House of Lords
Tuesday 6 July 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.
Introduction: Lord Stevens of Birmingham
Sir Simon Laurence Stevens, having been created Baron Stevens of Birmingham, of Richmond upon Thames in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Adebowale and Lord Darzi of Denham, 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 when in the Chamber except when speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please will those asking supplementary questions keep them no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made with the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech.
My Lords, the Government are absolutely committed to the delivery of this key manifesto pledge. At the onset of the pandemic, our focus was rightly on ensuring that the criminal justice system continued to operate in a Covid-safe environment. Significant new programmes of work were launched to support recovery and build back a better system. We believe it is right to focus on these priorities over the coming months, so we have paused work on the royal commission for now.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that disappointing reply. The last time I asked his predecessor this Question, I was told that a committee in the Ministry of Justice was looking into the issue. I must admit that I deplore the deliberate discourtesy to Her Majesty the Queen of asking her to announce something which the Government have no intention of implementing.
My Lords, I am afraid that it is now customary for me to be more disappointing than my predecessor, but there was no discourtesy to Her Majesty the Queen or, indeed, anybody else. The Government do intend to hold a royal commission: the question is, when. We are still in the middle of a pandemic so we are focused on its effects and have paused the work on the royal commission.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s Question. As one who is soon to depart this place, I hope that he continues to pursue this and other such matters with his customary vigour and determination. Noble Lords will know of the significant contribution of voluntary and charitable groups, including those which are faith based, to work in the criminal justice sector. Many of these organisations are keen for the work of the royal commission to proceed as soon as possible in order to provide a framework for future work. Can the Minister confirm that such groups will have an opportunity to contribute in a substantive way to the royal commission’s work?
My Lords, I am well aware of the work that the voluntary sector does in this area, particularly faith-based groups. When the royal commission launches, it will be seeking views and evidence from a wide range of stakeholders within the criminal justice system and beyond, including the voluntary sector and the faith-based groups the right reverend Prelate referred to.
My Lords, I do not know whether I am a stakeholder or whether I can see anything being built back better, but while the Government are pausing they really should concentrate on improving the condition of the prison estate. It is woefully overcrowded: 85,000 to 90,000 prisoners are now living in squalid conditions. Will my noble friend please persuade the Ministry of Justice and the Government as a whole to get on and do something about the disgraceful state of our prisons?
My Lords, I am not sure that we need any persuading, because I am not sure that there is anything between my noble and learned friend and myself on the importance of a proper prison estate. We have of course had to pause various programmes because of the Covid pandemic. We are now seeking to reinstate those programmes and—if I may use the phrase—build back a better and more appropriate prison environment.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier. I was going to congratulate the Government on deciding that there should be a royal commission, but I am now nervous as to whether it will be pursued as it should be. Royal commissions have obtained a reputation for delay, and this is an unfortunate precedent for what is happening now. I hope, however, that we will soon hear what the royal commission’s terms of reference are. I urge the Government that when they determine those terms, they make it clear that there is a clear distinction between criminal and civil law. All too often, that boundary is being blurred—indeed, it could be said that there has been considerable trespass on that boundary. A clear statement by the royal commission could remedy that situation.
The noble and learned Lord will have heard that we have paused work on the royal commission. When we reactivate it, the terms of reference will be an important part of it. He is right to say that there is a distinction between civil and criminal law but with great respect, I am not sure whether it is as sharp as he identifies. The noble and learned Lord will be aware that trespass itself can be both criminal and civil.
My Lords, as important as publishing the terms of reference of the royal commission is, when will the Government also tackle effectively the immediate problem of the backlog in criminal trials? What is the Government’s response to the Lord Chief Justice’s comments on the temporary reduction in the size of juries and perhaps the use of Diplock courts, with the agreement of the defendant?
The noble and learned Lord is right that we have to make sure that people have their cases heard within an appropriate time. We have opened 60 Nightingale courts, and we now actually have more rooms available for jury trials than we had before the pandemic. The important point is to make sure that we are running the criminal justice system as hot as we possibly can, and that is exactly what we plan to do over the coming year. There is no limit on the number of sitting days in the criminal courts this year.
My Lords, the Minister may be disappointed but I am dissatisfied in the extreme with the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was told in November last year that staff had been appointed to this royal commission. If staff have been appointed, have they now been laid off and are doing other jobs? Why have they not yet prepared the terms of reference and the terms by which the commissioners might be appointed? Surely the royal commission is not a programme which is just paused; it is far more significant. I think the Government need to recognise that, because we are being let down badly.
I agree, with respect, with the noble Lord that the royal commission is extremely important. That is why we want to make sure that we have proper and focused terms of reference and that the work to set up the royal commission is done at a time when we can do it properly. There is a huge amount of work being done at the moment throughout the criminal justice system to respond to an unprecedented pandemic. I suggest that it is right in those circumstances to pause the work on the royal commission; we will come back to it after we have dealt with the pandemic.
My Lords, given that the number of prisoners in England and Wales is predicted to rise to a post-war high of nearly 99,000 by 2026—as reported in the Daily Telegraph—can the Minister comment on what the priorities will be for the royal commission on the criminal justice system, and whether these need to be prioritised or added to in light of the impact of the Covid epidemic on the criminal justice system and this predicted increase in the number of prisoners?
My Lords, the last point the noble Baroness made is absolutely right; I sought to make it earlier. Of course, the priorities for the royal commission need to be prioritised and perhaps added to in light of the impact of the Covid pandemic. That will obviously include the effect on the prison estate as well.
My Lords, there have been three Questions in your Lordships’ House to the Ministry of Justice in the last two weeks: on inaccessible child trust funds, difficulties about marriage law, and now the criminal justice system. In all three areas, Members of your Lordships’ House described the talk from the Ministry of Justice and then the doing of nothing. On criminal justice, the Chief Inspector of HMCPSI described the pre-Covid backlog as “unacceptable”. A few days ago, the Lord Chancellor apologised for the massive reduction in rape prosecutions. A few days before that, the chair of the Bar Council said that unless the Government commit urgently to massive investment in the criminal justice system, the backlog will get worse. There is currently a backlog of 59,000 cases in the Crown Court. When will that backlog be dealt with, and what additional investment will be put into the criminal justice system to deal with it?
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord raises three issues. Child trust funds were set up under a Labour Government and, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, pointed out to this House, no thought whatever was given to the impact of the legislation—the Mental Capacity Act—on people’s access to those funds, so we are sorting that out. Marriage law goes back to 1847. The Law Commission is looking at it, and we are sorting that out as well. A few weeks ago, I laid before the House regulations to enable people whose marriages had been delayed to get married outdoors this year. The criminal justice system is in the middle of a pandemic, and we are responding to that as well. The noble and learned Lord is, with respect, quite wrong to lump these three quite disparate matters together.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the second Oral Question.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Tax Strategy
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the benefits of implementing a tax strategy that aligns with the United Kingdom’s net zero greenhouse gas emissions target.
My Lords, this Government are committed to net zero and take their legally binding climate commitments very seriously. The UK emissions trading scheme and a wide range of taxes, including the climate change levy and vehicle excise duty, are designed to encourage businesses and consumers to make greener choices. The Government’s net-zero strategy will be published later this year. Any tax changes in future will be considered and announced by the Chancellor.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. In 2019, UK taxes per barrel of North Sea oil were just $1.72, compared with Norway’s $21.35. HMRC estimates that the cost to taxpayers of tax relief for decommissioning the mess the oil companies created themselves is at least £24 billion. Does the Minister think that providing huge tax subsidies to fossil fuel industries while refusing to consider tax incentives such as stamp duty rebates to improve tax efficiency is sending the right signals to meet the net-zero target?
My Lords, we are conscious that the net-zero transition requires us to think more strategically about the role of levers that change the price of emitting greenhouse gases in supporting that transition—including carbon prices through taxes or emission trading schemes—and we are doing that work in the context of the net-zero review.
I call the noble Lord, Lord Bach. Lord Bach? I call the noble Lord, Lord Teverson.
My Lords, the House is considering the Environment Bill at the moment. It has important environmental principles within it, but strangely enough, the Treasury is excluded from them. The Bill says that
“taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within government”
are not included in those principles. Given the important and excellent Dasgupta report that the Treasury produced, will it reconsider that position and persuade the Defra Secretary of State to include Treasury expenditure within those principles?
My Lords, the Government are committed to meeting their legally binding climate change targets and use the tax system to aid this, alongside a suite of other policy instruments. However, in designing tax policy, the Government have to balance their environmental obligations with the need to ensure that revenues are sustainable and economically optimal and enable the Government to continue to fund crucial public services and other priorities.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, be it net zero or other overriding objectives, we will be best served by a digital tax system which is inclusive, underpinned through distributed digital ID, and not only revenue generating but fundamentally changing for the better the very social contract within which we all operate?
I absolutely agree with my noble friend’s point. That is why, last July, the Government published their 10-year vision for delivering an effective and modern tax system—the tax administration strategy. If any noble Lords want to read that exciting document, it is on GOV.UK. The strategy includes an extension to making tax digital, intended as the first phase of a modern, digital tax service.
My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of Peers for the Planet. I welcome the Minister’s remarks about thinking more strategically on tax issues. The recent Climate Change Committee report recommended a net-zero test for every government policy, and the recent Public Accounts Committee report on environmental tax measures suggested that, from the next Budget, Her Majesty’s Treasury should both assess the environmental impact of every tax change considered and publish the expected environmental impact for each tax measure in the Budget. Will the Government accept those two recommendations?
My Lords, the Government will respond to the Climate Change Committee’s report by October, as they are obliged to. They have, in fact, already responded to the PAC recommendations. While the Government have taken on a number of those recommendations, they disagreed with that specific one. We recognise the importance of considering the impact of tax on environmental measures and make those assessments where relevant. However, we think that the recommendation may constrain the Government and place undue burdens. For example, in looking at income tax thresholds or national insurance tax rates, those environmental considerations would not be proportionate or relevant.
My Lords, the Treasury promised a net-zero review on 2 November 2019. It said that this review would cover
“how the transition to net zero will be funded”
“consider the full range of government levers, including tax.”
It was to be published “in autumn 2020”—seven months ago. In June 2021, the Climate Change Committee recommended that the Treasury
“Complete the overdue Net Zero Review”.
On 22 June 2021, the shadow Chancellor asked Rishi Sunak twice when the review would be published. The best she got was “imminently”. I looked up what “imminent” means. It means “coming or likely to happen very soon”. Surely that assurance given two weeks ago must mean now. Sadly, I heard the Minister say “later” earlier in her answers. Does she agree that the Treasury’s net-zero review is crucial to tackling the climate change emergency? When will it be published? Surely it should be now.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord on the importance of the net-zero review. He will be aware that we published an interim report of that review to update people on progress, but I am afraid that I do not have a further update for the noble Lord from my right honourable friend the Chancellor on when the final review will be published, apart from to reiterate his sentiments that it will be imminent.
Do the Government agree that, in view of the climate emergency, we must move away from a fossil fuel-dependent economy? If so, why not take to COP 26 the great, world-leading idea to bring in a carbon tax globally? It is all in our Green Party manifesto—I can send a copy to the Minister.
My Lords, the Government are taking to COP 26 one of the most ambitious nationally determined contributions towards meeting those global climate change challenges. We are also looking at working internationally to look at issues such as carbon leakage across different markets, and we will continue to do so.
We can welcome the steps that the Government have taken to support our climate and environmental objectives through the tax system—I am certainly eagerly looking forward to COP 26, when I hope that the net-zero review will have been published—but can my noble friend the Minister describe how these policies fit with the Government’s wider climate strategy across tax, spending and stimulating the commercial sector?
My noble friend is absolutely right that our climate strategy extends beyond tax. That is why the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan mobilises £12 billion of government investment to create and support up to 250,000 highly-skilled green jobs. Crucially, we hope that it will also spur over three times as much private sector investment by 2030.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a director of Peers for the Planet. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which is currently passing through the US House of Representatives, proposes a carbon tax that rebates all revenue from the tax back to households. What assessment have the Government made of such a mechanism, which would help low and middle-income households and may be key to ensuring public support for, and the success of, new carbon taxes?
My Lords, the Government look with interest at initiatives taken across the world to tackle this important issue, particularly around maintaining public support as we transition to net zero. The receipts that the Government raise through their environmental taxes already help to fund all of the Government’s public spending commitments; these include £500 million in grants to those buying zero-emission or ultra low emission vehicles to make them cheaper to buy and incentivise the transition to a cleaner option.
My Lords, in April, I asked in Grand Committee whether it would be useful to introduce a metric for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the UK as a coefficient of GDP growth. The Minister said that he would look into it. What progress has been made on inquiries into the practical merits of such a metric?
My Lords, I undertake to follow up on the noble Lord’s point from Grand Committee. I know that, as far as the Treasury approaches these things, it is undertaking constant review of its Green Book guidance to ensure that net-zero commitments are incorporated into our fiscal decision-making. Although GDP remains one of our most important economic indicators, we are working on other wider indicators. For example, we are looking at taking the importance of the natural environment into account when we look at our public finances as well.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the third Oral Question.
Afghan Interpreters: UK Relocation
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Goldie on 28 April (HL15285), what plans they have for considering applications for relocation to the United Kingdom from the 15 Afghan interpreters who have fled to a third country.
My Lords, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy for locally engaged staff requires applicants to be in Afghanistan, because that is where they are likely to face the greatest risk. The Government keep the Immigration Rules under regular reviews, and officials from the Ministry of Defence continue to work with the Home Office to consider options to support those under threat. We will always consider exceptionally compelling and compassionate circumstances on a case-by-case basis, as demonstrated by recent relocations from third countries.
My Lords, although I thank the Government for and congratulate them on the excellent programme that they are currently rolling out with the RAF to rescue the majority of our Afghan interpreters, I implore the Minister to put this last piece of the jigsaw in place and offer the same chance of relocation to the 15 who arguably need it most, having been so terrorised by Taliban threats that they fled to a third country. There is a precedent—we rescued one interpreter stranded in Greece—so will the Government immediately establish channels of communication with the 15 so that their cases can also be assessed?
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I also thank her for her continuing interest in this issue. As she said, a relocation has already taken place. When I use the phrases “case-by-case basis” and “exceptionally compelling and compassionate circumstances”, these are not empty words because I can tell the noble Baroness by way of reassurance that we are currently investigating a request from another third country; however, for reasons of security, I cannot provide her with more specific information. What I can say is that there is easy access—I checked this out for myself this morning by going online and on to the government website—to the scheme for those who may be in third countries. They can get advice on an online advice link and a telephone number is also provided. We are doing everything we possibly can to facilitate the provision of information.
My Lords, much of the progress that has been made on this cause is down to the championship of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. I acknowledge that. Equally, I am delighted that Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, has committed not only to speeding up the repatriation process but to widening the criteria. However, our duty of care does not end when the interpreters arrive in the United Kingdom. Can my noble friend the Minister simply confirm not only that appropriate accommodation will be found for them but that this can be done without a detrimental impact on the availability for our service families?
Yes, I can reassure my noble friend. The leasing of MoD houses to local authorities to assist the Afghan families is a short-term expediency until appropriate properties for longer-term resettlement can be found. From the point of view of the supply of service families accommodation to service families, there should be no effect because the houses that have been identified to local authorities for this provision are surplus to the MoD’s present requirement. They are excess stock that would otherwise have been disposed of and are not required in the short term.
My Lords, the Ministry of Defence has, at least in recent years, been at pains to treat locally employed interpreters justly and with sympathy. It has become apparent, however, that since contracting out the provision of interpreting services the Government have found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the continuation of such treatment. Moral considerations aside, what impact does the Minister think this might have on the effective conduct of future land operations where we need local assistance in dangerous circumstances?
The noble and gallant Lord makes an important point about seeking to retain the confidence of locally employed individuals whom we may seek to engage in any future global activity. It is very clear from what we are discussing this morning that the UK Government have stepped up to the plate and recognised the debt of gratitude we owe to these locally employed staff. The relocation and assistance policy, particularly as it is now being accelerated, is a reflection of the seriousness with which we take that duty.
My Lords, I think it was Plato who said that only the dead have seen the end of war, and there is no doubt that our service men and women will continue to be involved in fighting in foreign lands. Therefore, as well as the moral imperative to look after locals who have assisted us and risked their lives, there is also a self-interest, in that we will continue to need such people to help us in the future. How do other NATO nations treat similar interpreters, and has there been any discussion within NATO to try to get a common policy on how these people are handled?
I would say to the noble Lord, in alignment with my answer to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, that the UK has very much proceeded on the basis of what it considered its obligation as a sovereign state to be. That is why we have proceeded with our particular scheme. I understand that the United States has a scheme. I am not privy to the details of that scheme but we are in close contact with our US colleagues. We understand that they are not only running a similar relocation programme but doing so under their special immigration visa scheme.
My Lords, the relocation and assistance policy came in on 1 April, and is expected to speed up alongside the withdrawal of NATO troops. In light of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, does the Minister believe that there will be sufficient funding, and that the policy is sufficiently wide to support all the people to whom we owe a duty —including interpreters, but also other local supporters?
As the noble Baroness will be aware, the scheme under discussion will remain in force indefinitely, because we consider it our obligation to identify those who are at threat and to act appropriately. We remain committed to working with the United States, and our NATO allies and international partners, to support Afghanistan, and to the ongoing training and mentoring of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. We will continue to provide the ANDSF with financial sustainment support until at least 2024.
We all welcome the Afghan relocation and assistance policy, and the Government are to be congratulated on introducing it. However, the Minister will know, as will all Members of this House, that we have a moral responsibility to those who have helped us, both those who are still in Afghanistan and those who have left. Given that we all want to do the right thing, will the criteria for the Afghan relocation and assistance policy be updated if the situation on the ground changes, either in Afghanistan or in third countries? Will the Minister look into that, so that we do the right thing by all those who have helped us?
Yes, I agree in essence with the sentiment articulated by the noble Lord. We have made clear what this particular scheme is, and the criteria that surround its operation and application. We remain focused on relocating those who are most at risk, and we will review our plans should there be a rapid deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan.
My Lords, it is absolutely right that we make provision for those who served alongside us, but we must not forget all the Afghan people who will continue to live in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, a highly respected body, is calling for a UN fact-finding mission to investigate the terror attacks and assassinations of the last 18 months, which have seen women, minorities and people in public life targeted and murdered in attacks that are often unclaimed, and for which accountability is entirely lacking. Will Her Majesty’s Government support this call and push for the establishment of a fact-finding mission in the UN Human Rights Council?
What we have undertaken to do—I wish to reassure my noble friend about this—is to remain involved in ongoing discussions with the United States and international allies regarding the future of operations in Afghanistan, although we have agreed that the NATO Resolute Support mission will have completely withdrawn within a few months. I shall not comment on operational details beyond that, for security reasons, but I can say to her that intensive diplomatic activity will remain. The embassy in Kabul is very active and we exercise considerable influence.
My Lords, is the Minister confident that the Home Office will co-operate with her ministry in showing the same degree of compassion and flexibility that she has shown in the granting of visas for relocation to the United Kingdom for those interpreters? In view of yesterday’s reports about the dangers to our diplomatic and defence staff at the embassy in Kabul, which she has just referred to, can she reassure us that we are taking urgent steps to ensure their safety, and that of international charity and aid workers? Presumably, there is also a continuing need to support interpreters while we have a presence in Kabul.
We are very conscious of the security implications, particularly for our personnel within Afghanistan, not least within the embassy, and we constantly review that security situation. I wish to reassure the noble Lord that there is a very good relationship between the MoD and the Home Office. Our officials are regularly in touch, and there is regular and robust collaboration between government departments—not just these two departments, but also with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the fourth Oral Question, and I call the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.
Livestock Feed: Processed Animal Protein
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take, if any, in response to the European Union’s expected reintroduction of processed animal protein into livestock feed from August.
My Lords, the EU is introducing changes that follow the World Organisation for Animal Health feed rules, and its own agreed road map. These permit the feeding of porcine processed animal protein to poultry and poultry processed animal protein to pigs, and ruminant gelatine and collagen, and protein derived from insects, to pigs and poultry. The Government are assessing the implications of these changes.
My Lords, given the association of processed animal protein with BSE and CJD in the past, if, having assessed the situation, Her Majesty’s Government decide to ban the import of food produced in this manner from the EU, is there a mechanism in the trade and co-operation agreement that would allow for that? If so, is there a means of making it legally effective in Northern Ireland, given the protocol?
My Lords, I first say to my noble friend that the experience of BSE has scarred both me and the Agriculture Minister, Victoria Prentis; we both well remember that awful time. I assure him that at the moment we receive into this country meat products from countries that sign up to the OIE, that are of a lower standard even than the one to which the EU will go following the changes it has announced. There is no question of this concerning any trade and co-operation agreement, and meat products will still be able to be traded to and from Northern Ireland, as they will with the EU.
My Lords, feeding animal remains—brains, spinal cord and small intestines—to livestock in pursuit of higher profits and executive bonuses will only lead to another health disaster. Will the Government legislate to ensure that appropriate food imports from the EU will carry a warning, stating that the product carries a risk of mad cow disease?
May I reassure the noble Lord that we are not talking about BSE here? We are talking about the products of pigs and poultry, for which there is no evidence of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. He can be assured that the strictest regime remains in place to protect the public and our animal health, and that any changes we make can reflect this. To the wider public I would just say, “Buy British”.
My Lords, the Prime Minister’s decision to sign up to the Northern Ireland protocol has placed the Province’s agri-food businesses in an increasingly perilous situation. We were promised that Brexit would improve food standards right across the United Kingdom, but this will not be the case if processed animal protein is allowed to enter the food chain in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, mentioned Northern Ireland. What representations have her Majesty’s Government made to Brussels to stop this policy being extended into Northern Ireland? Can the Minister tell the House whether Boris Johnson was aware that the EU’s ban on animal protein was about to be lifted before he agreed to place a regulatory border in the Irish Sea?
The EU made this announcement in May, but it had been under discussion for a long time—even when we were an EU member. It does not affect trade in Northern Ireland or in this country, because our current standard is the same as the EU’s. The EU is changing that standard, but it remains considerably higher, covering countries around the world from which we receive meat imports. This issue is not affecting the Northern Ireland protocol or any other aspect of trade with Northern Ireland. We have ongoing discussions about it with the EU at a scientific and animal health level, and will continue to do so.
What does my noble friend think will happen to our meat exports from the UK to the EU, at a time when we may import meat from countries, such as Australia, which use hormones to produce beef and other methods that we do not accept here and are not accepted in the EU? Would it not be better, at this stage, to agree an SPS system similar to that agreed between New Zealand and the EU, to make sure that we can export meat to the EU?
I entirely understand the point my noble friend makes, but we must not conflate issues relating to trade agreements with this particular issue. We have the highest standard here, which was brought in in a very precautionary way, at the time of a terrible disease. Science, and our understanding of this disease, has changed. Our ability to track where processed animal proteins come from allows for a change in policy. We have not taken that step yet, but we will consider it in due course with all the evidence. We must not conflate it with the trade issues that are so important to your Lordships.
My Lords, feeding animals processed animal protein is a revolting practice. Poultry, pigs, sheep and cows are not carnivores; they are vegetarian. Can the Minister give reassurance that no meat from animals fed on processed animal protein will enter the UK food chain? No matter how many standards and checks he thinks are in place, this should not happen, and the meat should not come from any country that has this practice.
Processed animal proteins have long been established as part of the rendering process. As a result of BSE, changes were made to prevent them. Currently, all processed animal products from this country are exported across the world for the pet food industry. We import vegetable proteins, such as soya, from countries which have much lower standards of agricultural environmental protection. I assure the noble Baroness that we are very cautious in this country about reducing the standards that were brought in at the time of BSE. What we are talking about here is TSE —about pigs, poultry and parts that are heat-treated and are an alternative to the proteins that other farmers use.
My Lords, the Minister has talked about trade; the effect of the Northern Ireland protocol, as agreed, is that these SPS rules and laws apply directly in Northern Ireland, uniquely within the United Kingdom. Therefore, how does he protect consumers within Northern Ireland and, indeed, elsewhere, when not a single Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly or any Member of Parliament in either House will be able to prevent this proposal becoming law in Northern Ireland, which is an outrageous abuse of the sovereignty of Parliament and “taking back control”?
I understand the point that the noble Lord makes. The truth is that products will be coming from around the world—from the EU and beyond—into supermarkets in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, as they are this very day. They will be up to a particular standard, and will not be ruminant to ruminant, so in that respect, Northern Ireland will be no different from the rest of the United Kingdom. But I recognise the democratic point the noble Lord makes; that is the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol which, if he will forgive me, I will not go into today.
My Lords, based on scientific evidence, the EU proposals allowing certain processed animal protein, including insect protein, to be used in some livestock feeds—not for ruminants, I stress—appear safe and economically beneficial. What encouragement are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the development and use of insect protein as a replacement for soya in animal feed in this country?
The potential use of insect protein is an attractive concept, along with other potential changes to livestock feed controls. They will require careful consideration, assessment of the scientific evidence and, of course, consultation. Before taking any policy decisions, officials will obtain advice from government scientists and the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens regarding any potential risk to human or animal health. As part of the assessment, we will look at the environmental impact of any changes on current imports of protein, such as soya, and our current exports of animal proteins not used in Great Britain.
My Lords, we all want to preserve the UK’s excellent reputation as producers of the highest quality and safety of food. What matters here is that we get a crystal-clear response about what the Government plan to do, but I fear that what we have heard is something of a holding response. It would be enormously helpful to producers and consumers alike if the Minister could be clear about the Government’s intention regarding whether to maintain the current situation in the UK and, if so, for how long, and, to assist those of us attempting to hold the Government to account on this matter, whether they will undertake to conduct their own review of the science in this area and to publish it so that we can proceed with some kind of ability to assure consumers.
I will take that last point away and try to give the noble Baroness some reassurance. These are not state secrets, and there is nothing that I fear sharing with anybody about the work that the Government are doing. Our response to changing science and changing understanding means that there is a degree of uncertainty for everyone, including Ministers, and I assure her that we have been considering this for a long time. The measures that were brought in for pigs and poultry were precautionary because it was not possible at that time to easily detect the origin of the protein. Now, with DNA, we can, and this may be a path to offering the kind of clarity that the noble Baroness seeks.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Criminal Justice (Electronic Commerce) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2021
Motion to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 27 May be approved.
Considered in Grand Committee on 30 June
Motion to Agree
That the report from the Select Committee Further amendments to the Code of Conduct be agreed to (1st Report, HL Paper 20).
My Lords, this report seeks the agreement of the House to a variety of what I hope will be understood as relatively minor improvements to the Code of the Conduct and the guide to the code, which have been agreed by the Conduct Committee over a number of months. The rationale for each change is set out in the report, and the necessary changes to the text of the code and guide are set out in the appendix.
I shall not detain your Lordships by setting out the detail of each and every suggested change, but shall highlight a few key packages of proposals. There are six. The first clarifies how and when the parties to a complaint can be anonymised. For complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct, anonymisation can include both complainants—although of course the respondent will always know the complainant’s identity—and respondents, if the commissioner for standards has dismissed a complaint. That is to protect the identity of both parties in that situation. In addition, witnesses in all types of cases may need to be anonymised.
The second package fleshes out the provisions on sanctioning Members found in breach of the code. We propose some wording to explain the purpose of the sanctions regime, to clarify the list of available sanctions and to set out the factors that may be taken into consideration when a commissioner for standards and the committee are choosing which standard to apply or to recommend to this House.
The third package seeks to close two lacunae in the relationship between the code and leave of absence. The first change will ensure that a Member who receives a custodial sentence of one year or less while on leave of absence can still be caught by the imprisonment provisions of the code, which allow discretionary sanctions. Members who are on leave of absence who receive a sentence of more than one year are already caught by the provisions of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. The second change in this regard will ensure that a Member cannot use leave of absence to avoid complying with a sanction imposed or recommended by the Conduct Committee, for example, by taking leave of absence and being absent when the sanction is imposed.
The fourth package would give the commissioner for standards the ability, where information is already in the public domain but some misconception may arise, to confirm or correct reports in the public domain about a complaint or a preliminary assessment as to whether there should be an investigation, after having consulted the parties to the case.
The fifth package would oblige Members to inform the Clerk of the Parliaments if they are subject to certain criminal or professional proceedings. Again, there are two aspects. First, they would have to report if they were arrested in connection with, charged with, or convicted of a criminal offence. Secondly, they would have to inform the clerk if they were being investigated for a breach of the rules, or had been found in breach of the rules, governing the occupation they practise. In the case of Ministers, that means the Ministerial Code, which are the relevant rules. Members would also have to report such information to the commissioner for standards if they were also being investigated for a breach of the code. Finally, Members would be obliged to tell the chair of the Conduct Committee if they were sentenced to imprisonment, whether suspended or not.
The final and sixth package concerns amendments to the definitions of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. Those changes, which are proposed on the basis of experience and the recommendations in Alison Stanley’s independent review, are being applied consistently across the whole parliamentary community. I beg to move.
The question is that this Motion be agreed to. I will call the following to speak: noble Lords, Lord Cormack, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale and Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I first call the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, this debate is technically open-ended, but I have no intention of trespassing on your Lordships’ House. It says on the Order Paper that it is expected to be brief, and I do not wish to delay it unduly.
Many of the things within this report effectively stem from the Bill, now an Act of Parliament, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, some few years ago. It was a Bill promoted by the campaign for an effective second Chamber, of which I have the honour to be chairman, but I am disappointed that this opportunity to amend the code of conduct did not extend to the compulsory classes on behaviour. We have debated these things a number of times recently, not least the very unhappy outcome when the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, and others were, I believe, very unfairly castigated. That statement met with widespread approval throughout your Lordships’ House. It is a pity that they remain compulsory. They are not compulsory in the other place. Will the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, say whether he has undertaken this course and whether his experience was as disappointing as mine and many others?
If the courses are continuing, will he say why they cannot be conducted by members of our own excellent staff? Why do we have to go to outside consultants? Do we invite people to tender for this in order to cut down the cost? The essential point is that there is unhappiness, and it is widespread, about the outcome of the last exercise. It was a great pity that people as distinguished as a former Speaker of the other place and a former Deputy Prime Minister, were very unfairly hauled over the coals.
However, that is over, and we must look to the future. I would like to know—not at length—whether there has been a complete overhaul of the course, if it is to be compulsory, and, if there has been a complete overhaul, whether those of us who had such a disappointing experience last time can assess whether there have indeed been improvements. I rest my case at that point. I do not wish to detain the House longer, but I would be grateful for an answer to the questions raised. I would also mention to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, who wrote and invite me a meeting, that I responded to his letter and said I would be glad to have a meeting with him, but several weeks have passed and nothing has happened.
My Lords, perhaps I should say first that the view espoused by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, may be widespread in Your Lordships’ House, but it is not unanimous.
We should be very careful about amending these provisions without proper discussion involving all of us. This is an excellent report. It covers a lot of items in a very comprehensive and straightforward manner. The Conduct Committee and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, are to be congratulated on bringing it forward before the Summer Recess.
I wish to raise just one relatively small issue, where the recommendations are a little bit inconsistent. Paragraph 7 refers to late registration of interests and rightly highlights the anomaly where someone who registers an interest late—I have been guilty of this, as I am sure almost everybody has—in the past could have their interest removed from the register without having to have it publicly registered for the normal time of 12 months. The recommendation then refers to the necessary changes at paragraphs 46, 79 and 85 in the guide to the code. Paragraphs 79 and 85 make clear that where that mistake in registering refers to an overseas visit, the registration should continue for 12 months from the date of registration, not from the date when the registration should have taken place, and the same is true in paragraph 85 for the registration of gifts. However, on the registration of general interests, the committee is recommending that it should be the case only if the late registration has happened after the date of cessation of the interest itself. So, for example, somebody could still register late if they felt that was an advantage to themselves and not have their registration on the register for 12 months unless the interest had already ceased. I wondered whether the committee did in fact consider making this more consistent and having a compulsory minimum of 12 months’ registration for those interests as well as the others relating to gifts and travel.
My Lords, I am afraid I disagree completely with my noble friend Lord McConnell. He and I have the advantage, as have the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and a few others, of being here and being able to comment on this, but hundreds of our colleagues will be profoundly and significantly affected by what we are about—or I hope not about—to approve today. It is disgraceful.
This has happened before. Things have been put through and Members suddenly realise that they will be severely affected, without having had an opportunity to consider and discuss them. That is absolutely disgraceful. Some Members are unable to come down, for one reason or another, to participate in the debate. A few of us are going to push this through. It is totally outrageous. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, some people have been caught out on this before. Even when they have been present, things have been rushed through—but when they are not able to be present it is even worse. I suggest to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, that he should hold this over and withdraw it until the House comes back and is fully operational, so that everyone can vote and participate in the discussion.
The noble and learned Lord said that these were minor provisions. That is a disgraceful misrepresentation of what this report suggests. Page 13 deals with sanctions that will affect all of us, including those who are not able to be here today. It suggests that we delete from the sanctions “no action”—that will not be possible any more—and “no further action” if there is a resolution through mediation. Those are being deleted. That is very significant. What will happen? The Conduct Committee will be able to say that, for a period of time, Members should not be able to participate. The Conduct Committee could recommend that Members
“be removed from membership of select committees”—
the Conduct Committee will remove Members from Select Committees—or deny
“access to the system of financial support for members. This sanction can be applied for any period of time and may be applied in addition to a sanction of suspension.”
I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, that these are not minor provisions; these are major provisions that we are about to push through on the nod without Members who are not here having had a chance to look at, discuss and consider them. I hope the noble and learned Lord will reconsider this and take it away. Nothing significant will happen between now and September in relation to this. I hope he will bring it back for us to discuss and consider, when Members who are not here have had an opportunity to look through it and consider it carefully, and to speak and vote on it.
Does anyone else in the Chamber wish to speak? If not, I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, to reply.
My Lords, I am grateful for those comments. The observations from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, were not directly related to the matter before the House. He focused, as he has done before, on Valuing Everyone training. I have of course done it myself; I was one of the first. I think that we can learn about our own behaviour and how to react and observe when others are not being properly treated—and there have been cases, sadly, in this House. I say that not just on the basis of those cases; I have for many years, until the end of last year, been the chair of a counselling service, and I believe that we are not always conscious of the way in which our interactions affect others and the way that perhaps mildly understandable anger can be extremely harmful. This training is designed to that end.
I am told that the training has received very substantial approval—over 90% is the figure I have been given. There are certainly dissidents and it certainly did need changes. We pointed this out in the light of representations made to us. I will leave it there, I think, bearing in mind that we are always open and ready to reconsider matters on the Conduct Committee and put them back before the House if we think it appropriate. The observations of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will be among those.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell. On the point about late registration, the answer is that registration always extends for six to 12 months after cessation anyway, so if there is a late registration during the operation of an interest, or in respect of a gift, it extends for 12 months from the registration or the cessation.
The observations of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, were obviously very powerfully put, and if the House feels that this should come back after further opportunity, we will accept that—but I will press the Motion.
On the point about sanctions, I am sorry that my conduct was described as “disgraceful”, but the sanctions regime is essentially clarified, not changed. There is no question of us removing the possibility of no action. If I too may use a pejorative phrase, that would be a ridiculous situation at which to arrive and we certainly have not arrived at it. The sanctions regime is simply designed, as rephrased, to explain matters that are already there in the regime. That applies to denial of access to services, for example. We are not suggesting the suspension of activities in the Chamber—the House could not do so under present legislation, short of suspension or removal from the House. But we do think that there are or may be exceptional and, I hope, very rare situations in which specific facilities or services are being abused and it would be appropriate to apply an appropriately limited period, at least in the first instance, during which they will not be available—and the same applies to membership of committees.
So I resist the suggestion that this is a radical set of proposals. We have very much borne in mind the comments made previously about putting matters before the House in good time. Again, if the House feels that it has not had sufficient time, we will of course withdraw this—but as I understand it, and although I do not have the precise time, it has been not less than a week.
Will the noble and learned Lord give way?
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord and I am sorry that some noble Lords, including some of my colleagues, are trying to inhibit a proper debate on this. I make it absolutely clear that I am in favour of dealing properly and significantly with people who transgress in terms of harassment, sexual harassment and misconduct—but what would be lost by delaying this until September? What would be gained would be the opportunity for colleagues to consider this carefully, discuss it and vote on it when everyone is able to. That is real democracy: giving people who are not able to get here today, for one reason or another, the opportunity to participate.
Well, my Lords, if your Lordships feel that, you will vote against the Motion and we will bring it back on the next occasion. But I think I must press it, in the sense that it is a carefully considered set of proposals that I do not accept are fundamental changes and which, on the matters that the noble Lord mentioned, reflect the existing position—so I beg to move.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 5 July.
“Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I am extremely grateful to you for accommodating the timing of this Statement.
I would like to update the House on the pandemic and our road map to freedom. This morning, I joined some of the remarkable people who have been at the heart of the pandemic response at a service to mark the NHS’s 73th birthday at St Paul’s Cathedral. Together, we reflected on a year like no other for the NHS and for our country. I know that honourable Members on both sides of the House will join me in celebrating the decision by Her Majesty the Queen to award the NHS the George Cross. I can think of no more fitting tribute to the NHS. I know that everyone in this House—indeed, everyone in this country—will celebrate that award.
There is no greater demonstration of our high regard for the NHS than the manner in which we all stepped up to protect it. Now, it is thanks to the NHS and many others that we are vaccinating our way out of this pandemic and out of these restrictions. Eighty-six per cent of UK adults have had at least one jab, and 64% have had two. We are reinforcing our vaccine wall of defence further still. I can tell the House that we are reducing the dose interval for under-40s from 12 weeks to eight, which will mean that every adult should have had the chance to be double-jabbed by mid-September.
And those vaccines are working. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that eight in 10 adults have the Covid-19 antibodies that are so important in helping our bodies to fight this disease. When we look at people aged over 50—the people who got the jab earlier in the programme—that figure rises to more than nine in 10. Allow me to set out why all this is so important.
Before we started putting jabs into arms, whenever we saw a rise in cases, it would inevitably be followed by a rise in hospitalisations and, tragically, a rise in deaths. Yet today, even though cases are heading upwards, in line with what we expected, hospitalisations are increasing at a much lower rate and deaths are at just 1% of the figure that we saw at the peak. Our vaccines are building a wall of protection against hospitalisation. And, jab by jab, brick by brick, that wall is getting higher.
For those people who sadly do find themselves having to go to hospital, we have better treatments than ever before. Last week on my visit to St Thomas’ Hospital, clinicians were telling me just how transformative dexamethasone has been in their effort to save lives. Taken together, the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths is being severely weakened. That means that we can start to learn to live with Covid.
As we do that, it is important that we are straight with the British people. Cases of Covid-19 are rising and will continue to rise significantly. We can reasonably expect that, by 19 July, the number of daily cases will be far higher than today. Against this backdrop, many people will be understandably cautious about easing restrictions. After many months of uncertainty, that is entirely natural. But we can now protect the NHS without having to go to the extraordinary lengths that we have had to in the past. That is not to say that this is going to be easy.
Of course, the pandemic is not over. The virus is still with us; it has not gone away. The risk of a dangerous new variant that evades vaccines remains real. We know that, with Covid-19, the situation can change and it can change quickly, but we cannot put our lives on hold for ever. My responsibility as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care includes helping us to turn and face the other challenges that we know we must also address, from mental health to social care to the challenges of long Covid. I am also determined to get to work on busting the backlog—the backlog that has been caused by this pandemic and which we know will get a lot worse before it gets better.
As I set out to the House last week, I remain confident that we can move to step 4 in England on 19 July and that the Government will make their final decision on this on 12 July, so today I wish to set out further details of what step 4 will look like. In essence, our national response to Covid will change from one of rules and regulations to one of guidance and good sense. We will revoke all social distancing guidance, including the 2 metre rule, except for in specific settings such as ports of entry and medical settings, where of course it would continue to make sense.
It will no longer be a legal requirement to wear face coverings in any setting, including public transport, although we will advise this as a voluntary measure for crowded and enclosed spaces. It will no longer be necessary to work from home. There will be no limits on the number of people we can meet. There will no limits on the number of people who can attend life events such as weddings and funerals, and there will be no restrictions on communal worship or singing.
We will remove legal requirements on how businesses operate. Capacity caps will all be lifted and there will no longer be any requirement to offer table service. All businesses that were forced to close their doors will be able to open them once again. And we will lift the cap on named care home visitors so that families can come together in the ways they choose to do so. Ministers will provide further Statements this week on self-isolation for fully vaccinated people, including for international travel, and on restrictions in education settings, including the removal of bubbles and contact isolation in schools.
Today, I can also confirm to the House that we have completed our review of certification. While already a feature of international travel, we have concluded that we do not think using certification as a condition of entry is a way to go. For people who have not been offered a full course of vaccination and for businesses, we felt that the impact outweighed the public health benefits. Of course, businesses can use Covid-status certification at their own discretion and, from step 4 onwards, the NHS Covid pass will be accessible through the NHS app and other digital routes. This will be the main way that people can provide their Covid status—a status that they will achieve once they have completed a full vaccine course, a recent negative test or some other proof of natural immunity.
Taken together, step 4 is the biggest step of all: a restoration of so many of the freedoms that make this country great. We know that, as a consequence, cases will rise, just as they have done at every step on our road map, but this time our wall of protection will help us.
While step 4 will be the moment to let go of many restrictions, we must hold on to those everyday, sensible decisions that can help make us all safe. The responsibility to combat Covid-19 lies with each and every one of us. That means staying at home when you are asked to self-isolate. It means considering the guidance that we are setting out, and it means getting the jab—both doses. When you are offered it, please, please take the jabs. This is something that everyone can do to make a contribution towards this national effort. It may even mean, for some people, that they will get three jabs in a single year. Last week, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation provided interim advice on who to prioritise for a third dose, and our most vulnerable will be offered booster Covid-19 jabs from September in time for the winter.
And preparing for the winter ahead is not just about Covid, but flu as well. Because of the measures in place this winter, almost nobody in the UK has had flu for 18 months now. That is obviously a good thing but it does mean that immunity from flu is down. This winter’s flu campaign will be more important than ever, and we are currently looking at whether we can give people the Covid-19 booster shot and the flu jab at the same time.
Step 4 is the next step in our country’s journey out of this pandemic. I know that, after so many difficult months, it is a step that many of us will look upon with a great deal of caution, but it is one that we will all take together, with a growing wall of defence against this virus—a wall that each and every one of us can help build higher. It is vital that each of us plays our part to protect ourselves and to protect others into better days ahead. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the Statement today and for the debate that we are about to have.
The past 15 months have been so hard on all of us. We all want to find the light at the end of the Covid tunnel and take a step closer to a life of normality. However, caution, care and clarity are needed as we step forward into new freedoms. We all want to see the restrictions end, but what the Secretary of State said yesterday was not a guarantee that restrictions will end; it only described what the end of restrictions will look like.
Can the Minister confirm that the ending about to be announced will be based on SAGE advice and data? Yesterday, the Secretary of State said that he believes the best way to protect the nation’s health is to lift all restrictions. Is that the Secretary of State’s own view or SAGE’s advice? If the latter, where does SAGE say that? The advice that I read yesterday about the spread of the virus was much more cautious, saying:
“There is significant risk in allowing prevalence to rise, even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination.”
It went on to say that, depending on what happens and whether the variant morphs—my word—restrictions might need to be introduced. Is that the Minister’s understanding?
Where I come from, in West Yorkshire, the mayor Tracy Brabin said yesterday:
“Here in West Yorkshire, Covid cases have risen by 62% in the last week. So, we really do need a clear message from the government that puts people’s safety first, based on the science and live data.”
Surely she is correct. If only 50% of people across the UK are fully vaccinated and another 17% partially vaccinated, infections will continue to rise steeply; and hospitalisations are rising. Inherent in the strategy outlined is an acceptance that infections will surge further, that hospitalisations will increase and that we will hit a peak later this summer. Some of those hospitalised will die, and thousands—children and young people—are being left exposed to a virus with no vaccination protection, leaving them at risk of long-term chronic illness and personal impacts that might be felt for years to come.
We may have to accept the Government’s argument for a “learning to live with Covid” strategy, but how many deaths, and how many cases of long Covid, does the Minister consider acceptable? Yesterday’s message put the onus on individuals and businesses to self-manage what in recent months has been mandatory. I suspect that this may have left many people confused. As we on these Benches have said on many occasions, ambiguity in a pandemic costs lives. As demonstrated by the lively debates in today’s media, advice can be divisive, leading to disagreements on the interpretation of what is safe. We have government Ministers saying different things about what they personally intend to do; last night, we had a clear message from the CMO about the circumstances under which he intends to wear a mask. So I think that we have every right to be concerned that the debate may cause confusion and compromise crucial safety.
Let us look at public transport, for example. I have been using public transport throughout. I started wearing a mask long before it became mandatory. I still do not feel safe on a very crowded Tube, and I still do not want anyone to sit next to me. I test twice a week, and I have self-isolated twice since January when I got pinged. I do not think that I am unusual or nervous, but I feel strongly that I have a duty not to unwittingly spread the virus, and I do not want people to infect me. In a recent travel study, a majority of passengers said that they would lose confidence if the use of face masks were reduced. Many people, especially those who are more vulnerable, may become more anxious about using public transport if face masks become voluntary.
What is the Minister’s answer to these legitimate concerns? Does it go with the view that we let the virus rip and take the consequences? Given that we know that bus and taxi drivers experience Covid and death, what does the Minister have to say to them about their safety in these circumstances? Masks do not restrict freedoms in a pandemic when so much virus is circulating; they ensure that everyone who goes to the shops or takes public transport can do so safely. Who suffers most when masks are removed? It is those working in the shops, those driving the buses and taxis, and low-paid workers without access to decent pay, many of whom live in overcrowded housing and have been savagely, disproportionately impacted by this virus from day one.
We know that masks are effective when a virus is airborne. Given that high circulations of virus can see it evolve and possibly escape vaccine, what risk assessment have the Government done on the possibility of a new variant emerging? Will the Minister publish that assessment?
Given that the Statement says that isolation will still be needed, does the Minister think that living with the virus means the low-paid will be properly supported, or does he think they would game the system, as the previous Health Secretary suggested to a Select Committee?
As the Prime Minister announced, we can all crowd into pubs. Meanwhile infection rates in school settings continue to disrupt schooling, with nearly 400,000 children off in one week. With one in 20 children off, I look forward to a sensible announcement from the Secretary of State for Education, but I am not holding my breath.
We are not out of the woods. We want to see lockdown ended but we need life-saving mitigation to be in place. We still need sick pay. We need local contact tracing. Mask wearing should continue where it is needed. We need ventilation, and we need support for children to prevent serious illness.
On many occasions in the last year I have stood here and warned the Minister and the Government about not quarantining properly, of a chaotic test and trace system, of not having a circuit-breaker when it was needed and of taking decisions too late. I really do not want to find myself saying in September or October, “We warned you that you needed to take this more slowly and weigh the risks more carefully.” We should keep some measures—for example, mask wearing—until, say, two-thirds of the population are fully vaccinated.
My Lords, on the 73rd birthday of the NHS yesterday we supported and echoed the thanks to everyone in the NHS and the care sector for their extraordinary and humbling response to the pandemic, which continues to this day. We are far from being an NHS back to normal, whether through increased Covid cases, the backlog of hospital appointments and life-threatening delayed diagnosis, all the way through to the more routine but also vital services. So, our best present to the NHS will be to lift restrictions and return to normal in the safest way possible for them, for patients and the wider health of our country.
For months, the Prime Minister has talked of “data, not dates”. The data shows cases running at over 25,000 per day and predicted to rise to 50,000 per day by the end of the month. Hospitalisations are up and even ventilator bed use is up, which, while not as bad as in the previous two waves, is putting pressure on the hospitals dealing with them.
There is a large surge of cases in the north-east, and there are concerns that a new variant may exist there. Cases in the UK of the lambda variant from Peru are now being investigated as it appears more transmissible and possibly more resistant to vaccines. If the UK is following the route out of the pandemic used by Israel and the USA, we should note that both those countries are now finding that that system is not working for them: Israel’s proportions are picking up again and Florida is struggling to cope with a very large surge in cases.
Yesterday’s Statement was a case of ideology over science. It says that the vaccine is a “wall of defence”, but it is a wall with holes in it. First, one-third of adults have not yet had their second jab; nor have any children. That is a reservoir of millions—not just thousands, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton said—who are at risk of catching Covid, whether seriously or not, and passing it on to others. Secondly, double-jabbers are not conferred with magical total immunity and protection, and we know that they can transmit it too.
We on these Benches want to start with a return to normal and to lift restrictions. We desperately need to kick-start the economy, to start to socialise again and, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said last month, to live with Covid as it is now endemic and will be with us for some years to come. However, that means providing the safety net needed to ensure that people are as safe as possible. Asian countries that managed their pandemic well learned from SARS. The use of face masks became routine and a matter of personal and wider social responsibility, allowing life to continue in the flu season and in the pandemic. They also maintain strong and effective test, trace and isolate systems all the time. We will be discussing test, trace and isolate in detail following the Statement that is due to come to your Lordships’ House on Thursday, but the proposed reductions in test, trace and isolate will remove the UK’s ability to manage outbreaks swiftly, during which time others will catch and pass on Covid.
When we drive into our towns and cities, we rely on local authorities to set up traffic systems, including traffic lights, to help to guide us on safe journeys, regulate movement and reduce harm and damage. But it is as if “freedom day” is getting rid of all our traffic lights.
Proportionate responses are needed, and these include face masks. Early last year, even the WHO was equivocal on the use of face masks but, as the world became aware that this is a respiratory disease passed on through droplets, most countries moved to face mask mandates. On 19 July we switch to rules that make it only the responsibility of individuals. Thankfully, most people have taken that responsibility seriously, but not everyone has. That is important because, despite what the Minister said in response to my question yesterday about the clinically extremely vulnerable, there is no direct reference to the CEV in this Statement—unless he meant the passing reference to them being part of the priority group that will get the third jab. They need to know where they stand. There is no new advice, just the burning of the remaining rules that keep them safe.
Last night the Government published the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel and Operator Liability) (England) (Amendment) (No. 5) Regulations 2021 and brought them into force at 6 am this morning. This amendment allows supporters of foreign teams with tickets for the final stages of the Euros to travel. Tens of thousands of foreign fans will be waved in, despite the high number of daily cases and despite 1,300 cases among Scottish fans after they travelled to Wembley to play England last month. I am not surprised: it is a crowd-pleaser. But as a legislator I find it extraordinary and unacceptable that the Explanatory Memorandum states this amendment is needed “to protect public health”. Frankly, that is in complete contradiction to the regulations themselves. Such inconsistent behaviour from the Government typifies a desire to please people, rather than think ahead and manage scenarios.
What we need is careful planning when lifting restrictions that keeps people safe by having effective measures in place: face masks in risky environments; test, track, trace and self-isolate rules that protect people; and funding for those who have to self-isolate. That is the way we can move to a new normal, to an economy that can work again, with health traffic lights around us to manage and minimise Covid.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the thoughtful questions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton. I will address the first question from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on where we get our advice from and will try to explain a little bit about how these decisions are made.
We get advice from a wide variety of inputs. They include the NHS, and we look very carefully at NHS capacity and projections for trying to catch up with the very large waiting lists that we have for electives. We get advice from schools about the prevalence of infection and attendance at schools. We look to Parliament for guidance, scrutiny and challenge. We have talked to GPs about the front-line picture that they see. We look to the JVCI for epidemiological advice. SAGE provides an important challenge and interesting support, particularly in terms of modelling, but it is not the sole repository of all the evidence for our decision-making. We are extremely grateful for its input but we have to take on board a very large set of perspectives when we make these decisions. We cannot rely on just one data set from one group. It is a holistic situation, and we have to balance a lot of different and competing needs at the same time.
That is why the decisions made in the Statement yesterday and in the Statement made by the Secretary of State an hour ago are proportionate and have, I hope, the caution, care and clarity that the noble Baroness quite rightly referred to. She is right that some infections will, very sadly, lead to severe disease, hospitalisation and, in some cases, death. But the proportion of those infections is much smaller than it was before the vaccine arrived. We have successfully vaccinated a huge proportion of those who are the most vulnerable to this disease. As a result, although infections are rising, the impact on hospitalisation and death is a very small fraction of what it once was.
We need to proceed with caution, keeping a very close eye on those relative relationships, but the picture that we see at the moment is relatively straightforward: the vaccine works. The statistics for both the BioNTech and the AstraZeneca vaccines are incredibly impressive in terms of both hospitalisation and transmission.
The noble Baroness challenged me to explain what I thought might be an acceptable level of deaths. I do not wish to split words with her, but the honest truth is that I do not accept any deaths as acceptable. I am not just trying to be smart with the language. It is our mission, particularly in the Department of Health but in the Government as a whole, to try to tackle all deaths as well as we possibly can.
All health decisions are always based on a balance of risk, whether it is a GP taking your blood pressure in his or her surgery or whether it is for big demographic interventions of the kind that we are debating today. Balance is the essence of public health decisions, and we are trying to make the best possible decisions around this. They have to take into account the huge challenge that the NHS faces in tackling business-as-usual disease. Millions of people have not turned up for the diagnostics that they should have taken or to have examinations of the lumps and bumps that they are worried about. There is a huge catch-up in terms of the waiting lists, and those have an impact on illness, long life and death. We have to balance the priorities of the pandemic and those of our existing healthcare system, and also the usual life of our communities. That is why we are taking the route that we are.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raised public transport. That is not only a practical and very important context for this discussion; it is iconic of the decision to move from mandation to a voluntary principle on behalf of a large amount of the public for a large number of the measures that we did, at one point, put into law. We are trying to seek a new covenant with the country based on consideration for each other. The noble Baroness put it extremely well, and I entirely share her scruples. I have four children—who are vectors of infection, to put it politely—and I attend a large number of business meetings, including here in the House, and I regard myself as a high-risk candidate for carrying the disease. I have never caught it myself and I have been vaccinated but when I sit on a Tube train I wear my mask, not to protect myself but to protect the person next to me. That is my personal assessment and my personal decision. That is the spirit in which we are inviting people to step forward and make their own decisions and to be considerate to each other.
We cannot have laws on all these matters for the rest of time. At some point we have to ask the country to step up and take responsibility and to have personal agency in these decisions. If we do not put that challenge to the country in the summer months, when our hospitals are relatively safe and the virus has the right conditions, when will we be able to make those decisions?
I agree with the noble Baroness about the position that many workers find themselves in. She is right that PHE data is very daunting when you look at the low-paid, front-line workers who drive taxis and buses or are in all sorts of other front-line positions. They have been hard hit by the pandemic, partly because of their living conditions, partly because of their environment and partly because of the prevalence of comorbidities, but also because of the risk that they personally put themselves at. I call on everyone to be considerate on that point. We need to think about the kind of risk that people are putting themselves at when they go about their normal day-to-day work. I ask people to be thoughtful about infectious respiratory diseases and, in fact, all diseases. That is why the Prime Minister has talked in the terms that he has.
In the meantime, we are making changes to the way we are doing things. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked me about children. To be clear: the Secretary of State said in his Statement that anyone under 18 who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer need to self-isolate after 16 August. Instead, children will be given advice about whether they should get tested, dependent on their age, and will need to self-isolate if they test positive. These measures will come into force on 16 August, ahead of the autumn school term. That is a proportionate response to the changed situation we find ourselves in, with the massive rollout of the vaccine and the evidence that we can see in front of our eyes of the impact of the disease on those who are under 18.
In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I spoke about the Secretary of State’s speech yesterday, in which he said very clearly, on the clinically extremely vulnerable, that guidelines will be published, and that remains the case. We are extremely sympathetic to those whose immune system does not allow the vaccine to have an impact. What use is a vaccine that supports your immune system if your immune system does not work very well? That is a challenge that more than a million people in the country face, and we are working extremely hard to address that issue. That work includes a huge amount of research through the OCTAVE study and a massive investment in the antivirals task force and the therapeutics task force. Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, particularly those who are immunosuppressed, have not been forgotten and are very much the focus of our efforts, but it is an extremely difficult challenge to meet.
We now come to the 30 minutes allocated to Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, I support the move from legislation to guidance in relation to the measures in the Statement. But does my noble friend agree that there is a case for continuing regulation of the circumstances where somebody is the contact of somebody who has tested positive? Can he update the House on what the Government are proposing regarding relaxing some of the restrictions for those who are contacts of positive tests?
My noble friend puts it very well. Clearly, with the infection rates rising but with a very large proportion of the country vaccinated, it is worth reviewing this. As the Secretary of State said in his Statement earlier this afternoon, from 16 August the Government intend to exempt people who have been fully vaccinated from the requirement to self-isolate if they are a contact of a positive case, with a similar exemption for under-18s. Anyone who tests positive will still need to self-isolate regardless of their vaccination status. Symptomatic testing will continue to be available. This is a proportionate direction, given the state that we are in.
My Lords, how much research is being done into long Covid? Many people feel misunderstood and frustrated as they want to get better and many long Covid clinics are not yet open.
My Lords, I completely sympathise with the frustration that many feel when they have the symptoms of one of the many syndromes associated with long Covid. According to the ONS, more than 1 million are in that situation. Those symptoms might range from extreme tiredness, aches and pains, to cardiac or respiratory exhaustion. Our fears are that long Covid will be a horrible legacy of this disease. NIHR has half a dozen research projects at the moment, and I understand that it will be looking for more. The clinics the noble Baroness described are being rolled out at speed and I pay tribute to the NHS, which has a 10-point plan for dealing with long Covid. I would be glad to share a copy of that with the noble Baroness.
My Lords, while there continue to be understandable anxieties and not least concerns about potential pressures on the NHS, many will welcome the prospect of the removal of restrictions on gathering in a range of settings including, I note, for communal worship, singing and performances. Given the move from rule and regulation to guidance and good sense, do Her Majesty’s Government intend to issue any guidance specific to places of worship and in relation to communal singing in settings such as community choirs, other choral groups and schools, or is that to be left to the good sense of those responsible?
The right reverend Prelate puts it extremely well. I pay tribute to all the community groups which have an influence on the thinking of the nation. I encourage them to use that influence to engender and support a spirit of community consideration so that we can try to come together as a nation and approach public health in a way that is considerate to each other.
On the specific point of singing, as I took my place, I noticed that the Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was in the process of making a Statement, and I refer the right reverend Prelate to that. I am afraid I have not had a chance to read it.
My Lords, as the Government have already admitted, one result of their new controversial policy will be an extra 100,000 cases a day of Covid-19, possibly within the next month, which will lead to further heavy demands on an overpressed NHS. How do the Government intend to retain the already overworked and burned-out health workforce going into this battle on an offer of £1 a week pay rise after all the effort they have put in?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the NHS, but the rise in infections among mainly very young people will not necessarily lead immediately to a large increase in the demands on the NHS. An extraordinary aspect of this disease is that it targets the elderly and those with comorbidities and leaves the young largely alone. The proportion of people who have the disease in the months to come will mainly be the unvaccinated. Those are mainly the young and our modelling, which is supported by the NHS, suggests that our resources in healthcare can support that kind of situation.
My Lords, the Health Secretary this morning said that there could be 100,000 cases per day by mid-summer as a result of lifting the restrictions in the Statement. Professor Neil Ferguson’s analysis today, based on the delta variant and the age group affected, shows that would equate to about 100 deaths per day. That will mean an extra 15,000 deaths by the end of the year. Is the Minister aware of and comfortable with that projection of extra deaths, when he says from the Dispatch Box that the policy he now advocates leads to a low level of deaths?
I am not comfortable with any deaths. The suggestion that we are going into any of this with a sanguine, devil-may-care attitude is quite wrong. We approach the matter with extreme caution. But many people are dying because they have missed their cancer appointments. There will be people who die of flu this winter; there will be many people who die of all manner of diseases. We cannot focus only on Covid—we cannot make it the sole priority of our healthcare system and our entire economy. At some point we need to move on.
We will remain extremely cautious; we have all sorts of back-up resources in place that we can pivot to should there be an escalation of Covid hospitalisations and deaths. I do not need to list from the Dispatch Box any of the things we are all worried about. This is the right decision right now; it is proportionate, and it gives us the space to address the many other health issues we have as a nation.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister and the Government on taking this decisive decision to start getting the country back to normal, and in particular, to start getting the economy back to normal. Of course, this could not have been done without the success of the vaccine rollout. All that goes back to last March and April, when some very decisive decisions were made. The Prime Minister made it clear on a number of occasions that the way out would be vaccination.
I urge the Minister to go a little further and start getting the Government back into their offices in Whitehall and elsewhere and start helping those businesses which are so dependent upon our town centres—and, indeed, even this Whitehall area—to get them back together. I also urge him to start looking at the traffic light system, especially as Germany has now opened its borders to India. Now is the time to start trusting the vaccines.
My Lords, I completely concur with my noble friend’s analysis. This is an opportunity for the economy to bounce back, and I am really encouraged by everything I hear from the private sector in terms of the energy, enthusiasm and resilience of the UK economy. The large number of people who will be holidaying at home this summer provides one shot in the arm for the hospitality industry, which I know it is taking advantage of.
When it comes to borders, we have to be careful. One does not like to think about it, but the existence of millions and millions of people with the disease today means that the possibility of further variants has to be on the agenda. That is why we take it one step at a time, and I pay tribute to those in Border Force and the managed quarantine scheme for the work they have done. It is ironic that the variant delta, which started in India, is now so prevalent in the UK that it is possible to think about India coming off the red list. But there are variants elsewhere that we have to be wary of.
My Lords, is the Minister aware—I think he may not be given his recent response to the right reverend Prelate—of the latest government-sponsored PERFORM-2 scientific research? It substantiates what noble Lords have been telling the Government for weeks: there is no difference in aerosol droplets between professional and amateur singers. Given this, is it not time now to finally stop an indefensible farce that restricts amateur choirs from singing, just as they observe tens of thousands of football and tennis fans chanting away? It is no good on counting on 19 July to sort it out as there may be further prohibitions in the future.
My Lords, I am not aware of all the details of the latest Statement. It is my understanding that there is substance there; I gather that there will be change and I look forward to reading about that.
The noble Lord gives me an opportunity to reflect widely, and I hope he does not mind if I do so. There have been lots of uncomfortable inconsistencies and moments of disproportionality where noble Lords have rightly challenged the Government as to whether they have got every dotted “i” and crossed “t” absolutely right. The singing issue is probably the most graphic and certainly the most discussed example. I will personally be hugely relieved if we can move on from the current situation.
My Lords, is it not obvious that if you reduce mask wearing on public transport and in public places, those who believe they are more exposed to the virus will then reduce their use of public transport and avoid public places? People who are fearful of more liberated environments will avoid them, leading to a slowdown in the return to work that the Government want. Indeed, it is the reverse of what the Government want. Why remove those restrictions that offer the only way of securing public confidence in the new regime that is being proposed?
I applaud the noble Lord for his advocacy of mask wearing, but of course this issue cuts both ways. He is right that we need to build back trust in sharing space with one another, but I am not sure that mandatory mask wearing either builds trust or erodes it. If we give people the impression that wearing masks is somehow a panacea that protects everyone on a tube train or in a lift, that is a false impression. Masks are not a panacea. In fact, for some people, they can be a source of grave concern and be enough to send them back home to seek safety. I take the noble Lord’s point that we have to be clear about this, but I am not sure that mandatory mask wearing, or even ubiquitous mask wearing, is either a universal antidote to the spread of the disease or necessarily builds trust in the manner he describes.
My Lords, continuing on this theme: “masks work” is the clear message from Public Health England. Both Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty have said that they will continue to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, primarily because it protects others. Critically, it does not hold back the opening up of the economy, but rather provides a safeguard as social distancing rules are relaxed. Can the Minister tell me why there is so little in the Statement about our social responsibility to others, including front-line transport and shop workers, and the clinically extremely vulnerable? In this scrapping of masks, we are condemning millions with poor immune systems to be trapped in their homes, too afraid to go to the shops or their workplace or to use public transport.
Since this is the second question on masks, I hope the noble Baroness will not mind if I go off on a tangent. Masks do work a bit; they are not a panacea. What is really important is that when you are ill, you stay at home. That is the big behavioural change that will make a big difference in the year to come. That is where Britain has got it wrong in the past. Too often we have put our workmates, fellow travellers and school friends at risk by heroically going into crowded indoor places and coughing all over them. I hope that is one habit that will stop and that that will be a legacy of this awful pandemic.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the progress made on a well-financed vaccination programme that continues to win the war against the worst effects of the virus. Will my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues now ensure that as much effort and commitment will be put into a lead role for the new office for health promotion in his department, to co-ordinate government policy and ensure that we place national well-being, physical and mental health at the centre of policy priorities for all age groups as we emerge from Covid?
I am very grateful to my noble friend for raising the office for health protection, because it is an office that I am extremely hopeful for. It will be giving clinical leadership from the CMO. It will bring together all the enormous resources of data that we have brought together in the pandemic response. It will, I hope, capture the national mood around healthy living, including, as my noble friend rightly points out, eating habits and physical activity habits. It will work through local authorities, it will not be a large organisation like UKHSA is, but I hope it will have an enormous impact. I look forward very much indeed to discussing it more in this Chamber.
My Lords, come 19 July it will be all too easy to assume that everything is okay in the arts and night-time economy. Is the Minister aware of the recent Public Accounts Select Committee report which says that without a government-backed insurance scheme there is a “survival threat to festivals”—pretty strong words. The report also backs further support for freelancers and the technical supply organisations decimated by Covid. It will be a hard road back, and I hope the Government continue their support, including plugging the gaps in support that remain.
My Lords, I do think we have an opportunity, now that the pressure has backed off a bit, to be thinking a lot more about the exactly the sort of subject that the noble Earl raised. I am an avid festival goer, and extremely sad about the way in which they have been hit so hard. The role of freelancers in the arts is absolutely critical. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture Media and Sport has these points very high on his list of priorities.
My Lords, one person’s choice is another’s imposition. Even when mask wearing was mandatory on the tube, some broke the law and there was no policing. So-called choice will cause conflict and confusion. Can the Minister assure me that the Government are not reverting to type and their original herd immunity policy based not on the science but on “let us see how it falls”? Although he does not accept any deaths, as he said, what assessment has been made of the impact of this new policy on death rates and long Covid rates?
My Lords, I do not have the figures to hand, but I reassure the noble Baroness that the policy on masks was very diligently imposed and a large number of people did get fined. We have to ask ourselves as a society whether we really want to live in a country where simple behavioural habits, such as wearing a mask or not, make you susceptible to arrest or fines. That is a very uncomfortable place for a country to find itself. The noble Baroness is right: that does introduce ambiguity, but we are sophisticated people and can live with a degree of ambiguity. We need to learn how to live not only with this disease but with each other. The dilemma that the noble Baroness points out is one that we will all have to debate, understand and learn to live with. We are not in any way letting this disease get on top of us. We are fighting it through the vaccine, we are supporting the vaccine with test and trace, and we have a tough borders measure. We are taking the battle to the virus and will continue to do so.
My Lords, I welcome this Statement. As my right honourable friend Sajid Javid says, he is Health Secretary not just Covid secretary. The successful vaccine programme means that we must urgently address the shocking build-up of other health damage, physical and mental. Not opening now would cause more deaths from non-Covid causes. I have two questions for my noble friend. First, will he confirm that the Government recognise that so-called zero Covid is unachievable and we cannot stop people catching it? Secondly, will he provide details of the Government’s winter contingency plans for the NHS and Covid?
My Lords, I wish zero Covid was possible. I wish we had never had it at all in this country, but it is a fiendishly clever virus and it gets around the measures we put in place to try to fight it. I can, very sadly, confirm that zero Covid is not something we can plan for in this country. What we can plan for is the winter. I reassure my noble friend that the NHS has extremely thoughtful and diligent plans for the winter. It has a specific winter plan and I would be happy to write to my noble friend with a copy.
Does the Minister agree that reliance on the good sense and responsibility of the public should be supported by clear guidance, backed by scientific evidence? If so, will he please tell the House whether the Government are planning to provide such guidance and explanation? How will it be made available in an easily accessible form?
My Lords, that is an extremely broad question. I reassure the noble Baroness that we have published thousands of pages of guidance, many of which have been across my desk, and it has been a privilege to read it all. We have developed better thinking on how we do guidance: I would like to think that it is now written in clearer English and in more languages, and has been made more accessible to those who have reading challenges. We have developed those important learnings over the pandemic.
Does the Minister agree that it would be preferable if the guidance was similar throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, especially for those of us who travel regularly from Scotland to London? What discussions and meetings does he have planned with the Ministers in the devolved authorities to try to achieve that?
I am sympathetic to the noble Lord’s travel arrangements, but I do not philosophically think that harmonisation of all regulations across all the nations of the United Kingdom is necessarily desirable. It is important that people have trust, and sometimes that trust is built on local leadership that takes a different perspective or has different circumstances to try to manage. There has been a large amount of discussion about the differences in the guidance between the nations. My personal experience is that, like DNA, 99% of it is common, with very small differences—although they are inconvenient to handle and manage. I have been travelling up and down the country as well, and, in fact, the consistency has been very large.
Until last week, British citizens who were four years old and younger returning to this country were not required to be tested while quarantining. Why was this change made last week, so that four year-olds, three year-olds, two year-olds, one year-olds and newborn babies now require testing in order for fully vaccinated families who have been properly tested and are negative to be able to get out of quarantine? What is the medical evidence that suggests that testing these babies will help?
My Lords, I confess that the noble Lord’s question is new to me. I will look into that matter and write to him with an update.
My Lords, while I very warmly welcome this Statement, my noble friend will be aware that some batches of the AstraZeneca vaccine have yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency, placing a question mark over the eligibility of some 5 million double-vaccinated Britons for the EU vaccine passport. Can my noble friend assure the House that the Government are working towards a swift resolution of this issue, which ought to be achievable?
I am extremely sympathetic to the situation that my noble friend and a large number of other people find themselves in. I reassure him that we are seeking a solution to this issue with the EMA, and I am hopeful that we will get there some time soon.
My Lords, given the significant increase in Covid-19 infection rates in the UK in recent weeks, what assurances can the Government give to people in the social care sector that there will not be a repeat of what happened in early 2020, when 30,000 people in care homes died of Covid-19? What is the difference between making people wear a seatbelt in a car and a face mask on a train? Both are in the interests of health and safety and are surely in the spirit of community consideration.
My Lords, I completely understand the noble Baroness’s concerns about those in social care. In the provisions that we have put in place for the vaccine, I reassure her that we have those who are elderly and vulnerable absolutely at the top of our minds. As she knows, we are putting in place arrangements for a third shot for those who were early on the prioritisation lists, and we are working on booster shots, should those prove to be necessary. The vaccine is our absolute front line in the battle against the virus. We are seeking to protect most those who are in social care, the elderly and the vulnerable, which is why the vaccine arrangements have been prioritised in that way.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s conversion to living with the disease, which I have said for some time that we have to do. In answer to my noble friend Lady Altmann’s question, he mentioned that there was a winter plan. I would also welcome a copy of that and an assurance from him that plans will come forward to tackle the waiting lists, both regionally and by specialisation, so that we can deal with the huge backlog that the NHS now has to face.
My Lords, I remind my noble friend that we have awarded £1 billion to kickstart elective recovery, supporting providers to address backlogs and tackle long waiting lists. We have also awarded a further £6.6 billion to recover health services from March to September. These are substantial investments and will go a long way to address this considerable challenge.
In light of the eagerly awaited easing of restrictions, but noting the continual penetration of the delta variant in particular, do the Government remain confident that there are sufficient supplies of the necessary vaccines to win the race against a virus that continues to prove itself disruptive and dangerous?
Yes, I can reassure the noble Lord that we have in place a strong supply chain that will meet the schedule that has been outlined by my friend the Minister for Vaccinations, Nadhim Zahawi. We are also seeking to develop new vaccines, should they prove necessary—because it has been one of the surprising but reassuring aspects of our vaccination policy that a third boost is as useful and efficacious as it is. However, should another variant emerge that somehow eludes the current suite of vaccines, we have in place arrangements to develop, manufacture and distribute more.
My Lords, the Statement is about the need for a return to normality—[Inaudible] —businesses depend for their trade on those who go to work in offices in cities and town centres, so can the Minister—[Inaudible]—and what instructions will they get about 19 July?
My Lords, I did not quite catch all the details, but I got the gist of the question. I reassure the noble Baroness that the return to offices and our high streets and towns is of paramount importance, and we are working on guidelines on that matter. I cannot guarantee that absolutely everything will go back to exactly what it was: we have learned lessons from the pandemic, and we want to put this country into a shape where we are resilient should another one emerge. However, it is my hope that the economy will bounce back extremely quickly, and there is good evidence that it will.
My Lords, as a strong supporter of the Government’s policy on the coronavirus, I was nevertheless critical of them being very slow to enunciate a clear policy on masks over a year ago—so I have a lot of sympathy with those noble Lords who have expressed concern about the imminent lifting of compulsion regarding masks. Surely one possible compromise might be to keep masks where you have passengers on public transport sitting or standing next to each other?
My Lords, I hear my noble friend’s words loud and clear. The Government have indicated that we will leave it to those who run the transport systems themselves and to local politicians. There is a good case for a degree of devolvement and subsidiarity in this matter. He is right that masks do perform an important role, but they are not a catch-all, and it is therefore reasonable to leave those who run the transport systems to make decisions for themselves.
My Lords, the time for Back-Bench questions has now elapsed.
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
Committee (1st Day)
My Lords, the next business is the first day of Committee on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. I will call Members to speak in the order listed. During the debate on each group, I invite Members, including Members in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request. The groupings are binding. Participants who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in a group to a Division must give notice in the debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the Question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group.
Clause 1: Local skills improvement plans
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 11, at end insert “potential students resident in and”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to ensure that the interests of students whose needs are not encompassed by local employers are included.
My Lords, I declare an interest as editor of The Good Schools Guide and a member of City & Guilds Council.
I welcome the local skills improvement plans. A strong link between local business and local skills provision for local people is a very good idea; it will build a set of relationships which will be long-lasting and much valued. However, how exactly do the Government think this process is going to work? I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an outline of how the Government now see the local skills improvement plans actually working. Are they intended to be comprehensive, covering the entire needs of an area, or are they sector-specific, as I understand some of the bids for the pilots are? Are they intended to be inclusive of independent training providers? Will the local FE college be the dominant force or just a part? Is it intended that funds will be channelled through the local skills improvement plans? If they will, at what sort of level and with what sort of scope? How do the Government see this working in terms of local relationships? How exactly will the local skills improvement plans be held to account for their results? Will the decisions they reach be easily open to challenge, and if so, how? What is the interface locally with careers information advice and guidance and the Careers & Enterprise Company? There are a lot of things I would like to understand better about the direction in which the Government are intending to take us.
Whatever those answers, there is one big thing missing from the Bill: the interests of potential students, and that is what my amendment addresses. I want to see a reference to what local people need, from their point of view. The young people in Eastbourne, where I live, are pretty average—they are not in any way lacking compared to the national average. Business in Eastbourne, however, which is a coastal community, is typically very skewed. There are some areas in which we are very strong—hospitality, obviously, building and allied trades, education—but when it comes to cyber-security, IT generally, engineering, writing, creative careers, and management and science-based careers, all of which go on in London, there is really not much around. This is not surprising or unusual, but many of these are the growth areas of the economy. It is absolutely in the best interests of our people here—not only the young people, but career-changers and others—that they have good access to the skills necessary to those parts of the economy, not least because it will encourage such businesses to move down here or, in the new fashion of remote working, employ people here. That way, we as a community will have access to the more prosperous, higher growth, higher wage parts of the economy that we do not currently have.
The interests of individual people, potential students, are not congruent with those of employers and providers. In the interests of our people, we must offer training locally in the main growth areas of the economy. I do not mind whether it is through independent training providers or remote training, but it must be substantially good.
I will not speak at length to the other amendments in this group, many of which I have a lot of sympathy for, except to mention that in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, on getting people a base level of skills in maths and English. That is absolutely key to raising the level of the economy locally. Somebody locally must have responsibility for that. We need something better than GCSEs here. GCSEs are aimed at the requirements of an academic curriculum; what we need is a test aimed at the base skills needed by employers. Those are two different things. We test English competence extremely well when students come to this country or want to be employed as doctors, for example. We have skills-centred tests aimed at establishing competence. We need something like that for our own people in English and maths, so that everybody has a chance of getting through and we do not continue to suffer the comparable outcomes system, which condemns 40% of our young people to having substandard English and maths qualifications. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the very clear introduction to this group from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Having listened to his explanation, I rather regret not having attached my name to his amendment, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, did. He really has nailed the key problem with this Bill and the reason for many of these amendments: the Government’s focus on employers, presumably existing employers, fails to explain how a local skills improvement plan can actually help an area to improve. By focusing on potential students, Amendment 1 really helps us to think about how people might also want to get the skills to be part of communities, to run community groups, to be involved in cultural activities or to be voters or parents. All of these are areas in which people might want to improve their skills. It would also help communities that are subject to the Government’s levelling-up agenda, which are often lacking in social capital. We are talking about skills that pretty well every community is short of. Any community group that any noble Lord has ever known has had to find a treasurer—someone who is prepared to take on doing the books, even if there is not much money in those books. These are skills that every community needs, but they might not actually be a business need.
However, I shall speak chiefly to Amendment 2, which is in my name. It tries to get at another aspect of the Bill addressing the so-called economy by adding in to consult in the skills improvement plans
“potential employers, start-up businesses and the self-employed.”
Looking at recent figures from the pre-Covid time, there were 5 million self-employed in the UK, up from 3.2 million in 2000. They are a very major part of our workforce and, if they are running a business, what they may need to help them find work, and improve the work that they find, is not necessarily going to be reflected by the employers in a town. I think here of a very old-fashioned term, perhaps—the “company town”.
A few years ago, I visited Barrow-in-Furness where the top employer, by a scale of many thousands, is of course the shipyards. The next two biggest employers, of around 1,000 each, are the largest supermarket and the local hospital. Barrow-in-Furness, as I said when I was there, clearly needs to diversify its economy and develop things such as local food-growing and tourism businesses, through all kinds of objectives. How are those three top employers going to provide advice on the skills needed for that?
At the moment, the Bill feels really half baked. I am in a difficult position in speaking before many of these amendments have been explained, but I support the sentiments behind them all. I shall pick out a couple briefly. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said about the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker—particularly, perhaps, Amendment 81, which has broad support—the focus on the attainment gap is crucial. There are many people whom schooling has failed in the past; they need support with the right kind of courses, the right way to improve and lift their skills, not just for their jobs but for their lives.
I also particularly support Amendments 20 and 21, both of which address, in different ways, distance learning. We are not going to be able to put into every village and town every course that might be of use to everyone. It is crucial that we have, in the Open University, a very successful and important structure; something that people can use to advance their knowledge, as well as their skills, and get into the practice of lifelong learning. That is such a crucial skill that we are going to need for the coming decades. The number of amendments tabled to this clause really shows that the Government need to go away, having listened to today’s debate, and think about how they can improve not just the Bill, but their thinking about how we provide the skills needed for a very different age.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 11 and 81. I also support the first three amendments spoken to, and I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for my amendments. I declare interests as a fellow and former chair of the Working Men’s College, chair of the education department’s stakeholders’ group and other relevant interests as in the register.
The rationale of my amendments is that this potentially most useful Bill will not have the national impact it might, unless more provision is made to get a very large number of young people and others to the starting block. Amendments 11 and 81 are designed to do just that. I am most grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. The reason they are not speaking is entirely due to the complexity of arrangements, which I fervently hope will be simplified in September. They all tried to put their names forward. I also thank the Association of Colleges for its helpful advice.
At Second Reading, I set out the fact that more than one-third of young people in secondary school do not achieve the requisite GCSE grades in English and maths to qualify for entry to the further education and training so enticingly proposed in the Bill. I asked the Minister what provision had been or could be made for this very large number who, for various reasons, among which lack of innate ability has not been cited, could not access the educational opportunities in the Bill. She was not able to give me an answer, nor did one appear in the letter she helpfully sent to Peers after Second Reading, and nor have I had a reply to a request I made to her team for an answer. As this is unusual for the noble Baroness, I conclude that there is no answer and there are no such comprehensive arrangements in place.
Current arrangements do provide for resits of GCSEs, but this is not working. It is clearly a strain on young people, whose funding is complex, and on FE colleges, where most resits take place and which on average have more than 1,000 taking them, only for an average of 75% to fail again. Schools have even more of a gap now, after the effects of the lockdown. Our public examination systems in schools were long predicated on failing a proportion—now a discredited policy—but it is especially absurd and unjust when it crops up again in those skills which enable earning a living. Among those who fail are a large proportion of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma young people, as well as those from other minority ethnic groups, and people of all ages, for other reasons unconnected with ability. This is without counting those who dropped out even before the exam years.
This is not only a matter of stark inequality; it is a deeply concerning national educational failure which ignores potential, hampers life chances and deprives our economy of its full power. It is a devastating waste of our greatest national asset: our young people. So, our Amendment 81 would require the Government to fulfil the Prime Minister’s promise that no child shall be left behind, and to devise a national strategy to enable very many more of our young people to make the jump into useful and rewarding qualifications. Amendment 11 proposes a corresponding duty on providers and employer bodies to have regard to this strategy, so that it is locally implemented.
We do not prescribe details: there are several causes for failure, and there could be different arrangements for foundation courses and funding; there could be tutoring and mentoring; and there could be elements in teacher training and the Office for Students targeted at addressing the obstacles students face, which in some cases, notably that of Gypsies, Travellers and Roma young people, include cultural prejudice. The Runnymede Trust’s latest report says that only 12% of secondary school teachers have any material on how to talk about race in their initial teacher training. There are willing and expert hands in institutions and there is capacity in the department to work out a strategy. It is political will that is required. There is ample scope for levelling up here.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 1 and 6, to which I have added my name, and to Amendment 20 in my name and that of my colleague and noble friend Lord Storey. I declare an interest for the whole Bill: I am a vice-president of City & Guilds, an organisation for which I worked for some 20 years.
On Amendments 1 and 6, I have been crossing out what I would have said as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has said it far more effectively than I could. I do not believe in repeating what others have said, even if I have not said it myself, so I shall just agree with what he said. It is essential that we take into account potential students—and not just the young people of Eastbourne, I suggest—who should surely be important players in any discussion. If there are no students, there is no point in employers wishing to train them. It is not just the views and interests of students but those of student unions, trade unions, relevant community groups, agencies and local government that need to be taken into account. There should also be constant dialogue with careers advisers.
Funding must be made available for social mobility. An aspiring blacksmith or chef should not be disadvantaged if local needs are engineering-based. Dyslexic students should not be disadvantaged if their skillset is different from local needs. Amendment 20 ensures that providers of distance learning are brought into play. As the Explanatory Notes set out, the role in the local skills ecosystem played by providers without a local bricks and mortar presence in a particular area is taken into account in local skills improvement plans. Of course, it may not be bricks and mortar. It could be any skills area, but distance learning is truly important, as the work of the Open University and other distance providers makes clear. The OU has been a life-changer for many who could not study residentially.
Often, people may wish to study for employment not directly available in their area but for which they can develop skills and earn qualifications which will serve them well in other parts of the country. We should not be depriving them of the wherewithal to do just that. Throughout the Bill we shall seek to ensure that distance learning is taken into account. This amendment will do that and provide opportunities for learning to those without local provision.
I add my support to Amendments 11 and 81, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, a staunch supporter of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities, but these proposals go much broader, to those who have problems with GCSE English and maths which, for so many skill areas, are not essential. To have an academic qualification in English and maths is not necessary for a whole range of perfectly useful employment opportunities. I also support the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Addington, who will be following me to speak for himself. They are important amendments too.
I hope that the Minister will be able to look favourably on the amendments in this group.
My Lords, this is one of those debates when everybody has said and everybody is going to agree with everybody, so let try to do it in as precised a way as possible. Before, I do, I should remind the Committee of my declared interests and let the Committee know that I have become an adviser to Genius Within, which looks at neurodiversity with Birkbeck, University of London.
The basic thrust of this is: what will be put into the plans, how flexible will it be and how will it adjust to the needs of those people who are supposed to be covered by it? We have heard about many subjects. When someone mentions dyslexia in front of me in one of these debates, I give myself a little cheer because, hopefully, the word is getting out.
The most important thing about my Amendment 22, if you throw everything away, is identification. Most people in the neurodiverse sector or with any special educational need have moderate or lower-level needs that, if not addressed or supported, can lead to failure to get academic qualifications giving access to training. The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and I might argue about GCSEs and certain points, but the essential thrust of what she said carries through to these groups. Someone who has trouble in that learning environment will always have trouble. If we suddenly get—as I did with the officials who the Minister was kind enough to give me access to, for which I am eternally thankful—“Oh but we have a high-needs strategy”, well, that is great, but what happens to the 18% of the population who are identified as having special educational needs but who are not in the high-needs group? They will become your workforce. They are the people who are underachieving and either do not get jobs or get jobs which they do not fulfil or can access other qualifications with.
Please, when we are doing this, can we build in a capacity to identify people who have already failed in the school system? As adults, they will be presenting differently, with established types of behaviour, which may mean that they are resistant to certain activities because who on earth wants to be told again: “You’ve failed, you can’t do something”? Let us take everybody who is scared of heights and stick them up that ladder and shake it. Let us make sure that it is uncomfortable and that something that you do not like to have gone through again. What will happen about identifying the people in these groups, people with ADHD, people who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, with parents with the same problems, who do not have the type of parents that I had behind me?
I appreciate that this is all that you can do here, but what steps will be taken to ensure that everybody gets through and is supported? The idea that you need only a functional grasp of English and maths is a step forward, but we must embrace the fact that there is now technology available that can do most of this for you, at least at a functional level. If you can talk, you can word-process now. Can we ensure that this is taken into account in the plans because the groups who are unskilled, which we are addressing, will be helped?
My Amendment 26 is about looking slightly wider than just at one area. It came from a conversation that I had with someone at the British Dyslexia Association, who said, if someone feels that they would be happier in something that uses hand skills and is slightly out of area, please can they be supported to get there? This is true of virtually all groups but is probably slightly more intense in this situation. If you are living in an area which is just on the boundary, the thing that you may want to train in is probably in the next area. All of us have done this for schools to work. Arguments about constituency boundaries go to an audience where many may have an interest. Can we please take that into account? When the Minister comes to answer, or at a later stage, can he give some idea of how these group plans or areas of concentration will work together? If they do not, we will be excluding large numbers of people from getting the support that they need where that is a local employment opportunity for them. We are still assuming that they will stay in their local areas for jobs for long periods. If we are doing that, then let us at least be realistic about it.
My Lords, I support these amendments and the thrust of the debate so far, particularly with what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said in moving the amendment, every word of which I agreed with, as I have with most of the other speakers so far, so I will try not to repeat myself.
There is something of a dilemma. It is very difficult to be against a local skills plan, and I am not. It is a really good thing. I believe in this notion of place, which I think we have lost recently in school and skills. It is very important, and I can see that these local skills partnerships adopt that notion of place and that one place is different from others. I am absolutely in favour of that. It is very difficult to argue against employers being involved, and I would not. I have moved, over the course of this debate, from being very much in favour of those two things to having difficulty visualising what it will be like when it is in a good form. The more you talk about it, the most difficulties you see emerging. I hope that this means no more than that there are a lot of details to sort out. I am not trying to be difficult on this, but I wonder whether a number of issues will be resolved by this structure.
I shall raise two concerns reflecting the debate so far, which are around whether an employer-led body is likely to deal with these issues. It is not that they cannot be dealt with, but employers are different organisations, representing different things and have different experiences. It might be that in some circumstances they are not the best to deal with certain issues. My first concern regards Amendment 1 and potential students. Are current employers with current businesses the best people to scope the future economy? I am not saying that they have nothing to offer, because they do, but they have got a lot to protect in the here and now. A successful employer will be successful only if he or she scopes the future, but it is an uneasy thing that we are having to do. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that. How do we keep their eyes to the future if they are leading this plan?
The second is: is an employer-led skills plan going to be the most effective at looking after the groups of people who are often left out, whether it is the Travellers, the underachievers, the marginalised or those who have not got qualifications? The traditional role of employers is often as gatekeepers: they let the successful through to be their employees, but they do not have an ongoing responsibility for the ones they have rejected. They often fall to other organisations, which have or develop the experience to deal with them.
My worry over that is: in an employer-led skills plan, where will the knowledge, experience and capacity come from to support and skill up those people who have not got the basic qualifications or skills to be part of the current skills plan? I would include in that digital learning, which other people have referred to, and the Open University in particular, because from my own experience I know that because organisations such as the Open University are so different from other institutions in how they work, they very often get left out of legislation, and you end up trying to solve the problem of having excluded them later on.
My last point is this: when you look through the Bill, it is often the case that local plans will have to have regard to national plans, national frameworks and national guidance. So when does a local plan stop being a local plan and just become a mirror image of everyone else’s local plan, which makes up the national plan? My question to the Minister on that would be: how brave are the Government going to be in allowing local plans to do their own thing, which might not always accord with the national plan? Who is going to prioritise this big list of things they have to do, and what will the Government do to welcome innovation, which might be ideas they themselves have not yet thought of?
My Lords, this Bill is largely a Bill in search of a policy, and indeed a Bill that is a substitute for policy. It does almost nothing that actually requires legislation. As far as I can tell, there is only one aspect that actually requires a change of the law to be accomplished, which is the extension of student loans to further education courses—a reform I support. But all the rest of it is the enshrining in legislation of policy goals—some of which are inherently contradictory —which do not require legislation at all.
I am surrounded by former Ministers on all sides, and we all know that whenever you do not have a policy and cannot quite work out what to do, but want to proclaim a priority, you produce a Bill. The Civil Service loves producing Bills. It has Bill teams. The one thing you can do from Whitehall and that big building on Great Smith Street is produce reams of paper—White Papers, Bills and all that. It does not actually mean you do anything to improve skills levels in the country, but you do produce Bills and White Papers and requirements on other people to produce plans and so on themselves.
In my experience of big change in education, the biggest changes are usually produced by the smallest pieces of legislation that focus in particular on funding—because the one thing the Government control in this is funding. In parenthesis, further education funding is declining; let us not get away from that. No amounts of legislation, no White Papers extending to whatever this latest one is—it is in very large type, but it extends to 73 pages—can make up for the fact that funding is being cut. There is some opportunity for substituting public funding with private funding through the loans scheme, but public funding is being cut.
That is one way you can do it. The second is by great ministerial and Civil Service drive on the ground, which we desperately need in this sector. But this sector has had, by my calculation, one Minister of Further Education each year since 2010. The only one who was any good was sacked and now chairs the Select Committee in the House of Commons—I think because he was actually too committed to making a reality of further education.
The one big reform in this area, which is the apprenticeship levy, has been so badly mishandled that, astonishingly, it has managed to lead to a decline in the number of apprentices, particularly at entry level, which is the area where we have the biggest skills failures. So this is an absolutely farcical piece of legislation. The Minister has my deep commiserations on having to spend hour after hour camped in this House proclaiming mantras and platitudes that will have been written for her by civil servants and will do absolutely zero to improve further education or the skills level.
Producing local skills improvement plans does not require legislation. The Government could today announce —and, with funding, incentivise and require—public authorities to do them. I can assure noble Lords that employers’ bodies, if some money was waved in front of them, would willingly co-operate in the production of local skills improvement plans. So legislation is absolutely not necessary.
But, because one always hopes the Government are actually producing a policy that is well thought out and crafted and has a proper chain of connection between the conception of the policy and the levers, goals and outcomes, I actually read the White Paper. It is always a big mistake to read the actual policy statement that underpins the legislation. The White Paper says on page 14, in one of its many platitudinous statements:
“At the moment, employers do not have enough influence over the skills provision offered in their local area or enough say in how all technical training and qualifications are developed.”
We are then referred to footnote 14, which states:
“See for example England’s Skills Puzzle: Piecing Together Further Education Training & Employment (Policy Connect Learning & Work Institute, 2020.”
Well, I read that report. It is not a survey of employers; it is not even a proper study of employers. It is a report of an ad hoc commission chaired by Conservative MP Sir John Hayes, one of the former Ministers of Further Education. Having done a few dipstick surveys in different parts of the country, it makes five recommendations, none of which is for these local skills improvement plans.
The first of the five recommendations is that there should be national targets, monitored by the new skills and productivity board in the way the Climate Change Commission monitors its targets. I am not up on the creation of the latest quangos, so I am not yet fully familiar with the skills and productivity board. No doubt the Minister will tell us what this new quango is doing. But that does not require this reform. The second recommendation is for further devolution of budgets. That may be a worthwhile thing to do but, since the budgets are declining, that does not inherently help. As King Lear told us:
“Nothing will come of nothing,”
But, in any case, devolving budgets does not require these skills plans; it can be done by fiat from the department tomorrow.
The third recommendation is further funding incentives for collaboration—which, again, can be done without any of these local skills improvement plans. The fourth is a national campaign to recruit teachers to further education. I entirely support that; again, it does not require this reform. The fifth is piloting personal learning accounts. I strongly urge the Government to be cautious about that one; some of us on this side of the House are deeply scarred by things called individual learning accounts, which turned out to be a massive scam for rapidly created local skills organisations to cream off all the money. They certainly should not go there at all; the extension of the student loans reform would be much better. So the statements that underlie this are not rooted in any evidence base.
We then come to the skills plans themselves. I thought that, since this Government are deeply versed in evidence-based policy, they would have piloted these properly so we can see: what these local skills plans are going to look like; what employer bodies are going to produce them; and what the relationships are with the local further education colleges, the mayoral authorities and the other public authorities. I thought we could perhaps read one or two of them. I am very keen to read them because, from my experience of the centre trying to mandate other people to produce plans, it is not the bodies charged with producing the plans that produce the plans; it is consultants employed by the bodies, who are paid a fortune and have no responsibility whatever for delivery of any of the outcomes. Some of us on this side of the House will remember the words “education action zones.” A whole army of consultants grew up to produce the plans for education action zones, which led to precious little further education and no action—except by the people producing the plans for the education action zones, who made tens of millions of pounds. I see this happening again.
But I thought, “Well, maybe it’s being piloted”. So I googled “pilots,” because the White Paper’s pages 15 and 16 refer to pilots of these local skills improvement plans. The pilots have not started. There was an article on 20 April in a magazine called FE Week—which is after my time, a new entrant to the block, and seems to provide a lot of good information on what is going on—and the headline was:
“Hunt begins for ‘employer representative bodies’ to pilot local skills improvement plans.”
There is not long between 20 April and 6 July, but none of these bodies has yet appeared. It turns out that these local skills improvement plans are to be piloted in six to eight “trailblazer” areas. “Trailblazers” is a word the Government always use when they want to proclaim action when absolutely nothing is happening—so we are having six to eight trailblazers that do not exist.
Now, bids for those trailblazers, which are to be backed by £4 million of revenue funding—all of which will go to the consultants charged with writing these plans—were being sought by 25 May. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many bids had been entered by that date, give us some description of who they are, tell us when they will start and tell us what indication there is that they will be coherent. I do not want to detain the Committee unduly, but all the indications as to who the bodies are reference bodies that do not exist at the moment.
We have a whole box on page 15 headed “Case study: German Chambers of Commerce”. I strongly welcome the Government’s study of Germany and aligning more closely with the European Union; it is something that I have spent my political life seeking to do. If we had taken our membership of the European Union more seriously and done a better job of learning from the Scandinavian countries, Holland and Germany, our skills system would have made a much better start. So it is good that, as we leave Europe, we none the less regard as a model for policy the German Chambers of Commerce. However, there is nothing in these proposals that will lead to anything like the construction of the German Chambers of Commerce. There is no statutory power for the establishment of chambers of commerce. There is no requirement on employers to be members of these bodies and no public duties are imposed on them.
So who are the bodies that will be the skills-based bodies that will produce these local skills improvement plans? I should say “employer bodies” because the Government say that they must be employer bodies. Who are they? I look forward to the Minister telling us so that, by the time we come to Report, we will have been able to test this and perhaps propose a few amendments—perhaps, indeed, to remove this entire provision, save the public tens of millions of pounds and have some real action in terms of further education skills and what they will be.
My further remark is one that causes me real concern. The one area of policy that has at least taken some steps forward in this area over the past 10 years is the development of the mayors. For the first time, we actually have public authorities outside London with some real strength and political credibility. Andy Street is a great guy and is doing a fantastic job in Birmingham and the West Midlands. There is Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. Ben Houchen has created a big name for himself and is perhaps the only major recognisable political figure apart from Tony Blair to have come out of the north-east in recent times. This is very welcome. It is something that, at the political level, England desperately needs.
However, the one body specifically banned from producing these local skills improvement plans—I must get the jargon right—are the mayors. The reason why, it turns out, is that they are not employers. Well, as a definitional thing, obviously they are not employers—they are mayors—but they are the people who have the capacity to generate real activity and engagement by employers and colleges in a serious way. They should be tasked with this mission, but instead they are totally isolated from the process on the grounds that they are not employers and the Government want to be promoting employers.
Instead, in paragraph 8 on page 16 of the White Paper, Mayor Burnham, Mayor Street and Mayor Sadiq Khan—very big political figures whom we want to seize this agenda—are told this:
“Mayoral Combined Authorities will be consulted in the development of these plans.”
That is a fat lot of good, is it not? The most dynamic, potentially active and crucial agents of the state—they are also the people who, as public authorities, are closest to employers—are simply going to be consulted by bodies that do not for the most part exist at the moment. They are going to engage consultants who also do not exist; I suppose at least the consultants can engage with the consultees quite easily because they both have “consult” at the root of their job descriptions. However, the one thing that this is not going to do of its own volition is produce more skills education and training.
My noble friend Lady Whitaker made the point that the fundamental problems with the education system in these areas—I look at the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who wrestled with these problems 40 years ago; we wrestled with them too—is that basic skills are still too low and we have do not have high-quality apprenticeship routes for those who do not go on to university. This is not rocket science. It is simple. If we got this right, employers would be cheering from the rafters and we would not need this whole new panorama of local skills improvement plans, which I suspect will simply lead us to have exactly the same debates with very little progress having been made in 10 years’ time.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and I have argued over so many things over so many years that it is not true but, I must say, that was a bravura performance. He raised some very important issues, particularly in relation to whether we need this legislation or whether legislation is being used as a substitute for strategy. I note in particular his point about the lack of funding for FE and the fact that there is a danger that this legislation will simply be a way of signalling an approach but not helping in practical terms. I thought that he did an excellent job; it was like the emperor’s new clothes being exposed there. However, I want to correct him on one point. We have not left Europe; we have left the EU. As a Brexiteer, I am a great fan and advocate of German vocational education, as a matter of fact.
First, I apologise for not speaking at Second Reading. My IT skills rather failed me; I should probably go on a course. I thought that I had listed myself online, but I had failed to press the right button.
I support the aspirations of this Bill. It is close to my heart because, as a former further education lecturer—a sector that is too often treated as a Cinderella sector—I hope that further education will at last arrive at the ball. However, ironically, aspects of this Bill could limit opportunities, which is one reason why I am particularly sympathetic to Amendments 1, 2 and 6 in this group and the remarks initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
I want to avoid making a Second Reading speech. However, I want to make a broad point about a distinction that it is important to remember as we go through all the amendments on Report and which represents why I want the Bill to avoid being overly narrow or prescriptive about outcomes, as this can backfire and lead to unintended consequences. While we are focusing on the neglected areas of vocational qualifications, skills and training, one danger is that we assume that certain social groups of young people are just not cut out for academic education. In the skills and training discussion—that is, when we talk about how we can target people and help them with skills and training—it is too often assumed that we are talking about working-class youth. This is dangerously deterministic and has already put pressure on schools in certain social areas to see education as preparation for the labour market, which cuts against the principle of building a society or education based on merit.
To state it baldly, every child has a right to an academic education until the age of 16, in my opinion, and even if they choose not to pursue an academic route after that, they are entitled to be introduced to the best that is thought and known. This allows every young person, whether they end up as a plumber or a philosopher, access through schooling to a working knowledge of cultural capital, history, literature, the scientific method and so on. The trainee hairdressers and car mechanics to whom I taught literature were more than the jobs that they eventually acquired. We should be wary of a narrowly instrumental version of vocationalism, as it can limit opportunities and aspirations.
One concern that I have about the Bill is that it focuses too narrowly on the skills required by local employers; this has already been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I mean no disrespect to them, but local employers can be short-term and short-sighted and do not always see the long view. As these amendments—the ones that I am supporting—emphasise, local employers may not always be best placed to see the bigger picture. In turn, that can narrow the options for students.
For example, take a geographical area traditionally associated with the fishing industry—an area in which I would like to see more investment in terms of apprenticeships and so on. Are we to assume that the locality will only ever need skills related to fishing? Also, there may well be more future-oriented skills that are not needed as yet but could create new industries, such as marine biology.
Of course, it sounds positive when the DfE says that the Bill will meet
“the need of local areas … so people no longer have to leave their home-towns to find great jobs.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, made the point about place; I am very keen on remembering that. I like the soundbite about improving communities rather than just providing a ladder out of them, but it would also be wrong to confine people, or even trap them, into jobs related to the needs of the locality they live in. If you live in a largely agricultural area but aspire to be an engineer in car manufacturing, or to work in construction in the city, will you be able to access skills that allow you to move if we confine the skills available to those that only the local employers decide on? If you are an inner-city youth who dreams of working in farming, will you be able to access skills if local bosses cannot imagine ever needing or training someone to pursue such an agricultural career? Amendments 1 and 6 and their motivation by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, tackle these issues and the potentially limiting anomalies in the Bill.
More generally, one of the ironies of focusing on catering for local needs is that it limits who decides on local priorities just to local employers. It takes power away not only from students locally, as has been mentioned, but from local civic leaders—we have heard about mayors being excluded—and local further education college principals. Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, calls this a top-down power grab on qualifications. He says:
“It is regrettable that the provisions in this Bill and the government’s wider qualifications review seeks to stifle investment, innovation and choice in the future by effectively nationalising technical qualifications via a Whitehall-driven, top-down, command and control approach.”
Certainly, as later amendments try to address, the Bill introduces new regulatory layers of approval which are politically controlled from the centre—for example, the need for the Secretary of State to approve the new statutory local skills improvement plans. The Bill claims to be local, but how local is it beyond the local employers?
I am also sympathetic to Amendment 81, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Whitaker and Lady Greengross, and others, which addresses the attainment gap. The Bill is limited in supporting those who have not attained grade 4 or above in English. Simon Parkinson, the chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association, noted that the Bill is
“quiet on support for any qualifications below Level 3”,
“offer many adult learners key progression routes”.
I am sympathetic to thinking about broadening this out.
Many years ago—probably decades now—I launched a return to learning course for women who had no qualifications. They were often young women, and I taught them a broad liberal arts course. I agree with the WEA that it is worrying that the Bill does little to support
“subjects outside a narrow band of technical disciplines”.
For the women who I taught, it was an introduction to literature, history and creative writing; no doubt local employers would think that a complete waste of time. But it actually allowed them to acquire confidence and skills—and ultimately, in some instances, a GCSE in English. It was a stepping stone to them taking training courses and reskilling, and many went on to be, for example, a nurse or a police officer. One did a course in animal husbandry. Another eventually ran a successful beauty business and earned a fortune.
My main takeaway from that is that we cannot be too prescriptive in what we want to achieve when we train people by narrowly saying that the only skills that matter are decided by local bosses. They might say “We’ll decide what skills we’ll need in this area into the future”, but lack any imagination to think beyond that. Sometimes non-training and non-skills education can lead people into the world of training and skills, and we should not neglect that either.
My Lords, I am not sure I will be able to match the bravura performances that this Committee has already brought forward. I noted with great pleasure the speech of my noble friend Lord Adonis. I tried to make a speech like that at Second Reading. The only trouble is that at Second Reading you have five minutes, but being in Committee gives you much greater opportunity to expand as you wish.
For all the criticisms of the Bill, many of which I agree with, it does contain one major social reform which has the potential for improvement in the decade ahead: the extension of the student loan scheme to people doing training. We should all put on record clearly our welcome for that; it is very important.
I am no great expert in this field but I had a little encounter with it when I was involved, at the latter end of the Labour Government, with the North West Development Agency in my home area of Cumbria and saw the complexities of trying to improve the skills system. If the Committee will allow me, I would like to expand on that a little. It struck me that the problem with skills and further education was that provision was not demand-led but supply-led. It was led by people who wanted to fill the places on courses to get the money from the Skills Funding Agency to meet their costs. For it to be supply-led by the providers—not demand-led by the needs of employers and the country—is clearly not a satisfactory way of doing things, so reform is needed.
However, the Government are saying that they are going to create committees dominated by employers to solve this problem—well, we have had a bit of a history of that. The great selling point of the RDAs that Labour established was that they were private sector led. I actually think that was a great mistake; they should have been locally and democratically led. We then would have had, in my view, a much more solid basis for English devolution. We had the local enterprise partnerships established by the right honourable Sir Vincent Cable, which Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches will doubtless be anxious to applaud in these debates. Again, those partnerships were intended to put employers at the forefront of local economic development. We now have this proposal for local skills improvement plans, led by employers.
However, getting the employer voice in an area is very difficult. In Cumbria there are some very big employers. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned Barrow and British Aerospace, and there is Sellafield on the west coast of the old Cumberland. These very big employers need to have relationships with universities and colleges to provide a ladder of opportunity for their people, from apprenticeships to master’s degrees, in the areas that they need. That is not satisfactorily done but it is a way forward. I am not sure whether skills improvement plans will result in that, but that is what needs to be done with large employers.
Then there are big sectors in which there are small employers and generally unsatisfactory standards: typically, hospitality, in the private sector, and social care, in the quasi-public sector—often privately provided, of course. In those areas we need a national sectoral approach. There are probably several hundred local hotelkeepers in the Lake District; putting a couple of them on the skills improvement board is not going to solve the problem. We need some national sectoral approaches, particularly to the sectors where there are chronic skills shortages.
We cannot get cooks in the Lake District at the moment. That is a consequence of Brexit. Employers have to close their kitchens at lunchtime and on the early days of the week, because of the lack of availability of the labour from eastern Europe on which we formerly relied, which is causing a big problem.
If we want to resolve that dilemma, we need a national sectoral approach to encourage young people to go into social care and hospitality. We must establish a pathway for them, for gaining skills, and we must mandate for them minimum wages higher than the living wage to give them an incentive to do the training. That would raise productivity in those sectors. That is a way forward in some of the very low-paid, low-productivity, low-skilled sectors of the economy.
I wonder how these skills improvement boards are going to work. I just do not know. It will be difficult for us to come back after the Minister has spoken, but she has to answer all those sharp, precise questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in his opening speech. We need to know more about how this whole thing is going to work.
The other big gap, as many Members have pointed out, concerns how we get people who have not succeeded at school to a level at which they can benefit from the extension of training and further education opportunities. I am not sure whether that is a question for this Bill, but it should be a priority for the Government.
One of the things I regret about the Labour Government was that we never extended the brilliant London Challenge, which succeeded in transforming our London schools, to the north-west. Cumbria never benefited from anything like that, nor did the north-east. We could have done much more. That is not a criticism, but there is a sense of missed opportunity.
I do not know what the inspection and transformation regime for colleges of further education will be, but, as part of the politics of place—which the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, rightly mentioned—we should have a conscious policy, and a mechanism, to try to ensure that every reasonable-sized town has a decent further education college at its centre. How do we get that, and how do we sort things out? There is already a lot of good there, but there is also quite a lot of chaff. How we get rid of that, and how we amalgamate where necessary, and get co-operation, is a question that needs to be answered in these debates. We need to know much more about how the proposed arrangements will work. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked the Minister the right questions, and I hope that she will answer them.
My Lords, I very much support the aims of the Bill and of many of the amendments in this group, which seek to ensure that local skills improvement plans embody a partnership approach involving all participants in the education and skills system. The two overriding requirements of a successful education and skills system are that it should meet the national need for skills to deliver UK-wide goals and priorities, and that it should give individuals the attributes and skills to identify and pursue their own career aspirations and personal fulfilment. Reconciling those two aims is the challenge that the Bill seeks to address
I very much agree with Amendment 1, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It is essential that learners have a voice in the development of LSIPs—as I will call them; I hope noble Lords will forgive me—in their own areas, and that LSIPs should take proper account of national strategic priorities. They will need to find a way of balancing actual opportunities in their areas—the jobs that are there now, in health, in care, in retail and in hospitality, in existing businesses—with future needs for green jobs, for STEM, for digital jobs and creative skills. They may also need to be aware of the views of significant national employer groups about their specific current and future skills needs, such as those in the energy and utilities sector, which faces enormous skills challenges.
I hope the Minister will be able to tell us something about how the planned trailblazers or pilots will be used to develop guidance. Ideally, they will blaze a series of trails to respond to varying local conditions and circumstances. Different local areas will rightly have to take different approaches, led by different employer representative bodies. There may be many areas where chambers of commerce do not have the right focus or qualities to lead the local partnership, and others where the plan would ideally be built on existing work by LEPs, skills advisory partnerships and other such groups. What is needed is guidance on general principles for successful LSIPs and ERBs. What is absolutely not needed is any sort of over-prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to such bodies.
I shall try to follow the excellent example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, by not feeling that no point has been properly made until I have made it myself, so I will now move on. I welcome the fact that Amendment 2 in this group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, would require the needs of potential employers, start-up businesses and the self-employed to be considered. Of course, those groups include numerous entrepreneurs, who also need special skills. The Future Founders report in 2019 revealed that 51% of British young people aged 14 to 25 had thought about starting, or had already started, a business. We should ensure that the Bill addresses their needs; we should certainly not be focusing only on the skills needs of existing employers. One of the last places to look for the potential unicorn businesses of the future is within the ranks of existing large-scale employers.
One other specific area of need not mentioned in the Bill, about which I feel strongly, having been involved with it for some years, is improved work readiness and practical skills, particularly for young people aged about 14 upwards.
I applaud the recognition in Amendments 20 and 21, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, that much valuable skills training will be provided remotely —as we have learnt during the pandemic. Distance learning providers are an increasingly important category of independent training providers, not least in remote areas and areas less well served by colleges, and local plans should take account of what they can offer.
Finally, I strongly commend Amendment 18 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, to require local skills plans to give due regard to
“coordinating careers information, advice and guidance provision across education providers”
in their area. High-quality careers advice and guidance, available to all who need it, is fundamental to the success of any skills plan so that young people especially have a clear idea of what opportunities, meeting their own abilities and interests, are realistically available to them and what pathways they can follow to pursue those opportunities.
Although considerable progress has been made as a result of the 2017 careers strategy, which ended last year, careers education is still underresourced in terms of funding and of there being enough well-qualified careers guidance professionals to meet the needs of schools, colleges, universities and other training providers. This is one strategic skills shortage that needs to be addressed, preferably by a renewed careers strategy, but its complete absence from the Bill is concerning, so I welcome this and other amendments seeking to ensure that it is appropriately covered.
My Lords, I regret that I did not participate in Second Reading, but perhaps, as somebody has already remarked, there might be a better opportunity here. I declare an interest as a national apprenticeship ambassador.
I felt sorry for the Minister after the performance of my noble friend Lord Adonis, which basically embraced Dante’s advice: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”. I do not agree—this is a good Bill. There are no perfect Bills; those of us who have been involved in education in previous Governments will know that we never get it quite right. It is a good Bill but, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and a number of people have suggested, it could be better, so I support most of the amendments in the group.
I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who first raised the question of English and maths. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, gave it even more emphasis. We need to find an alternative. There are certainly many apprenticeship opportunities which do not require GCSE English and maths. I had neither because I was dragged out of school at 15 years old, but I can remember some of the things we were required to do. After simultaneous equations, I am afraid I just could not master quadratic equations or anything else. I do not think that necessarily stopped me in my apprenticeship in telecom.
One thing I hope the Minister will respond to, because it is a constructive suggestion, is that the local skills improvement plans should embrace more than just employers. Perhaps that is the intention, but there are those who said that there is a need not just for students—trade unions have a role to play, as well as others. Trade unions are still doing a good job of getting back into learning people who have not embraced it for many years under the Return to Learn scheme.
There has been a lot of criticism about employers being somehow the wrong people to involve. I do not quite understand that. Where do people think these jobs will come from? There is a fundamentally important need to have employers as part of the local skills improvement plans. My concern is: will employers look ahead? A number of people said that, including my noble friend Lady Morris, while the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, quoted fishing and agriculture as a couple of examples. Even in those industries, it is not just the basic question of going out to sea and catching fish—there are the logistics involved when they return to port. A lot of technology is involved now, even in fishing. The fundamental changes taking place in agriculture require a much greater need for technology. I do not think we should assume that employers will not look ahead, but should we rely on them? No, I think that some of the amendments that have been suggested are right.
My concern is that we need to involve more SMEs—that is the challenge. I agree with my noble friend Lord Adonis that the apprenticeship levy is in desperate need of reform; the number of starts involving 16 to 18 year-olds has declined. That is the way the levy is being used and we have not managed to involve enough small and medium-sized enterprises.
For me, the key to skills is lifelong learning. I actually do not support student loans—I wish we had moved to a tax system instead. Student loans are not a particularly fair system, and students leave with a huge amount of debt. I would like to move towards a tax-based approach, but I do not think I will achieve that.
There has not been much reference so far in the debate to the pandemic, yet it is fascinating to see how learning has had to respond to it. We had to do what the Open University has been doing for years with online learning. We have had to make it flexible, and it needs to be more flexible. The Bill needs to look at today’s workforce. If we really want to get a more diverse group of people involved, we need flexibility in learning—we need modular learning. That ought to come out of this.
The Institute for Apprenticeships will be involved, which is right. We will look at the kinds of skills we need. T-levels are on the agenda, but we need to be careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater when we look at skills and qualifications.
I do not know whether mayors should necessarily be involved but I note that there is a balance between national and local in the Bill. It is a reasonable balance.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Watson’s amendment on careers advice. That is fundamental. Things are changing on the education front—it is not a static situation by any means. I was fascinated to learn that students applying to UCAS these days are not just given the opportunity of university places but directed towards apprenticeships.
Much in this Bill has good intentions. I hope the Minister will respond positively to the amendments started by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and built on by a number of others. I am not necessarily sure that the later amendments on net zero and the environment should form part of the local skills improvement plans, but we will no doubt return to that.
I am, if you like, travelling hopefully with this Bill. I think the glass is half full, and that that is the way we need to approach it. We know that we need to improve productivity in this country and that to do that we need to improve our skill base. The other, most fundamentally important thing we must do is ensure that we do not unwittingly create a lost generation of young children who are left claiming benefits or, worse, doing nothing at all or getting involved in criminal activity. That is the challenge: to create a framework which will improve skills, give opportunities to young people and embrace at a local level all those participants who need to be embraced.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate. I will address principally Amendment 81 but also the general points raised by my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden.
The Bill basically focuses on education for 16 to 19 year-olds, but it cannot be looked at just as a separate section; it depends on what has happened between 11 and 16. If you have made a mess of 11 to 16, you cannot compensate for it by this Bill. I believe that, since 2010, we have made a mess of 11 to 16 education. This is really what is behind the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker; she is talking about disadvantaged children. The proportion of disadvantaged children today—you are usually considered to be disadvantaged if you do not get level 4 in English and maths—is between 30% and 35%. That is not a small minority—it is over 2 million students who failed, after 14 years of free state education, to acquire a basic literacy and numeracy qualification. It is a huge indictment of the English education system and what has been imposed upon it since 2010.
In 2010, Michael Gove imposed his curriculum on schools, without any consultation whatever. His curriculum, known as EBacc or Progress 8, consists of eight academic subjects: two English, one maths, three science, one foreign language and either history or geography. That is a grammar school curriculum; it is an academic curriculum. It excludes any sort of technical training, computer training, design training or cultural studies. Since 2010, there has been no fall in the number of disadvantaged children: the number then was roughly the same as it is now, at 30% to 35%. It was the same in 2015, when the Conservatives took control; there has been no significant improvement. I fear that there is absolutely no doubt that the attainment gap between the brightest and the less bright students will have grown substantially during Covid.
The victims of this policy are the disadvantaged and the unemployed. No one has mentioned the level of unemployment. Youth unemployment is now at 14.8%, which is very high—three times the national average—but there has been no mention at all of that. Nor has there been mention, so far, of students in the Bill; they have been left out like the mayors mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—they are not mentioned at all. I see no measure in the Bill that will prove a significant change in dealing with the skills gaps in our country.
The other matter that I am concerned about is that the Bill should have been a wonderful opportunity to create a combination of academic and technical education but, in fact, it makes the division even greater. The Bill is saying that if you stay on at school in the sixth form, that is the best way to get to university. When it is passed, the heads of every secondary school will say to their students, “Don’t go down that technical route, you’ll never get to university. Stay with us.” So all the rest will go down this technical route, and that is a real divide.
In Clause 4, the Bill actually says that schools and 16 to 19 academies will not be allowed to teach technical education. It says it in statute. I never thought that I would see that particular definition in an English law—least of all brought back by a Conservative Government, I may say. That is a complete bifurcation: there is an academic route and a less academic route. This is not really what should happen. The schools that I have established over the last 12 years include both academic and technical education and we have magnificent results, but the Bill really does not have that role in it whatever. It is educational apartheid—I do not use that word lightly, but that is what this is; there are two clear routes in future. Where is the parity of esteem, when the secondary head can say to his children, “Stay with me and you will get to university, because I will do those eight academic subjects, and we will get you through your A-levels as well”?
I am afraid that there is no real advantage in the Bill for the disadvantaged students, and I regret that very much indeed. When we talk about disadvantaged children, just remember that in every child there is a bit of flint. Sometimes you have to dig very deep for it, but that is the purpose of education—to find that bit of flint and create a spark, or, as Shakespeare said:
“The fire i’th’ flint
Shows not till it be struck.”
That flint has to be found long before 16; it has to be found at primary level and at secondary level and this is what we are failing to do as a country.
I ought first to declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I looked at these amendments and found myself agreeing with every single one. I looked back and remembered when we had the technical education Bill and, when we were in Committee in the Moses Room, I think there were probably about eight to 10 of us. How wonderful it is now to see how people have realised the importance of technical and vocational education—we have a proper Committee for a further education/vocational education/skills Bill.
I do not have a problem with local skills improvement plans—does anyone? It seems eminently sensible that you look at the needs of each locality in terms of business, job creation and development, and put that plan together. It is not something where you say, “Nationally, we will all do this”; you look at each local area. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, talk about Cumbria. He will be pleased to know that I spent a week in Keswick and, as we walked around, virtually every single restaurant, hotel and shop had an advert pleading for people to work in the hospitality industry. Clearly, that is a skill that is needed in that area. It is obviously brought about because of Brexit, but that was a problem even when we were in the EU—there were not enough people in the hospitality industry.
I look at my own city of Liverpool, and back in the 1960s and 1970s we were the poorest region in Europe and, as a result, we qualified for what was called Objective 1 money—nearly €1 billion, I think. We got that twice; we got two tranches because our GDP was among the lowest in Europe. Why did we get a second tranche? Because the first time we failed completely to use the money effectively. We did not draw up a plan; we did not say, “What skills do we need? How can we turn the economy around?” We just sort of threw the money about. For example, FE colleges were booming with hairdressing and beauty treatment courses, so we gave them money to develop those courses. Yet there was a shortage at the time of engineers and of people in the construction industry, but there was no plan to say, “This is how we should be doing it.” So the notion of a local skills improvement plan seems eminently sensible.
I have a query about who should be putting that plan together. I have always said, “Look, employers want to run their businesses. They don’t want to be sitting round tables taking evidence, following government diktats and consulting people. They’ve got jobs to do. They want to make their businesses successful.” In a sense it should be the other way round. Whoever is doing this should be consulting with employers, not asking employers to do this work. But here we are. We have this.
If this is going to be employer-led, whatever that may mean, it is hugely important that other partners—and I use the term partners—are properly involved. The key partners must be the further education colleges, without a shadow of a doubt. They are the ones that are going to deliver this. If they feel that they have been pushed aside or neglected, it is not going to happen as well as it should. Then there is a whole host of other people who should be involved. Mention has been made, quite rightly, of the combined authorities—the metro mayoral authorities. I think we have nine of them now. They have been tasked with this—not only tasked, we have given them money. Liverpool City Region now gets £40 million a year. They have some other resources as well, so we should be involving them—not just involving, but partnering up with them. Again, that is important.
I want to raise some of the particularly important issues that have been identified. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, is right again when he says that we have made a mess. We have made a mess of our 11 to 16 schooling. It was not just Michael Gove, it was his coalition partners who sat by and allowed this to happen, much to my party’s shame. But that is in the past. We have to move forward and we have to recognise that, as I said at Second Reading, education should not be about just a knowledge and learning-based curriculum, it should be about a whole host of other things as well.
I am so glad that my noble friend Lord Addington again raised the issue of special educational needs, because here is an important group of young people who need to be part of this plan.
I want to go back to schooling. I have heard mention three times now of the London Challenge and how successful this was. I do not doubt it was successful, but I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that in Liverpool where our education service was failing, we were about to be privatised and the Minister at the time saw me and our chief executive and said, “Look, we don’t really want to privatise you. How about we work together to turn Liverpool around?” The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, came to Liverpool on numerous occasions—she was almost an adopted Scouser. Like the London Challenge, we were able to turn that around; at one stage Liverpool became the top-performing core city. It was not difficult to see how that was achieved. It was achieved by people working together and by realising that it was about the quality of teachers and the quality of leadership in schools—and also, to some extent, the quality of resources that were available.
Talking about the quality of teachers, if we are to get these local skills improvement plans to work, it also has to be about the provision and quality in further education. I repeat the plea that we look at the status of teachers and lecturers in further education. To my mind, it is a bit concerning that if you are a maths teacher, for example, in a school academy, you can earn considerably more than if you are a maths teacher in a further education college. Can the Minister explain why that is the case? Should there not be the resources in further education to make sure that we get the right quality, if we have not already got it?
Talking about the overall budget of colleges, if we are to identify skills that are needed in this local skills improvement plan, we have to ensure that the colleges are given time to develop those courses. That means an understanding that the money will be around for a period of time to develop those courses. You cannot suddenly say, “We need skills in this sector” and then start up the course when you have not then got the money to keep that course going. Again, that is hugely important.
I am so glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and other noble Lords have mentioned the importance of remote learning. The Open University has been amazing in making that provision. Wherever people are, they can develop skills and knowledge through remote learning. Let us hope that continues.
It is interesting for me that, just by chance, as this Bill goes through your Lordships’ House, I also serve on the Select Committee looking at youth unemployment. It would perhaps be worth the Minister looking through some of the evidence given to that Select Committee. It is absolutely eye-opening. Only today we were hearing from disadvantaged young people and those in the careers service dealing with disadvantaged people. This is a whole host of people that we need to engage if we are to make these skills improvement plans work. Staggeringly, in the construction industry, for example, where we know that there is a national shortage, only 6% of people working in that industry are black, Asian or minority ethnic. Only 6%—why is that? Is that because they do not feel comfortable in that industry? Is that because there is overt racism? I do not know the reason. But there must be a reason it is only 6%. If you look at engineering—again, where there are national shortages—why is it only 7% black, Asian and minority ethnic people working in that industry? The other startling thing—again, my jaw dropped open—was to hear many young people who are desperate for a job tell us they did not feel confident going to Jobcentre Plus. They were nervous to apply for apprenticeships. They were nervous about and did not think it right to go for Kickstart. Why is that? These are issues that we need to get to the bottom of because they impact on the work we do.
In the Minister’s letter on the local skills improvement plan, which I got today, I was pleased to see that the priorities of local stakeholders will be considered when developing local skills improvement plans and that employer representative bodies will—kindly—engage with employers and then clear guidance will be set out. I also note that the Secretary of State will approve a local skills improvement plan before it is published and will require evidence that statutory guidance has been followed in the process of delivering this plan. I hope that will mean that they have to be absolutely confident that all the key partners have been able to have an input into those plans.
Finally, I just want to mention that, in putting forward these local skills improvement plans, there will be national requirements that are not locally based. The one that people have mentioned that springs to mind is the utility industry, where there is a national skills requirement. I would like to understand from the Minister how its voice will be heard, which is, in a sense, quite separate from local needs.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as in the register. Amendment 17 seeks to ensure that LSIPs cannot place an unreasonable burden on providers. Although we aim to amend the Bill to ensure that LSIPs are produced in partnership with providers, as drafted, the Bill gives ERBs all the power and renders FE colleges passive recipients. The role of employer representative bodies will be very important in shaping local systems, so it is worth while being clear about expectations, accountabilities and oversight in respect of what they are undertaking. There is a risk that some ERBs might represent a narrow group of employer voices, focus too much on current skills needs or be unwilling to take feedback. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked earlier, how will they work?
It is important to ensure that ERBs represent the full breadth of employer voices, focus on future demand—the skills we need for tomorrow—and have appropriate governance. Some employer representative bodies run publicly funded training providers that compete with colleges for apprenticeships and other contracts. We are therefore concerned that they have no ability to challenge plans even when these include unreasonable burdens, and can in fact be penalised if they are deemed to be failing in the plans’ objectives. I will not repeat the powerful rhetoric of my noble friend Lord Adonis, save his strong statement that this is “a Bill in search of a policy”—that is worth repeating, as is his further description that, with appropriate government funding, legislation for LSIPs would not be required.
There are many areas where plans could be unreasonable; for example, a requirement to facilitate a new course in an unworkable timescale or accommodate significant numbers of new students. I hope the Minister will agree to our other amendments and see sense in providers having agency over LSIPs, given their role in their delivery.
Amendment 18 seeks to ensure that LSIPs provide co-ordinated, strategic, all-age careers information, as mentioned by several noble Lords. The advice and guidance are widely supported across the education sector and, as was apparent at Second Reading, in this House. The Government’s White Paper says:
“We need impartial, lifelong careers advice and guidance available to people when they need it, regardless of age, circumstance or background.”
I could not agree more. Education is the key to personal and social mobility. I well remember being a young teacher when the noble Lord, Lord Baker’s 1988 Act was introduced. There must be a joined-up employment, skills and careers system. A range of choices and opportunities should be central to any reform, and changes to the post-16 education system should allow for progression and pathways between technical education, apprenticeships and existing further and higher education qualifications—no dual system, but one continuous pathway. It is disappointing that we are still awaiting the recommendation of Sir John Holman, who has been appointed to advise on this. Can the Minister confirm when these recommendations will be published and how they will sit alongside the Bill?
Amendment 19 seeks to ensure that the development of LSIPs must consider and support people with EHCPs and disabled people without EHCPs; this is supported by Mencap. Every person with a learning disability should have the opportunity to study and work. However, too few people with a learning disability have the opportunities and support that they need, and employment rates for people with a learning disability have remained stubbornly low. The reasons for this are numerous but some of the typical barriers to employment include a lack of support to build skills, misconceptions and a lack of understanding of what people with a learning disability can achieve with the right support, and failure by government programmes to provide the necessary adjustments required by people with a learning disability.
It is crucial that those with a learning disability can benefit from the measures in this Bill, and that support for schemes that help them, especially supported internships, are on the face of the Bill. A focus is needed on making the three “ships”—traineeships, supported internships and apprenticeships—more accessible and widely available; this will open up pathways into long-term employment. It is crucial that the various offers and pathways work in harmony. Indeed, apprenticeships need to be made more flexible and this should be included as part of reforms to the post-16 education offer; it has been a significantly missed opportunity.
Additionally, we want to see more of a commitment to ensuring that people with education, health and care plans, as well as disabled people without EHCPs, are included in the development of local skills improvement plans. Leaving this group out will only further entrench the current barriers.
Amendment 21 seeks to ensure that LSIPs consider learning distance providers, as noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and my noble friend Lady Morris. Indeed, the Open University has been a world leader in flexible distance learning. Noble Lords do not need me to tell them that it began in 1969, established by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government as a major marker in the commitment to modernising British society. He believed that it would help build a more competitive economy while also promoting greater equality of opportunity and social mobility. In the past 50 years it has done exactly that; it should therefore be seriously considered as a world leader in distance learning opportunities.
I turn to other amendments in this group. It is imperative that LSIPs have regard to national strategies for addressing the attainment gap. The latest annual report from the Education Policy Institute found that the gap between what poorer pupils and their richer peers achieve at school stopped closing even before the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic. Disadvantaged pupils in England are now 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. This is the same gap as five years ago, and disparities at primary school age are widening for the first time since 2007. My noble friend Lady Whitaker set out a powerful argument for greater provision to bring more youngsters to the starting blocks, to stop the gross ignoring of potential and hampering of life chances.
It is deeply concerning that our country entered the pandemic with such a lack of progress in this key area of social policy. The Government urgently need to put in place new policy measures to help poor children and close that gap. My noble friend Lady Morris shared her concern about employers and set out the successful “gateway” approach. We need to scope out those skills of tomorrow.
LSIPs must include the interests of students whose needs are not encompassed by local employers to prevent geographic fatalism of employment. We should encourage social mobility and prevent history repeating itself. Large swathes of the United Kingdom that were reliant on coal and manufacturing industries have never recovered from their collapse; for this very reason, we must ensure that the skills Bill does not have a narrow focus on historical sectoral dominance.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions. Bearing in mind that questions have been raised about the structure and nature of the Bill, it may be useful to deal with those points first. The Bill will provide a framework. It gives the Secretary of State power to designate an employer representative body. That is not necessarily a group of employers but, as outlined in Bill, a body required to be “reasonably representative” of employers in the local area.
With respect to the framework, as was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, there is a balance to be struck between not wanting to dictate centrally and having as much flexibility as possible, so that it is not prescriptive from the centre and the employer representative body can take into account a wide number of stakeholders and gather a wide range of evidence. This will set up a dynamic relationship. Clause 1(4) provides that the relevant providers have a duty to co-operate with the development or review of a local skills improvement plan. As some noble Lords have outlined, that duty places the further education colleges as a central plank in creating the plan for the local area. With respect to Clause 5, the plan is one thing that providers should have regard to when they are looking at local needs more generally.
I believe that noble Lords, at Second Reading and today, have had some concern about the scope of the local skills improvement plan. It is based on technical education—the beginning part of the Bill outlines what technical education is material for the purposes of the plan—but then the duty under Clause 5 for those providers is local needs. So it is much wider than just the technical education part that forms the central plank of the local skills improvement plan.
This will use the powers of the Secretary of State to designate that body and set up that dynamic relationship. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, mentioned that relationship with the national priorities. The Skills and Productivity Board, which looks at national skills requirements, will be reporting later this year, so that will be a central coherent national skills outline that every local skills improvement plan will have access to and will be referenced in the guidance. Hopefully, that will produce the dynamic relationship between the national skills plan—so each of the areas will have the same plan for national skills—and the local area. At the local level, you have the employer representative body with a duty on the relevant providers to co-operate in that dynamic relationship.
Noble Lords have made some very powerful points, and maybe we are going to come down to a bit of a House of Lords point about “Do those points belong on the face of a piece of primary legislation or are these important considerations to include in the guidance?” From the nature of this legislation, it is a framework. The challenge that could be made to the Government if we were too prescriptive in the Bill would be that we were trying to Whitehall-lead this—and that cannot be.
On the trailblazer process—for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris—the current timetable is that the trailblazers will be announced later this month and end in March 2022. They will be important in fleshing out what should be in the statutory guidance that is mentioned in the legislation, and the national rollout will commence after Royal Assent. I hope that assures noble Lords that we have a timetable for this.
On the challenge about why this legislation is needed, there is a very clear DNA running through the technical education qualifications that one can see with apprenticeships, T-levels and the current review of levels 4 and 5. The majority of technical education qualifications in this country should be connected to an employer standard so that the employers know what that student can now do and the student knows what currency that qualification has. I recall serving with many noble Lords on the one-year Select Committee on Social Mobility; I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, served on it. For young people who do not go to university, the complexity of the qualifications —the uncertainty about what that level 2 or 3 actually meant for you and what it gave you at an interview—was clearly so different from walking into an interview with your GCSE or A-level certificates. That is what, in terms of parity of esteem, all these changes are meant to change. Students should know, “When I get that qualification, it gives me that competency”, and they can walk into an interview and the employer will know that level 3.5 in, say, forklift truck driving on an oil rig has that competency. The currency is standard and gives parity of esteem to these qualifications. That is why, as we will discuss in a later group, the employers are in the lead as the employer representative body. That is the consistent DNA in the technical education system that we are trying to embed to give that parity of esteem, not just through saying this about FE and HE but through the technical qualifications being as easy to understand by students and employers as a GCSE certificate is at the moment.
I have a final point. The Bill does not exclude any particular level of qualification. The definition at the start is about technical education that is material to the skills, capabilities and assessments in that area. It is not limited in that regard. Obviously an LSIP could include the level 1 or 2 kind of qualifications; it is not limited. The limiting is the technical education section of what the providers in a local area would have due regard to when considering the local skills improvement plan.
I hope that provides a useful framework before I deal specifically with some of the amendments that noble Lords have tabled and explain to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that this is not half-baked. There is a reason why this is a framework to ensure local flexibility. We have not defined “local”. When we have done these trailblazers we have allowed the economic area to define itself, so we are really trying to get a balance here in terms of a structure and a framework to enable local areas to take ownership of their local plans.
I note the points made by my noble friend Lord Lucas concerning the LSIPs and the skills, capabilities or expertise required by potential students. I know the whole Committee will agree that post-16 education and training should meet the needs of students effectively, not only to secure meaningful employment but to ensure that they have essential skills for life more broadly.
I point out to noble Lords that Ofsted already considers whether the curriculum considers the needs of learners as part of its inspections of all post-16 FE providers. Many of the core skills and capabilities that students need to succeed in life are already well known and are consistent across the country—for example, literacy, numeracy, ICT and, sometimes, English language skills—so that students can function and integrate effectively into society. However, as I have outlined, the key technical skills that employers need can vary significantly across areas. They continually evolve to respond to new opportunities and challenges, and that is where the local skills improvement plan will make a valuable contribution.
By identifying the skills, capabilities and expertise required by employers in a specified area and, importantly, that may be required in future, which is specifically outlined in Clause 1(6)(b), a designated employer representative body will have clear evidence on the skills, capabilities and expertise that potential students will similarly require to help them secure good skilled jobs in the local area.
I reiterate that Clause 5 introduces a new duty on all institutions within the FE sector—namely, further education and sixth-form colleges and designated institutions—to keep all their provision under review to ensure that it is meeting local needs, including the needs of learners. At this point, to answer the point of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, there is no prescription in the Bill to say that 11 to 16 should not be teaching technical education. We have just said in Clause 4, in relation to the relevant providers being under a duty to co-operate, that at this stage we have not given that burden to schools. It is clear in Clause 4 that by regulation the Secretary of State can change that and make them one of the relevant providers that would then have a duty to co-operate.
Will my noble friend give way?
Sorry, no. On Amendment 2 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in relation to potential employers, start-up businesses and the self-employed, I strongly agree with her on the importance of ensuring that employers’ voices are central to the local skills improvement plan. That is why it is clear in the Bill that, once designated, the employer representative body must draw on the views of employers operating within an area to inform a local skills improvement plan. The definition of “employer” is wide and the employer representative body can take into account any other evidence. That is broad in order to ensure that they have flexibility to include, of course, the needs of the self-employed in the local area.
To effectively fulfil the role of summarising the skills needs of local employers, the designated body will need to convene and draw on the views of employers that are not part of the ERB itself, as well as other relevant employer representative sector bodies and any other evidence. That will ensure that it is as easy as possible for employers, especially small employers, to navigate local skills systems, engage and have their voice heard.
Turning now to Amendments 11 and 81, from the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her expertise and her unstinting efforts to support those who have not yet achieved their grade 4 or above in English and maths. I hope she will be pleased to know that although the coronavirus has slightly delayed the work with MHCLG and DfE, a strategy in relation to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers will be published, we hope, later this year.
We agree, of course, that English and maths are vital for life, learning and work. Securing good levels of literacy and numeracy increases individual productivity and improves earnings and employment opportunities. That is why English and maths are core competences of 16-19 study programmes, traineeships and T-Level transition programmes. They are also set as exit requirements for successful completion of the apprenticeship and T-Level programmes. We want young people and adults to have the skills they need to progress into jobs, further education or training. That is why we have a number of policies in place to support attainment.
First, all 16-19 year olds on study programmes of 150 hours or more, where they do not yet hold a GCSE grade 4-9 in English and maths, must continue to study these subjects. Secondly, we have reformed the English and maths functional qualifications to improve the rigour, relevance and recognition among employers. This qualification is often taken as an alternative to GCSEs where students must continue studying, which I hope answers the further question from my noble friend Lord Lucas. Thirdly, we have increased our investment in the centres for excellence in maths programme that are designed to improve the quality of maths teaching in post-16 institutions. We have made further investment in a range of professional development programmes for post-16 English and maths teachers. Dealing with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, FE colleges are free to set their own pay and conditions, so they are free to set the salary levels that they wish to as autonomous institutions. Fourthly, through our statutory entitlement, we fully fund English and maths courses from entry level 1 to 2 for adults who are yet to achieve a GCSE grade 4 or above or equivalent. This provision is free of charge and aims to support people in everyday life to find a job or to progress into further education. I think this is a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. Finally, specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we have expanded the 16-19 tuition fund to support hundreds of thousands of young people who most need help to catch up in English, maths and other vocational and academic subjects.
I hope these actions will satisfy the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, but there are no plans to have a separate published strategy. Obviously, she will note from the Bill that the duty under Clause 5 on providers to take into account local needs will also, of course, take into account the provision of lower-level qualifications. In answer to my noble friend Lord Baker, I do not think we had much discussion at Second Reading about vocational, technical and academic. I had the great pleasure of visiting some of the university technical colleges that he was involved in setting up. It was pleasing to see that one I visited in Doncaster—I think it is the newest one—was offering the EBacc as well, so I do not think that there is a clear divide. It was impressive to see the outstanding education that is achieved in those institutions.
Turning to Amendment 17 from the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, I understand he seeks to probe what reasonable action would be asked of providers under the local skills improvement plan. I completely agree that it should not place unreasonable burdens on providers, and I outlined, on another section of the Bill, why “relevant providers” does not include schools. Clause 1 is clear that the duty on providers is to have “regard to the plan”. It is also why we want providers to work hand-in-glove with employers to develop these plans from the start rather than simply having regard to a plan that they have had no hand in developing. The Bill is clear that when there is no plan in place, there is a duty to help prepare the plan, as well as to help review it if there is one in place. Rather than simply requiring them to have regard to the plan once developed, this will ensure they can share their own perspectives on the current challenges and what actions might best address them. Thus, the plans will be the product, as I have outlined, of direct engagement between employers, as convened by a representative body, and the providers.
It is helpful, potentially, at this stage to answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about the trailblazers. The ERBs were identified through an open bidding process. We had a very strong response from across the country, including from areas with mayoral combined authorities, with more than 40 applications to become one of the six to eight trailblazers. As I have outlined, we will be announcing the results of that this month.
Many noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, mentioned the importance of careers advice in relation to Amendment 18. This year, 2021-22, £100 million is being invested in the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company. Amendment 18 concerns consideration of the priorities of organisations and the co-ordination of careers information, advice and guidance. Of course we agree that there is a need for good careers information, advice and guidance for all to ensure that individuals can make informed choices. Local skills improvement plans can be one source of information that can help support this.
Of course the technical skills that employers require continually evolve and change to respond to new opportunities. The designated employer body will therefore need to engage and work closely with providers, as outlined in Clause 1(6)(b), which refers to “any other evidence”, so the widest scope is given to the employer representative body. This includes the Careers & Enterprise Company, local careers hubs, the National Careers Service, area-based contractors and Jobcentre Plus, of course. This will ensure that local intelligence and priorities are fed into the provision of careers information, advice and guidance, that advice is employer-led and integrated and that it generates interest in upcoming job opportunities in the area.
I was asked a specific question by the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, about the funding of FE. There has been considerable investment: the biggest injection of new money in a single year since 2010 into the FE sector, nearly £700 million for 16-19s, an increase of £1.5 billion into FE college investment and a £2.5 billion national skills fund, so we are serious about the parity of esteem of these sectors.
We intend, as I have outlined, to set out clear expectations on stakeholder engagement—whether that is with careers, other employers or learners that have been outlined—in statutory guidance, which will be informed by evidence and good practice from the trailblazers running in 2021-22.
I turn now to Amendments 19, 22 and 26 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Addington, relating to special educational needs and disabilities. I fully understood his analogy in relation vertigo. I suffer from it, so there is half the department that very rarely go to because I cannot get to it, so I appreciated his analogy. I appreciate the continual challenge he gives, not only as an FE ambassador, but to us in regard to thinking through the implication of all policies in relation to SEND children and young people. Obviously, with the right preparation and support, the overwhelming majority of SEND young people are able to progress into paid employment.
We are currently delivering two study programmes specifically designed to prepare young people for employment: traineeships and, as noble Lords outlined, supported internships. Traineeships are designed for all young people with little or no work experience, and supported internships are specifically for those with EHC plans. The traineeships have recently been strengthened as part of the Chancellor’s plan for jobs. In July next year, DfE will evaluate the impact on young people with SEND of the £237 million investment in traineeships.
In relation to relevant providers and the duty under Clause 5, there are existing legal duties on colleges and local authorities linked to reviewing and offering provision for learners with special educational needs and disabilities. There are also the duties under the Equality Act. I have already highlighted the role of Clause 5 in introducing a new duty on all institutions within the FE sector to keep all their provision under review to ensure that it is meeting local needs. That includes the needs of those with special educational needs or disabilities. Of course, if a young person presents with an unidentified SEND need, there still is an obligation on that college or provider in relation to that young person. The draft statutory guidance on this duty under Clause 5, which accompanied the letter that I sent to Peers, is clear that governing bodies will need to consider the needs of learners with special educational needs and disabilities, including those with education, health and care plans and that they will need to engage with local authorities when reviewing their provision.
The Careers & Enterprise Company already undertakes targeted work with employers to stimulate more employer engagement with young people with SEND, and it will continue to make the case for providing work experience and supported internships. The designated employer representative body would therefore engage with stakeholders such as the Careers & Enterprise Company to ensure that identified local intelligence and priorities are fed into the provision of careers information.
Amendments 20 and 21 were mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and tabled by respectively the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson. They are on distance learning, and many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, specifically mentioned the Open University. I confirm that Clause 1 places duties on relevant providers of post-16 technical education and training that is material to a specified area. This includes relevant providers that may be based elsewhere and offer provision by distance learning. As long as the provision of this distance learning is material to the area, they will be captured by this duty. As I outlined, obviously, the Skills and Productivity Board report into national skills will also feature in this. In addition, we will encourage all providers of post-16 technical education and training to be involved in the development of local skills plans and delivery, regardless of whether a duty is being placed upon them.
In concluding, I acknowledge the important points raised by many noble Lords in relation to these amendments. However, as I outlined at the start, just because something is important—I have outlined the nature of this piece of legislation—that does not necessarily mean that it should feature on the face of the Bill. This is why I have argued that our statutory guidance is a better vehicle to reflect these points. Not only can we provide more detail in the statutory guidance but we can also keep it updated to respond to changing future circumstances. Furthermore, we can ensure that the learning from the trailblazers and the evaluation of those can feed directly into the first iteration of this guidance.
I hope that I have covered the one specific point that my noble friend Lord Lucas raised with me on ITPs. They are included in the definition of “relevant provider” in Clause 4. He also mentioned the point about accountability, which is of course important. To mitigate this, the designation can be subject to terms and conditions, as the Secretary of State considers appropriate, and the body must have regard to any relevant guidance published by the Secretary of State.
I will make clear that the evaluation by the Secretary of State is of the process, asking whether they have taken into account the guidance or whether a plan has been produced by consulting and collaborating with the relevant stakeholders. It will not be a judgment on the merits of that plan—that is about delegating down to the employer representative body to create it. Of course, some funding has been allocated to the trailblazers, and, of course, whenever you give public funding, it is on the condition of accountability for how it is used.
I hope that my remarks have given some reassurance to noble Lords. As I have said, I have taken this opportunity to outline the framework of this piece of legislation. Therefore, I hope that my noble friend Lord Lucas will feel comfortable in withdrawing his amendment and that other noble Lords will not feel the need to move theirs when they are called.
My Lords, I have received requests to speak after the Minister from the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Knight of Weymouth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. I will call them in turn. I call the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.
My Lords, the Minister said that over 40 applications for LSIP trailblazers have been received by the department. Could she make them available for the Committee to see? It would be very helpful if, while we are considering the Bill, we could see what is going on in the real world. Could she also assure us that, when the selection of those trailblazers is made, they will not just go to areas that have Conservative MPs, reflecting the gerrymandering that took place with the towns Bill? There is a very acute concern that the funding that is available under the Bill is just going to places that are favoured with Conservative representation in the House of Commons, which would be par for the course for this Government.
The successful ones will be announced later on this month. There are no plans—and I clarify that it is not our normal process—to release the applications of those who have not been successful. I will write to the noble Lord if I am wrong about that.
My Lords, the Minister did a noble job in trying to prevent us wanting to come back to these issues, but I am sure that we will on Report. I was particularly interested in the comment that she made about local areas defining themselves. Looking back at some of the places where I have lived, I am interested in what happens if no one wants you in their area. I was once mayor of Frome, which is right on the edge, and in the east, of Somerset. It is economically more in west Wiltshire: lots of young people might go and study at Trowbridge college, but they might go to Radstock college or Yeovil College. Frome is a wonderful place, but in those areas they might not want it. I used to represent Swanage, which is on the edge of the Bournemouth and Poole conurbation, but it is in Dorset, so it is in the wrong county, just as Frome is in relation to Wiltshire. I am interested in that area.
I am also interested in national colleges. There is a National College for Digital Skills in north London, a national college for the creatives in Purfleet and a National College for Nuclear in Cumbria and Somerset. Will they have to have regard to all of the local skills partnerships’ needs for their particular skills? If so, it is a bit of a nightmare for those colleges to go through all of them.
Finally, I ask the Minister whether she sees a move to a genuine all-age careers service? In particular, would the DWP have to refer people to it if they are coming through jobs schemes? With the National Careers Service and the extra money that the Chancellor agreed for it during the pandemic, we have seen that it is struggling to spend that money because DWP is not really aware that it exists and is not referring people over. On the Government’s thinking around all of this, which is critically important, with all of the deskilling that is going on in our economy, can she give us some assurance that they are properly working through what an effective all-age careers service that everyone will want to use will look like?
My Lords, I was smiling at the noble Lord because I asked this precise question about a national plan. There is a balance here between not dictating from the centre, drawing a map and chopping things up and allowing economic areas to define themselves in our complex local geography. This has not been an issue with the trailblazers, but that was obviously a small number of areas—but, yes, we will ensure that there are no cracks between the areas and that every area will be covered by a local skills improvement plan.
As far as I am aware, there are no plans to change the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company, which have different roles. The noble Lord is correct that we obviously need to make sure that all of this is joined up. Previous noble Lords have asked me about how this will join up with people on universal credit—this is a work in progress, but I was pleased to learn from DWP Ministers that there have been some slight changes to UC to make sure that those people could take up the digital skills boot camps, for instance. So we are aware of the need, with all of this, to make sure that this is one system that is working together.
One of the issues that I spoke of in preparation for this is the need for the job coach to understand which job requires which level to get those competences. Everyone needs to be able to understand this. I am sure that a job coach would understand that to be a translator you need GCSE French—but, to be a crane driver, what do you need? So we get that currency of understanding for employers, learners and job or work coaches sitting in DWP, who can advise people on what qualification to go away and do. That will make sure that you have the competences to walk through the door at that interview, in the same way as you would in relation to GCSE French, as I have said.
I am afraid I do not have a specific answer for the noble Lord. I think he was referring to Ada college in Manchester and north London. I will write to the noble Lord on how national colleges will engage. Obviously, we are hoping that, under the duty in Clause 5, a provider will not just say “Well, I’m in this LSIP area”. If they are on the border, they should be looking dynamically at where their students come and travel from—so they may end up looking at what the provision and the LSIP are for a number of areas.
My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s response. I will read it carefully in Hansard. I may have missed something, but I think she said that there were no laid down qualification barriers to entry. I would be grateful if she would write to me about where in the Bill this is made clear, and whether the Bill says that there is scope for enabling access through whatever barriers are locally set.
My Lords, the point I was making was that the Bill does not mention being only at level 3, level 4 or level 2; it does not mention those levels. The only definition in the Bill in terms of the LSIP and relevant providers is around technical education. I will just get the definition; I might as well read from it. It refers to
“post-16 technical education or training that is material”.
For instance, in a sixth-form college, the entirety of its provision might not be relevant under its duty to co-operate with employer representative bodies. That is not linked to saying, “Technical education at level 4, 3, 2 or 1”. The Bill does not talk about that; it is just talking about technical education as defined in Clause 1.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for her encyclopaedic reply to this long debate. In general, I am encouraged, and I did not notice any point I raised that she did not address. I am particularly grateful to her for filling out the picture generally.
I will pick up a few points from the debate. I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, had it right when she referred to place. Place is very important. That importance seems to be becoming recognised within various areas of government. I was very pleased, for instance, by the structure of the levelling-up fund and the way it required a place to get together to decide what it wanted the money for, rather than the former system that applied down the coast, where a pier was imposed on Hastings by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and not tied into what the place wanted to do. That developing sense of place needs to find a way to be tied into local skills improvement plans. These organisations want to be talking to each other and moving in the same direction, by and large. I think that is what I mean by accountability. This should not be an organisation which just wanders off on its own and does not feel that it needs to have any relationship with the way that the place it is embedded in wants to go.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the question of towns adding new areas of business. It is really difficult to see how that works in the structure which has been proposed. I will devote some time to thinking that through when I get a chance to read Hansard. I am conscious that in my own home town of Eastbourne, a conurbation of about 130,000 people has 50 places per annum for A-levels. That is ridiculous, but it seems really hard to change, to move and to draw attention to. I suspect that a town which needed to add a new area of business would find it similarly difficult to shift some of the structures that are being proposed here—but, as I say, I will look at that more carefully.
There is a question of how existing businesses realise they need new skills, which is a function that historically has been provided by the good awarding bodies. How that is going to flourish in the new system is going to be worth looking at.
Several noble Lords were looking at the structures of employers that the Government are proposing to work with. As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, it is not easy to build good employer groups. That is why I very much support the call of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to include the mayors. They have a convening capability which will mean that the local businesses produce good people to be on the LSIPs. It will not be third-rate or fourth-rate people; it will be people who are at board level taking part in them. That will make an enormous difference to how well they perform.
Perhaps the noble Lord remembers the old sector skills partnerships, many of which did not work well because they were just too low level. The one that I liked, e-skills, which was a top-level one, the Government killed— but there we are. The nice thing about the structures proposed in this Bill is that they are—I hope, by and large—existing employer structures, which will mean that they have a resilience against falling out of favour with the Government and an ability to retain the relationships and ways of working they build up under this structure.
So, as I say, I am grateful to my noble friend for her answers. I will look at them in detail and I am so pleased to have the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, back on home turf and out of the dark world he has been inhabiting for these last few years. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 3. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.