages has a strong and demonstrable effect.
On international travel, the red terminal at Heathrow is an improvement, but there are still issues with those arriving from amber countries, who are asked to jump on public transport to get home and need to travel in various ways before they are tested, once in this country.
Given the increase in cases of the delta variant among primary-age pupils, would the Minister outline what measures are being taken to prevent transmission in schools? When will the JCVI report on vaccines for 12 to 17 year-olds? Are any plans beginning to consider whether vaccination should happen for the under 12s? We strongly echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about mask wearing in schools. Is this really the right time to stop that happening?
Finally, I note that the consultation on vaccine and testing certificates has closed. Will the Minister say when the Government will publish their plans following that consultation? What type of legislation will be brought in on this, and will Parliament be able to see and comment on any regulation prior to it being enacted?
My Lords, I am thankful, as ever, to both noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, for thoughtful and challenging questions. I will try to deal with as many as I can.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the narrowing of doses. May I remind her that for those classed as vulnerable and those aged over 50, the dose period has been narrowed from 12 weeks to eight weeks. We are giving some latitude in the areas of special enforcement for the narrowing of the doses. I completely endorse her points on that and reassure her that plans are afoot. As for moving the age group to those aged over 18, our instincts are that the JCVI prioritisation process has worked extremely well. It is clear, it is fair and it has been effective. In conversation with those at the G7, I received a huge amount of admiration from other countries for how well that prioritisation process has gone. Therefore, we are reluctant, at this very late stage, to jump the gun on that, but I take her point that particularly those in areas where the infection rate is ticking up may benefit from early vaccination. Therefore, we constantly look at and review that point.
As for vaccination of children in schools, raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton, as they know, the MHRA has given its approval. The ball is now in the JCVI court. We are going to wait for it to pronounce. The state of our vaccine supplies means that we do not have a supply for children at hand right now, so there is scope for a really thoughtful conversation on that. When the JCVI has pronounced, the Government will engage on its recommendations, but I do hear, loud and clear, the obvious support that it has in this House.
As for the Nepal variant, I cannot say exactly how much of it came from Portugal, but it is true that it was present in the UK before Portugal was green-listed, so I think it is fair to say that not all of it came from there.
Moving on to NHS staff, I completely pay tribute to the contribution of NHS staff and those who work to support the NHS, social care and public health. I recognise completely the picture painted by the noble Baroness: many feel exhausted and burned out. Our focus is therefore on recruitment and the recruitment of more GPs and nurses is going extremely well. I would be happy to share updated statistics on that if it would be helpful. The work plan—the NHS People Plan—has within it a clear outline of the kind of workforce planning that we have in place. That is something that the recruitment programme has fully embraced.
I agree that the pressures on A&E, and on acute late-stage interventions from the NHS, have been rising for years—for decades. This is an unsustainable model in the long run, which is why this Government are fully committed to the prevention agenda. We have put in place plans for the Office for Health Promotion. That will be the device for using data to support our prevention agenda, and we will be working particularly with local authorities, and increasingly through the NHS, to ensure that we are putting in place measures that improve the nation’s health and that we do not just focus on those who are already extremely ill.
Moving on to data, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind comments. I completely agree that transparency is absolutely right. We want to be as transparent as possible, with both the professions and the public. These are complex issues. I accept that we could do better to improve our communications. We will be using this two-month hiatus as energetically as we can to engage the public and the professions in the changes that we are bringing about. They are changes that are absolutely essential for any modern use of data to promote resource allocation—when it comes to the workforce, as the noble Baroness rightly pointed out—and for research. I really would encourage all noble Lords who are interested in this to look at the minutes of IGARD. Noble Lords will see exactly which data uses are being sanctioned, and will be amazed by the extremely high-level, science-led research programmes that the GP data is contributing to. It will reassure noble Lords that this is an extremely well guarded and thoughtful process, and a massive asset to the nation. I agree with the noble Baroness that our data is a huge national asset; it is there to benefit patients and is mainly used for clinical trials and for planning within the NHS. That is right and I can reassure her that that is the way we intend to continue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about mental health support for care workers and NHS staff. I reassure her that we have put in a huge amount of support for NHS staff: 10,300 calls have been made to the helpline, there have been 4,600 conversations on the national line and 200,000 downloads of the app, and 500,000 have engaged through the web page. The provision of mental health support for NHS staff has been extremely helpful for those stressed by the last few months, but we continue to invest in that area.
I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that those receiving isolation payments are still eligible for their benefits. They will get support from housing benefit and other benefits if they qualify.
The noble Baroness asked about schools. The use of testing to protect schools has been one of the phenomenal success stories of this pandemic. There have been 65 million tests deployed since January, and a million tests were deployed on Sunday alone. That is both to break any chains of transmission within schools and to protect the opening of schools, which every parent in the country knows is an essential objective of our pandemic response.
On certification, we are making an enormous amount of progress. That is a Cabinet Office lead. When the plans have been crystallised, they will be published, and I am extremely hopeful that we will be able to make progress.
Lastly, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned the memorial wall. I am aware of it and have seen very moving pictures. I have not yet visited the wall, but I will take this prompt to go. While I am not across the future plans for the wall, I am grateful for the suggestion and will take it up.
My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, could the Government try to get back the initiative so that we are talking about a health service and not constantly talking about Covid? I have some numbers: 114 people are in hospital with the delta variant. Of those, 83 are unvaccinated, 28 have had one dose and just three have had two doses—114 in total. This morning, the cancer support unit released some new figures: referrals are down by 350,000 over the year, there is a backlog of 40,000 new patients, and the survival rate is back to 2010 levels. We have this completely out of kilter, and it is largely because the Opposition are obsessed with it. I ask the Minister to go back to the department and try to reclaim the huge tragedy of unmet need in the National Health Service that has built up because we have done nothing but prosecute Covid. We have to learn to live with it.
My Lords, I completely understand my noble friend’s concerns, but I do not accept that we have done nothing. It is quite wrong to suggest that the NHS has done nothing but Covid. In fact, I am incredibly impressed by how well services have been maintained during an extremely difficult period. Were he to join clinicians in the NHS or the department, he would know that there is a laser-like focus on catching up. I remind him that there were 1.86 million urgent referrals and over 470,000 people receiving cancer treatment between March 2020 and January 2021—that is not doing nothing. An extra £1 billion is being used to boost diagnosis and treatment across all areas of elective care. On 25 March, NHS England published its 2021-22 priorities and operational planning guidance, and there is a Minister-led group under Minister Ed Argar, which is absolutely focused on the restart in cancer care in particular. I reassure my noble friend that there is a focus on this, and we are doing everything we can to get through the incredibly important backlog of work that needs to be done.
My Lords, the Statement confirms that a continued increase in vaccinations is essential to defeat the new delta variant, which has now become dominant. I believe it is the six-month anniversary of the first vaccination, so I congratulate the noble Lord on the progress so far. Has he considered consulting behavioural scientists about what incentives might create a greater vaccine take-up, as has happened to some extent in the United States? Also, there are still many vaccine sceptics out there who are influenced by conspiracy and other ridiculous scare stories propagated deliberately on social media. Can the noble Lord reinforce the Government’s message with a campaign to vaccinate for victory on the very same platforms that are carrying the negative messages?
My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s comments. Yes, we are engaged with behavioural scientists, but I reassure him that lotteries for vaccines are not on the cards. Taking vaccines into communities has proved an extremely effective measure. I led a call with council leaders in the north-west—from Lancashire and Greater Manchester—and there I heard about the effective use of small mobile units and tents to bring vaccination teams into either religious or community settings to make it easier to get a vaccine. That simple measure appears to be a really winning formula, and one that we are investing in in a very big way.
My Lords, I echo my noble friend Lord Balfe’s figures on Covid-19 hospitalisations: of the 114 people in hospital, just three had received both doses of vaccine. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the best approach the Government can follow is to continue with an urgent and comprehensive vaccination programme—with the further easing of restrictions secondary to the goal of a successful national vaccination campaign—using, not least in local communities, positive influences in communities wherever possible? Will he also accept the thanks of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes for the positive approach the Government and the International Olympic Committee have taken to ensure that athletes and their support staff will be vaccinated before leaving for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo?
I am extremely grateful for my noble friend’s comments on the Olympics, and we wish our Olympic champions all the best luck. We keep our fingers crossed for Tokyo, under very difficult circumstances. On the vaccination programme, he is entirely right: positive influences are key. It has been interesting that the positive influences we think have made the biggest impact are not necessarily only the celebrities—they are community influencers who work in clinical settings and are present at a grass-roots level in communities. That is why a large volume of videos, endorsements, community meetings and answering quite reasonable, but sometimes very sensitive, questions from the public have been the essence of our vaccination communications programme. It seems to be extremely successful: the younger age groups seem to be stepping up for the vaccine in proportions that we could not have believed possible some months ago, and we hope very much that this will continue.
My Lords, my 13 year-old son is a chorister at Truro Cathedral, where they have composed a song, “Gee Seven”, which 25,000 children across this country and others will sing online to G7 leaders tomorrow. He says the thing that they want most is for the parents and grandparents of children in poorer countries that have not had access to vaccines to get the access that parents and grandparents have had in this country, so that those other children can feel safe about their families. Will the Minister and his colleagues think about that before vaccinating teenagers in this country, who are not at great risk? The COVAX programme is currently 192 million doses short of its targets for supporting poorer countries. Incidentally, if that is not enough morally, he might also consider that so long as we are not successfully vaccinating in these poorer countries, the chances of new and more dangerous variants coming to this country and causing deaths again are all the more likely.
My Lords, the noble Lord points out a dreadful dilemma that is on our minds all the time. I completely agree with his point that supporting those in the developing world is a priority and responsibility for those of us in the developed world. His son is entirely right that we should be thinking very much of those who are vulnerable or in urgent need as we consider our vaccination programme. But our responsibility as a Government is to the British people. We must look after the British people first, and there is no benefit to anywhere in the world if Britain comes close to shaking off this awful virus but falls over at the last minute because we have not seen the job through. We intend to support COVAX in the way he describes—in particular, the manufacturing of the vaccine in regional hubs. There, the AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccine has played a critical role. The profit-free availability and generous licensing arrangements being offered by AstraZeneca are having a huge impact on the global rollout of the vaccine. In the meantime, we are absolutely driving through the vaccine programme here in the UK, in the knowledge that, if Britain can emerge safely, that is of benefit not only to British taxpayers and patients but to the whole world.
I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as Deputy Colonel Commandant Brigade of Gurkhas. I thank my noble friend for his part in ensuring the Government’s swift response to the plea for help from Nepal in the delivery of some essential medical supplies. But there is one element missing: vaccines. Given that the Government have committed, via the COVAX consortia, to deliver 2 million vaccines to Nepal, and given that my noble friend has just said that vaccinating the developing world is a priority, I simply ask him why the UK cannot deliver those 2 million doses of vaccine bilaterally now and simply net them off our contribution to COVAX in future.
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for his advocacy on behalf of Nepal; we are all extremely moved by the stories from Nepal and the challenge that it has had from Covid. We are extremely supportive of his initiative for both medical supplies and the vaccine but, as I said, there is a sequencing challenge here. Our priority as a Government is the British people. It is important that we see the job through. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out, there is a threshold to which we need to get the British public to ensure that the R rate remains below one and that the new India variant, or any other variant, does not run amok and drive up hospitalisation in the UK. Until we have reached that point, we must focus on the job at hand. In the meantime, and in parallel, we are doing absolutely everything we can to grow global manufacture of the vaccine and ensure that countries such as Nepal receive secure and reliable supply. My noble friend should be reassured that we are absolutely firm in that commitment.
My Lords, we have often heard it said that we will not all be safe until the whole world is safe. Today, UNICEF, the children’s charity, is lobbying the G7 Ministers, asking for an ongoing distribution of vaccines to poor and developing countries, rather than supplying surplus vaccines at the end of our programme, because they may not be able to use them in the best possible way at that stage. Will the Minister, further to the answers he has already given, go back to his ministerial colleagues and the Prime Minister and urge them to please undertake that global vaccination programme, along with other G7 countries, now? The WHO said yesterday that inequitable vaccination is a threat to all nations.
I completely endorse the sentiments of the noble Baroness and can absolutely reassure her that this is top of the agenda for the G7 leaders’ meeting later this week. The Prime Minister will absolutely be ramming home the message that she put extremely well. Roughly 1 billion vaccinations have been done around the world so far; that leaves another 7 billion or 8 billion to do. We need manufacturing on a scale that the world simply does not have today to see that job through. That is why the UK has contributed so much through the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is a wonderful, portable, cheap and flexible platform for creating vaccines for the world. We are ensuring that that magic source is available to all those who can contribute vaccine manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world. In the meantime, we will ensure that any capacity that we have after we have done the British public is made available, but we have to see the job through here in the UK. It would be utterly counterproductive if the UK, having got so far, tripped over at the last hurdle.
My Lords, having spent much of the Whitsun Recess trying to do my best to support the beleaguered hospitality sector in west and north Yorkshire, two messages rang out loud and clear: first, the problems that many establishments are facing with staff shortages, in part due to Covid restrictions, which are affecting levels of service; and, secondly, the absolute calamity for many establishments if the lifting of Covid restrictions is delayed beyond 21 June. Can my noble friend therefore assure the House that, in taking what I accept are finely balanced decisions about lifting restrictions, the plight of our hospitality sector and the livelihoods of those who work in it will be properly considered?
I pay tribute to those in the hospitality and related sectors—both those who manage and those who work in it. It has been one of the toughest aspects of this awful pandemic to see these valued and important industries really hammered by the closures that have been necessary to stop the transmission of this awful disease. I hear my noble friend’s message absolutely loud and clear. We are on the final slopes of this journey. We want to ensure that, when we open, we stay open and there is no yo-yoing. That is why we are committed to looking at the data in the run-up to 21 June. His point is extremely well made, and we will definitely take it on board.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and, in doing so, pay my respects to all carers, particularly those unpaid carers, without whom many more may have perished. I have two points. First, how are the Government encouraging GPs and hospitals to monitor and collect information on patients who may be concerned about or reporting long Covid symptoms without knowing it, and those who may be complaining of or experiencing post-vaccination effects? Secondly, now that the JCVI recommendation is being considered for vaccination of 12 to 15 year-olds, the Minister will be fully aware of the major concern aired by parents—who are all over the radio, with their views and questions—feeling confused about informed choices. Can the Minister assure all parents that, if vaccination is approved, they will be given the fullest information available on the potential side-effects, and that no parent who may choose to opt out of the vaccination for this age group will be pressured or demonised?
I am enormously grateful to the noble Baroness for raising in the same breath the importance of secure data arrangements and the question of what we are doing on long Covid, because we could not do what we are doing on long Covid if we did not have access to GP records. The truth is that we are doing an enormous amount. Long Covid, as the noble Baroness knows, is touching more than 1 million patients here in the UK. We have got NICE to take steps to put in place a really clear clinical definition. The NHS has mobilised Covid-specific clinics, which we acknowledge are under pressure but which are an extremely valuable resource for understanding this dreadful condition. NIHR has mobilised research resources, and I pay particular tribute to Great Ormond Street and its CLoCk research project, which is looking at long Covid among children—something which of course concerns us all. Lastly, the royal colleges have done an enormous amount to present both new data and training tools to their members and to feedback information from the front line. Long Covid will be one of the lasting and most concerning aspects of this dreadful pandemic, but we are putting everything we can into dealing with the consequences.
My Lords, may I once again raise with my noble friend an issue that I have been returning to for some months now? When are we going to ensure that all those who attend to the most intimate needs of residents of care homes are vaccinated? There are still far too many who have refused vaccination; it should be a condition of employment that they are vaccinated. My noble friend has indicated sympathy with this point of view, but nothing has yet been done.
While I am on my feet, as we have plenty of time and we are allowed to raise two points, why was the advice to choral societies changed after 17 May? Suddenly, 2 million singers and 40,000 choirs can only rehearse with six people indoors. This has caused enormous distress and the cancellation of many performances. It has damaged morale in places such as Lincoln very significantly.
I pay tribute to my noble friend. He was an early bird in championing the vaccination of social care workers. He has made his point clearly and has definitely influenced policy in this area. I would like to reassure him that it is simply not the case that nothing has been done. A review is going through the matter at the moment. This is not something, I am afraid, that could be implemented by government fiat; it is important that we go through the process, not least to maintain people’s trust. One of the aspects of the successful vaccine rollout is that we have not behaved abruptly. We have not sought to admonish or to demonise anyone who is hesitant about taking the vaccine. Instead, we have sought to engage, and that is the reason why we are going through an extremely thorough review and engagement programme. I completely understand my noble friend’s frustration that this cannot be done more quickly, but I would like to reassure him that, on balance, this is the way in which to get the task done in the most impactful and effective way that we can think of.
On choral societies, I completely sympathise with my noble friend’s point. I was at Garsington Opera on Sunday, and my spirits were lifted by the sound of the singing in that wonderful place. I have only the assessment of the PHE officials to hand; it has become clear that the dangerous presence of aerosols in the air has been the really effective transmission mechanism for this dreadful disease. It is just an unavoidable and inescapable truth that people singing their heads off will fill a room with loads of infectious aerosol, and that is the reason why this decision has been made. It is regrettable, and I understand the consequences and I have been contacted by many who are concerned and affected by it. But I would like to reassure my noble friend that it has been done for the best reasons and for, I believe, very strong scientific reasons.
Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development etc.) (England) (Amendment) Order 2021
Motion to Agree
That a Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development etc.) (England) (Amendment) Order 2021, laid before the House on 31 March, be annulled because it introduces a significant policy change without being subject to sufficient parliamentary scrutiny; it affects the ability of communities to have a say in important changes to their local areas; and it does not present an effective or sustainable solution to the housing crisis (SI 2021/428).
Relevant document: 52nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Session 2019-21 (special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as a member of Kirklees Council and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I thank the Minister for taking part in this debate. I am sure he will give a clear explanation of what he believes this piece of secondary legislation will do. However, until today, none of these significant changes has been the subject of political debate either in this House or in the other place. As a negative instrument, this piece of secondary legislation would have sailed into law without any further ado. My colleagues and I between us have extensive experience of planning matters, particularly as they impact individuals and local communities. We believe that legislating for significant changes to planning law in this way, by stealth and without public scrutiny, is totally inappropriate in a democracy.
The report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee drew this conclusion:
“Given that the changes made by this Order are permanent and may have a considerable impact on high streets and the development of key infrastructure, such as schools, colleges, universities, prisons and ports, the instrument again raises the question whether it would have been more appropriate to make these changes in a Bill, enabling Parliament to scrutinise the changes and their potential impact more fully. This is particularly apposite as the instrument also puts the Government’s approach to protecting historic statues, including those which may be controversial, on a statutory footing.
This Order is drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that it is politically or legally important and gives rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House.”
I concur completely.
Those are the reasons why I have tabled a fatal Motion against this statutory instrument. To be clear, I am not opposed to the process enabled by the general permitted development order, which permits some planning changes without a full planning application process. The process of permitted development has been successfully used for some time. The Government, though, have gradually increased the number of planning changes that can be made without full local consideration of the impact on communities. With this SI, there is a considerable extension of permitted development rights to include, for instance, major extensions to schools and prisons. Permitted development explicitly removes the right of the voice of local people, often those directly affected, to be heard and considered. People care deeply about the place they live in and want to be able to voice an opinion.
This instrument permanently extends permitted development rights in four further ways. There is an extension of the right to change shops, offices and commercial buildings to residential use. This has been enabled by the changes made by an SI last year that altered the planning use classes, whereby all shops except small local ones, offices, cafes, gyms and some commercial properties were moved to the same planning use class and thus more easily given permitted development rights to move to residential use.
Some minor caveats are proposed. Prior approval of the local planning authority has to be given in some instances. Those relate to noise and transport impact—but just those related to rights of access—and ensuring space standards and even adequate light. Who would have thought that that needed to be controlled? Of course, it is good to regenerate town centres by enabling more residential use. Some of us have been arguing that for several years but this order is not the way to go. Shop fronts could be changed to residential and the cohesive attraction of a high street completely lost. These changes are permanent and apply equally to conservation areas, which have special protection under planning law. A full planning application would enable such issues to be more readily and openly resolved.
In a further insult to leaseholders who are currently fighting the Government’s complete intransigence on safeguarding them from developers’ fire safety failings, the Government note that prior approval to consider fire safety issues will not be part of the instrument and will be added later. Fire safety as regards changes to residential use is seen as an afterthought. Yet, changing offices to residential use will have considerable implications for fire safety.
The instrument also enables schools, colleges, universities and prisons to expand by as much as 25%. That is a large extension for, say, an average high school of 1,000 pupils. Just think of the consequences in terms of traffic and, more importantly, school admission planning. Growth in one school is often at the expense of another, which is harmed as a consequence. The idea that this huge change can be made less bad by submitting a travel plan that is unenforceable, which it is hoped will be sufficient to quell the anger of local people at a significant rise in school traffic, cannot be and is not a serious proposition.
Port facilities can be built and extended just by saying so. There will be no consideration for local people and certainly no opportunity for them to have their say.
Meanwhile, in the fourth part of this statutory instrument, statues and monuments are being protected by the requirement for a full planning application and for the Secretary of State to be informed of any changes. Statues to the respected and the notorious are to be fully protected but the rights of people to have their say on major changes in their communities are to be removed by the flick of a pen.
In my experience, earlier extensions of permitted development are not going well for the Government. The right to erect 25-metre mobile phone masts without any ability for local people to amend the outcome caused outrage in one of the villages that I represent as a councillor, as did the right to build an extra storey on to a retirement bungalow in a street of retirement bungalows. People just want the right to influence what happens in their neighbourhood or wider community. It is what you expect in a democracy.
The Motion that I am proposing is definitely not to hinder change and halt development but is aimed at ensuring that individuals and communities are engaged and involved in planning decisions that affect their lives. Any argument that suggests that this is all about the speed of planning decisions ignores factual evidence that shows that planning decisions are currently made within reasonable timescales—set by the Government—and are of the same timescale as those that require prior planning approval. I urge Members to support my Motion for the sake of good governance and the democratic process. I beg to move.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd and chair of the Heart of Medway Housing Association. I should make clear that at the appropriate time I intend to divide the House on my regret Motion.
It is extremely disappointing that this order is before us. I concur with many of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. However, sadly, it is how the Government operate, with scant regard for communities, the need to make their areas sustainable or, frankly, any understanding of what a stable community actually is. The order is another example of the Government’s inept planning policy. I have stood here so many times in recent years discussing orders, planning Bills and so on. They are just non-stop and I am sure we will be back again. The Government are completely inept in what they are doing.
Imagine if the roles were reversed. The noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, would be standing up and demanding, “You must let local communities have their say. How dare you do this?” I am sure that he would make the arguments that I am now giving. The Government have no interest in what local communities want to do. The noble Lord should know because he has been the leader of a council, whereas I have been only a member of a council. He knows how much councillors are the voices of their local communities and how much the local community wants to engage with its council. What we have here pushes all that to one side. It will hold back our high streets and open the floodgates for poor-quality housing in towns, cities and villages across England with no regard for what communities actually want.
What happened to localism? That word has disappeared from the Government Benches recently. There is nothing about that any more. Now Whitehall will decide and you will do as you are told. Localism was another fad from the Government—another slogan that has now gone out of fashion.
The country is in desperate need of affordable housing. We talk about it all the time. This order does nothing to achieve that. Instead, what we have here is a developers’ charter that removes powers from locally elected representatives and hands them to Whitehall-appointed boards. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said, there is virtually no scrutiny whatever, just a negative Motion before the House. There is no legislation here. The Government are not prepared to put it in front of the House of Commons. It is only because we have tabled the regret Motion and the fatal Motion that we are actually debating these issues. The Government are running scared from debating them.
There are three main reasons why I have tabled this regret Motion and I will set them out. I believe that this order will hold back communities. First, it takes away from local people and locally elected people the ability to make their points known. Local councillors know their area best. They are the right people to decide. Instead, we are transferring powers to Whitehall-appointed boards. It shows contempt for local representatives. More than that, is the Minister actually saying that the boards and the Government know better than local councillors and local people? Surely, he is not saying that at all. Local communities know their interests and their needs and know what needs to happen in their area.
The second concern from these Benches is the risk of swathes of poor-quality housing appearing as a result of this order. We have enough poor-quality housing in this country. We have a housing crisis, as the Minister knows. We talk about it all the time in this House. This will do nothing at all to help that. We need good-quality homes and this, sadly, will do nothing to deliver on that.
The third point is about how it seems acceptable to let it go through with little scrutiny in Parliament. The risk is that we will see retail units being converted to low-quality flats. There is no guarantee that they will be what the local community actually wants. It could also decimate town centres. We all know that our high streets are in crisis. I would like the Minister to set out for us how this order will help and save our high streets. It does nothing for them at all. It adds to the risk that our high streets will become ghost towns. In these tough times for local businesses, the Government should be standing with businesses and communities and ensuring that our high streets and town centres are developed and supported, but, sadly, they are not.
To be clear, I intend to divide the House on my regret Motion when the time comes but neither I nor my Benches will be supporting the fatal Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. I like the noble Baroness very much and I respect her views but I am also conscious of the constitutional position of this House. The House has the power to put forward fatal Motions but should use that power very sparingly. I want to express my regret, annoyance and anger at what the Government are doing here. They need to behave better on these things and should have put them in front of the House of Commons in proper legislation to have them debated.
I suspect the Government are not doing that because they know the problems they will have from their own Back Benches in the other place, in particular, if they put these proposals forward. That is why they are using this negative measure. It is regrettable that it takes away the voice of local communities and will hold back the high street. It also does nothing to improve the housing situation. I suspect that this is the way that the Government will continue on a number of issues. I will leave it there. As I said, I will put my regret Motion to the vote but will not support the fatal Motion.
My Lords, I am very pleased to take part in this short debate. I support every word that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and my noble friend Lord Kennedy have said. This is a quite extraordinary piece of secondary legislation covering permitted development rights, which I have had an interest in for many years. My remarks will cover not only what is in the order but what is not in it. I fully intend to ask the Minister one or two questions as to why.
First, regarding what is in the order, and in support of what the two noble Lords have spoken about, I note that paragraph 7.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum says that this process allows
“for local consideration of key planning matters through a light-touch prior approval process.”
Those are lovely soft words that should make everybody say, “Well, it is all right.” Actually, as the two noble Lords have said, it is not all right and is taking away local democracy where it is very important. As my noble friend said, where is localism? It is crazy.
I think there are going to be very serious problems with some of the proposed changes between commercial and residential, with very few constraints and local comments. I had a message from the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, this morning. He suggested that giving away permitted development rights without any preliminary consideration of visual effects, massing, overlooking and those kinds of amenity considerations ultimately erodes the quality of the environment. The noble Earl regrets not being able to speak but he is a real expert on these things and I think his views need to be taken into consideration.
It is extraordinary that this draft order has suddenly been brought forward. I suspect it was done to ensure that no more statues are removed without planning permission. It seems an extraordinary priority for Ministers, with all the housing problems that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord have spoken about, to worry about statues. We may need changes to schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and prisons but they all need to be done properly. I do not see any constraints within these regulations to give the local planning authorities—which actually know what they are talking about—any meaningful input to Whitehall running everything.
There is another problem that is not in the order. That is to do with permitted development rights for Highways England to demolish bridges. A number of noble Lords have spoken about this in times past. Highways England has sought and is using permitted development rights to demolish bridges which are apparently no longer fit to take 44-tonne lorries. Many of the bridges are on side roads and bridleways or footpaths or could become bridleways or footpaths subject to the comment and approval of local planning authorities.
Highways England is going around the countryside saying, “We’re going to demolish 100 or 200 of these bridges because they are too expensive to maintain.” Highways England took them on, knowing the cost of maintenance and knowing that they would never have to redesign and rebuild them to carry 44 tonnes; the agency is doing this in the hope that no one will know and that the planning authorities will not be able to do much about it.
The other part of permitted development rights included in this regulation is the development of docks, piers, harbours, water transport, canals or inland navigation undertakings. I understand that this is needed primarily to facilitate free port development. While that sounds quite reasonable, I am not convinced that free ports will necessarily see the light of day. It is probably a reasonable thing to do, but I will ask again: what role will local planning authorities have within this particular part of the regulation?
What is missing are any permitted development rights changes on the railways. As noble Lords will know, railways have permitted development rights to do lots of things, given their ownership of the tracks and stations, but my understanding over the years is that the railways have been fairly reticent about making changes if they feel that there will be a problem with the local planning authorities. They have often sought planning permission, even though they could have argued that it was not strictly necessary because of their permitted development rights. Perhaps the Minister could explain why there is nothing about railways in the order. What rights do the railways have in respect of changes that they might make to stations, tracks and signals, fencing and everything else which they could obtain through permitted development rights, but then do not necessarily do that?
On the one hand we have Network Rail bending over backwards to be helpful, but on the other it is still a railway—HS2—that is trampling over the rights of all individuals, environmental or otherwise, due to a fairly flawed hybrid Bill that went through your Lordships’ House several years ago. There is a significant incoherence and uncertainty about what the railways are allowed and not allowed to do, along with what they choose to do and choose not to do.
Finally, the noble Baroness mentioned fire and safety which, as we all know, is still the subject of massive worry for many residents. I fear that these regulations will not help those residents in any way, either historically or in the future.
I support both these Motions tabled in the names of the two noble Lords and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and my noble friends Lord Kennedy and Lord Berkeley for setting out so clearly what is wrong with this statutory instrument. I agree with all they have said about its shortcomings, and in particular, I share the anger of my noble friend Lord Kennedy. I want to add my voice on a couple of key issues.
The Government pay lip service to the idea of localism. We know that the Conservative Party pays no heed to its manifestos, but the 2019 version says explicitly:
“Local government is the bedrock of our democracy.”
It also promises
“beautiful, high-quality homes with every community able to decide on its own design standards for new development, allowing residents a greater say on the style and design and development in their area, with local councils encouraged to build more beautiful architecture.”
Really? Are these proposals going to lead to more beautiful architecture? What nonsense. The reality is that this approach is not localism, it is that the Secretary of State knows best.
I am another ex-councillor who believes in local government, warts and all. These regulations are wrong in principle. There is no doubt that changes which are this fundamental and will have an impact on the look of our towns and cities for decades to come should be enacted in primary legislation. It is clear that in practice, these new rules will limit the role of the local planning authority in determining the appropriate uses for its particular area.
The fundamental problem is actually more than a problem—it is a catastrophe. The new rules will allow residential development in potentially unsuitable locations. That is the whole point of the proposals because otherwise this statutory instrument would not be required. What we know is that these will be the slums of the future. More specifically, the new rules will allow commercial frontages on high streets to be converted to residential use in a way that will wreak even more harm on the traditional function of town centres, already under so much pressure. Albeit that there will be a need for separate planning permission for the external treatment of buildings, we know from experience that there is always considerable room for uncertainty by gaming the system, in particular about the vacancy requirement.
We all know that developers cheerfully agree to include shops and pubs within a development and then ensure that they remain vacant until the local authority gives in to the effective blackmail. Of course we need more housing, but this is the wrong way of providing the high-quality stock that we so desperately need. History tells us how to achieve the massive new-build housing programme we need, and it was provided, surprisingly, by a former Conservative Government in the 1950s, summed up in an adequately resourced programme of council housing.
Then there is all this stuff about statues, memorials and monuments. How will the Minister present this with a straight face? We know what they are doing, they know we know what they are doing, and we know that they know, et cetera. Where is the problem that this is supposed to address? It is there only to play to the ignorance and prejudice of the base. The giveaway is in the press release by the Secretary of State on 17 January 2021 under the heading “New legal Protections for England’s Heritage”. It says:
“New legal safeguards introduced for historic monuments at risk of removal. All historic statues, plaques and other monuments will now require full planning permission to remove, ensuring due process and local consultation in every case. The law will make clear that historic monuments should be retained and explained”.
The giveaway is that the Secretary of State will be able to call in any application and ensure that the law is followed. The threat is clear: it will be the Secretary of State who decides, not the local authority and the local community. That is made even more manifest in the statement in the Explanatory Memorandum to the effect that the Government will introduce a requirement for local planning authorities to notify such planning applications to the Secretary of State. Really? Does he not have better things to do?
What needs to be understood is that saying that monuments should be retained and explained is a political statement, taking one side in a deeply contested debate. It is a view that members of the Conservative Party are fully entitled to hold, but it is wrong to write such a political statement into the law of the land.
Finally, as an aside, free ports are a pointless zero-sum gimmick, and there really is no more to say.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. This is yet another attack on local democracy. I held elected office on Somerset County Council for 20 years and on South Somerset District Council for 10 years. I am passionate about the role of local and national democracy and the right of those who hold elected office to be able to communicate with and represent the views of those who live in the area for which they were elected.
Introducing these changes via the negative procedure to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny is to deny communities the right to say what happens to them. Local voters may not have voted for the person elected, but it is a duty of the councillor to do their best to take account of all views, when making decisions. These decisions should involve planning permissions. I took this seriously once I was elected. Whether the application is for a school, a children’s home, housing for the disabled, housing for those who are upsizing to four bedrooms or housing for those who are struggling to make ends meet and need a roof over their heads, local input is important. I fully support the comments of my noble friend Lady Pinnock, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the previous two speakers.
I know that the Minister, who was a long-standing and well-respected councillor, understands these issues. However, the Government have been chipping away at local democratic involvement in planning processes for a while and I find the proposals before us today a step too far for me and my colleagues. I believe that my colleague, my noble friend Lady Pinnock, is likely to divide the House.
Yesterday, we debated the Environment Bill, wherein the Government are looking to local authorities to ensure diversity gain when planning permissions are granted. There is a dichotomy here between what the Government want from their planning system and what they are prepared to allow it to do. We are one of the oldest and finest democracies in the world, both nationally and locally. Our elected representatives, in the vast majority of cases, take their roles seriously. If we ignore the importance of local democratic representation, we do so at our peril. Local councillors know their areas; they know what housing is required and where it is best situated. This is not always popular with some sections of communities, but to remove it altogether is very unwise.
Given that this may be my only opportunity to speak on this SI, I will talk to it. The Government’s consultation on these changes, which are permanent and not temporary, ran from 3 December 2020 to 28 January 2021. At the start of this period, the country was getting ready for Christmas and the hope of seeing our families. This was quickly crushed. By the end of the period, we were well and truly in lockdown and councils were not meeting in public but via Zoom. This can hardly be said to be extensive consultation.
The Explanatory Memorandum is very clear on what is covered and it is chilling. I agree with the Government that permitted development has an important role to play, but what is proposed does far more than streamline the planning process; it drives a coach and horses through it. It will certainly speed up housing delivery, but just what type of housing communities it produces, if any, is another matter. Turning business premises into dwellings is not likely to lead to more employment.
No change of use is allowed if premises have been empty for the previous three months, but temporary closure due to Covid is exempt. However, it is possible for landlords to give businesses notice to quit, leave the premises empty for three months and then apply to convert them into dwellings. All homes will be required to meet the minimum national prescribed space standards. Can the Minister tell us when these were last revised and if another review is planned for the future? I am horrified that the Government are thinking of residential use on heavy industrial and waste-management sites. Although impacts have to be assessed, these can easily be simplified to allow development.
I turn now to health centres and registered children’s nurseries. I despair: to allow these vital centres of communities to be turned into homes is appalling. We have a housing crisis, but we also have a mental health crisis among children, young people and women in particular. Health centres provide a vital service and should be preserved, at all costs. Children’s nurseries are a lifeline, not only for women returning to work, but as an opportunity for young children to meet, learn how to socialise, share and play—all part of their emotional and physical development. Surely these two categories of service provision should be excluded from being taken over for housing.
The Explanatory Memorandum is helpful in listing what is going to happen and when. For instance, a developer or landowner can apply for PDR to convert an office block into housing, and can do that now. Later in the year, the Government will produce separate legislation to amend the right to introduce an additional prior approval on fire safety in relation to the building changing use. By this time, the building is likely to be half way constructed, without fire safety regulations having been considered. The right to change the use of offices, shops, takeaways, et cetera, to dwellings will attract a fee of £100 per dwelling house, up to a maximum of £5,000. If the maximum fee is reached, it will be for a conversion of potentially 50 dwellings from a single commercial property. Will they all have relevant parking?
On the subject of fees, paragraph 7.18 of the EM refers to applications attracting a fee of £96 to be introduced later by secondary legislation, which will also introduce the fee of £100. I ask the Minister whether these fees, which will be introduced later in the process, will be applied retrospectively or effective from some date in the future. It appears that this fee of £96 could cover a larger extension to a hospital or university. That seems like a snip to me; perhaps I have misunderstood the EM, so would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification. I note that all PDR developments must be completed within three years. If only this applied to extant planning permissions, we would not have a housing crisis in the first place.
Paragraph 11.1 refers to guidance being
“available in time for the new rules coming into force”.
As this SI was laid on 30 March and came into force on 1 April, I wonder where this guidance is. Has it been finalised and published? Are local authorities aware of what it actually says?
Lastly, I refer to Article 6 of the statutory instrument itself,
“Insertion of Class MA in Part 3 of Schedule 2”.
Under “Development not permitted … MA.1”, paragraph (1)(f) says,
“if the site is occupied under an agricultural tenancy, unless the express consent of both the landlord and the tenant has been obtained”.
Farming and agriculture are in a state of flux. Farmers are having their previous income, under the CAP, reduced each year and the replacement funding, under the environmental land management scheme, is by no means certain or transparent. Development land attracts a far higher price than agricultural land. I can envisage a situation in which a landlord approaches a tenant and offers a sum of money for vacant possession. A tenant, not certain of what the future holds for him or her, may accept. The landlord will then apply for PDR, which will be granted.
We will see farm buildings and land converted into dwellings. While this has happened on a small scale in the past, to the advantage of many villages—where farm buildings have provided bungalows for the local elderly to downsize—this was through the normal planning route. However, at the moment, at a time of anxiety in the farming community, there is the possibility of widespread conversions and the resultant loss of agricultural holdings. At this time, the mantra should be not only “build, build, build”, but “grow, grow, grow”. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on this clause.
My Lords, I completely agree with the speeches of my noble friends Lady Pinnock and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. I am not and never have been a local councillor, but my noble friend Lady Pinnock asked me, as a police officer, to speak on the protection of statues.
I agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, has said on this issue. The order includes a permanent change to Class B of Part 11 of Schedule 2 to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, which specifies that development is not permitted if it involves the demolition of certain structures, even if development otherwise would be permitted. The exemption applies to the demolition of statues, memorials and monuments which have been in place for at least 10 years. The changes in this order mean that, in future, this will require an application for planning permission, unless they are already covered by other legislation. This permanent change in legislation is justified as a result of a change in government policy announced in a Written Ministerial Statement—a change that provided no automatic opportunity for debate in Parliament.
Paragraph 7.29 of the Explanatory Memorandum states:
“Statues, memorials and monuments which are erected to commemorate prominent individuals and events can become the subject of disagreement. Government considers that decisions to remove such public landmarks should be made following proper process in accordance with the local development plan, national planning policy and other material considerations, and consultation with the public.”
Although this all sounds very reasonable, as the next paragraph explains,
“Separately to this legislative change”
the Government have
“introduced a requirement for local planning authorities to notify such planning applications to the Secretary of State”,
to allow the Secretary of State to call in such applications for their determination, instead of determination by the local planning authority.
Quite rightly, the Government’s other legislation proposed to protect statues—to enable magistrates to commit someone to the Crown Court if they damage a memorial, in order that a harsher penalty can be imposed—is being proposed in, and will be debated fully as part of, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. That is primary legislation—Clause 46 of the Bill currently before the other place. That the Bill offers more protection to statues than to emergency workers speaks volumes about this Government’s priorities.
This is a significant policy and legislative change, giving central government decisions on local planning issues because, potentially, a 10 year-old statue is in the way of what would otherwise be permitted development. But the Government have given themselves the power to overrule local democratic authorities as a result of a policy change announced in a Written Statement and implemented by means of a statutory instrument, subject only to the negative procedure. That is totally unacceptable.
This, and the other major legislative changes proposed in the order, has no place in a statutory instrument, let alone in one subject only to the negative procedure. It is all very well for the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, whom I greatly admire and respect, to say that a fatal Motion should only rarely be used, but this is one of those rare occasions. When my noble friend Lady Pinnock divides the House, I will be voting with her. I urge all noble Lords to do the same. Parliament is being treated with contempt, and we should not allow that.
My Lords, I too declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA. I have a very strong sense of déjà vu, or Groundhog Day, because here we go again. This is of course a key issue for us on this side of the Chamber, because, despite overwhelming evidence from an amazingly wide range of sectors and professional bodies, apart from cutting red tape and speed, there are no compelling reasons to bring forward another raft of permitted development rights removing the need for full planning permission. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us. This considerable disquiet has changed to a rather loud chorus of bewilderment and disbelief that these PDRs continue to be brought forward without even an attempt at an impact assessment or evaluation.
Much of the detail has already been given by my noble friend Lady Pinnock and the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Berkeley, on the level of parliamentary scrutiny and the undue haste to bring these changes into law under the negative procedure, which leaves a debate such as this the only route for any scrutiny. We on these Benches are by no means unsympathetic to the aims that the Ministers claim for them, but these proposals will not in any way contribute to those aims—quite the reverse. Paradoxically, we are likely to see property owners taking the quick and easy option of a change of use via PDRs, when a greater involvement by the local planning authority might have helped achieve a wider and more comprehensive scheme that would further the Government’s stated objectives. Among local planning officers, there is already anecdotal evidence: “Oh my God, if only they’d come to us first, we could have made this better”.
We also believe that this continuous erosion of the ability of communities and their local elected representatives to contribute to the shaping of the places they live in is damaging to democracy and ultimately counterproductive. People already feel disempowered by the planning system—you need only attend a local planning committee to know that. Even if they are denied a role in the planning process, they will, thank goodness, find a way to make their voices heard.
Of the several aspects of this SI, I give full support and agreement to the position on statues, ably outlined by my noble friend Lord Paddick and the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton. In line with our localist principles, we believe that this is a matter for local communities to decide. We have heard from my noble friend Lady Bakewell about the potential loss of health centres and nurseries, and the danger that this will be exacerbated if such facilities can be converted to residential use without permission. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, extremely practical examples of how Whitehall does not always know best.
I would like to focus on further conversions to housing on the high street. The debate today shows that opening up high streets to property speculation—which is what this is—is a misguided attempt to answer current challenges that have existed for years and have been exacerbated significantly by Covid and by changes in our shopping patterns. We believe that it will only worsen the ingrained inequalities that have been so starkly exposed by the pandemic.
Back in 2019, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee produced a report on the future of the high street, which argued that the Government should suspend any further extension of PDRs, pending an evaluation of their impact on the high street. And here we are again. It is clear that this united opposition to the extension of PDRs, backed by evidence, has simply been ignored by the Government, apart from some small changes, such as that the homes created now should contain a window. It is too late for those that I brought to the attention of the House two years ago—the notorious case in Watford—but it is progress.
Changing the face and fortune of a town takes years. I know, because it was one of my primary objectives for 16 years while Mayor of Watford. Put bluntly, it is hard-going and requires building enduring partnerships with different stakeholders—easier said than done with the competing aims and demands from all those with a legitimate interest in the high street—and genuine community buy-in, as many of the changes are very significant, which is never easy to obtain and even more difficult to hold over time. Most of all, it needs a plan, resources and time. It flies in the face of all my experience that a planning free-for-all is the answer to that problem.
I am also concerned by the implication in these proposals that local authorities do not know what their high streets need and are not already working to produce good solutions. Good councils have long recognised that housing in a town centre is a good thing. They were at the forefront of recognising how repopulating town and city centres could turn urban decline into renaissance. They promoted flats above the shops, mixed-use development to create residential, leisure and community uses alongside retail, and a move to have activity in our town centres that was not just about daytime shopping and late-night drinking. It has taken years to get to that point in many a high street, including ours, and yet these proposals have the ability to undo that work.
Someone has to hold the ring for a whole place, not just think about making a fast buck from a single site. What will our high streets look like in five, 10 or 15 years’ time? How do we get there from here? We believe that these proposals undermine such strategic thinking, with a misguided attempt at a quick fix. They certainly undermine the democratic mandate of elected representatives.
These are big issues but, from my experience, PDRs have always had the potential to be controversial, and have been a source of anger and upset from affected residents. I have stood looking out of a window in a family’s beautiful home while having to explain that the significant extension their neighbour was building was legal, permitted by government rules and did not need planning permission, and that thus the council had no power to suggest amendments, let alone refuse it. I remember the look of incredulity on their faces. It was one small family home, but the impact on their enjoyment of it was huge. This is often the case, which is why council officers try to balance the needs of all parties and why obtaining planning permission has a useful and positive purpose, which appears not to be recognised by the Government.
Some of the issues the Government believe they are trying to solve are absolutely legitimate, and their views are shared by those on our Benches, but we are asking: why not allow people putting forward such schemes to apply for planning permission, as now? This would mean that genuine consultation can occur, and that planners and councillors would be able to do their jobs. It would help the Government’s professed objective of driving up quality and building beautiful. Prior approval gives officers a rotten job to deal with, knowing that they cannot really say no—after all, that is the purpose of these changes—and councillors still have to carry the can for a decision that they cannot influence or change. It is lose-lose for all but the developer/investor.
That is the crux of this issue, illustrated so well by my noble friend Lady Pinnock, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and others. The Government have continually eroded the role of local democracy to decide on or even influence matters that suit the circumstances of its communities. We believe that there is more to come in the future planning Bill. All this is before we even get to the quality of the conversions, which were heavily criticised by the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which concluded that they have diminished quality, delivered low levels of affordable housing and reduced developer contributions. It said that increased PDRs had “inadvertently permissioned future slums”. That was colourfully articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton. There is very little time to talk about the impact on conservation areas.
We feel that these reforms lack the critical safeguards to prevent further damage to already suffering high streets by turning community amenities into often substandard homes. Those are some of the reasons why we wish to express more than mere regret at what is happening to our planning system and, more importantly, to our communities and our democracy.
My Lords, we have had an interesting and passionate debate on this order. I am grateful to noble Lords on all sides of the House for their contributions. I will take this opportunity to respond to some of the points which have been raised.
Before I do so, I will set out briefly what is included in this statutory instrument, which introduces a number of important measures. First, it includes the new permitted development right, discussed today, to allow for the change of use from the commercial, business and service use class to residential use. Secondly, to support the ambition of Project Speed and to ensure that new investment in public service infrastructure is planned and delivered faster and better, this order introduces important measures to allow schools, hospitals and prisons to expand their existing premises, helping to deliver additional capacity for local communities more quickly. Thirdly, it includes measures relating to freedoms for development at ports, including free ports. Finally, it includes measures to support the Government’s heritage agenda by allowing for local consideration of the removal of statues and monuments, which are often important heritage assets. This issue was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Paddick.
I turn to the points raised on the adequacy of parliamentary scrutiny by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, as well as by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill. The general permitted development order under which permitted development rights are granted is made principally under Section 59 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990—the primary legislation. That Act enables the Secretary of State, through secondary legislation, to make a development order under the negative resolution procedure. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that this statutory instrument was laid before Parliament under the negative resolution procedure. That is the procedure that Parliament approved when it passed the parent Act. As demonstrated today, the House may call attention to and debate particular legislation of interest.
The noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Berkeley, the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Thornhill, and others raised community engagement and prior approval by the local planning authority, as well as the adequacy of local decision-making. The permitted development right for the change of use from the commercial, business and service use class is subject to prior approval by the local planning authority if that authority so wishes. This enables the consideration of key planning matters in consultation with the local community. Adjoining owners or occupiers are required to be notified. The council may then consider representations made on those specified matters for prior approval as set out in the legislation. That was summarised by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
Other matters the local planning authority can consider include, in conservation areas, consideration of the impact of the loss of ground floor commercial use; and, in all areas, access to the site, flood risk, the impacts of noise on future residents, any impacts on occupiers from the introduction of residential use in an area that is important for heavy industry, storage and distribution and waste management, and—this responds to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville—the impact of the loss of health centres and registered nurseries on the provision of such services. The local authority is required to take into account any representations made to it as a result of any consultation when making its decision whether to grant prior approval.
It is important to recognise that the Government are committed to delivering the new homes that the country needs. Last year around 244,000 new homes were delivered, which is the highest number in over 30 years. Permitted developments are just one mechanism under which new additional homes can be delivered, and they encourage the development of existing buildings on brownfield sites. They protect the green belt. This enables additional net extra homes.
I do not agree with the points made about a lack of focus on quality. This will not be a floodgate to poor-quality housing—I think that that is the phrase that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, used. On this point, 72,000 new homes have been provided. There has been the example of the one home in Watford without natural light, and we recognise the issue of space standards. That is why we have listened to the House and made sure that we have taken steps to address these problems. We have introduced a condition that all homes delivered through permitted development rights must, since April this year, meet the nationally described space standards, and we require that all homes delivered under permitted development rights should include adequate natural light in all habitable rooms.
To respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, I say that the nationally described space standards were introduced in 2015. My understanding is that there are no plans to review them, since they were introduced relatively recently.
As the Minister with responsibility for fire and building safety, I also point out that all homes built through permitted development have to meet building regulations, including fire and other building safety requirements. My department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, has made it very clear that there are restrictions on the use of combustible materials when additional residential storeys are added.
There has, quite rightly, been a great deal of concern about the importance of high streets. On the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, I reassure the House that we are committed to boosting regeneration and supporting our high streets and town centres. The pandemic has taken its toll and magnified the problems facing town centres and high streets, and we want to support them in adapting to these changes to become thriving, vibrant hubs where people live, shop, use services and spend their leisure time. We have therefore allocated £3.6 billion through the towns fund and an additional £4.8 billion in the levelling-up fund, which, alongside the high streets task force, will give high streets and town centres expert advice to adapt and thrive, and funding to help create jobs and build more resilient local economies and communities.
This new permitted development right will simplify the planning process and enable best use of existing and underused buildings. This is not about developers gaming the system; it is about ensuring that we see active high streets, that vacant premises do not sit there unused, blighting an area, and that there is greater flexibility in planning to enable the change—in this case—to residential use. But there are protections: there is a size limit of 1,500 square metres of floor space so that we focus on the medium-sized high street for this planning flexibility. In conservation areas, it further allows for consideration of the impact of the loss of ground floor use to residential on the character or sustainability of the area.
I beg the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, to reconsider the use of a fatal Motion. I have been educated by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that fatal Motions come along very infrequently; I can count them on the fingers of one hand. We need to recognise that the fatal Motion would also impact on the delivery of public services in our schools and hospitals. The legislation is a very important part of our ability to grow our public service infrastructure: it enables permitted development rights for larger extensions for schools and hospitals, and enables schools, colleges and universities to increase their capacity by up to 25%, enabling them to respond to the challenges the country has faced in the pandemic and provide adequate social distancing. I hope that the noble Baroness will consider not dividing the House, because any move to annul this order would affect our ability to deliver this critical public service infrastructure.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is testing my knowledge of railway policy as the Minister responsible for local government, but we will take note of the important point he raises about the permitted development rights to demolish bridges and follow it up with the Department for Transport. With regard to the reason for the omission of railways, we will liaise with the Department for Transport on how we can best support infrastructure delivery, including for railways, and the asks of Network Rail.
In conclusion, I hope that I have provided some assurance on the benefits of these measures, and that bringing them forward via secondary legislation is the appropriate route provided for in law. The diversification of our high streets and town centres will help their recovery as the country starts to open. The mix of retail, leisure and residential uses will make them attractive places to visit, live and work. The legislation will enable a wider range of commercial and retail buildings to change use to residential through a simplified planning process while still providing important protections and allowing local consideration of a range of matters to protect local facilities and uses where appropriate, and allow local communities to have a say.
As I have set out, the legislation also provides important measures that support key public service infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, ports and heritage. I therefore ask the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, not to divide the House and to withdraw her Motion.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am grateful for the very well-informed and passionate debate that we have had in this hour or so this afternoon.
Many Members have drawn attention to the value of engagement and decisions that are taken with a wider range of views. Unfortunately, this instrument is a continuation of the erosion of the rights of local people just to have their say on changes that affect them and their communities. There is no need for the extension of permitted development to achieve the Government’s aims. For instance, the Minister has just talked about the need to enable the expansion of schools without going through a full planning application. A response to a full planning application can be achieved within eight weeks if the right information is provided to the planning authorities. That is a drop in the ocean compared to the time it takes to organise a development or extension of a school on that scale, and it is worth doing because it engages everybody in what is happening and what the consequences will be, for good and for ill.
It is a sad day for democracy and good governance when the Government believe that this approach is acceptable. It is such an assault on democratic decision-making at a local level. I do not take these matters lightly: I have never before in my time in your Lordships’ House proposed a fatal Motion and I have done so not necessarily on the content of the statutory instrument, but on its principle, which is the erosion of local democratic rights and good governance. We cannot allow this to continue—this steady drip, drip, drip of democratic rights disappearing. It is not right, and it has to be stopped. That is why I maintain that a fatal Motion is appropriate in this case and, as such, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Division on Baroness Pinnock’s Motion called. Division called off after 16 minutes due to technical problems.
We have been unable to resolve the technical problem but we have worked out how to resolve the situation. I call the Government Chief Whip.
My Lords, with the agreement of the usual channels, we are going to defer both votes until tomorrow, so they will be on tomorrow’s Order Paper. After this, to give everyone time to move over to the next business, we will have a short adjournment.
I thank the Government Chief Whip. I would have been very happy for my vote to be agreed by the collecting of voices, but the Government did not take me up on that offer. Obviously, I fully understand about these technical issues and we are happy for the votes to take place tomorrow.