House of Lords
Thursday 1 July 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.
Oaths and Affirmations
Lord Altrincham took the oath, following the by-election under Standing Order 9, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Lord Londesborough took the oath, following the by-election under Standing Order 9, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing and to wear face coverings while in the Chamber except when speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Retirement of a Member: Lord Sainsbury of Turville
My Lords, I should like to notify the House of the retirement with effect from today of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, pursuant to Section 1 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. On behalf of the House, I thank the noble Lord for his long and much-valued service to the House.
Arrangement of Business
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them to no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Children’s Rights: Digital Environment
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take in response to General Comment No. 25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment adopted by the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child on 2 March.
My Lords, I am delighted that the UN committee has formally recognised how children’s rights in the convention apply to the digital world. The strongest protections in the Government’s landmark online safety Bill are for children and reflect the general comments provisions, such as the new duty of care. The age-appropriate design code informed by the principles in the convention will also provide protection for children’s personal data when it comes into force this September.
I thank the Minister for her response and declare my interest, particularly as chair of 5Rights and its role as consultant to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in drafting the general comment. As the Minister said, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its associated protocols provide the international benchmark for all government action regarding children, and the UK has an exceptional record on this question. So will the Minister say whether the Department for Education as the lead reporting department will take note of the general comment when it reports to the committee later this year? Since so many noble Lords wish to see specific reference to children’s rights in the online safety Bill, will she agree to convene a meeting between those noble Lords, her department and DCMS Ministers?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reference to the exceptional record this country has in protecting and promoting the rights of children, and I am delighted to confirm that a meeting will be arranged for noble Lords, which will be led by my noble friend Lady Barran.
My Lords, the online safety Bill talks about protecting
“rights to freedom of expression”,
but nowhere does it refer to children’s rights to grow up in a healthy digital environment. Can the Minister give assurance that this will be addressed?
My Lords, the key point around the protections we are putting in place and why the strongest protections are for children, reflected in the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance, is that we want children to benefit and flourish using digital technology but to be kept safe online.
I refer to my entry in the register of Members’ interests, particularly my work with Common Sense Media. I gather that last night a US Senator and two Congresspeople recommended that the age-appropriate design code be incorporated into US legislation. That is because the Convention on the Rights of the Child is incorporated within the age-appropriate design code here in the UK, thanks to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and this House. Can the Minister assure us that the convention will appear in the online safety Bill, so that the UK can continue to burnish its well-earned reputation for the protection of children online?
My Lords, it is indeed pleasing to note that the age-appropriate design code is seen in such a world-leading manner. The Government’s response to the White Paper on online safety has led to draft legislation that will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny this Session. Noble Lords will have the opportunity then to advocate that the convention should be in the Bill.
My Lords, does the Minister’s department agree with DCMS that we should repeal Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act? This goes against the United Nations general comment, which states in paragraph 114:
“Robust age verification systems should be used to prevent children from acquiring access to products and services that are illegal for them to own or use.”
My Lords, I can confirm to the noble Earl that age-appropriate and age-verification services are part of the structure of the online safety Bill. Providers of services that are a high risk to children will be expected to have significant levels of security, such as age verification. For lower risks, age appropriate will be the provision. I will have to write to the noble Earl in relation to the suggestion of repealing some legislation.
My Lords, the Government’s digital charter states that rights online must be the same as those offline and that the benefits of new technologies must be “fairly shared”. The House of Lords communications committee has called for regulation to ensure that human rights and children’s rights are upheld. There have been clear failures in both fairness and the delivery of children’s rights during the Covid pandemic. How will these rights be protected and monitored in future?
My Lords, after the last review under the UN convention, suggestions and recommendations were taken forward. There is now a children’s rights assessment in the development of policy and there has been training of civil servants, as was suggested.
This week’s Radio Times piece by Paul Lewis tells of a 10 year-old boy who racked up substantial debts by playing computer games which had what are called “loot boxes”. This is unfair treatment, as mentioned in general comment 25. Following the end of the consultation period on loot boxes, will the Government work with the gaming industry and legislate to eliminate this danger?
My Lords, we are consulting on those matters and will report back. It is clear that in the online safety Bill one of the sanctions available to Ofcom, if providers have inappropriate content that children are gaining access to, is to disconnect payment services such as that from their websites and social media services.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that right-set standards and rightly considered regulation of legislation need be neither a drain on our economy nor a strain on our society? Rather, they can be part of enabling us to have the economy we need and the society we want, with all the individual and collective well-being that goes with that.
My Lords, this is entirely what we are seeking to do through the national online media strategy that we will launch later this year, to empower citizens to use the internet safely and to make wise choices. It is why the draft Bill not only includes protections for children but proposes to entrench in legislation freedom of speech and the right of appeal, should content be removed.
I call the noble Baroness, Lady Barran—sorry, the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie.
Understandable confusion from the Lord Speaker.
My Lords, The Ofcom Online Nation 2021 Report showed that lockdown had highlighted the digital divide and that, with one in 10 households without access to the internet during lockdown, it had been magnified and was clearly a severe socioeconomic problem. Last week the Times reported that Amazon was engaged in the mass disposal of unused IT equipment, with 120,000 items marked for destruction in one week alone. I know the Minister will share my anger at that obscene waste, against the backdrop of lost education and damaged life chances caused by the pandemic. So can she tell noble Lords what discussions the Government have had or will have with retailers to maximise the charitable repositioning of devices for schools?
My Lords, I am grateful for the expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, as this question straddles a number of departments.
Obviously, we want to avoid all kinds of waste; food waste has also been on many people’s agenda. I can assure the noble Lord that the 1.3 million laptops we have distributed are the property of local authorities and schools, and we would take a very dim view if anything of that nature happened to that property. I will have to write to him in relation to the specific point about the recycling of white goods.
My Lords, for sure—Baroness Greenfield.
As a neuroscientist, I am aware of the growing evidence of reports about the impact of digital technology on the physical brain. I therefore ask the Minister to what extent the Government will be consulting with neuroscientists.
My Lords, in this Session there will be a period of pre-legislative scrutiny for the online safety Bill and therefore neuroscientists will be able to put forward their views on the Bill. When we consulted on the White Paper there were 2,400 responses, so those experts have also had the opportunity to respond to that consultation.
My Lords, the digital environment is constantly evolving, reaching further into lives, with a focus concentrated mainly on child protection and education. What further steps do the Government plan to address the general digital experience of children?
My Lords, during the pandemic the Government have invested over £400 million in remote technology to assist learning in schools. We anticipate that that will be something for the future and beyond. We are also looking at how we can assist schools in managing cyber risks, which have increased with the use of technology. We want to embed this in our education system.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Channel 4: Funding and Governance
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the future (1) funding, and (2) governance, of Channel 4.
My Lords, I am tempted to invite the noble Lord, Lord Watson, to respond. As part of their ongoing strategic review of the UK system of public service broadcasting, the Government will be consulting on the future of Channel 4, including its ownership model and remit. A fast-evolving media landscape, increasing competition and changing audience habits pose imminent challenges. Moving Channel 4 into private ownership and changing its remit could help secure its future as a successful and sustainable public service broadcaster.
Does the Minister accept that for the sale of Channel 4 to bring in the amount of money that the Government are talking about, the remit will have to change? At the very least it would have to be watered down, with disastrous consequences for our public service broadcasting sector and the wider creative economy. No change to the remit means no real profit for the Government, so why do it? Could this be ideologically driven rather than economically—something to do with a melting ice sculpture?
I do not think it is anything to do with a melting ice sculpture. The Government are committed to having a thriving PSB sector. I know the noble Baroness understands full well what the trends are in advertising revenues for linear television. We are trying to address that and make sure that Channel 4 has a secure, sustainable and thriving future.
My Lords, in earlier eras, matters of important public policy such as this would have been preceded by Green Papers and White Papers before Parliament considered any primary legislation that it felt necessary. On broadcasting, this Government take a rather different approach, preferring to set up ad hoc advisory committees, such as the one looking at public service broadcasting. So what is it to be this time? Can the Minister spell out what the Government will do here and explain how Parliament is going to be involved?
The noble Lord refers to the expert advice that Ministers will receive from the independent PSB panel but he overlooks the digital radio and audio review that we will be publishing this summer, the Ofcom review of PSBs that will be published in mid-July, and the consultation that we are carrying out on Channel 4 and video on demand, which will result in a White Paper and legislative proposals. I do not think that looks like taking decisions in secret.
My Lords, the Government are on record as praising the unique public service remit that Channel 4 has, especially for serving underrepresented communities and its strong partnership with our diversity of independent production companies. Channel 4 made its debut in 1982, 39 years ago, with an episode of the excellent “Countdown”. Please will the Government not simply “count down” to a rushed sale of Channel 4 to the highest bidder but instead help protect Channel 4 from unfair regulatory competition from the likes of Netflix and Amazon, which operate with less regulation?
We are addressing the noble Lord’s final point through our consultation on regulation for video-on-demand providers. The noble Lord is right that Channel 4 has a strong reputation for its innovative and diverse content, and we think that could mean that it appeals to a number of different purchasers should we decide to pursue a sale.
My Lords, how long do Her Majesty’s Government calculate that Channel 4, in its present public and private independent structure, can survive as a going concern?
There is no doubt that Channel 4 has performed very well recently but, as I mentioned in an earlier answer, all linear broadcasters are facing significant challenges from developments and disruption in the sector, including from international players. The consultation will give us the time and the information to consider how Channel 4’s future is best served.
My Lords, is it not quite clear that the Secretary of State and Mr Whittingdale support public service broadcasting like the rope supports the hanging man? Is it not time that the one-nation Tories stood up for one of the great creations of Willie Whitelaw, an organisation that has fulfilled its remit in spades?
The noble Lord will be aware that I have often quoted both my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Media and Data, who have both been absolutely clear about wanting to see a thriving PSB sector, which is particularly important in a time of misinformation and disinformation.
My Lords, what means are open to the public and the authorities to encourage Channel 4 to report the news in an accurate and unbiased way and thereby triumph over the present, frequently prejudiced environment of the media?
If my noble friend or any members of the public have concerns about the accuracy of any broadcaster, including Channel 4, they can send those concerns to Ofcom.
The digital streaming television world depends heavily on access to archive. At the moment Channel 4 has no archives since terms of trade agreements with content suppliers mean that IP is kept by independent production companies and is seen as a crucial means by which they can grow their businesses. Do the Government intend to maintain the present terms of trade agreement between any new owner of Channel 4 and its content suppliers?
The noble Viscount raises an important issue. There is a tension between ownership by the independents and the PSBs. We will be setting out more on this in the White Paper.
My Lords, one of the big fears about privatising Channel 4 is that the current statutory requirement for it to invest profits back into independent programming through commissioning —the very thing that makes it unique—will be dropped in order to make the channel sellable. What guarantees can the Minister give that the requirement to reinvest will be assured and that Channel 4’s innovative edginess will not be sacrificed? Will she also list the material restrictions that are allegedly holding Channel 4 back? Does she really believe in this policy?
I think the policy of consulting and getting an understanding of what would create a strong strategic future for a key public service broadcaster is entirely valid. The noble Lord is right that Channel 4 has been hugely successful in supporting our independent production sector. The Government are committed to seeing that continue, and we will take into account any impacts on that sector as we move forward.
My Lords, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has found that the UK has the lowest average local news topic access of any of the countries measured in its recent survey. If there were any reason for not privatising Channel 4, it would be to use the platform as the basis of a new local and regional television service. Has my noble friend considered that?
I agree with my noble friend that locally relevant television and, in particular, local news is a very important part of the UK’s public service broadcasting, which has been highlighted by the pandemic. These are issues which will form part of our strategic review of PSBs.
Can the Minister inform the House on whether BBC editorial policy trumps the law of the land regarding the legal rights of presenters and contributors? If so, should there not be safeguards in governance against the danger of individual producer prejudices being portrayed as BBC policy?
It is clear that BBC editorial policy does not trump the law of the land. The noble Lord will be aware that the BBC is undertaking a review of its editorial policy, which will report later this year.
In what specific ways does the Minister think Channel 4 might benefit from private ownership? What changes in its remit, if any, might government propose?
We hope through the consultation to discern two particular areas among others. One is access to additional capital; Channel 4 is reliant on advertising for 90% of its revenue. The other is potentially greater agility to respond to market developments as we move forward.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked. We now move to the next Question.
Crown Dependencies: Contributions
To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they next intend to review the adequacy of the contributions made by the Crown dependencies towards the cost of their access to the United Kingdom’s (1) public services, (2) provision of security, and (3) international representation.
My Lords, the Crown dependencies are responsible for their own domestic affairs, although islanders sometimes make use of UK public services such as health or education, for which payment is made according to bespoke arrangements. The UK is responsible for the Crown dependencies’ defence and international relations, in recognition of which they each make a voluntary contribution. The Government are content with the present arrangements.
My Lords, it is general government policy to recover costs through charges for services provided, particularly for those who do not pay taxes in the UK. It seems odd that the wealthy Crown dependencies are exempt from this, particularly given that Brexit imposes extra costs, as we have seen in fisheries protection and certainly representation overseas.
I was interested to hear that educational charges are going to be extended. Is the Minister aware that the one announcement made by the Department for Education since January has been the extension of home student fees to all students from the Crown dependencies?
I am amazed that, in his letter to me of 10 May, he repeated the absurd suggestion that Guernsey’s contribution to the defence of the UK is
“the cost of maintenance of the breakwater in Alderney.”
Has the Ministry of Defence not told the Ministry of Justice that the Alderney breakwater, which was built in the 1860s to provide an anchorage for the British fleet in the event of a French threat, ceased to be of interest to our defence before the Second World War?
My Lords, I hope I would never make an absurd point, either to the noble Lord or anybody else. I am certainly aware that there is no current or perceived future requirement to use the Alderney breakwater for operational military purposes, but it still needs to be maintained to preserve the facilities in Alderney’s only serviceable harbour. The Government previously retained responsibility for maintaining the breakwater because it was built by the UK for naval purposes and the Bailiwick of Guernsey could not be expected to subsidise the cost at the time.
When we requested that the Crown dependencies start making contributions towards the cost of defence in 1987, Guernsey assumed responsibility for maintaining the breakwater alongside remitting passport fees for British passports issued in the bailiwick. Irrespective of whether the breakwater serves any defensive purpose, by meeting the maintenance cost that would otherwise fall on the Government, Guernsey contributes to the cost of its defence and international relations.
My Lords, the UK is formally responsible for representing the Crown dependencies in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, including during the COP negotiations. Given that small islands are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, can the Minister confirm how Her Majesty’s Government are engaging with the Crown dependencies in the lead up to the COP 26 summit?
The noble Lord raises an important point. My role in the Ministry of Justice is essentially to be the point Minister for the Crown dependencies regarding the Government. Just as I make sure that the Crown dependencies’ relations with, for example, the Department for International Trade, are secure when we talk about international treaties, I also make sure that discussions on environmental and climate issues are close between the Crown dependencies and the relevant government departments.
My Lords, I recognise that this is a matter for the Crown rather than Parliament, but can my noble friend tell this House what the actual costs of defence and international representation for the Crown dependencies have been over the last few years?
My Lords, the UK has a constitutional responsibility to represent the Crown dependencies internationally. We discharge that responsibility irrespective of cost. As I said, however, the Crown dependencies have been making voluntary contributions since 1987. As these are general contributions in recognition of our overall responsibilities and it is in our interest to represent the whole British family internationally, they are not intended to reflect the exact costs of defending the Crown dependencies or representing them internationally. We are satisfied with the current arrangements.
My Lords, during the debate on sanctions regulations in February I asked how we would ensure that sanctions apply in full to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. The Minister’s response was that the Government were
“lending technical support to the overseas territories”.—[Official Report, 8/2/21; col GC 22.]
What has the outcome of that “technical support” been? Is the Minister in a position to confirm the full application of sanctions within the Crown dependencies?
My Lords, as sanctions are a tool of foreign policy, it is government policy for UK sanctions measures to be given effect in the Crown dependencies to make those sanctions as effective as possible. The Crown dependencies apply UK sanctions, including, for example, the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 and the Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regulations 2021. The FCDO and Her Majesty’s Treasury ensure robust implementation of sanctions. There is considerable sanctions-related engagement with the Crown dependencies, including meetings and webinars, to make sure that all the sanctions legislation is properly applied throughout the Crown dependencies.
My Lords, a voluntary contribution is unusual and presumably could be withdrawn unilaterally; it depends wholly on good will. Does the Minister agree that transparency is important to allay any UK taxpayer concerns that these overseas tax havens are being treated unfairly? How regularly is there an audit of that financial relationship? Presumably, that also contains any contingent liabilities.
My Lords, I take issue with the reference to tax havens. That is a tendentious term and we can perhaps debate it on another occasion. The Crown dependencies have a long-standing relationship with the UK via the Crown; it is not a quid pro quo relationship—using “quid” in both the Latin and the colloquial sense. It is a relationship based on constitutional convention and respect for domestic autonomy. We reiterated in the recent integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy that we will continue to defend and represent internationally the three Crown dependencies.
My Lords, is it not clear from the answers we have just heard, that the Crown dependencies are getting an increasingly good deal, but it is a bit of a one-way street? Is it not time to discuss with them their constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom?
My Lords, the Crown dependencies have a long-standing relationship with the UK via the Crown, and the Government currently have no intention of reviewing their constitutional position. They are self-governing jurisdictions with democratically elected Governments. They are responsible for fiscal matters and set their own policies to support their economies, but they do so within international standards. It is in that context that they determine their own tax rates. They co-operate with us on taxation, fighting financial crime and countering terrorist finance, and they are committed to meeting international standards on tax transparency, illicit finance and anti-money laundering.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked, and we now move to the fourth Oral Question.
Government Departments: Non-Executive Directors
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given, if any, to changing the arrangements for the appointment of non-executive directors of Government departments.
My Lords, the Committee on Standards in Public Life published an interim report last month, which recommended that the appointment process for non-executive board members of government departments should be regulated. We are grateful for the work being undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and his committee, and we will respond formally to its final recommendations when they are published this autumn.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful Answer, but I have here a list of the current non-executive directors. Quite apart from the girlfriend of a former Minister, it includes a number of Tory Peers, former special advisers, people who campaigned to vote leave and other Tory cronies. Since the purpose of non-executive directors is to supervise the work of government departments in an impartial way, could the Minister outline exactly what the arrangements and criteria are for making these appointments?
My Lords, I will not follow the noble Lord on specifics, but we should bear in mind that a very large number—the overwhelming majority, and probably all—of the people involved are dedicated to the cause of improving public service and have given good public service. So far as appointments are concerned, vacancies are advertised on the Government’s public appointments website, and appointees are subject to a shortlisting panel interview process. However, a Secretary of State can also make direct appointments, which account for a small number of appointments.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that, aside from the range of people appointed to departments that my noble friend Lord Foulkes has just referred to, there are also a number of other bodies that have non-executive directors within departments. Will the Minister publish a list of all of those people, say what their salaries are and say whether they have been contributors to the Conservative Party’s funds? Will he say what advice will be given, even on an interim basis, to those who are supervising government departments, in terms of their relationship with senior Ministers?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a point about arm’s-length and other bodies; he is right to say that they have board members, and I will take away his point in respect of them. Interests are required to be declared: currently, this is done in departments’ annual report, but clearly these matters are always subject to review and consideration.
My Lords, cronyism in public appointments weakens the quality of governance, to the detriment of the public. The problem has got a lot worse under the present Government. The outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments, Peter Riddell, recently noted the growth in the number of unregulated appointments by Minister and said:
“there is an urgent need to publish a list of these appointments together with how they are appointed. At present, there is a lack of transparency and clarity, and this distrust can affect regulated appointments too.”
How are the Government going to clean up the whole system?
My Lords, as I have said, the number of unregulated appointments in this area is small, but I have told the House that, following the interim report of the noble Lord, Lord Evans, the Government will respond formally and give full consideration to the points that he made, including in relation to the regulation of appointments.
My Lords, was not the original concept of non-executive directors in government departments meant to be analogous to NEDs in plcs, to assure good corporate governance and to give completely independent advice? That was why people like the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and the CEOs of Centrica, Kingfisher and British Gas, were all appointed NEDs. Have we not departed somewhat from that original concept, and is it not important that non-executive directors of government departments are independent and not sort of super-spads?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is important that non-executives who provide advice and bring an external perspective to the business of government departments should be qualified to do so.
My Lords, having been a non-executive chair and director in various public bodies and having been very conscious of the importance of independent oversight of the process of appointment, I ask whether, in order to regain public confidence, it would be helpful if an official—not a politician—within No. 10 were to carry the governance responsibility for these non-executive directors for government departments.
Currently, the position is that the appointments are made by Secretaries of State. I hear what the noble Baroness says, and I repeat to the House that, following the interim report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, consideration is being given to these matters.
Non-execs are meant to provide external advice to departments, but, as we know, Mrs Coladangelo, who had known the Secretary of State from university, worked on his leadership campaign and was his political adviser, was personally handed a £1,000-a-day job by Mr Hancock, head of the very organisation to which she was meant to provide that independent advice referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. Can the Minister assure us that, pending the review and response to the Evans report in the autumn, there will be no more jobs for the boys—or girls—in the meantime? There must be proper scrutiny, including of conflicts of interest.
I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that conflicts of interest should be clear and prevented. At the time of the appointment of the person to whom she referred, there was no evidence of any conflict of interest. The former Secretary of State, who strived hard to serve the country, recognised that he did wrong and he has left the Government, as has Ms Coladangelo her appointment.
My Lords, there is a large variance in the number of non-execs sitting on departmental boards. While some difference is to be expected between smaller and larger departments, the fact that BEIS, which has a policy lead for corporate governance and so should know something about well-functioning boards, has only two while the Home Office has a staggering eight seems extraordinary. Can the Minister explain the rationale for this difference and why the Home Secretary needs so many NEDs, paid for by the public purse? Can he also explain what central guidance exists on this point and who oversees numbers at the centre of government?
My Lords, I notice that there is a difference in numbers, but I could not comment on the specific motivations in appointments by Secretaries of State. There is corporate governance and a code of conduct for board members of public bodies in relation to their behaviour and their political role or otherwise. I can only repeat that the appointment of non-executive board members, who I think play an important role inside government—I pay tribute to the very large number who contribute every day to the betterment of government—is a matter which is subject to ongoing review.
My Lords, transparency and conflicts of interest are important. But it is also important for us to recognise too that Secretaries of State, in the context of analogies to a chairman, need NEDs to help them support driving change and holding the Executive—in this case, the Civil Service—to account in their departments. My question is about the appointment of non-executive directors to the boards of public bodies. Would the Minister consider whether that process could be made swifter and whether the chairs of those public bodies, who have been appointed to drive change and improvement in them, could play a greater role in the appointment process for the rest of their boards?
My Lords, I shall pay close attention to my noble friend’s remarks. I agree that having a balanced and skilled board with a broad range of perspectives and backgrounds is vital in ensuring that public bodies deliver the best possible services. There is an aspiration that appointment campaigns should complete within three months of competitions closing, but I will look into the matter that my noble friend raises.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report by the Institute of Health Equity Build Back Fairer in Greater Manchester: Health Equity and Dignified Lives, published on 30 June, what steps they are taking to address the (1) disparities in life-expectancy, and (2) social conditions, in England’s most deprived areas compared to the rest of the population.
My Lords, the Government welcome Professor Marmot’s report and his insights into this important area. Reducing health inequalities is a core aim of the new office for health promotion. Under the Chief Medical Officer, the OHP will work with partners across government, the NHS, business and society to systemically tackle preventable risk factors, improve the nation’s health and narrow health inequalities.
I thank the Minister for her Answer. The main findings of the Marmot report about gross and growing inequalities in life expectancy are sobering. What makes the situation even worse is that awareness of this was heightened by research and documentation more than 20 years ago. In what way do the policies of the present Government differ from the failed policies of previous Governments over the last decades?
My Lords, the Government have put a renewed emphasis on prevention in their approach to tackling health inequalities. That is taking place over a number of areas—for example, in the new obesity strategy and the smoking cessation strategy—that will help us close this gap, which is too wide and something we should all be concerned about.
My Lords, deepening inequality and poverty, especially child poverty, are key social determinants of the worsening health inequalities identified by Sir Michael Marmot, who argues that they must be central to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. How exactly does that agenda address the poverty and inequality that the report shows are damaging health and well-being so badly?
My Lords, the levelling-up agenda will be about improving life chances across the UK, and the Government’s proposals in that area will be set out in a White Paper later this year. The noble Baroness has given me the opportunity to expand on some of the other important government policies that the noble and right reverend Lord asked about, so I say that introducing the national living wage and the pupil premium has focused support on those most in need.
My Lords, yesterday’s report highlights the need for an ambitious new framework to reduce health inequalities, focusing far more sharply on the wider social determinants of health to make a reality of building back fairer from Covid, which has cruelly exposed and amplified inequalities in life expectancy. Given that mental health problems are the number one cause of death for men under 50, and the leading cause of maternal death in the UK, what immediate steps are the Government taking to improve the mental health of at-risk groups living in deprived areas?
My Lords, absolutely: as part of the NHS long-term plan, the Government have committed to improving mental health services and increasing the funding that goes to those services, as a proportion of overall funding, in every year of that plan.
My Lords, inequalities in healthcare have long plagued the NHS. Inequalities exist not only in years spent in ill health and shorter life expectancy but in referrals of care, leading to poor health outcomes for people from deprived communities. With waiting lists running into the millions, dealing with this effectively is a priority. To this end, does the Minister think that NHS plans for clinical validation as a way of tackling waiting lists are likely to worsen inequalities in access to treatments?
My Lords, clinical validation is, at its heart, about adapting to the need to manage larger and longer waiting lists and tackle those. Patients will be treated in order of clinical priority and then by length of wait to reduce the harm by waiting. But I reassure the noble Lord that his point is very well made and that, in the NHS recovery plan, there are eight actions to reduce inequalities in the restoration of services, including reporting on providing services to the poorest 20% of neighbourhoods and black and Asian patients.
Was my noble friend rather surprised that she had to get to page 94 of the summary before there was any mention of obesity as a cause of inequalities in health, given that it is one of the major things that both undermines health over time and has exacerbated susceptibility to mortality from Covid?
My Lords, being somewhat familiar with Professor Marmot’s work, I know it is incredibly wide-ranging and looks at a huge number of the determinants of health. But my noble friend is absolutely right that obesity is a big part of our health agenda, which is why the Government have set out a number of areas where we will take further action to support people to reduce levels of obesity across the country.
In the light of Sir Michael Marmot’s report, will the Minister commit to providing an early opportunity for this House to debate the impact of Covid-19 on Her Majesty’s Government’s much-advertised agenda for levelling up, particularly relating to children and young people in those regions with the greatest level of deprivation?
My Lords, I had the pleasure of sitting in on an excellent debate on a similar subject last week. Unfortunately I do not lead the House’s timetable, but I will make the submission on behalf of the right reverend Prelate.
I am very pleased to hear that the Government have noted the report, but I would like the Minister to confirm whether the Government have actually consulted or used Sir Michael Marmot, who is the UK’s foremost academic in the field of health equity or lack of it. His research is being used, so I would like to know: when did the Government, or representatives of the Government or the Minister’s department, meet Sir Michael Marmot and his team? Are the findings of this research and the research from last year being taken into account with the levelling-up plans?
My Lords, on the specifics of any meetings, I am happy to write to the noble Baroness. I point to the creation of the new office for health promotion and the fact that the guiding mantra that sits behind it is very much aligned with the agenda Sir Michael Marmot has set out. I know that is a key priority for the Chief Medical Officer as we come out of the pandemic and take this work forwards.
My Lords, only 5% of total health expenditure is on preventive measures, which has declined in real terms since 2015. How does that help narrow health inequalities?
My Lords, as part of the Government’s long-term plan for the NHS, we want to increase the focus on prevention and, as part of the new office for health promotion, a cross-ministerial board will look not just at the measures within health but at those wider determinants and the government policies on them, which all contribute to narrowing those inequalities in health outcomes.
My Lords, many of Sir Michael’s recommendations, such as on local government finance, housing and universal credit, fall outwith my noble friend’s department, and I hope that there will be a comprehensive government response to those. But the recommendations on public health, which has been disproportionately disadvantaged recently, falls within it. In the forthcoming spending review, will the department press for the 0.5% of GDP on public health, as recommended in the report, to address the inequalities that it has identified?
I hope that my noble friend will forgive me and be understanding from his time in government that I am not in a position to comment on the spending review process. He might take heart from the recent government announcement, or that of a few years ago, of the funding for the National Health Service overall and the accompanying long-term plan. As part of that long-term plan and as a condition of receiving that funding, all major national programmes and every local area across England is required to set out specific measurable goals and mechanisms, by which they will contribute to a narrowing of health inequalities over the next five and 10 years.
Michael Marmot has demonstrated once again the totally unacceptable chasm in healthy life expectancy in different parts of the country. I welcome the Government’s commitment to the obesity strategy, even if it is five years late, and to the smoking cessation strategy. What are the Government’s plans to improve physical activity, which is such a vital part of the public health agenda? Will they accept the recommendations of Sir Muir Gray and Sport England?
My noble friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of physical activity. That is why the proceeds of the sugar tax went into promoting school sports. It is just one of a number of actions that we are taking to promote physical activity among young people.
My Lords, one cause of the poverty and inequality that led to the health inequities so eloquently revealed in the report is low wages. In Manchester each year between 2010 and 2016, wages dropped by 1.1%. Does the Minister agree with the ILO, the OECD and President Biden that the best way to increase wages and diminish inequality is to extend the coverage of collective bargaining, which in this country fell from around 85% of workers between 1945 and 1979 to a mere 25% today? New Zealand is introducing legislation for sectoral bargaining; should not we?
This Government’s approach to reducing low wages is the introduction of the national living wage. We have also extended the national living wage to apply to younger cohorts of people, and we have a longer-term commitment on the level of that national living wage to try to eliminate low pay altogether.
My Lords, what are the Government doing to address the lower rates of testing and vaccination among underserved communities at the risk of Covid?
My noble friend raises an important point. On testing, we have been piloting alternative delivery models based on identifying the trusted individual for people in underserved communities and enabling them to encourage their members or service users to start testing; that has been incredibly effective. For vaccines, we have a community champion scheme which applies a similar logic, and we are taking vaccinations to places and sites where people will access them and improve take-up rates.
My Lords, the Minister has on two or three occasions just now referred to the importance of tackling obesity as a way of evening up inequalities in healthcare and life attainment. Does she agree that local authorities ought to have and are bound to have a key part in tackling those inequalities, whether based on obesity or other matters? How can they do this when they have been subjected to serious cuts in expenditure? Is not the real answer that what we want to tackle these inequalities is more devolution of power from Whitehall to the regions?
My Lords, a key focus of the Government’s and the NHS’s plans for reform on health is the introduction of integrated care systems, which will work by putting providers and local authorities in the position where they can join up care and focus on population health and prevention. That will be an incredibly effective way in which to address some of these public health measures, which is why we look forward to introducing our NHS Bill later this year.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
Certificate of Loss Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision for a certificate to be issued to mothers in respect of miscarried and still-born children not eligible for registration under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, to establish a database for archiving the certificate and recording information about the miscarriage or stillbirth, and for connected purposes.
The Bill was introduced by Lady Benjamin, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Motion to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 27 May be approved.
Considered in Grand Committee on 29 June.
Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 (Disability Assistance, Young Carer Grants, Short-term Assistance and Winter Heating Assistance) (Consequential Provision and Modifications) Order 2021
Motion to Approve
That the draft Order laid before the House on 17 May be approved.
Considered in Grand Committee on 29 June.
Space Industry (Appeals) Regulations 2021
Space Industry Regulations 2021
Spaceflight Activities (Investigation of Spaceflight Accidents) Regulations 2021
Contracting Out (Functions in Relation to Space) Order 2021
Motions to Approve
That the draft Regulations and Order laid before the House on 24 May be approved.
Relevant document: 4th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Considered in Grand Committee on 29 June.
Covid-19: Education Attendance
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 30 June.
“I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this Urgent Question. This Government are absolutely focused on returning society back to normal as soon as possible, and that includes in our schools, colleges and right across the education sector. As I have made clear throughout the pandemic, my top priority has been to keep children in school. Indeed, as I speak today, millions of children have been back in the classroom since 8 March, learning with their friends and teachers. As I am sure the House will agree, that is exactly where they belong. The vast majority of schools are open—99.8% of state-funded schools were open on 24 June—benefiting children who have given up so much during the pandemic.
Back in February, the Prime Minister set out an extensive road map. We need to continue to be careful to complete this cautious but irreversible road map to freedom. We understand the frustration of parents and pupils who may feel that they are being asked to isolate unnecessarily. As I have said throughout the pandemic, children are best off in school. As we continue with our educational recovery, it is vital that absence is minimised as far as possible, and that children and young people attend school. I am looking carefully every day at how we manage the balance between safe- guarding children’s education and reducing transmission of the virus, because I know that too many children are still having their education disrupted, no matter how good the remote education they receive.
The new Health Secretary and I have already discussed these matters, and I am working with him across my department, as well as with scientists and public health experts, to take the next steps. However, as the House is aware, some restrictions remain in place in schools. I want to see those restrictions, including bubbles, removed as quickly as possible, along with wider restrictions in society. I do not think that it is acceptable for children to face restrictions over and above those on wider society, especially as they have given up so much to keep older generations safe over the past 18 months. Further steps will be taken to reduce the number of children who have to self-isolate, including looking at the outcomes of the daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in schools and colleges. We constantly assess all available data, and we expect to be able to confirm plans to lift restrictions and bubbles as part of step 4. Once that decision has been made, we will issue guidance immediately to schools.
I would like once again to put on the record this Government’s sincere thanks to all teachers for their dedication and work at this time. My commitment to the House and to the children of Britain is that, as we open up wider society, we will stick to the principle that children’s education and freedom comes first.”
My Lords, according to the Department for Education’s own figures, last week one in 20 children in state schools in England were absent due to confirmed coronavirus infections. I hope that the Minister can explain why secondary school pupils were no longer required to wear masks in classrooms from mid-May, when cases were rising and masks still had to be worn in shops and other indoor spaces. Parents, pupils and teachers need to know what is to happen in September with bubbles. Can the Minister confirm that school leaders will be told well before the end of this term, allowing time for plans to be put in place and to give their staff a desperately needed break over the summer?
My Lords, the four tests were met for step 3 of the road map at that point, so that is why, on the advice of Public Health England, masks and other restrictions were lifted at that stage for secondary school pupils. We expect to confirm plans to lift restrictions and bubbles in line with step 4 of the wider road map. Obviously, there will be an announcement in advance of that, which should be within term time for the vast majority of pupils, though there are one or two areas where state-funded schools begin to break up on Friday 9 July.
My Lords, in the decisions that are made—and made, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, so that schools know well in advance of their return in September—how much of the scientific data has been taken into account?
My Lords, the Department for Education is obviously guided by the advice from the Department of Health and the Education Secretary is working closely with his counterparts in health and social care and on the advice of Public Health England. On Monday, Minster Keegan and Minister Gibb wrote to schools and colleges to outline the situation at the moment and to give instructions about the pause on testing during the summer but the requirement to still test if children are in school for summer school. They have as up to date a position as we can provide them with at the moment.
My Lords, obviously all children have been adversely affected in their education by the pandemic, but may I commend to the Minister and her department the importance of addressing and recovering lost ground in those subjects and extras, such as gymnastics and PE and the playing of musical instruments, where the plasticity of the brain and its co-ordination with muscles is so impressionable in children and their mental welfare, especially those with special needs?
My Lords, much of the specialist tuition that the noble Lord outlined takes place in out-of-school settings. They have been able to offer provision without restrictions for reasons of attendance. Also, instrument tuition was one area where Zoom was particularly used by teachers. Of course, the pupil recovery premium—£650 million of which is in the bank of the schools at the moment—can be used if additional tuition of that nature is needed.
My Lords, given that almost a third of children are classed as inactive as a result of lockdown restrictions—not even doing 30 minutes of exercise a day—does my noble friend accept that it is essential to formulate an urgent plan to improve the physical and mental health of all children, one that tackles obesity and prioritises the reopening of youth activities now and throughout the summer? Does she recognise that this can be done only if we tear down the walls of departmental silos so that all relevant departments—health, education, sport and local authorities, to name just some—take up the challenge together to address the fact that we may face the most unfit generation of British children ever?
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will be aware that within the guidance we gave to schools when they returned, we gave prominence to the need for children to be physically active and to recover their agility. There was also the childhood obesity strategy. It is precisely for this reason that we have also funded £200 million for summer schools for year 6 transition; well over 80% of secondary schools have applied to the department for that. The holiday activity fund, which is £220 million, will also now be run in every local authority area; it will provide nutritious food and activities during the summer.
My Lords, on Monday, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the House of Commons that we are going to have to “learn to live with” the virus. Can the Minister tell us what this means for schools? Where is the plan for improved ventilation and classrooms where children can socially distance within school? When does the Minister think a decision will be taken on vaccinating all 12 to 17 year-olds?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s last point, we do not have medical advice at the moment to say that we should vaccinate young people of that age, except those who have serious neurological conditions. We are wating for the JCVI to give that advice. We will look at the data. Government departments are obviously working closely together and we will provide an update on step 4 in the near future.
What advice would the Minister give to parents if their child says that he or she has a tummy ache and does not want to go to school? Parents would usually reply, “You’ll be fine, darling, remember that education is so important”. Now, after months of forcing hundreds of thousands of pupils to stay isolated at home, even though they are well, surely the lesson is that school is not so important. Does she also have any advice for teachers in the future, chasing homework or confronting truancy after so long socialising pupils to think that school attendance is provisional?
My Lords, current attendance levels—despite those who are self-isolating—are at around 87%. One feature of the pandemic has been the appreciation for teachers and the workforce. On the importance of school, many young people now report that they appreciate it more than they did in the past. We have been clear that we wanted education settings to be the last to close and the first to reopen.
My Lords, may I ask about the children not attending school and not in contact with any other services? What are the Government doing to ensure that these missing children and safe and being well cared for?
My Lords, there has been increased reporting of children being electively home educated through surveys from directors of children’s social care. But there is this other group of children missing an education—those not on the school roll and not being electively home educated. There are specific officers in every local authority who should make inquiries to track down those children and make sure that they have appeared on the school roll in another local authority area in England or one of the other three devolved nations.
Throughout the pandemic there has been a noticeable lack of briefings aimed specifically at children and a great absence of their voices. I was glad to host an event for MPs and key leaders in Gloucestershire where all the input came from young people. Can the Minister give an assurance that, in looking at the impact of Covid on the lives of children, it is they who will be asked and heard?
My Lords, one interesting feature of the consultation that we recently conducted on exams was that over 50% of the responses were indeed from students. We have been pleased to hear their voices throughout this and have sought to communicate directly with them. I also draw attention to the very successful Big Ask, run by the Children’s Commissioner, to which over 500,000 children and young people responded.
My Lords, the Minister has talked about plans for when schools return for the September term, but in many areas there are two to three weeks of this term left and over 300,000 children a day not attending. What action is being taken to increase the number of children attending school this term?
My Lords, the REACT teams from the Department for Education, working alongside local authorities, have an attendance strategy. They are working closely with schools, particularly for those young people with special educational needs and vulnerable children, to ensure that as many as possible are in schools. In relation to the bubbles, they are one way that schools can limit the number of contacts but, even if a child within a bubble tests positive, that does not necessarily mean that all children in the bubble have to go home; it is still only those who qualify as close contacts in line with the risk assessment by the school.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, during the first two weeks of June, the number of Covid cases in early years settings doubled? Can she tell me how many nurseries have closed because pre-school children are isolating? If the Government withdraw the requirement for schoolchildren to isolate, will this also apply to pre-school settings? This is, as she knows, an area under huge strain and challenge at the moment and it would be good to have as much clarity as possible on this point.
My Lords, I can tell the noble Baroness that the latest figures we have are for 24 June this year, when 55,000 early years settings were open. That represents 82% of all settings, and we estimate that that means that 937,000 children were in an early years setting on that day. When we are able to confirm step 4, the advice will obviously relate to all education settings.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
Emergency Covid Contracts
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 June.
“I am grateful for the chance to address the House about the Government’s use of emergency Covid contracts. I have previously responded to debates on this issue with as much detail and candour as I have been able to provide as someone who came to this brief last June and who has tried subsequently to understand what happened in the early months of the pandemic.
The right honourable Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) will know that all corners of our country have worked together to tackle Covid. The public have all too often seen division between different regional authorities but, in truth, close collaboration with the devolved Administrations has been at the heart of our pandemic response, enabling swift policy action such as the rollout of the vaccine programme UK-wide, the furlough scheme and a rapid increase in testing capacity.
At the beginning of the pandemic, over 13 million items of personal protective equipment were distributed to the devolved Administrations. Throughout the pandemic, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations have worked side by side on sourcing and supply of PPE such as FFP3 masks, and they continue to work together on meeting future demands on frontline staff. The existing procurement rules rightly allow the Government to procure at speed at times of emergency under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. The rules predate Covid-19, and there was no need for suspension or relaxation in order for them to be used. None the less, I understand and welcome questions that right honourable and honourable Members have about Covid contracts, because how we spend taxpayers’ money matters very deeply to public trust.
It is true to say that the Government faced a number of challenges at the height of the pandemic, and we should be open about those. It is incumbent on all of us to understand not only the kinds of pressures that were on the system, but some of the shortcomings that desperately need to be addressed. That being the case, the Government are already adapting their commercial guidance and work. Following the first, independent Boardman review of procurement processes, looking at a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service, 24 out of 28 recommendations have already been implemented, and the remainder will be met by the end of the calendar year. Following the second, wider Boardman review, which looked at PPE, ventilators, test and trace, vaccines and food parcels across Government, 28 further recommended improvements were identified, and progress on those is under way. Our Green Paper on transforming public procurement also sets out proposals to update the rules on procuring in times of extreme emergency or crisis.
Let me also briefly address the issue of government polling during the pandemic. The Government regularly undertake research to support policy development, which includes work related to the impact of Covid in areas across the UK. It is the sign of a responsible Government to understand the public’s views on how best to keep people safe to recover from the pandemic and to ensure that we will continue to deliver for all parts of the United Kingdom.”
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, have withdrawn, so after the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will be followed by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke.
My Lords, we are learning more day by day, are we not? In addition to a VIP fast lane for contracts, we know that Health Ministers had at least 27 undeclared meetings, including with potential contractors, some of whom then went on to win handsome contracts. Why did these meetings take place without civil servants being present, both to advise and to minute? How much did the Permanent Secretary know about this and what advice was given? Most importantly, has this practice now stopped?
My Lords, I believe the noble Baroness is referring to meetings that took place within the Department of Health and Social Care. I am advised that those meetings were not declared or reported simply because of an administrative error, which has been corrected. Therefore, the implication that this was something intended to hide meetings which were obviously involved in seeking to respond to the Covid crisis and to encourage people, as I understand it, to be involved with assisting the national effort is wrong. Those meetings were regular meetings that took place within the department; they simply were not reported, through an administrative error. As to the specific details of the meetings, although I acknowledge the responsibility to answer on behalf of the Government, I would have to refer to the Department of Health and Social Care for details of their content.
My Lords, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to make one error with a Covid contract is unfortunate; two looks like carelessness but four is suspicious. Can the Minister explain why the meeting of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, with David Meller, a £60,000 donor to the Conservative Party, was not published on time in his ministerial meetings schedule? Why was that meeting incorrectly marked as being about testing materials, when in fact it was about the supply of PPE? Why was Meller Designs, which has no background in PPE supply, awarded an £86 million contract without any competition? And why was that contract not published on time? This is far from an isolated example. Surely these repeated breaches of ministerial and procurement rules need urgent and independent investigation now.
My Lords, I said in my previous answer that I am not equipped, at this notice, to answer specific questions on specific meetings in another department about which allegations are being made. What I will say to the noble Baroness, and to everyone, is that an extraordinary effort was made, and was required of government by the country—and by opposition parties, as a matter of fact—to procure material that was needed to address the Covid crisis. While criticism is made of the alleged fast-track process of urgent procurement procedures, the absolute priority was to save lives, and those procedures were in line with procurement policy. There was extreme urgency, and indeed the Government’s case that emergency procurement regulations could be used because of the extreme urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic was upheld by a judge in the High Court in a recent case.
My Lords, I hope that the Government will seek to establish why there have been these administrative errors and give a full report to both Houses. I recognise that the Government had to act urgently in the circumstances in which they found themselves, but I see no reason why they needed to break existing rules. The previous Secretary of State used a personal mobile in a way that was in contravention of all the guidance given to him. There is no reason why he should not have used the official mobile. Can the Minister tell me whether the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has been having private conversations on his mobile? Has this been investigated? If not, why not? The public need to know what is going on. If there is nothing to be worried about, let us bring it out into the open and the Government will be cleared—there will be a smell continuing if they will not investigate these issues.
My Lords, the matter of the letting of contracts has been reviewed by many people and many reviews. The Boardman first review covered communications contracts, and 28 of its recommendations are complete, as of today. The Boardman second review covered areas of PPE, ventilators, vaccines, et cetera. Work is under way to implement those recommendations. The NAO found no irregularities or potential conflicts of interest involving Ministers in its report up to 31 July. I think the background is a little less perfervid than is described. As far as email is concerned, of course Ministers should have a care. All Ministers are aware of the guidance around email use. Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communication applications should be used for communicating classified information, but Ministers have other lives—parliamentary lives and so on—and other forms of communication may be used in conducting government business. As for my noble friend Lord Bethell, he spoke on this matter in the House on Tuesday, so I refer the noble Lord to his comments; obviously, he is best equipped to answer those kinds of charges.
My Lords, I think that, when the final inquest on this affair is ended, we will find that the Civil Service also was not up to it in certain areas when it came to commissioning contracts. Ministers undoubtedly cut corners. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, the other day when he was here, and he said he had obeyed the Nolan principles. I want to ask the Minister whether the Nolan principles specifically forbid the use of private emails, because I am not sure that they do. If they do not, will he try to ensure that the Nolan principles are brought up to date, to reflect where we are and modern technology?
My Lords, the Nolan principles arise from outside government. I was there at the start of the Nolan process and recall that it arose from recommendations that were requested by the then Prime Minister. I do not believe the principles necessarily cover emails—I may be wrong—but there are other areas of guidance to Ministers; there are duties under the Ministerial Code and so on. Obviously, Ministers must have an eye to all of those in their daily work.
I think the Minister was quite correct that an extraordinary effort was made. My concern is that that effort was focused on political friends and actual friends. It has been confirmed, as the Minister said, that a VIP lane, or high-priority route, existed for PPE offers referred by Ministers, MPs or officials. Will the Minister confirm that there was also a fast track for test and trace offers if they came from a Minister/private office? What percentage of those politically connected offers were successful in the triage process?
My Lords, I am advised that the claims that have been made in this respect are completely false and that there was in fact no high-priority lane for testing suppliers. All offers of testing went through the same robust assurance checks, and there was no separate so-called fast-track process—that is the clear advice that I have been given. Any discussions relating to government business were fed back to officials in the usual way. It does not matter what I think, but I assure the House that we as a Government take the impartiality and integrity of government procurement processes extremely seriously. When I say it does not matter what I think, I am saying that I think that and the whole Government think that, so I think I can set the noble Baroness’s fears at ease on that score.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed, and I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie.
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 June.
“After 15 months of restrictions and lockdowns, I know that everybody in the House is determined to get this pandemic behind us, so that we might finally begin to think about returning to some sort of normality. Decisions over how to control our borders during these unprecedented times are of course never easy. In everything we do, the overwhelming priority is to protect the public and the hard-won gains that have been made.
Last week, in recognition of the hugely successfully vaccination programme, we were able to confirm that in the future, when I will certainly return to the House, fully vaccinated people will be able to avoid quarantine when they return from countries on the amber list.
I want to be realistic with the House: this is a complicated policy that requires time to work through. First, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has yet to opine on whether children should be part of a vaccination programme. They are not at present, and we must resolve how children would therefore be treated under a programme that enabled people to travel without vaccinations.
Next is the question of what to do for people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or are perhaps on one of the non-standard vaccine trials. That accounts for around half a million people and we need to work out what to do in that respect.
There is also the question of how to recognise vaccine status at ports and airports. That is easier for people who have been vaccinated in the UK, because the main NHS app—I should stress that I am not talking about the test and trace app—can already display a person’s vaccine status, but it is less easy to prove for someone coming from overseas, particularly if their country has a paper-based system.
As a result of all this work, we will announce to the House when we are ready to make these decisions in order to bring this system into place. It will most likely be phased in for UK residents first.
As has been said, we have confirmed changes to the traffic light system, which take place tonight, at 4 am. That will change the countries that are on the red and the green lists. There are some complications with establishing the list on a UK-wide basis, including with the devolved Administrations. Once the decisions have been made, it is also very difficult not to have them escape from the various different Administrations, so I apologise to the House for not always being able to get here first before I start to read of them in the newspapers. In this particular case, I heard them instantaneously—or within an hour or so, I should say—from the devolved Administrations elsewhere in the UK, meaning that the story was already out there. Malta, Madeira, the Balearic islands and several UK overseas territories and Caribbean islands will be added to the green list, while a further six countries will move to the red category, as we continue to adapt our system.
Our border regime is one of the toughest in the world and I know, from chairing meetings of the G7 Transport Ministers, that it is closely tracked and in some cases followed by other countries. We are now focused on the long-term issue of how to keep our country safe while getting international travel back up and running. These decisions are not easy and will not be enhanced by simplistic calls to stick countries on either a red list or a green list without providing the level of detail that the amber list helps to provide. In comparison, this Government are taking a cautious, evidence-based approach. I will return to the House with more information once we are aware of the details.”
Tourism and other transport industries need a clear plan and clarity now over timings for easing restrictions on international travel, and the Government failed to provide that in the Commons on Tuesday. Passenger numbers for UK aviation are down by nearly 90% compared to 2019—far more than in our major European competitors. UK airlines have announced over 30,000 job cuts so far, without taking account of the impact on the wider supply chain. ABTA has said that 44% of its members expect further redundancies as furlough tapers off. The aviation and tourism industries need help now. All the Government do is repeat figures from the general schemes from which they have received support, but the aviation industry—the hardest-hit sector—was promised sector-specific support. When are the Government going to deliver what they promised?
My Lords, the Government are working extremely closely with all parts of the travel sector, and we recognise that it has been a very difficult time for it. Significant support has already been given to the sector, and indeed there has been sector-specific support for airports. We will, of course, continue to work closely with them in the medium term.
International travellers all have to pass through the border security at airports. This has not had a good reputation for efficiency in the past, so can the Minister give us some reassurance that matters are improving?
I hope that I can provide some reassurance, although we accept and have been very clear that wait times at the border may be extended due to biosecurity checks. However, the PLF system—the passenger locator form—has now been further automated such that you cannot submit it until you have fully completed it, which makes it easier for carriers and Border Force. Secondly, we are rolling out an upgrade to the e-gates; they will be able to recognise the PLF once it is completed. We reckon that 51% of e-gates will be updated by the end of July.
My Lords, we have witnessed the chaos of the red, amber and green light system, with the lights changing quicker than any set of traffic lights ever has. We know that there will be variants. We know that, as we and the rest of the world vaccinates more, there will be even more variants coming through, so at some point we have to trust the vaccines. Will the Minister assure the House that she is going to get some stability into the system so that both tourists and, perhaps more importantly, businessmen can plan? Having seen what has happened in Malta in the last few days, will she also ensure that we can get something that is recognised as a vaccine certificate around the world?
I am delighted to tell my noble friend that Malta is now accepting the NHS app via a verification system, so it has gone digital. Therefore, I hope that people will look forward to travelling to Malta. As the Roads Minister, I know that what he says is not quite true—traffic lights do change quite quickly—but he does have a point: we need to provide stability. This is what we have done with the traffic light system, because we have to recognise that, like it or not, things will change. Things will change in other countries; they are beyond our control. They will also have their own issues with vaccination, whether it is successful or not, and they will have their own categories for the types of people that can arrive. I believe that our traffic light system is absolutely appropriate. It provides clarity, although I accept that it may change over time.
My Lords, could the Minister please assist the House to understand what the Secretary of State for Transport attempted to say the other day about travel to the United States? Could she clarify precisely when travel to our so-called closest ally will be available, given that we are both equally vaccinated countries? Why is it possible to fly to Mexico from London and then go to the United States, but not to go from London to the United States when, in theory, Mexico does not have the same level of vaccination and has a higher level of coronavirus cases? Could the Minister please explain exactly what the situation is and, for goodness’ sake, when we can go?
Well, we know that the Prime Minister and President Biden are very keen to return to safe transatlantic travel as soon as possible. The UK-US experts working group is up and running, and it is looking through all the technology and protocols that would need to be in place. However, the US is slightly different to the UK, and it has 50 different states with 50 different systems that register whether someone has been vaccinated or not, so there is a little work to be done. Obviously, I cannot give the noble Lord a timeline, but we are very keen to reopen our borders to the US, and we will do so when it is safe.
My Lords, you can transit through Italy, remain for 36 hours and not quarantine—but, sadly, not if you are an England fan. From abroad, you can come here, stay longer and not quarantine if you are a politician, VIP, official or sponsor. This confirms that, whatever the variant, the vaccines work. Can my noble friend inform the Department of Health that, until this incessant scaremongering stops, our airline and tourism sectors will continue to haemorrhage jobs and will never recover?
As I have set out previously—I agree with my noble friend—the travel industry is having a very difficult time, but we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. We have to make sure that we act with public health as our priority. We must have a cautious approach, because we cannot risk everything that we have been able to do with the vaccine programme by importing variants of concern from overseas.
My Lords, in the Financial Times yesterday, Ministers are quoted as saying that any businessman coming into this country who could offer £300 million—I think that was the figure—of investment in the country could be exempted from quarantine. Can I ask the Minister whether that would have applied to Mr Greensill and Mr Gupta, who have been saving the British steel industry for decades? How does this work, in terms of the medical reasons for doing it? Is this not a case of double standards for those that Ministers like?
Let me explain to the noble Lord exactly what is going on here. There is an exemption from the requirement to quarantine, and it applies to a very limited number of specific business activities where these cannot be undertaken remotely or by anyone other than the exempt executive and would serve to create or preserve very large numbers of UK jobs—500 plus. So, that is potentially where his number came from. This exemption has been very significantly tightened since a version of it was in force in December. The qualifying threshold has been increased tenfold, and its scope has been reduced to permit only the most critical activities.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as recorded in the register. The traffic light system is only one side of the coin; the other side is the restrictions that may be imposed by other countries. My noble friend will be aware that the EU has brought in its digital Covid certificates, starting today. Can I ask my noble friend whether the Government intend—and may succeed—to align our vaccination passports with the digital Covid certificate in the EU?
My noble friend makes a really important point, and that is why it is so important that countries are able to go digital where they are going to accept travellers. That is why we are so delighted that Malta has done that in accepting the UK NHS app. Of course, we are working with all our key destination countries to try to align the digital certification for Covid vaccination, and we will continue to do so. There are other considerations as to whether the countries want us there at all, but certainly it is worth building that relationship on digitisation ahead of any change in entry requirements.
My Lords, why does the GOV.UK website inform residents living abroad that they can travel to their country, but as you click through to links within the same website it states that you should not travel to amber countries. Which is it? When doing so, why do PCR tests in many destination countries cost a fraction of the cost in the UK when presumably they must use the same broad technique to arrive at the same result?
I do not know where the noble Viscount’s confusion has come from, but it is made very clear that when it comes to amber and red countries, the advice is not to travel. Of course, there will be people who will have personal reasons to travel, such as for a funeral, et cetera, but the advice is not to travel and the Government are very clear on that. With regard to PCR tests, in the UK it costs £85 for a two-test package or under £50 for a single-test package. If I look at comparisons, for example, the median cost of just one PCR test in the US is £90 and the average cost for a PCR for travel abroad in Spain is between €130 and €240, so we compare quite well to that. Whatever the cost of the PCR test, it is important that we bear down on those costs and that we take the advantage of economies of scale as more people are able to travel in the future.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who did not get in.
EU Settlement Scheme
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 June.
“I am delighted to have this opportunity to mark, and update the House on, the huge success of the EU settlement scheme. As of the end of last month, more than 5.6 million applications had been received by the scheme, with more than 5.2 million concluded. As these number demonstrate, the dire warnings about our willingness to deliver an effective scheme to safeguard the position of millions of our friends and neighbours have proven totally unfounded.
Today, I invite all honourable and right honourable Members to play their part in communicating tomorrow’s deadline and encouraging those who are eligible, but who have yet to apply, to do so now. The Government have mounted a massive public information campaign to raise awareness about the scheme, investing almost £8 million in communications encouraging eligible EU citizens and their family members to apply by the deadline. We have also made extensive support available to applicants who need it, including providing £22 million in grant funding to organisations that have so far helped more than 300,000 vulnerable people to apply for the status that they deserve.
While the deadline is tomorrow, we will take a pragmatic and flexible approach to considering late applications made after the deadline. Our priority will remain to encourage those eligible to secure their status, and the examples of reasonable grounds given in the guidance that we have published are non-exhaustive. Each case will be considered based on its unique circumstances.
To confirm: a person’s existing rights will continue to be legally protected pending the outcome of an application made by the deadline of tomorrow, plus any appeal process that may follow. In the meantime, they will be able to rely on their certificate of application as proof of their right to work or rent when that is verified by the Home Office employer and landlord checking services.
We also expect the EU to uphold its obligations on citizens’ rights. We are aware that some UK nationals in the EU have faced difficulties in securing and exercising their rights. We are engaging with the EU through the specialised committee on citizens’ rights to address this.
The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016. We opened the EU settlement scheme in March 2019 on a basis much more generous than the withdrawal agreement requires. By contrast, most EU countries have an application window of around 12 months. Our position has remained clear throughout: EU citizens are our colleagues, neighbours, friends and family. We want them to stay and to get the status that they deserve under the EU settlement scheme. The fact that so many have already chosen to do so is something to celebrate, and I encourage anyone who is eligible, but yet to apply, to join the millions who have already secured their rights through our scheme, with support available online, on the phone and through our fantastic grant-funded organisations.”
Some 30,000 people in receipt of benefits have yet to apply for settled status. Applications have not been made for more than 2,000 children in care or care leavers. The Government have no clear idea of the total number of EU citizens still to apply and said in the Commons on Tuesday that “literally thousands” of applications
“are still coming in every day”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/6/21; col. 163.]
To keep the rights they had, those still to apply have to hope that the Government of Windrush and the hostile environment deem that they have reasonable grounds for a late application being made.
First, we have called for an extension of the European Union settlement scheme for three months to the end of September. Why will the Government not agree to it? Secondly, will they commit to providing updates to Parliament, at least every month, of the number of late applications received and the number of such applications accepted, the number rejected and the number still outstanding of decision?
I thank the noble Lord for his questions. On a September extension, the scheme has been open now for over two years, which is a reasonable time, in our estimation. The noble Lord talked about children in particular, and I agree that they may be a particularly vulnerable cohort. Of course, with children or children in care, whatever their circumstances, if there are reasonable excuses beyond midnight of last night, they will be able to apply and that scheme will be open indefinitely so as not to disadvantage them. On benefits, we are working very hard with the DWP to ensure that all those who are entitled to benefits will keep them.
My Lords, why set an arbitrary deadline for people to claim rights they are already entitled to?
My Lords, it was not arbitrary; these things have to come to an end at some point. As I say, the deadline has come over two years since the scheme opened, which was incredibly generous. That is evidenced by the fact that now over 5.2 million people have had their applications processed for either settled or pre-settled status.
My Lords, the figures given in the Answer appear very satisfactory. However, can my noble friend first of all confirm that “concluded” means accepted, and if not, can she please say how many people have been accepted? Can she also give the House an assurance that those who are accepted will be able to have a physical document that proves that they are indeed entitled to permanent residence in this country?
I can confirm to my noble friend that not all applications concluded are accepted. There will be some specific cohorts of people who will not have their applications accepted; for example, for various reasons to do with offending or for reasons of national concern. However, as regards the physical document, the EU settlement scheme was designed precisely to avoid a Windrush-type event, where immigration status was automatically conferred on people by an Act of Parliament but with no record made of it. Successful applicants under the EU settlement scheme receive a digital immigration status that provides that secure evidence of their status.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the original estimates made by the Home Office represent about half the number of people eligible under the scheme? Will she further confirm that when the figures were last produced, at least 300 children had not been identified? Given that, it is likely that there will be many more than 300. Therefore, while I welcome the Minister’s commitment that the scheme for children will be open indefinitely, is there not a concern that there will be a large number of children whom the Home Office have not identified and who may still not be aware of their position in the years to come?
I totally acknowledge the noble Lord’s point about children who in years to come might not have that status and therefore will need to apply for it. That is why the scheme, which accepts reasonable excuses for why somebody has not applied, will remain open indefinitely. I hope the noble Lord will be happy that 67% of children in care have applied. That is a great figure but support will be ongoing to encourage those children to apply. The noble Lord’s point about the Home Office underestimating the number of people who might apply for settled status is absolutely right. So did the3million, hence its name. We now have 5.6 million applications, which is a very encouraging figure.
To follow on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a main concern of EU citizens resident here is for those without smartphones or internet access to have printable proof of their status. Will the Government consider the use of a secure, QR code-based system to achieve this? It is a technology the Government approve of and many of us are now familiar with it. If it has been done for vaccination status, why not for settled status?
I thank the noble Earl for that question. To update him, Home Office officials recently met the3million to discuss those proposals in more detail. The use of QR codes is something that we will consider. There will of course be a number of issues to work through to assess the feasibility of the solution, including that end users’ data is absolutely secure.
My Lords, the Minister will agree that online support, telephone helplines and grant-funded organisations have done a tremendous job so far. What help will be available to those who have missed the deadline? How do we ensure, as the Minister hopes, that we do not have another Windrush scandal? Many do not trust the state or politicians, and many will not believe that the new rules apply to them because they have been here for decades. How will the Minister’s statement that the scheme will be open indefinitely be manifested?
I think what the noble Baroness asks is: beyond the deadline, what support will be available? The Settlement Resolution Centre will certainly be open after the deadline, and the grant-funded organisations will be funded into June. On her point about our intention up to September, we will scope out what the needs will be beyond September, because we do not want a hard stop preventing anyone who can apply to the scheme from doing so.
My Lords, Portuguese is a difficult language to get one’s head around at the best of times, and vice versa with English, which leads to my question. Many in the East Timorese community resident in the UK apparently have no idea of the necessity to register post Brexit. Is the Minister concerned about that? If so, what has been or can be done, and do the Government suspect that other communities with English-language issues are similarly placed?
The East Timor issue has been drawn to my attention, and we will continue to encourage those who are eligible to apply as soon as possible. The noble Viscount will, I hope, know that we have granted £22 million-worth of funding until September of this year, and, as I just said to the noble Baroness, we will be scoping whether that support needs to continue. We have an organisation in Oxfordshire working specifically with the East Timor community.
My Lords, I understand that, under the EU settlement scheme, there are no exemptions for seasonal workers in the fish processing industry, although there are exemptions in the edible horticulture sector. In view of that, will the Minister meet me to discuss how the issue will impact on the fishing sector in Northern Ireland and how this situation can be remedied?
I am very happy to meet the noble Baroness to discuss both the horticultural and fishing industries. She will know that a pilot is currently under way for seasonal agricultural workers, but I am very happy to listen to her thoughts on it.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
Military Personnel Overseas: Vaccinations
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 23 June.
“As soon as our hugely successful Covid vaccination programme was launched, I wanted to ensure that our Armed Forces would have access to vaccines as quickly as possible, so we tasked the department with ensuring that nobody would be disadvantaged by serving our country abroad. This means people would be offered vaccinations no later than they would have at home, and that those who needed to would be vaccinated before they left the UK.
Our critical outputs, including the continuous-at-sea deterrent crew and the quick reaction alert air crew, have rightly been prioritised. We have also in recent days completed 100% vaccination for our carrier strike group. I can confirm today that sufficient vaccines for all of our people in all overseas locations have now been dispatched. We are in the process of getting the few remaining people who are awaiting their vaccines their jabs. For those on active operations overseas, we have administered first doses of vaccine to 95% of those eligible and 61% of them have had their second dose. I can assure the House that every single eligible person across defence, at home or abroad, will have been offered at least their first vaccine dose by 19 July, in line with the national programme.”
My Lords, the first priority of government is the protection of and support for our Armed Forces. As the chair of the Defence Select Committee in the other place said, if we vaccinate our Armed Forces personnel for malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and a host of other diseases prior to deployment, why on earth did we not do so for Covid? How many UK military personnel deployed abroad in areas such as Mali contracted Covid, and have operations been affected? Further, the Minister now tells us that 61% of our troops have been fully vaccinated. When will the rest of them—one in three—receive their second dose, and is it not now extremely urgent that they do so?
The noble Lord is absolutely right that the safety and well-being of our Armed Forces personnel is paramount. Indeed, that was recognised from the start of the pandemic, when the priority was to keep our Armed Forces safe. There were robust safety measures and regimes in place, and that included isolation prior to deployment.
I reassure the noble Lord that when the commencement of the impressively successful vaccination programme began in December 2020, it allowed the MoD to plan and work in tandem with our domestic vaccination programme. Sometimes we were ahead of that, for good operational reasons. The priority for government has been to save the lives of those most at risk. It is right that we followed the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which was to prioritise those older age groups and the most at risk first, rather than prioritise by occupation.
The noble Lord asked me about Covid cases among UK Armed Forces on operations. The figures I have been given are current as at 28 June this year, and are that the percentage of UK Armed Forces registering positive for Covid is: in the Persian Gulf, 0.4%; in Iraq, 0.3%; in Mali, 1.4%; in Afghanistan, 1%; and in Estonia, 13.2%. He will be aware that there was a higher case rate in Estonia due to a significant changeover of personnel at the time.
I reassure the noble Lord that second doses will be offered in line with clinical advice and the exact circumstances of the deployment. Our target within defence is four to eight weeks after the first dose, although, where there is an operational requirement, such as overseas deployment, we may accelerate second doses, subject to clinical guidance on the recommended gaps between doses. The only prioritisation that was effected was, as he will be aware, in respect of the nuclear deterrent, the carrier strike group and the rapid response Typhoon force.
My Lords, this Urgent Question repeat goes back to 23 June. Can the Minister update the House on the figures? We were told that 61% of those on overseas operations had had a second dose of vaccine. What is the percentage now, eight days later? Noting that the Minister for the Armed Forces stated in the other place that by 19 July every member of personnel across defence would have been vaccinated, can she reassure us that that includes junior soldiers at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, who will be under 18?
To come to the noble Baroness’s last question first, my understanding is that the Ministry of Defence will ensure that every adult is offered their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by 19 July, in line with HMG’s accelerated vaccination timelines. Indeed, by that date, many will have completed both doses. I am unaware of the situation in relation to the cohort to which she refers. I undertake to inquire into that and, if I can ascertain further information, I shall write to her.
The noble Baroness asked an important question about percentages of vaccinations given. The figures I have—again, these are as at 28 June 2021—are that: for UK Armed Forces personnel on active operations, 95% have received the first dose, 74% have received the second dose and 2% have refused a dose. As at 28 June for Armed Forces personnel based overseas, excluding operations, my information is that 73% have had a first dose and 35% have had a second dose.
I ask the Minister a related question regarding proof of vaccination for military personnel. As a former CDS whose medical data is still held by the Defence Medical Services, I declare a personal interest. The Minister will be aware that the medical data of defence personnel, including proof of vaccination, is held in a way that is inaccessible via the NHS app. I accept that a highly complex work-around is available, but only to those who are extremely technically gifted. When will this significant disadvantage be resolved?
The noble and gallant Lord raises an important issue. It is complex, but I hope I can provide some further information and perhaps some reassurance. The interchange of vaccination data between NHS systems and defence medical systems is already fully operational for the vast majority of personnel, but for security reasons and to ensure that a greater proportion of defence personnel can access their vaccination status, all defence personnel must use the NHS website rather than the mobile phone application. I think that he will be sympathetic to the security nuances of that situation. I reassure him that that information has been widely communicated to all personnel and we have, just in the past day, reissued communications on this topic, including by text message and by guidance on our intranet.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s reply to my noble friend Lord Coaker, but press her a little further on this area. I am sure she would agree that it is government’s first duty to our Armed Forces to ensure they are properly trained, equipped and protected when they are deployed in service. Was it therefore a mistake to follow the age- related criteria and not to fully vaccinate our front-line troops at the beginning of the vaccination programme?
I say to the noble Baroness that it was not a mistake. She will understand that judgments have to be made on these issues. She will also be aware that the unfolding of the vaccination programme was innovatory and new territory for government—indeed, new territory for many countries across the world. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the MoD took a view that it was right to follow the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that it was preferable to prioritise those in the older age groups and those most at risk, rather than by occupation. However, as I also indicated to her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on occasions we, in fact, vaccinated prior to deployment if there was no opportunity for vaccination during deployment. Specifically, we made sure that regarding our critical outputs, which I have already described, we prioritised vaccination of those groups of persons.
My Lords, while it is not the Minister’s bag, in addition to the question of UK military personnel serving overseas, is she aware what provision has been made for serving diplomats posted overseas, which we should be offering to reciprocate in London anyway?
The noble Viscount is absolutely right; it is not my bag and I do not want to get into hot water with my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. In fact, from speaking to my defence attaché colleagues in one part of the globe this morning, I understand that our Diplomatic Service has been protected but I hesitate to give any further specific information because I do not possess it. I suggest that the noble Viscount might want to direct his question to my colleague, my noble friend Lord Ahmad.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I remind noble Lords that Back-Bench speakers in this next important debate have only two minutes. When two minutes have been used up, I will ask the broadcasters to move on to the next speaker.
UK Foreign Aid Programme
Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the importance of the UK foreign aid programme.
My Lords, I thank my Cross-Bench colleagues for the opportunity of this debate. I also declare my interest as an ambassador for UNAIDS.
In 2015, Parliament passed a Bill that placed a duty on Governments to devote 0.7% of national income to overseas aid. It was approved overwhelmingly in both Houses. My comment at Second Reading in this House was that it was
“what I would expect from a civilised and outward-looking country that recognises it has responsibilities to try to help the poorest people in other parts of the world”.—[Official Report, 23/1/15; col. 1530.]
I would suggest that our responsibilities remain the same today. I also suggest that in spite of the examples of corruption in the use of aid money, which I deplore as the lowest form of crime, the effort of the world through the help of Governments and the United Nations, together with the wonderful support of charitable organisations, volunteers, doctors and nurses, and countless others, has led to major steps forward.
No one pretends that the battle is remotely over. We have edged forward but there is still a mountain to climb. Take, for example, HIV/AIDS. The latest figures show that almost 700,000 men, women and children around the world died from AIDS-related illnesses last year. There are 38 million people around the world living with HIV. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls account for 60% of all new infections and we know that if girls leave school early before the secondary stage, their chances of having HIV are doubled.
However, that terrible toll is not remotely an isolated case. It is extraordinarily difficult to express in a few words the magnitude of the full challenge or to grasp the full implication of the cut from 0.7% that the Government have ordered. There are the problems concerned with the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, raised in the other place by the former Prime Minister Mrs May, which include programmes to end the commercial exploitation of children. Our funding there is being cut by 80%. Incidentally, together with Mrs May, three other former Prime Ministers have condemned the cuts in foreign aid.
The present Prime Minister declares a personal priority for aid in girls’ education but that aid has been cut while aid to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, has been cut by 60%. Among the multitude of other programmes suffering cuts in UK aid, which are sometimes total, are a project to provide healthcare in deprived areas of Bangladesh, help for clean water projects in Africa and, my own particular cause, UNAIDS, which has had its grant cut by 83%. Even funding for Yemen, which has the world’s worst humanitarian emergency, has been cut back, and we will doubtless hear from the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, on the position with TB, perhaps the world’s biggest killer.
It is for reasons such as those that every country, bar one, inside the G7 group of the most prosperous nations in the world has decided not to cut back their aid programmes. The one exception is, of course, Britain, which until now has taken pride in its efforts to help the poorest and the sick, and rightly so. However, the Treasury says now that the financial circumstances of the country explain the cut. I would find that argument easier to accept if I did not remember that back in 2015, long before Covid, it was the Treasury that was most passionately opposed to this international Act. Its argument then was that it was wrong to ring-fence this small part of its budget and that the matter should be left to the discretion of the Chancellor—exactly what the Treasury is now achieving. Back in 2015, its objection was debated and, crucially, in Parliament it was decisively rejected.
What makes these cuts so objectionable, even to those who might have supported the economic case, is that Parliament today has had no opportunity to vote on the issue at all. An Act of Parliament has been changed by ministerial decree. There is a gigantic issue of principle here that no true parliamentarian can ignore. In the other place, Andrew Mitchell, the MP for Sutton Coldfield, made a brave attempt to force the matter to a vote and I pay tribute to him. I am tempted to say that Sutton Coldfield does well in electing its MPs to the House of Commons. Today in this House, we have a debate with more than 40 speakers who, as we have heard, are confined to a strict two minutes each. It shows the strength of opinion but, again, there is no prospect of a vote.
That fundamental criticism was immensely strengthened by none other than Mr Speaker in the other place. He said that he shared “the House’s frustration” at its failure to be able to make an effective decision on the Government’s action. It was not just Parliament, he said, but the country as a whole that,
“needs this matter to be debated and aired, and an effective decision to be taken”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/6/21; col. 668.]
Frankly, the parliamentary process has so far proved to be ineffective. It is for that reason that many of us are now looking at other remedies. That remedy may lie in the law itself and an examination of a basic question: whether the action taken by Ministers is fundamentally lawful.
Let us remember that the Government agreed with the advice that they needed legislation to change the position. On 25 November last year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that from the Dispatch Box, and the Foreign Secretary said the same thing the very next day, 26 November. They spelled out the reduction from 0.7% but forgot to mention, perhaps, the reduction provided for in the Bill itself automatically with the reduction in national income.
On the promise of legislation, all that changed some months later when the Government announced that, after further reflection—which is their way of saying that the Chief Whips had told them that they were in danger of being defeated—they did not actually need legislation at all. They said that all they had to do was make a statement—a point raised in this House by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed. The form of statement is, to put it mildly, unclear. A Written Answer might suffice, or perhaps just a letter. Parliamentary accountability has come to this.
Another fundamental question and criticism has come from the former Solicitor-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, who will also speak in this debate. He argued that, until Parliament changes the law, there is a statutory duty to meet the 0.7% target. The Government can say that they intend to change the law but, until that is done, they are subject to it. They cannot legitimise their failure to hit a target by announcing in advance their intention to fail.
In short, there are legal options open to us to challenge these cuts. The difficulty, of course, is that they will take time. In my view, the best outcome is for this to be settled in Parliament. The Government should recognise that aid organisations today face unique and urgent problems, partly because of Covid. How much better it would be for the Government to recognise that reality and change course. The issues of poverty and lack of health provision remain the same; the difference is that, with the onset of Covid, they have become even more acute.
One of the most powerful letters I have received during this crisis came from a young British doctor who had been working for several years in Sierra Leone. He quoted the experience of his successor. She had said to him:
“Pretty much every one of our funding sources has been cut entirely overnight with no notice. It is hard to overstate how catastrophic this will be to our patients in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somaliland. From the infectious diseases unit we built with UK funding as a first line of defence against pandemics to the oxygen factory we built to provide life-saving treatment for Covid, we will have to pull out all of our volunteers and support, and these facilities may well have to close completely.”
Lastly, let me say this: I do not believe that this is a “red-wall” or “blue-wall” issue. It is not, and should not be, a matter of party politics at all. It is a matter of judgment and, in my view, common humanity. For millions of men, women and, in particular, children around the world, aid is their lifeblood. I do not pretend that UK aid can do it all, but it can make a substantial contribution, as we have seen over the past few years.
In short, I believe that we should keep to the course that we set in 2015. Above all, we should at least have the opportunity to reject these damaging cuts by the Government, obeying the usual parliamentary rules and allowing a vote in both the Commons and the Lords.
My Lords, please note my entry in the Lords’ register. We are all extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for choosing this topic for his first debate following his retirement as Lord Speaker and for the very thoughtful and comprehensive introduction that he has provided for us today.
In a world of instability, inequality and extreme shocks, the UK has to be a force for good, in the interests of our own citizens and of the planet that we inhabit. We have a duty to right the wrongs of the past and protect our citizens today. UK aid prevents conflict, liberates people through education, fights global disease and provides hope at home for those who would otherwise take terrifying journeys to try to find a better life. So the speed and severity of these additional cuts— “additional” cuts, on top of those that would have happened because of the low levels of growth in the economy—shame our Chancellor and our Prime Minister. Shame on them. The political choice they have made—to pick on the poorest in the world and avoid a democratic vote in Parliament—shames this country too. However, as we come out of the worst of the pandemic and into the final preparations for COP 26, surely the Government can still, even at this last stage, rethink their decision and decide to go with the law and implement the proper arrangements for 0.7% of GNI to be spent on UK aid.
In the meantime, however, those of us who care about this issue must resolve with humility, persuasion and passion to build back public support for UK aid, and to ensure that, in future, we have better aid programming that liberates people through an end to dependency and a real chance, through lifelong partnerships with this country and others, to grow for themselves.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for his extraordinary record in this field. The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, has once more drawn the short straw. Where is the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad?
We all know that assisting in development is both right and in our interest. The pandemic has shown how globally interlinked we are. Clearly the integrated review was written before these cuts were suddenly announced—so much for “global Britain” and Britain as a soft power. So much for the UK as a trusted partner.
I was privileged to be the DfID Minister when my noble friend Lord Purvis took his Private Member’s Bill through this House to enshrine in law the commitment to 0.7% of GNI for aid. There was, and is, cross-party support for this—and rightly so. We were recognised as a development superpower and ODA went beyond DfID, for example to City of London enforcement agencies to counter corruption and to our universities for R&D. The Jenner Institute’s work on the Ebola vaccine translated into the Covid vaccine. The right hand clearly did not know what the left hand was doing when the Government decided to cut aid. Do we indeed wish to balance our books on the backs of the poor—as if this small commitment would even balance those books?
The PM says that girls’ education is important to him, yet these cuts will have a disproportionate effect on women and girls, who are the poorest globally. Reproductive healthcare is down 48%; education down 30%; water and sanitation down 39%; and aid to the worst conflict in the world, in Yemen, is down 80%. I hope that the Minister will strike out from his speech the phrase “restoring when possible”. This cut should not have happened and needs to be reversed now. At the very least, the Government must obey the law—and is it not extraordinary that we should even need to say such a thing?
My Lords, my daughter works in overseas development, so I declare that as an interest. I passionately follow her great passion for mankind.
I want to touch on one aspect of this, which is the way the Executive have treated Parliament. Even if this move by the Executive is lawful, they have approached it as an insult to the institution that is supposed to be sovereign. The Bill was carried by an overwhelming majority, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, indicated. I remind the House that a mere five votes—five—opposed it in the other place in 2014.
Here we are, a few short years later, and the Executive were purporting to deny that House the opportunity even to discuss—not to vote, but to discuss and express views about—a ministerial Statement that, by mere assertion, purported to legalise non-compliance with a statutory obligation. One needs to think of what was involved in that refusal to have a debate. Absurdly, it is the wording of that Act. That unchallengeable Statement is described as “accountability”—what extraordinary legislation.
The Glorious Revolution did away with the pretended power to suspend or dispense with statute, and that is precisely what we have here. Noble Lords all know about me whinging on about our thraldom and about how Henry VIII holds us in thrall, and that last year I complained that the Government spent more time addressing the media than they did the House of Commons. I will just say it again: the way this proposal has been advanced to the House has been negligible. The sovereignty of Parliament is treated as a mere adjunct of Executive authority.