House of Lords
Thursday 15 July 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber while others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing and wear face coverings when in the Chamber, except when speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I shall immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Railways: East Coast Main Line
My Lords, my department has had regular discussions with London North Eastern Railway about the May 2022 timetable proposals for the east coast main line. LNER and the department are committed to improving services for passengers served by this important route, and I encourage all noble Lords with an interest to engage with LNER’s public consultation to ensure that their views are considered.
My Lords, the consultation document to which the Minister has referred says that the structure of the timetable for May 2022 is fixed, which leaves little opportunity for change to be made. Given that it involves halving Berwick-upon-Tweed’s hourly service to London to a train every two hours, with longer journey times, can she assure me that she will personally take steps to secure a proper review of these plans, which cannot be squared with the Government’s levelling-up agenda?
My Lords, the Rail Minister has challenged the department to investigate all options for increasing regional connectivity. It is the case that Berwick-upon-Tweed will retain its current level of service, but there will be a change to the balance of the services. Yes, there will be fewer fast trains to London, but there will be more services to the Midlands and the south-west on CrossCountry.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular LNER user. I have a lot of sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Beith. I recognise that connections from Darlington, Durham and Newcastle are northwards as well as southwards. Will the Minister comment on how local services such as those from Bishop Auckland to Middlesbrough and the possible reopening of Durham to Sunderland need to be invested in for the economic growth of the north-east as a whole?
My Lords, this Government are investing billions of pounds in the railways, particularly in the north, through the Restoring Your Railway Fund and the other schemes that we are bringing through the rail network enhancements pipeline. Of course we are looking at regional connectivity of the type that the right reverend Prelate mentioned, and I will take his comments back to the department.
My Lords, I declare an interest, in that I live a mile and a half from Berwick station. Most of us find these cuts to be stringent in terms of the daytime service, going from a train every hour to a slower train every two hours. Locals are shocked, as are businesses, tourism and residents—and I am one of them. Knowing that it is good to use the train instead of our cars because of the environment, how can we have confidence that these services, which are being so slashed, will be there for us to use them? Will the Government really look carefully at what is proposed and, since this is a public utility, will they as guardians protect it? I just hope that this is not the beginning of the resurrection of the spirit of Richard Beeching.
I welcome the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, back to your Lordships’ House. In doing so, I recognise the concerns that he has raised about Berwick-upon-Tweed. I am sure that he will join many other people in responding to the consultation. It is true that we have had to make difficult trade-offs within the timetabling options, given the capacity available, but we are trying to maximise the benefit of the £4 billion that we have invested in infrastructure and rolling stock. The proposals on the table now actually increase revenues by £60 million a year, so we feel that we are getting good return on taxpayers’ funding.
My Lords, although the LNER proposals help my local station, Alnmouth, which I am pleased about, none the less I support the comments by my fellow Northumbrians, the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu. Surely, if levelling up means anything other than warm words, we need far quicker action on rail and road network investment north of Newcastle.
The noble Baroness is quite right, in that we have an ambitious programme in the rail sector but also in roads. She will know that we have a programme of work on the A1 and on several projects around the north-east. She makes a very important point. The Government are well aware of the opportunities to invest in the north-east.
My Lords, it is estimated that Berwick could see a cut of 72 trains a week. Does the Minister agree that this is totally contrary to the principles behind the Government’s transport decarbonisation plan and the principles behind levelling up? The root cause of the problems is inadequate infrastructure capacity, long past its date for upgrading. What are the Government going to do about that?
The Government have already invested, and are investing, billions of pounds in the railway system, including in the north-east. The noble Baroness mentioned once again the changes to the services in Berwick, and I will not dwell on that because I believe I have covered it, but I will say that there always difficult decisions to make. For example, Edinburgh gets more services out of this, which improves union connectivity. Edinburgh will have additional, faster trains to London. There will be a four-hour journey time. That will be highly competitive versus taking an aircraft.
As part of these proposed timetable changes, which LNER says
“involve a series of trade-offs,”
services on the TransPennine Express between Newcastle and Manchester will be reduced from twice an hour to once an hour, and an increase in the frequency of services between Teesside, Sunderland and Newcastle will be postponed. Given that Northern Powerhouse Rail has still not been confirmed, is this not further evidence that the Government are backing off from increasing direct interconnectivity of northern cities? Is it not unfortunate that, in the trade-offs, local and regional services would lose out to increase services to London and the south-east?
I am not entirely sure that the evidence supports the noble Lord’s last comment, but I accept that there are difficult trade-offs. Railway capacity is not expandable immediately, so one always has to work with the capacity available. We have spent £4 billion on upgrading the infrastructure and the rolling stock. We must make sure that we use that capacity to best effect. As I have already said, there would be a significant increase in revenues from these proposals.
The LNER services southwards from Northallerton, my local station, and Darlington are being severely cut in the 2022 timetable. Darlington to Stockton was the first railway line in the country and very much serves the levelling-up programme. Effectively the Government own LNER, so please could they help to make sure that the effective service we currently have carries over to 2022?
As my noble friend will know, there will be some service changes. She has outlined what they are, as have many other noble Lords. Other areas will see an increase in services. I reiterate that there is an opportunity to respond to the consultation. I know that my colleague in the department is pressing Network Rail, the train operating companies and our officials very hard to make sure we can retain as much regional connectivity as possible.
My Lords, following the remarks of my noble friend Lord Rosser, is the Minister aware of the comment from Transport for the North in Rail magazine, which states that the east coast mainline revisions mean that the north-east is losing trains to Leeds, Manchester and Edinburgh in favour of trains to London, and that this does not reflect the levelling-up agenda? Does she agree it is important to focus on the local and regional services, where the demand is greatest?
Unfortunately, I did not see that comment, as I do not read Rail magazine; potentially, I should. We have to reach a balance here. We cannot focus on only one type of travel. What we and LNER have tried to do is get the right balance to ensure we are meeting customer demand and providing value for money for the taxpayer.
My Lords, the 9.30 am from Edinburgh to King’s Cross yesterday, on which I was due to travel, was cancelled. The stories going around were that this was because there are continuing problems with cracks in Azuma trains, which would be extremely worrying. Can the Minister confirm whether this is the case?
I can confirm that safety is paramount on our railways. At the moment, there is just one LNER set out of service. Repairs are obviously ongoing and will probably be finished by the end of the summer. I reassure noble Lords that this is being done in a fashion that is safe and that minimises disruption for passengers.
Bahrain: Human Rights Abuses
The Prime Minister and the Crown Prince discussed a wide range of measures, as outlined on the GOV.UK website. We regularly raise human rights priorities and any areas of concern with the Government of Bahrain, including at senior levels. The Foreign Secretary raised social and justice reforms with the Crown Prince during their meeting on 17 June, and the UK continues to engage with the Government of Bahrain to support their reform agenda.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. The UK has a close relationship with Bahrain but is pressed on what it raises on human rights. I flagged to the noble Lord last night the case of human rights defender Dr Al-Singace, who has a PhD from Manchester University and who was arrested on his return to Bahrain in 2010 and sentenced to life imprisonment for his peaceful opposition to Bahrain’s Government during the Arab spring. He is currently on hunger strike. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have called for his immediate and unconditional release; the UK has never done so. Can the noble Lord tell us whether the Government will now do this before it is too late?
As the noble Baroness says, our relationship means we are able to raise cases directly with Bahrain. We continue to monitor the case of Dr Al-Singace. We have raised the case at a senior level with the Bahraini Government, and we urge anyone with concerns over a particular case to raise those with the oversight bodies in Bahrain. We continue to encourage the oversight bodies to carry out swift and thorough investigations into any such claims.
My Lords, of course, there are proper concerns about human rights in Bahrain, as there are in all Middle East countries. Does the Minister agree that these concerns should be put in the context of the continuing efforts by Iran to destabilise the country by propaganda and by shipping vast quantities of arms, including explosive devices, to the country, and in the context of the very positive role that Bahrain has in the Middle East, particularly in respect of the Abraham Accords?
My Lords, we remain committed to the promotion of universal freedoms and human rights, and are more likely to bring about change through engagement, dialogue and co-operation. Our strong relationship with Bahrain has flourished for more than 200 years; we co-operate on defence, security, trade and regional issues, such as those the noble Lord mentioned.
My Lords, a year ago this week, Bahrain’s courts upheld the death penalty for Mohamed Ramadan and Hussain Moosa. Following commitments made in the other place by the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, what representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Government of Bahrain on the death penalty?
The UK remains opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances and all countries as a matter of principle. The Government of Bahrain are fully aware that we are firmly opposed to the death penalty, and our good relationship allows us to have honest dialogue and raise points on that. We raise the matter regularly, both at ministerial and official level, publicly and privately, including during the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa’s most recent visit to Bahrain.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that influence can often be exerted through the interchange of culture and sport. Amnesty International has identified the Grand Prix in Bahrain as being a huge event through which we should try to put pressure. Are efforts being made in this direction with, for example, Formula 1?
I will have to double-check the point that the noble Lord raises about Formula 1 and write to him to confirm that, but he is absolutely right to highlight the role that cultural exchange—sport, music and the arts—plays in strengthening our relationships and standing up for our fundamental values.
My Lords, earlier this year I raised with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, the detention of children in Bahrain, following reports of their physical abuse and forced confessions. What assessment have the Government made of the Bahraini authorities’ response to these reports of alleged human rights abuses against children? Will they make further representations to ensure this does not happen?
My Lords, if the noble Lord will bear with me, I have an answer on that point. There are many pages and a lot of information and I want to make sure the noble Lord gets an answer.
In response to the recommendations in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report and by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Bahrain has undertaken reforms of its juvenile justice system. We have consistently promoted and supported Bahrain in adopting a whole-system approach to youth offending, from diversion and prevention through to rehabilitation and resettlement of young people. We welcome the recent ratification by His Majesty the King of the corrective justice law for children and will be monitoring its implementation.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware of the recent report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf on the Integrated Activity Fund and the Gulf Strategy Fund—I declare an interest as an endorsee—which concludes that Her Majesty’s Government have been deceptive and misleading about the £50 million in funds, putting the UK at risk of complicity in human rights violations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Will he respond to the report, consider its recommendations and tell this House why the Government refuse to be transparent about how this money is spent?
My Lords, the FCDO’s international programme and, within it, the Gulf Strategy Fund, is a vital tool in promoting positive change and reforms across the world, including in the Gulf. We now publish an annual summary of the GSF work on GOV.UK. We will not publish further information where doing so presents risks to our staff, programme suppliers and beneficiaries, or where it may hinder our relationships with our international partners and therefore our ability to influence their reform efforts, but we will provide annual updates.
My Lords, if we want to bring about change in the world, we have to engage with those we wish to see improve their records on human rights. We do not shy away from raising human rights concerns with other countries, and we make this point very clearly in public and in private.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, referred to the plight of Dr Al-Singace, and 73 year-old Hassan Mushaima is in an identical position. Both are political prisoners, obviously, and have been detained for 10 years for their peaceful political opposition to Bahrain’s dictatorship. Both, in fact, participated in an event held in this House in 2010, and in 2012 the Foreign Office said it was “very disappointed” over a decision to uphold their life sentences, due to the court’s reliance on torture-tainted confessions. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the European Parliament have called for their immediate release. Why have our Government failed publicly to call for their release? Is the Minister willing to do so today? Did the Prime Minister raise our continued disappointment—presumably—at their continued unjustified detention with the Crown Prince when they met?
My Lords, we continue to monitor the cases of Mr Mushaima and Dr Al-Singace and, where we have concerns, we have raised them at senior levels with the Bahraini Government. The policy of Her Majesty’s Government on torture is clear: we do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or mistreatment for any purpose. We urge all allegations of this nature to be reported to the appropriate national oversight body, whose duty it is to carry out a full and independent investigation. We will continue to raise concerns about human rights with the Government of Bahrain wherever we have them.
Police and Crime Commissioner By-election
To ask Her Majesty’s Government (1) what estimate they have made of the cost of Thames Valley Police’s investigation into Councillor Jonathon Seed subsequent to his election as the Police and Crime Commissioner for Swindon and Wiltshire on 6 May, and (2) following the finding that Councillor Seed was ineligible to stand, what estimate they have made of the cost of the resulting by-election.
My Lords, the police investigation is ongoing and the Home Office does not hold details of the cost. A by-election is due to take place on 19 August. We will not know the exact cost of running the PCC election until all election expense claims have been submitted by the returning officer and have been scrutinised and settled.
The estimate by the council is that the cost will be £1.4 million. Are we talking in those terms? The Electoral Commission was perfectly clear in the advice that it gave, and drunk-driving has been an imprisonable offence since 1925. Mr Seed says that he disclosed his conviction to the Conservative Party when applying to be its candidate and was told to go ahead. He refused to answer questions from ITV News, which could have given him time to withdraw, but then he did withdraw. So who is paying for all this? Does the taxpayer have to stump up every time a disqualified candidate stands in an election? Where is the power and what is the process for recovery from the party or person involved?
My Lords, as to who pays the bill, it is fair to say that public funds, wherever they come from, ultimately come from the taxpayer, but the polls are funded out of the Consolidated Fund. On disclosing his conviction to the local party, I have no information on that. I really do not know whether that is the case or not. The issue is that it is entirely up to the candidate to disclose that conviction—albeit it was many decades old, it is still incumbent on the candidate to disclose it.
My Lords, must we not hope that, when the new PCC for Wiltshire is finally elected, they prove to be someone who keeps their word—unlike the previous incumbent, who announced an independent inquiry into the fatally flawed Operation Conifer, which treated Sir Edward Heath so shamelessly, and then reneged, saying it was up to the Home Office? The Home Office then said it was up to the police and crime commissioner, playing a disgraceful game of pass the parcel with a dead statesman’s reputation. Is it not the duty of the Home Office to take action to rectify injustice where a commissioner fails to do so?
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in the opinion of many, the provision under Section 66 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which states that
“A person is disqualified from being elected as, or being, a police and crime commissioner if … the person has been convicted … of any imprisonable offence (whether or not sentenced to a term of imprisonment in respect of the offence)”,
is far too wide in scope? It has meant that individuals, however young they were and however minor the offence may have been, are automatically excluded, for life, from being a police and crime commissioner. Of course, it goes without saying that any serious conviction involving actual imprisonment should disqualify an individual. Will the Government look at this issue again, and might they consider a minor government amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will be debated in your Lordships’ House later this year?
I think that what has happened in this election has thrown up some obvious gaps in the process. On what the noble Lord says about the stringency of standing for office, he is absolutely right—PCCs have the most stringent requirements of all UK elections. But it is right that we should be quite strict about the people who are elected to uphold law and order.
My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, can I suggest that the Minister looks also at the Elections Bill coming before both Houses in the near future? This is another opportunity to narrow the extraordinarily wide range of reasons for barring candidates for PCCs. They are so wide that they are far broader than reasons for banning Members of Parliament or the Prime Minister.
My noble friend is right; they are incredibly stringent. They were set out in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 and would, of course, require primary legislation to be amended. That is not within the scope of the Cabinet Office Elections Bill. My noble friend outlines that there certainly appear to be gaps in the process, and the Cabinet Office is looking at that.
Previous convictions do not necessarily preclude anyone from appointment as a police officer, as account can be taken of the nature and circumstances of the offence, age at the time the offence was committed and the number of years since the offence was committed. Neither do previous convictions for an imprisonable offence preclude a person becoming Home Secretary, and thus accountable to Parliament for the police and having regular direct contact with chief constables and commissioners, as happened following the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol and repeatedly during the Sarah Everard vigil in London. In view of this, do the Government really have no plans to review the strict rules on convictions for an imprisonable offence that preclude people from standing for and taking up the position of police and crime commissioner?
My Lords, my good friends and relations who live in Wiltshire are incandescent at the thought that they might have to pay for the rerun of this election. Is this not the worst example of a party—in this case the Conservatives—failing to exercise due diligence in selecting the ineligible candidate in the first place? What plans do the Government have to introduce legislation to deter and penalise this sort of attack on democracy?
My Lords, as I said earlier, it is entirely up to the individual to declare convictions, whether recent or historic. As I have said before as well, setting such a high bar for election had cross-party agreement. The Cabinet Office will look at some of the gaps inherent in this first and most recent situation that has happened.
My Lords, can the Minister advise on whether the Government are working with the Electoral Commission and other bodies to look at whether the advice and guidance to candidates seeking election needs to be enhanced or revised to help avoid the recurrence of this sort of costly error in the future?
My Lords, we will work with appropriate parties to ensure that we can iron out some of those gaps which have taken place over recent months. It is clearly not a good situation for the public, as the electorate, or indeed the taxpayer.
Policing: European Championship Final
My Lords, we condemn the scenes of violence and disorder that took place at Wembley Stadium and in central London on Sunday. I am grateful to the police for their efforts to restore public order in hugely testing circumstances and to deal with those committing violence and other criminal offences.
My Lords, it is easy enough to condemn these actions, but it is quite clear that there was a breakdown in intelligence on the part of the police force and that the stewarding arrangements and the police support at the stadium were inadequate. What steps will the Government take to make sure that this is corrected, bearing in mind the damage that this has done to our bid to host the World Cup in future?
My Lords, the noble Lord touches on a point when he says that some of the stewarding was deficient on the day. However, I would like to put this in the context of the whole of the Euros tournament. The vast majority of events ran smoothly, and it is a real shame that a few people have ruined it for the majority. It is also of great regret that some 19 of our brave police officers were injured on the day.
Does the Minister agree that stewards are not paid, trained or kitted out to be substitute security staff, let alone riot police? Many were incredibly brave, sustaining injuries and trauma. Will the Government ensure that every single steward who worked last Sunday—for the minimum wage, I might add—is provided with counselling from the public purse?
I understood the noble Baroness to say that stewards were not paid, and then that they were paid the minimum wage. However, no matter what, yes, they should be trained; yes, they are brave and we are grateful to them; and, yes, there are lessons to be learned from that event.
My Lords, however one looks at this sorry state of affairs, there is no doubt about the fact that the stewards at the ground and the police in and around it behaved with great professionalism to protect the safety of fans. However, there were obviously grave failings that go to the top of the Met, and surely someone, including the Commissioner, must take responsibility for these failings, apologise and explain how this will be improved in the future.
My Lords, as I said, there are certainly lessons to be learned, but I for one am incredibly grateful to the police for the role that they played. Some 19 of them were injured, and of course there are lessons to be learned from that day. However, there was a surge event and on the whole the police did incredibly well to manage it.
My Lords, the Minister and I come from the north-west of England—Greater Manchester—where clearly we have tribal loyalties to football clubs. But this is about information. On the day that Manchester United’s football ground was invaded and broken into and a Premiership match was abandoned, that was fully on the internet, everybody knew what was going on and very little happened. What happened at Wembley is a mirror image of that. These people see this happening, see that there are few consequences, with no arrests or prosecutions, and try it again. It is only by the grace of God that nobody was killed at Wembley, and I just hope that, instead of apologising, the Minister actually does something.
My Lords, I will not at this point state which team I support, because that might get us into another row. However, I agree that lessons have to be learned. I understand that there was very regular communication on what was going on, and I think the police on the whole did a very good job. As the noble Lord says, it is a very good thing that nobody was more injured than they were, particularly the police officers. Nineteen officers were injured but, thankfully, none died.
My Lords, I attend a lot of football matches in London and went to two of the European Championship games. The police do an exemplary job in policing football matches, and let us not forget that arrests have fallen by 50% in a decade. I was astonished to learn that the police can reclaim policing costs from football clubs only if they are in the ground, and that of the £48 million a year it costs to police football matches, they get only £5 million back. Will the Minister look at this legislation so that the police can start to reclaim the costs from the football clubs and not have this artificial situation where the football clubs keep them out of the grounds in order to save money?
My Lords, people who attended the match told me that the chaos, the threats and the violence caused by thousands of drunken and ticketless fans outside the stadium, many of whom forced their way inside, made this a frightening experience. That was especially because there were very few police officers to be seen. I do not understand how the Minister can say that the police did a good job on this occasion. It is surely all very well for the Minister to say that lessons need to be learned, but I suggest to her that the lesson that should be learned is that someone in the police service should take responsibility for all this and should resign.
My Lords, as regards the chaos outside, the noble Lord is absolutely right. In fact, I understand that many of the people who did not have tickets had no intention of watching the match; they came to cause trouble. On the numbers of police, I understand that almost 2,000 officers were deployed to Wembley on Sunday. To put that in context, it is the size of an average police force.
The scenes at Wembley were frankly appalling, and they ask serious questions of the police and the authorities. Given the risk, why was there not a greater police presence at the gates and turnstiles? All of us have seen the shocking scenes and images on social media, so what people in the country want to know is how many of these individuals are being investigated and how many have been arrested so far.
The noble Lord will know that this is obviously an ongoing investigation, and therefore I cannot comment on exact figures at this point. However, as I say, almost 2,000 officers were deployed to the stadium on Sunday. It was a very unfortunate episode and I am not in any way trying to defend it. What I am trying to defend are police’s efforts to restore law and order when chaos broke out.
I hope the Minister has seen the videos shown on Italian media of Italian fans being beaten, apparently as they came out of their stand, by so-called British “supporters”—better described as “thugs”. That video shows it taking place for a substantial time before any stewards arrived. The stewards do then intervene, rather bravely, but there is no sign of the police. These individuals are clearly identifiable on the videos. Can we have some assurance that all these videos from social and professional media are being circulated to the police and that prosecutions will take place where individuals are identified?
I can certainly assure the noble Lord that all the evidence that is being put forward from Sunday is being considered and taken forward by the police. Perhaps I may join him in saying that it is an appalling situation where our non-home fans are beaten and I reassure him that the police will do all they can to bring these criminals—“thugs”, as he says—to justice.
My Lords, I spent many years focusing on ways to tackle hooliganism and subsequently on the preparation for a secure and trouble-free London Olympic Games. Does the Minister agree that it is incomprehensible that the FA and the police did not erect barriers hundreds of metres away from the stadium, as we did in London 2012? That would have prevented tailgating, which was flagged as a major concern in the semi-final. Does she also agree that such an approach must be comprehensibly built into the bid documentation for the 23rd World Cup, to demonstrate that security firms, stewards, the police and volunteers are far better prepared for that tournament, along with far tougher lines against racially provoked attacks, both physical, verbal and online, which quite simply have to be stamped out if we are to earn the right to host the World Cup?
I totally agree with my noble friend. On the racial attacks, the Prime Minister could not have been clearer about his abhorrence for and willingness to deal with them than he was yesterday. On lessons learned from the Olympics, I agree with my noble friend. I am sure that that will be considered and that the House will be kept updated on the progress made.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to Oral Questions to the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, the noble Lord, Lord Frost. There will be three Questions, with 10 minutes allowed for each, and we will proceed in the same way as for other Oral Questions.
Before I call the first Question, it may assist the House if I make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings on the legality of the Northern Ireland protocol. I assure the House that Members may make full reference to the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol, which is a judicial review of an issue of national importance.
I am also advised that there are active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to historical Troubles-related deaths. Mr Speaker made a Statement in the House of Commons yesterday; I share his view that this is an issue of national importance. When cases relate to issues of national importance, the Lord Speaker can allow reference to the cases in the House. I am exercising that discretion to allow limited reference to active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to historical Troubles-related deaths. However, references to these cases should be limited to the context and the events that led to the cases and not include details of cases nor the names of those involved in them. Members of the House should be mindful of the matters that may be the subject of future legal proceedings and should exercise caution in making reference to individual cases.
I also remind Members of the presumption that court orders, such as anonymity orders, will be respected in Parliament. I draw attention to the report of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, which made clear that
“privilege places a significant responsibility on parliamentarians to exercise it in the public interest. The presumption should be that court orders are respected in Parliament; and that when a Member does not comply with one he or she can demonstrate that (it) is in the public interest.”
Post-Brexit Financial Settlement
To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the European Union’s consolidated budget report for 2020, which states that the United Kingdom has liabilities of €47.5 billion as part of the post-Brexit financial settlement.
My Lords, the Government’s regular update to Parliament on EU finances has been published today by my right honourable friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The Treasury estimates that the current cost of the net financial settlement is £37.3 billion. This remains within the previously published central range. The €47.5-billion figure is an estimate produced on a different basis by the EU for its internal accounts processes.
My Lords, these are large sums—larger even than those we were discussing yesterday when we discussed the cuts to overseas aid. It appears that the EU is the final arbiter of what we should pay. I understand that there are circumstances when you might want to give a trusted friend details of your credit card, including the three numbers of the back, but if that trusted friend is abusing the card, is it not the right policy to cancel it?
My Lords, it is of course a legal obligation to make the payments to the EU that were agreed in the withdrawal agreement. They were heavily negotiated in some detail at the time, and of course we stand by them. It was a general difficulty, with a very large sums that we were paying to the European Union, that underlaid the referendum vote in June 2016.
Surely the Minister is not surprised by this figure, which was predicted not just by the European Union but by the OBR and other organisations. He will recall the campaign that claimed we were paying £350 million a week to the European Union when the reality was less than half that. How can we now believe Ministers in a Government where the Prime Minister is a stranger to the truth?
My Lords, we are not surprised by these figures. As I said, the details of how they are calculated are set out in the withdrawal agreement in exhaustive detail, through several dozen articles. The question to which the noble Lord alludes has been sufficiently debated. There are different views on this question but what is clear is that, before we left the EU, we were paying very substantial net sums into it.
My Lords, RTE reports that our 2021 payment is to be €6.8 billion whereas, in the latest Budget Red Book, table C.6 on page 97 shows our 2020-21 sum as £10.4 billion—nearly twice as much. The sum for 2021-22 is £11 billion, so the discrepancy is not likely to be due to year-end differences. The difference is several billion pounds, which is a big number by any standard. As Senator Everett Dirksen said 60 years ago:
“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
Can the Minister explain the discrepancy?
My Lords, I do not think that any of us on this side of the House feels particularly comfortable paying large sums to the European Union, but it is an agreed outcome in the withdrawal agreement and we stand by it. There are differences in the calculation methods between the EU arrangements and ours. For example, their figure does not include all the receipts we will receive in future, there are different ways of forecasting and so on. We are not surprised that there are some differences. What matters is our own calculations and that we are comfortable with the bills when they arrive, which we are.
This is one of the occasions when I can disclaim direct responsibility for that particular part of the negotiation in the previous withdrawal agreement. I have been known to be a little uncharitable at times about every aspect of the work that was done by my predecessors but, in this case, on the withdrawal agreement, they did a good job. Given the legal framework and commitments, it was always likely that the outcome would be in this broad area.
The Minister negotiated at length to agree a formula for calculating the UK’s contribution. Whatever we think of the amount, there was some degree of transparency in this. In the interests of transparency, can the Minister tell us whether he played any role in advancing the interests of Aquind Ltd, owned by a former Russian executive, in the Brexit negotiations? I would welcome an answer to my letter to him on this important matter, but perhaps he could tell the House now whether he ever raised the Aquind project in negotiations with the EU.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness to the Front Bench. I look forward to debating such issues with her on what I hope are many occasions in the future. The link between the EU budget and the question she asks is possibly a little tenuous, but nevertheless I am happy to say that I received her letter and obviously will reply shortly. I have never met Mr Temerko and I have no recollection of discussing his business with any Ministers or anybody else. We are establishing what correspondence, if any, there was with me or my office last year, and will reply.
My Lords, certain people have tried to make mischief with this figure. What we need—I think we have now had it from the Minister—is a clear statement that we will stand by the agreement that we negotiated. If he can say that, I am sure that it will find favour on both sides of the negotiating table.
My Lords, I am particularly grateful to my noble friend for committing the Government to this legal obligation; that is very welcome. Will he further confirm that the sums of money being discussed in this Question are going towards the Horizon programme, which is in the present spending review, and from which many UK companies will benefit greatly?
My Lords, yes, these are significant sums, and the sums involved in the Horizon project and programme are also significant. We have a difficulty with the Horizon programme, in that, at the moment, our participation is still being blocked by the EU, even though all the legal processes behind it are in place. We very much hope that that block can be lifted soon and that UK universities and others with an interest can participate in the programme.
My Lords, just this week, the Minister told the protocol sub-committee in this House that the European Union had dumped 800 regulations on the UK to apply to Northern Ireland without any consultation or prior warning. As the European Union continues to show intransigence and a determination to show no flexibility whatever to the working of the protocol, is it not time for Her Majesty’s Government to hold back any more payment until the European Union shows itself to be more reasonable?
My Lords, where threats have been made in this process, they have overwhelmingly come from the European Union side, and we regret that. I do not think it would be right for us to hold this legal obligation in hock to progress on the protocol, which is not to say that we do not think the progress on the protocol and implementing it in a pragmatic, proportionate and appropriate way is not important. It is extremely important, but it is not the same thing as the exit bill.
Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol
My Lords, I have spoken to many businesses and business organisations in Northern Ireland about this issue. The reality is that Northern Ireland’s economic links are overwhelmingly with the rest of the UK, rather than with Ireland or other EU members. The way that the protocol is currently operating means that any economic benefits it may generate for some are more than counterbalanced in general by the barriers it currently creates between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Has the Minister met the new Minister for the Economy in Northern Ireland, Invest NI and other promotional agencies, including the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce, and, if not, when will he meet them? Is he aware that in its latest quarterly review, the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce said that 67% of its members believed that
“Northern Ireland’s unique status post EU Exit presents opportunities for the region”
and that 47% believe that
“Northern Ireland’s trading status will present benefits for their business”?
That includes Northern Ireland biggest wine wholesaler, which said in today’s newspaper that business has grown exponentially due to the new trading arrangements.
My Lords, I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting the new Economy Minister in Northern Ireland, although I expect to do so soon. To be fair, there is a range of opinion on the benefits of the protocol, even in the business community in Northern Ireland. All I can say is that I do not think I have spoken to a representative of that community who has not expressed some concern about the barriers that are placed on movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The degree of concern may vary, but it is always there, and it is a matter of significant concern to us, too.
My Lords, as one who has consistently pressed for the defects in the Northern Ireland protocol to be remedied, I very much look forward to seeing the Government’s proposals on the way forward next week. Does my noble friend agree that a good start would be to remind the EU of its obligations to ensure that the protocol
“should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland”,
as well as
“the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom's internal market.”?
My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend’s comments. It is very clear that the obligations set out in the protocol to which he refers are not being fully met at the moment. There clearly is an impact on the everyday life of communities in Northern Ireland, goods are clearly not circulating as freely as they could or should, and we need to find a new balance in this question. We will be setting out our proposals to that effect next week.
My Lords, will the Minister clarify the highly charged phrase that he and a director in the Cabinet Office used before the Lords protocol sub-committee yesterday—namely, that the European Union “dropped” 800 new measures on Northern Ireland last week without notice? Are those measures technical amendments to the existing legislative instruments that apply mainly through Annexe 2 to the protocol, or are they new legislative instruments that the EU thinks should apply to Northern Ireland? In either case, can he explain how the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the legislature responsible for implementing them, is being kept informed of such developments?
My Lords, I do not think that was highly charged language; I think it was an accurate description of the situation when we received a communication containing 600 to 800 pieces of legislation and pages. That is a significant event. New legislation not within scope of the protocol is obviously covered in a different way; this is obviously legislation that is within scope. Technical amendments can of course be quite significant, and the task of assessing that and ensuring that we understand the statute book in Northern Ireland is significant. That is why we should like more warning, more process and more discussion of this matter.
Can my noble friend confirm that the overall balance of benefits and disadvantages of the protocol is tilted against Northern Ireland at present, given that Northern Ireland trades more with the rest of the United Kingdom than with the Republic of Ireland, the rest of the world and the European Union put together, a phenomenal statistic that should always be borne in mind? Does he agree that firm action needs to be taken to deal not only with that trade imbalance but the societal and political instability which also need to be taken into account when one assesses the benefits and disadvantages of the protocol?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. The balance of advantages and benefits in the protocol is not solely economic, although the economic links are clearly very strong with Great Britain. They are to do with society, politics and the sense of identity, which, it seems, has been undermined in places by the operation of the protocol. It is reasonable to take that into account in our overall assessment. Diversion of trade, societal disturbances and so on are obviously very important factors when we come to consider what action is necessary in this matter.
Yesterday, the Minister told the Northern Ireland Sub-Committee that in his view the protocol was causing societal disruption and weakening of identity, as well as trade friction. If he is right, it is vital that Her Majesty’s Government do nothing to make that precarious situation worse. Does he agree that any trade arrangements involving significant relaxation of import checks could make his problems with the protocol harder to resolve, and will he therefore ensure that the impact on communities in Northern Ireland is properly taken into account by his colleague, the International Trade Secretary?
We agree, of course, that it is very important that the situation in Northern Ireland remains calm, and we are very glad that it has. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a high level of political concern about the situation that currently subsists. It is very important that all of us—this Government, the European Union and everybody else with an interest—act to respond to that political difficulty and show that we can respond politically and solve problems that have arisen, rather than suggest that they do not exist.
I am puzzled by the Minister’s reply to the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—it almost sounded as if he is not very proud of his protocol. It seemed to me and to many in Scotland that Mrs Foster had a point when she talked about the best of both worlds. However, looking ahead, there clearly is a problem with the democratic deficit in relation to new EU single-market laws applicable in Northern Ireland thanks to the protocol. How does the Minister propose to mitigate this problem? Does he agree that the Partnership Council and the parliamentary partnership assembly could play some role and will the Government endorse strong Northern Ireland representation in both?
My Lords, I learned a good deal of what I know of negotiation at the feet of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, so wherever we have got to is at least in part thanks to his tutelage over the years. On the issue of the parliamentary partnership assembly and the Partnership Council, the parliamentary assembly is, of course, a matter for Parliament. We are in close touch with those involved as to how it should work but its composition is not a matter for the Government, although we obviously strongly support its work. On the institutions created by the withdrawal agreement and the TCA, we seek to ensure that all the devolved Administrations, including Northern Ireland, can participate in the most appropriate way.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has just said, it is a peculiarity of our times that the Opposition Benches are left to defend the imperfect protocol that the Minister himself negotiated. Does the Minister agree with Julian Smith, who said in May this year that Northern Ireland is in a
“unique position … compared to other parts of the UK to maximise two major markets, Britain and the EU”?
Do the Government have an action plan to promote these opportunities for businesses in Northern Ireland?
My Lords, I obviously have the highest respect for my right honourable friend Mr Smith but the problem with that analysis comes back to the point made earlier that Northern Ireland’s economic links are overwhelmingly with the rest of the UK. A bargain in which there is greater access to a smaller part of the trade in return for difficulties with the larger part is obviously not a bargain that totally stacks up.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to ensure future trade agreements (1) are compatible with the terms of the United Kingdom-European Union Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and (2) take into account relevant regulatory changes by existing trading partners and international organisations.
My Lords, the trade and co-operation agreement that we have agreed with the European Union does not require us or the EU to align rules with the other party. This ensures that the UK is in control of its own legislation and that we are free to make other free trade agreements around the world. All these trade agreements are capable of accommodating the consequences of regulatory changes by either party, now and into the future.
I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. The purpose of my Question was to explore the priorities and processes that determine the Government’s trade policy. In a way, what I am asking is the mirror image of the replies that he gave on the Northern Ireland protocol. As far as I can see, the Government’s trade policy is focused very much on the Asia-Pacific region, which brings benefits but not terribly big ones by comparison with the overwhelming importance of our trading relationship with the European Union. Do the Minister and the Government’s trade policy recognise that fact and that it will be the case for decades to come? Do the Government take into account that any divergences that we negotiate from EU standards in other trade agreements are bound to cause some friction in the EU relationship? Does he accept that they are going to make the Commission more reluctant to explore—
My Lords, this is clearly an extremely complicated issue and a lot can be said on the subject. I am not sure that I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s underlying judgment. Our trade with the EU has been falling fairly consistently for a decade or two now. Our trade with Asia is rising. Most people think that that is likely to continue to be the case and that the strategic emphasis on Asia is right. As regards the relationship between our regulation and other countries’ regulation through FTAs, of course there are choices to be made, but they are the same choices that every country in the world engaging in an independent trade policy undertakes. They seem to manage it and I am sure that we will as well.
My Lords, when granting the data adequacy decision, the European Commission imposed a four-year sunset clause over fears of UK divergence from GDPR standards, especially in transfers of data to third countries. The Government are none the less forging ahead with international agreements on data transfers such as with the US, the trans-Pacific partnership and Asian countries. Their recent digital policy paper envisaged the Information Commissioner having a key role in communicating the benefits of data sharing—there was me thinking that the Information Commissioner’s role was to safeguard privacy rights. Have the Government done an assessment on the dangers that their data policies could pose to the adequacy decision?
My Lords, we are obviously very pleased that the EU granted us data adequacy last month. We think that that was the right thing to do and a correct reflection of the situation. The EU grants data adequacy to other countries around the world as well which do not operate identical or close analogues to the EU’s legislation. That does not prevent the grant of adequacy. We think that it is entirely consistent with security of data to look at our own ways of doing these things and that is exactly what we are reflecting on.
My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the UK does not intend to align its regulations with the EU’s in order to help the situation in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that there are other ways of reducing the administrative controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, such as a veterinary agreement based on mutual recognition of underlying product regulations, as the EU has agreed with New Zealand?
My Lords, I have said it before and I will say it again: we will not align dynamically with the rules of the EU on agri-food or in other areas. That was the approach that we took into the negotiations last year and that is the consistent approach now. My noble friend is absolutely right that there are other ways of doing this and he is absolutely correct to point to an equivalence-based veterinary agreement as the way forward. That is exactly what we have proposed to the European Union and I am very hopeful that we can discuss that at the Specialised Committee created by the withdrawal agreement when it meets on Monday.
My Lords, the free trade agreement between the UK, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein was signed on 4 June. This is a most important agreement between friends and trading partners of the UK, yet Parliament to date has had no opportunity to scrutinise it. Does the Minister regret that? Can he tell us when the agreement will be laid before Parliament?
My Lords, this is a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade rather than for me. There are, of course, procedures under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which sets out how such treaties will be considered by Parliament; I think that is the intention. Obviously we welcome the fullest possible debate on the contents of that treaty.
The Minister had to sit through some very difficult negotiations and, some would say, a lot of attempted bullying by the EU. Can he confirm that any trade agreements are for the benefit of the UK and will avoid alignment where it is not to our benefit, and that enormous benefits will flow in the course of time from the trade extensions and the deal with Japan, the deal with Australia and now the potential deal with the CPTPP, which begins to be tantalisingly close? Can he assure the House that he will be looking at them and the benefits and not listening to the EU?
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade is obviously responsible for most of those negotiations. I am in 100% agreement with her that they offer huge opportunities for this country. The ability to trade freely with a larger number of countries around the world, while setting our own rules in a way that suits us and this economy, will be of huge benefit to us in years to come and we are all looking forward to that.
The Minister has admitted that the extra barriers caused by the protocol have had a dampening effect on free trade, but he does not seem to accept that the extra barriers between us and the EU similarly have an effect on the freedom of trade and the amount we will export to the EU, which is still our nearest and biggest market. Indeed, exports of food and drink—our major export industry—fell by 47% and increased by a mere 0.3% outside the EU. We have to continue to trade with Europe. Will he set out how the Government propose to reverse the export fall to Europe?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is a little over-pessimistic about where things stand at the moment. The latest trade figures, which came out last week, show that our exports to the EU are now well above the average levels of last year and are almost at the levels of 2019 and 2018. Our business has done a great job in dealing with that. I have never sought to hide the fact that leaving a customs union creates new barriers. I am very happy to see that our businesses are dealing with them very successfully. They are different in nature from barriers within a country, and that is the difference between some of the effects that we are seeing with our exports to the rest of the European Union and the chilling effect on trade within the United Kingdom because of the way that boundaries currently operate.
Hereditary Peers By-election
The Clerk of the Parliaments announced the result of the whole-House by-election to elect a hereditary Peer in place of Lord Elton.
Two hundred and thirty-seven Lords submitted valid ballots. A notice detailing the results is in the Printed Paper Office and online. The successful candidate was Lord Harlech.
Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill
Second Reading (and remaining stages)
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 45 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 12 July.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on our path out of the pandemic. All the way through our fight against the virus, we have looked forward to the day when we can roll back the legal restrictions and get closer to normal life. Now, thanks to the shared sacrifices of the British people and the protective wall of our vaccination programme, we have made huge advances. Today I would like to update the House on the next decision in front of us: whether to proceed to step 4 of our road map next Monday.
As I set out to the House last week, this will be a major milestone for the country, taking us another step closer to the life that we all used to live. It means carefully removing more of the restrictions that have governed our daily lives, such as how many people we can meet, how many people can attend weddings and how many visitors people in care homes can see, bringing them together with their loved ones. We have all been yearning to get there, and we all want this to be a one-way journey, so we have acted in a measured way, taking one step at a time, and looking at the very latest data and at our four tests before deciding whether to proceed.
The first test is the success of our vaccination programme. Ever since 8 December last year, when the world’s first clinically authorised vaccine was given right here in the UK, we have been putting jabs in the arms of people at a phenomenal pace, giving over 18 million doses in just seven months. We have given more doses per capita than any other large nation. As a result, around nine in 10 adults in the UK now have Covid-19 antibodies, which are so important in helping us and our bodies to fight this virus. To bolster this protective wall even further, we made the tough but necessary decision to take a four-week pause to step 4, so that we could protect even more people before easing restrictions. Since making the decision, we have been able to give 7 million extra doses across the UK. We have pledged that, by 19 July, we will have offered every adult a first dose of vaccine and given two doses to two-thirds of all adults. I am pleased to inform the House today that we are on track to beat both of these targets, so as we make this crucial decision, we are in a stronger position than ever before.
We have looked not just at how many jabs we have put in arms, but at what impact they are having on hospitalisations and the loss of loved ones. This is our second test. There is increasing evidence that the vaccine has severely weakened this link—a link that was once a grim inevitability. Data from Public Health England estimates that two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine offer around 96% protection against hospitalisation, meaning fewer Covid patients in hospital beds and fewer people mourning the loss of a loved one. The data also estimates that the vaccination programme in England has prevented between 7.5 million and 8.9 million infections. It has prevented some 46,000 hospitalisations and prevented about 30,000 people from losing their lives, all because of the protection that the vaccines can bring.
Our third test is around whether infection rates would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS. I want to be open about what the data is telling us and why we have reached the decision that we have. Cases are rising, propelled by the new, more transmissible delta variant. The average number of daily cases is over 26,000, and this has doubled over the past 11 days. Sadly, the case numbers will get a lot worse before they get better. We could reach 100,000 cases a day later in the summer.
Hospitalisations are also rising, with sustained growth over the past month. Once again, they will rise too, but we should be encouraged that hospitalisations are far lower than they were at this point during the previous wave, just as we should be encouraged that people over the age of 65, who are more likely to have had both doses of a vaccine, made up 31% of Covid admissions last week, compared with 61% in January. This is further evidence that our vaccination programme is doing its job and protecting the NHS. As more people get the jab, our protective wall is getting stronger still.
We will stay vigilant and keep a very close eye on the data, as well as on the impact of long Covid, on which we are investing £50 million into new research. But on the basis of the evidence in front of us, we do not believe that infection rates will put unsustainable pressure on the NHS. It is so important that everyone still does their bit in helping the NHS to stand strong. The best thing that each and every one of us can do, if we have not done so already, is get the jab and, crucially, get both doses.
Our final test is that the risks are not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern. We have seen from the growth of the delta variant, which now makes up 99% of new cases in this country, just how quickly a new variant can take hold. However, although the delta variant is more transmissible than the alpha variant, the evidence shows that two doses of the vaccine appear to be just as effective against hospitalisation. But we know that the greatest risk to the progress we have made is the possibility of another new variant, especially one that can escape immunity and puncture the protective wall of our vaccination programme, so even as we look to ease restrictions, we will maintain our tough measures at the borders and we will expand our capacity for genomic sequencing, which is already one of the largest in the world, so that we can come down hard the moment we detect a new variant.
We have looked closely at the data against these four tests and we firmly believe that this is the right time to get our nation closer to normal life, so we will move to the next stage of our road map on 19 July. To those who say, “Why take this step now?”, I say, “If not now, when?” There will never be a perfect time to take this step because we simply cannot eradicate this virus. Whether we like it or not, coronavirus is not going away. Moving forward next week, supported by the arrival of summer and the school holidays, gives us the best possible chance of a return to normal life. If we wait longer, we risk pushing the virus towards winter, when the virus will have an advantage, or, worse still, we will not be opening up at all. We delayed step 4 by four weeks so that we could build the vaccine wall even higher. We believe that this wall means that we can withstand a summer wave. While the wall would be higher still if we waited until winter, we know the wave would be much more dangerous. So while we know that there are risks with any decision, this is the most responsible decision that we can take.
This step forward is about balancing the harms that are caused by Covid with the undeniable harms that restrictions bring. These restrictions were vital to protect the NHS, but we must be up front about the impact of keeping them just as we are about removing them: the rise in domestic violence, the impact on mental health and the undiagnosed cancer, to name just a few. So we will ease the restrictions next week while at the same time maintaining the defences we have built against this virus, like our vaccination programme, where we still need more young people to come forward; our work to support the most vulnerable; and the contingency plans that we have put in place to stay one step ahead of this virus.
But this is not the end of the road: it is the start of a new phase of continued caution while we live with this virus and we manage the risks. We are today publishing a plan showing the safe and gradual approach that we will be taking throughout the summer. It includes details of how we will be encouraging businesses and large events to use certification in high-risk settings to limit the risk of spreading infection, how we will use guidance for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, and details of a review that we will be conducting in September to assess our preparedness for autumn and winter.
As we make these changes, it is so important that people act with caution and with personal responsibility. For example, everyone should return to work gradually if they are currently working from home, they should try to meet people outside where that is possible, and it is expected and recommended that people should wear face coverings, unless they are exempt, in crowded indoor settings like public transport.
I also want to take this opportunity to update the House on our policies for self- isolation. Last week I announced to the House that from 16 August double-jabbed adults and under-18s will no longer need to self-isolate if they are a close contact of someone with Covid-19. Until then, with case rates expected to rise, it is vital that we ensure that our systems for self-isolation are proportionate and reflect the protection given by our vaccine programme. As part of this approach, we will be working with clinicians and the NHS to explore what more can be done for colleagues in patient- facing roles—this would be used only in exceptional circumstances where the self-isolation of fully vaccinated close contacts could directly impact the safety of patients—so that we can keep our vital services going as we safely and gradually get closer to normal life.
Mr Speaker, 19 July will mark another step forward in our road to recovery. Getting here has been hard fought, and it has been long awaited, but this battle is not over yet. Let us move forward in a confident but measured way so that we can get closer to normal life and protect the progress that we have already made.”
I thank the Minister for taking this Statement, although I have to say—and I know this is not in his gift—that Monday to Thursday is probably too long a gap, but taking the Statement today might in this case prove useful because we have seen the reaction to the nearing of so-called freedom day, nationally and internationally. We have also seen the Government becoming progressively more cautious. That is not surprising because in England 42,000 Covid infections and 49 more deaths were recorded yesterday, hospital admissions have increased to more than 500 a day, up 50% on last week, and we now see routine operations being postponed and cancelled.
The NHS is rightly focused on waiting lists, which are at their highest level over the past decade at 5.3 million, and 336,733 people have been waiting more than a year, more than 76,000 have waited for at least 18 months and more than 7,000 have been waiting for two years. Emergency care is grappling with some of the highest summer demand ever, and this is in the context of NHS staff being exhausted and facing burnout. The NHS is also losing a significant number of staff to self-isolation, which has led to much reduced capacity due to infection control. As infection rates get worse and increase, what is the Government’s plan to deal with this situation?
Since Monday we have seen an increasing number of announcements and questions about how to safeguard against further increases in infection and the impact it is having on our NHS, schools, businesses and communities. Indeed, our own Lord Speaker wrote:
“Members are still expected to wear a face covering both in the Chamber, in indoor crowded spaces and when moving around the Estate, in line with general advice from Public Health England and the Chief Medical Officer. Members are strongly encouraged to use the testing facilities provided.”
On these Benches we intend to follow that advice, and I regret that some Members have already abandoned their masks when moving around the building and in the Chamber. We have staff to look after us who may not yet be fully vaccinated and, anyway, have no choice but to be here and who will continue to wear their masks to protect us. We should afford them the same consideration. Does the Minister agree?
On the “Today” programme a few days ago Professor Graham Medley, the chief modeller for the SAGE committee said: “Wearing face masks is worth it but only if everyone does it, not just 70%. I understand the Government’s reluctance to actually mandate it. On the other hand, if it is not mandated, it probably won’t do any good.” In other words, my understanding is that unless more than 70% wear masks, the protection for those who are still vulnerable will not work.
I fear we have been here before, with the Government back-pedalling and, in doing so, creating confusion and ambiguity—exactly the circumstances for the virus to thrive and mutate. The guidance issued by Ministers yesterday was stronger than businesses expected, many of which feel that they have been led astray, given the Government’s repeated characterisation of 19 July as “freedom day” and the end of most restrictions. The truth is that the guidance is hardly different from the current rules, except that businesses are now “encouraged” to keep many of their Covid adaptations rather than required to do so. Businesses now have just five days to decide how to implement the rules and how to communicate that to their customers. Does the Minister accept that the Government’s mixed messages have left many in legal limbo?
The new guidance gives little clarity to the 3.8 million extremely vulnerable people who are being told to avoid all unvaccinated people. How are they supposed to know whether or not someone is vaccinated? Does the Minister share the concerns raised by charities and patient groups that guidance has effectively told the extremely vulnerable to shield, without backing that up with any formal support from the Government for working or food shopping? Government advice to the clinically extremely vulnerable is to go to the shops at quieter times of the day after 19 July. I am not sure if that can be dignified as “support” for those most at risk of serious illness from Covid-19.
Is it true that the Government have not had anyone in post to deal with the clinically extremely vulnerable for three months, since Dr Jenny Harries was appointed chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency? If that is true, it is deeply concerning and it may explain why the Government have failed to prioritise support for these 3.8 million people.
What are the contingency plans for surging hospital admissions, which may remain high until the end of August, as called for by members of SAGE? The new guidance also says that businesses should encourage customers to check-in using the NHS app or otherwise leave their contact details. Can the Minister confirm reports that plans to reduce the sensitivity of NHS contact tracing have been reduced because of the surge in cases? What assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness of the app as an infection control tool, given reports that more than 20% of adults and a significantly greater proportion of young people have actually now deleted the app and many more are ignoring the advice to self-isolate?
I turn to those working from home. Despite the lifting of guidance to work from home, the Government say they expect and recommend a gradual return to offices. This is very confusing. What protection is proposed for those who are vulnerable, and for whom “freedom day” is not freedom day but a further lockdown day? If their employers demand that they return to work, even if they are immunosuppressed, for example, travel and enclosed places pose a threat to them. Under these circumstances, we need to be grateful for the good sense of the Mayor of London in following the science. Sadiq Khan has said that Transport for London will continue to enforce the wearing of face masks on services in the capital beyond 19 July.
While industry bodies said on Tuesday that no domestic train operators or major bus and coach firms will require customers to wear masks, the city mayors and others are calling for mask wearing on all public transport. Does the Minister agree with them? If Tracy Brabin, Andy Burnham and the other mayors had the power to enforce mask wearing to protect drivers and passengers, they would do so. They are doing the Government’s job for them.
What support are the Government going to give those areas with the lowest vaccination rates? Local authorities in London have, variously, 35%, 36% and 42% of their populations vaccinated. Does the Minister support the leaders of those authorities who say that they wish mask wearing to continue until they have got their populations caught up with vaccination?
My Lords, the Prime Minister told us 10 days ago that we were heading for “freedom day” and that all the data was going in the right direction; all restrictions would be lifted, and now was the time to take personal responsibility for our behaviour and for the Government essentially to step back. The Secretary of State’s Statement on Monday confirmed that, although with a marginally more cautious note about taking care. I echo particularly the comments made just now by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the mixed messaging in the new guidance for business and on returning to work, which conflicts with what was said both in the Statement and by the Prime Minister.
However, since the Prime Minister’s and Mr Javid’s confident assertions on Monday, there has been an outpouring of disbelief from senior scientists and doctors. Cases are currently doubling every nine days, and yesterday there were 42,000 new daily cases—a level last seen at the beginning of the January total lockdown. If there is no slowing of that doubling rate, we will have hit 100,000 new daily cases by the beginning of August. And that is before the Government’s expected extra cases as a result of “freedom day” on Monday.
Ministers constantly say that there are fewer people in hospital, that fewer people need ventilation and there are fewer deaths, but what they do not mention is that those numbers are a matter of ratios, and that with the current level of cases our hospitals are already reporting A&Es with the equivalent of a winter surge and more wards being turned into Covid wards for patients. A letter published a few days ago in the BMJ, initially signed by 1,000 doctors, is at over 7,000 signatures and still rising. The data is already clear that the surge in new cases from three weeks ago is increasing hospital admissions right now. So what are the Government doing to support and protect our NHS from this sharp increase and pressure on doctors, nurses and hospitals right now?
While many people are being responsible, still following the guidance and using their face masks, sadly there are many who are not. I was talking to a young security guard who told me that, this week, she is finding it impossible to persuade people to put masks on in their local shopping mall, despite the fact that the rules are still in place. Yesterday, my local community pharmacist told me in despair that two people arrived separately asking him for PCR tests as they each had Covid symptoms and thought all the previous rules had just finished. Not for the first time, much of this is about the Prime Minister’s muddled communication style. In the light of the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are going to retain the face mask mandate, and that the metro mayors, including Sadiq Khan and Andy Street, would like to do so, will the Government please reverse the lifting of the face mask mandate immediately, so that it remains in place, especially on public transport?
I turn to the new guidance for the clinically extremely vulnerable. I have to say that I have never read such an inconsistent and contradictory formal guidance note from the Government—and I have read a few. You should stay at home to be safe but if you cannot work from home, go in; you must remain socially distanced from everyone outside your bubble, even if they do not have to; you must not mix with unvaccinated people, outside or inside. I ask the Minister to tell me how on earth you know who is unvaccinated. As one of the CEV, do I stand in the doorway at opening time at my local greengrocer’s—a quiet time—and shout out to any customers and staff, “Anyone not vaccinated in here”? Of course not. The inevitable logic of this is the restart of shielding but without any of the previous support.
Worst of all, on Friday evening Public Health England put out a press release in which it mixed up advice to the clinically vulnerable and the clinically extremely vulnerable by citing vaccine efficiency research relating to the former in advice to the latter. That paragraph has been repeated in the formal guidance published on Monday. It is plain wrong. In a total administrative muddle, no one has gone through the nine pages of this guidance and updated it, so it is littered with references to the need to follow other rules and guidance for the general public in place at 17 May and 21 June, all of which goes next Monday. Please will the Minister ensure that the guidance is reviewed immediately to remove these anomalies?
All this, and the lack of answers to my questions last week about who the clinical lead is on the clinically extremely vulnerable, tells us 3.8 million former shielders that we have been not just forgotten but thrown to the wolves. Please will the Government actually review the guidance to keep the CEV group safe and provide the support that they need?
I also gave the Minister notice of the following two questions, as they both concern urgent and slightly unusual elements of lifting restrictions. First, for a couple of weeks now, Malta has said that it will not accept UK citizens who have received particular batches of the AZ vaccine manufactured in India, about 5 million doses of which have been given in the UK. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister reassured the press, saying:
“I am very confident that it will not prove to be a problem.”
However, holidaymakers are being turned away from Malta right now. When will the Government resolve this problem?
Secondly, those thousands of wonderful people who came forward to take part in the AstraZeneca clinical trials have been told that their vaccine status cannot be put on the NHS app, which means that they cannot go abroad, either to work or on holiday, or do certain jobs in the NHS that require this evidence. In early June, there was a blog on the BMJ website that set out these problems, but three months on from this issue being initially raised, there is still no resolution. It is utterly wrong that these publicly-minded people have now been left in limbo. Can the Minister say when this problem will be resolved and their vaccine details uploaded?
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, for their thoughtful questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, put it extremely well: we are at a delicate inflection point. It is a moment when the whole country needs to be cautious about rushing into change, but it is also a moment when the vaccine is having an enormous impact and change is therefore appropriate.
Infection rates are rising dramatically, but we cannot avoid the fact that hospitalisations and deaths are holding relatively steady. Today, there are 2,970 Covid patients in beds and 470 on ventilators. This is a massively smaller proportion than in the pre-vaccination spikes, when the connection between infection, hospitalisation and death was much firmer and more profound. At the same time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, rightly pointed out, waiting lists are huge and the gap for diagnostics for severe diseases, such as cancer, is extremely concerning. It is our responsibility to step up to that deficit and not be wholly distracted by Covid. This is therefore a moment when we have to balance competing demands on our healthcare; we are trying to hit the right balance.
On masks, I pay tribute to the Lord Speaker for his leadership in this area and on asymptomatic testing. I saw his Twitter post where he was being swabbed for his LFD test—a commendable sign of leadership. He and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, are entirely right: we should wear masks out of consideration for others, including others who may not have had the vaccine or may not be able to have the vaccine. However, it is also entirely right that central government cannot mandate every aspect of human behaviour for months and years to come. I take great pleasure in the sight of local leaders using their influence to inspire the public in this matter. I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that DPHs are able to bring in mandatory measures where there are areas of outbreak. People need to know that the wearing of masks has an impact, and we are hopeful that they will go along with that. Although legal restrictions are being removed, the guidance will recommend that masks continue to be worn in certain situations, and businesses will be encouraged to support staff and customers who continue to wear masks.
In line with businesses, public services have always been free to set their own entry policies as long as they meet their existing obligations, including under the Equality Act. Public services must continue to protect workers and others from risks to their health and safety, including from Covid. That is only right and fair.
On the very important question of the immuno- suppressed and the immunocompromised, both noble Baronesses made extremely powerful points. I want to express in very clear terms my personal sympathy for all those who have concerns about the impact of the vaccine and for whom the rise in infections presents a very real threat to their health. However, I flag the Public Health England report on the clinically extremely vulnerable group as a whole. It makes it clear that there is little reduction in vaccine effectiveness for them compared to those who are not in high-risk groups, with between 76% and 93% effectiveness after a second dose. The PHE data also suggests reduced effectiveness for the immunocompromised and the immunosuppressed, particularly after one dose, but effectiveness after two doses is much higher. These general figures mask substantial variations, which we have discussed before—we would expect this between one set of compromised systems and another—but future studies will provide much more granularity on that. It is not right, however, to suggest that all those with compromised immunities are left unprotected by the vaccine.
The guidance for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable was updated and published on 12 July, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out. This confirms that changes to social distancing rules in step 4 will also apply to the CEV, who are advised to continue considering additional precautions that they may wish to take on board. I hear very clearly the noble Baroness’s points about anomalies in the guidance; I will take those back to the department and try to tidy up the documentation as she advises.
I can inform the House that we are writing to NHS clinicians to update them on them on the latest position regarding vaccine effectiveness for these groups and provide information on potential treatment options currently under development, such as monoclonal antibody therapies and novel antivirals, as well as access to antibody testing. This guidance will support clinicians in their conversations with patients. This is such a variegated group that that kind of personalised advice is critical.
The interim JCVI advice is that all clinically extremely vulnerable people, including immunosuppressed individuals and their household contacts, should be prioritised for a booster vaccine in the autumn. We are continuing to invest in the OCTAVE study, which will provide further data on patients with suppressed immune response. Interim results for the immediate response to the vaccine will be available from the middle of July.
We are absolutely focused on ensuring that the population is given clear guidance. The NHS app is undoubtedly an area that needs to evolve. Its effectiveness as a technological tool in giving people counsel and advice when they have been in close proximity to someone with the infection is extremely valuable. We are looking at ways in which that value can be enhanced.
On the specific question of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about Malta, it is for member states to determine what they accept at their borders regarding vaccines. Foreign travel advice recently published for Malta misleadingly reported that it would not accept the specific batches received from the Serum Institute of India in the UK. This has now been resolved with agreement from the Maltese Government, and Malta is now accepting proof of vaccination from any Covid vaccine administered in the UK.
Turning to those who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, rightly pointed out, stepped forward for the critical AstraZeneca vaccine clinical trials, being on a vaccine trial absolutely should not disadvantage them. The Government intend to take any action available to ensure that that is the case. We are working with clinical research sites to add participant information of vaccine clinical trials to the national immunisation management service—NIMS—to allow participants to access their NHS Covid pass for both domestic and international travel purposes.
We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, has withdrawn so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud.
My Lords, on 9 July a Department of Health and Social Care press release claimed that, for those who are immunosuppressed, vaccine effectiveness after a second dose is 74%, with
“similar protection to those not in an at-risk group.”
But this was based on an extremely small sample size. In response, Blood Cancer UK’s chief executive Gemma Peters said that
“its ‘confident, definitive assertions’ about the level of protection given to the UK’s 230,000 blood cancer patients could not yet be supported by the ‘wider body of evidence on vaccine efficacy in the immunocompromised’”.
I am aware that my noble friend the Minister has already commented widely on this issue, but could he comment specifically on those with cancer, particularly those 230,000 blood cancer patients? What intention do Her Majesty’s Government have to clarify this guidance and ensure that the immunosuppressed have access to the necessary resources to help improve their understanding and decision-making?
My Lords, the position of the immunosuppressed is one that we have a huge amount of sympathy for. Those who have blood cancer face a particular challenge. I was very grateful to meet Blood Cancer UK and discuss this matter. The PHE report makes the very clear point that those with suppressed immune systems may have a very strong vaccine response, particularly after two weeks after two doses. Just because someone has a suppressed immune system, it does not mean that the vaccine has left them completely unprotected. I completely accept that the responses of one group and another group may be quite different and it is difficult to lump everyone together. That is why we are investing in the OCTAVE study; I am hopeful it will be published by the end of the month. That will provide some, but not all, the information we need to elaborate on that guidance.
My Lords, with government scientists predicting that up to 4,800 people a day could be admitted to hospital with Covid if England rushes back to normality at the same time as health experts are predicting a surge in flu and other respiratory viruses likely to lead to severe pressures on the NHS, what contingency plans are the Government putting in place to deal with these pressures without leading to the backlog of other much-needed care and treatment growing ever bigger? Will these contingency plans be published?
My Lords, we acknowledge the risks. The noble Baroness is entirely right about flu; the relatively low levels of both flu and RSV in the last 18 months mean that many will not have the immune system that they normally would, and flu is a present danger. That is why we are working so hard on the flu vaccine programme and bundling Covid boosters and flu vaccines for those in the right prioritisation lists. I encourage absolutely everyone to make sure they get their flu vaccine when it comes around. Given the range of uncertainties, we are working with the NHS on its plans for this winter. We will ensure that the service has what it needs to meet those challenges.
My Lords, following the G7 we pulled together a joint task force with USA colleagues to address the precise point that the noble Baroness alludes to. That joint task force is working extremely hard to resolve the various practical, epidemiological and virological arrangements for the kind of green-list corridor that we would like to have between our two friendly countries. I am hopeful we will be able to make announcements on that shortly.
I would be most grateful if the Minister could follow on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and tell us when these plans will be published. The statement says
“we do not believe that infection rates will put unsustainable pressure on the NHS”,
yet we know that the lambda variant, if it should come into the UK and spread, is probably antibody resistant. We know that already, last weekend, some emergency departments had waiting times of around eight hours because they were under such pressure from patients plus staff sickness. We know that it is completely inhumane to expect parents of a sick baby to go into work if the child has RSV during the winter, so those members of staff will inevitably take unpaid leave if they are not allowed to take leave to look after their child.
The challenge presented by workforce illness in the NHS is acute at the moment. It is one we are very conscious of, and the noble Baroness is entirely right that parents who have a sick child must stay at home. Not only is that humane; it is also infection control wisdom. That puts the pressure on. That is why we have prioritised vaccination among healthcare staff, and we are prioritising the boosters for staff.
In terms of managing emergency services, we are conducting a huge marketing campaign around the use of NHS 111 so that people can book their slot and be directed to the right kinds of services because, as the noble Baroness knows, many people who turn up in emergency departments are not necessarily in the right place for the conditions they present.
In terms of variants of concern, we are keeping an eye on lambda, beta and all those that may present a vaccine escape risk. We will take whatever steps necessary to address their threat.
My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as deputy colonel commandant of the Brigade of Gurkhas. Since I last raised the plight of unvaccinated Gurkha veterans in Nepal, I am delighted that the Government have acknowledged their duty of care to them under the Armed Forces covenant. Previously my noble friend has said that our priority is to vaccinate “our people” in the United Kingdom. Now that we seem to be struggling to find people to give the first vaccination to, since there are fewer than 50,000 per day, can I simply ask him again when we will vaccinate our people —our Gurkha veterans are absolutely “our people”—in Nepal? When will they get their vaccines?
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for his campaign on Nepal. His remarks are heartfelt, understood and heard clearly. We all recognise the debt we owe, not just to those from Nepal who have served in Her Majesty's Armed Forces, but their families and the entire nation for their contribution throughout Britain’s history. The PM has announced that the UK will donate 100 million doses over the next year, and the majority of those will be donated to COVAX. My honourable friend in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be best placed to clarify the precise arrangements and where Nepal will stand in that supply chain.
I wonder if the Minister could help me a little with the Government’s logic. Care home workers on zero-hour contracts are to be forced to get vaccinated without even a single guaranteed paid day off to recover from side-effects. A significant step change on domestic Covid passports is to be decided on by businesses themselves and regulated by them, despite all the problems with testing and tracing. Yet something as light touch and common sense as wearing a mask in shops and on public transport is not to be a legal requirement. What is behind this mask aversion and confusion—scientific evidence or Trumpian culture wars?
My Lords, in terms of care home staff vaccination, we are in the midst of a consultation on the subject. The noble Baroness should not necessarily pre-empt the consultation. We take into account the views of those we are consulting with. It is a measure that has caused an enormous amount of concern both here in the Chamber and with the public. It feels right that we should be consulting on a measure that ultimately protects the elderly and vulnerable.
In terms of certification, the ultimate use of certification in domestic surroundings has not been fully decided. At this stage, with the country enjoying the benefit of the vaccine, it seems right to be leaving that to businesses to decide how they wish to use it themselves.
My Lords, I want to follow on from the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. The Government believe that passive smoking poses risks to individuals; hence they ban smoking in offices, pubs and other public places. The science has persuaded the Government that, during a pandemic, the wearing of masks in public places helps prevent individuals from passing on Covid to others, which even those who have been double vaccinated can do. In the Statement, the Government say that it is expected and recommended that masks will continue to be worn. Can the Minister explain why smoking should be governed by government diktat, but mask-wearing should be a matter of personal choice?
The noble Baroness makes her points extremely well. I support the ban on smoking in public places for exactly the reasons she describes. However, I do not support a mandatory, legal ban on sneezing, although I do not like people sneezing in my presence. We have to strike a balance between mandation and voluntary arrangements. We also have to choose the right people to make these decisions. Central Government cannot make every single decision on every single matter. I recognise the concern of both the public and of noble Lords in this Chamber about masks. It feels right to leave it to local decision-makers, politicians and companies to take the public with them and to enforce this measure which, I entirely agree, is of benefit to us all.
My Lords, with the number of infections rising and restrictions continuing to ease, can my noble friend say whether the supplies of vaccines and the capacity to administer them allow the vaccination programme to be further enlarged? This would give us a better chance of overcoming the undoubted risks which, unfortunately, remain.
We have an established vaccine run rate and programme, and we have in place the supplies to meet those targets and to fulfil the commitment to vaccinate all those who step forward for vaccination by the end of July. My noble friend may be referring to either a third or booster shot with a variant vaccine. Negotiations and clinical studies are taking place at the moment. We are cognisant that the vulnerable, elderly and those in high priority groups may need further vaccination in the autumn. We are putting in place all the plans necessary to deliver this.
My Lords, I return to the confusing advice on masks. In the early weeks of the pandemic, some of the worst levels of deaths occurred among transport workers. They were inevitably faced with potential infection for several hours a day. It was particularly true of bus drivers, including a very good friend and neighbour of mine who died from Covid a few months before his retirement. With the advent of compulsory mask-wearing on public transport, driver hospitalisation and deaths fell dramatically. With rising infections and more unpredictable variants, what on earth is the rationale for not making masks mandatory on public transport and in other situations where staff are dealing with an increasingly maskless public?
I thank the noble Lord for that very touching personal testimony about his neighbour who passed away. It is an important account of many who have put themselves at risk. The PHE report on high mortality groups includes bus drivers, taxi drivers and many who perform an important public service that puts them in front of the general public and therefore at risk from this virus. We absolutely support the wearing of masks. Published guidance will continue to recommend that wearing a face covering will reduce the risk not only to yourself but to others, particularly in enclosed and crowded spaces. The noble Lord asked about whether mandation should be in place and for whom, and I do not wish to duck his point The mandation of masks on public transport is best left to those who run it, which is why we have moved away from legal rules to an approach that enables personal judgments and the intervention of businesses and local leaders.
My Lords, much uncertainty and changing dynamics surround travel—Malta and the EU have already been mentioned. To flip that around, can the Minister kindly explain the rationale as to why government advice has belaboured ad nauseam travelling from the UK, yet my wife is able to travel to the UK from Portugal?
My Lords, our intention is that, later in the summer, those who are fully vaccinated will not have to quarantine when arriving in England from an amber list country. This will benefit the noble Lord’s wife, and I hope she will take advantage of it. When it comes to travel, caution is still the principle because travel exposes us to proximity to people in very confined areas. It also raises the possibility that variants of concern will come back with travellers returning from abroad. We have worked so hard and done so much to keep those VOCs out of the UK that it is not just right to give up these efforts now. Those arrangements are under review and will change if the risk assessment changes.
My Lords, I have listened very carefully to the Minister but I did not quite hear the answer to the questions asked by the noble Baronesses, Lady Tyler and Lady Finlay, about the forthcoming pressures on the NHS. The hospital I was at on Tuesday morning is, I was told, working at full stretch; it is at winter levels in July. Covid is taking up ICU beds and stopping elective surgery now, even before the pressure starts. There are constant references in the Statement about not wanting unsustainable pressures on the NHS, but we are putting such pressures on it by allowing the figures to rip without seeming to have proper back-up services and resources. Can the Minister answer the questions from the two noble Baronesses?
My Lords, I thought I had answered the questions put by the two noble Baronesses. I will seek to answer the noble Lord. He is absolutely right: our hospitals are working flat out but this is not mainly because of Covid. As of 11 July, hospital admissions in England were running at 502 a day. As of 13 July, there were 2,970 patients in hospital in England with Covid, of whom 470 were on mechanical ventilation. Catching up on all the backlog—not Covid—is what is consuming the hospitals and making them run so red hot. This is the focus of our healthcare system at the moment, and it will remain so for some time to come. We are under no illusions: there is a massive backlog which includes many people who have not come forward with symptoms of severe disease and will need to be addressed and treated. This is a huge national project that we are undertaking.
My Lords, in his answer to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, the Minister made a comparison which suggested an equivalence between mask-wearing and sneezing. The website MedExpress says:
“Sneezing is…an involuntary release of air that helps the body to get rid of irritants in our nose and throat”.
Does the Minister wish to reconsider that comparison and acknowledge that mask-wearing is a voluntary action available to everybody?
The noble Baroness obliges me to confess that, as a young man, I mastered the art of controlling my sneezing, and I am pathetically proud of this. I should be glad to share the skill with her should we have the opportunity to spend some time together.
I want to return to the question of masks. As we have already heard, the ending of the mandatory wearing of masks is causing anxiety and insecurity among clinically vulnerable people. Would the Minister agree that, given that the wearing of masks reduces the spread of the virus and causes no harm to the economy, it would be sensible to make it mandatory? Secondly, guidance recommends good ventilation in enclosed spaces. What assistance are the Government giving to those who need to install air filtration systems?
My Lords, I will be crystal clear on this matter. The noble Baroness is right: the wearing of masks is important—for yourself and other people— which is why the Government continue to recommend that people wear them. However, the question was about mandation, and, as I said earlier, it is not reasonable for the Government to mandate minute aspects of our life in perpetuity. We have made a decision on that and passed the responsibility to individuals, local leaders and those who do outbreak management. I completely understand and hear loud and clear people’s concerns, but, were we to mandate it, what is the option for the country? Are we going to issue tens of millions of fines to those who do not wear masks? If they do not wear them, will we lock them up in prison? We tried extremely hard on that policy, but I am not sure whether it had any further rope to run.
My Lords, I welcome the direction in which the Government are now proceeding. I quote from the Statement:
“To those who say, ‘Why take this step now?’, I say, ‘If not now, when?’”
There is regulation fatigue, and the Government are facing up to the need for, let us say, a managed process forward. I draw the Minister’s attention to this statement in the Statement:
“We are today publishing … details of a review that we will be conducting in September to assess our preparedness for autumn and winter.”
Could a copy of that review be placed in the Library so that we can all see what it has to say and, if necessary, offer our observations to the Minister to help the further development of what is turning into a policy that I can be fully behind?
My Lords, winter is a challenging time for the NHS, and, during an average winter, seasonal respiratory conditions drive an increased demand for hospital beds, as my noble friend knows. That will add to the already intense pressure that the NHS is under. Plans are being put in place. The circumstances are changeable. If there are any plans whatever that can be published, I will ensure that they are sent to the noble Lord and placed in the Library, as requested.
My Lords, the Statement from the Minister says that the Government will
“expand … capacity for genomic sequencing”,
which would help in the detection of any new variants. Could the Minister define how and when that expansion will take place?
Enormous expansion has already taken place: we have brought together the existing dispersed genomic sequencing capacity of the country and brought it to bear, both at the PHE headquarters in Colindale and in Cambridge, where a huge array of sequencing is going on. We have also brought sequencing into Leamington Spa, where, as the noble Baroness may know, we have a large industrialised diagnostics centre, so that sequencing can be done as soon as we have turned around the PCR testing. We are running at around 30,000 or 40,000 sequences a week, which is a dramatic increase on the past, but we continue to invest in this capacity.
My Lords, would my noble friend give consideration to putting a full-page advertisement in every paper, with guidance? This must be clear, coherent and consistent. Would he also—I am sorry to press him on this again—tell me when this consultation over care-home workers will conclude? President Macron has already decided that this will happen in France. A third of the people who died were in care homes; they are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. It is essential that those who look after their intimate needs are themselves vaccinated.
My Lords, I will definitely consider the idea of a full-page advert, and I am grateful for that suggestion. I would also be very interested to receive a submission from my noble friend to the consultation, and, if he would like to copy me in on it, I would be glad to make sure that it gets through to the right people.
My Lords, I have listened carefully, and the mask obsession here seems to mask a certain reluctance to ever allow normal to return, even if it means a terrible toll on jobs, livelihoods or non-Covid health—so I am glad to hear the Minister being more balanced. However, I will bend the stick and ask him whether he will concede that many millions are demoralised that the Government’s irreversible freedom day comes with so many caveats that it feels like parole with an electronic tag and house arrest hanging over us like a sword of Damocles? Can we not get a bit more balance? On data, according to PHE on hospitalisations, of those who spent more than one night in a hospital with the delta variant at the end of June, 39% were patients who had gone to hospital with different conditions—so could the hospitalisations data perhaps be clarified, because I think that that would reduce fear and give a bit of perspective?
My Lords, the noble Baroness slightly underestimates the significant step that the Government have made in order to take advantage of the vaccine, try to get the economy moving and address the very considerable backlog that we have in the NHS. The Prime Minister deserves some praise for the way in which he has moved emphatically in this direction. Therefore, I am a little bit surprised that the noble Baroness has not done more to recognise that point. On the data, I would be glad to look at the number that she describes. It is not one that I recognise, but I would be glad to correspond with her on it.
Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2021
Motion to Approve
My Lords, this Government are committed to taking all necessary steps to protect the people of this country. Tackling terrorism in all its forms is a critical part of that mission. The threat level in the UK, which is set by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, remains at “substantial”, which means that a terrorist attack in our country is likely.
Terrorism by its nature is a fluid and changeable threat. It is therefore right that the Government continuously consider whether new action is necessary, adapting our response to the evolving picture. The concerns that this Government have regarding extreme right-wing terrorism are well documented. The use of these hateful ideologies to prey on young and vulnerable people is utterly abhorrent, and we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to crack down on such activity.
The threat posed by terrorist organisations varies, depending on the group’s ideology, membership and ability to train members. Some groups focus on radicalising, and promoting and encouraging terrorism, and some prepare and commit terrible acts of violence against innocent members of the public. Terrorist groups can now recruit, radicalise and train individuals from a distance, distributing terrorist material at the click of a button. The use of the internet for these purposes has had a huge impact on the threat and the way that we respond to it.
We have a duty to our allies, as well as to our own people, to tackle groups that inspire and co-ordinate international terror. While we can never entirely eliminate the threat from terrorism, we will always do all that we can to minimise the danger that it poses and to keep the public safe. Some 77 terrorist organisations are currently proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000. Thanks to the dedication, courage and skill of counter- terrorism policing and our security and intelligence services, most of these groups have never carried out a successful attack on UK soil. Proscription is a powerful tool for degrading terrorist organisations, and I will come on to explain the impact that it can have shortly.
The group that we now propose to add to the list of proscribed terrorist organisations, amending Schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000, is the Base, a predominantly US-based militant white supremacist group. The group’s actions, such as seeking to train members in weapons and explosives, along with an ideology which aims to divide communities and stir up hatred, are entirely contrary to our values.
It may be helpful for me to provide some background on the proscription power. Under Section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Secretary has the power to proscribe an organisation if she believes that it is currently concerned in terrorism. If the statutory test is met, the Home Secretary may then exercise her discretion to proscribe the organisation.
The Home Secretary considers a number of factors in considering whether to exercise this discretion. These include—and are relevant for this group—the nature and scale of an organisation’s activities and the need to support other members of the international community in tackling terrorism.
The effect of proscription is to outlaw a listed organisation and ensure that it is unable to operate in the UK. It is designed to degrade a group’s ability to operate through various means, including: enabling prosecution for the various proscription offences; supporting take-downs of online material associated with the group; underpinning immigration-related disruptions, including excluding from the UK members of groups based overseas; and making it possible to seize cash associated with the organisation.
It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, support or arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation. It is also a criminal offence to wear clothing or carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation. The penalty for proscription offences is a maximum of 14 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.
Given its wide-ranging impact, the Home Secretary exercises her power to proscribe only after thoroughly reviewing the available evidence on an organisation. This includes open-source material, intelligence material and advice that reflects consultation across government, including with the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The cross-government proscription review group supports the Home Secretary in her decision-making process. The Home Secretary’s decision to proscribe is taken only with great care and after consideration of the particular case, and it is appropriate that it must be approved by both Houses.
Having considered all the evidence, the Home Secretary believes that the Base is concerned in terrorism and that the discretionary factors support proscription. Noble Lords will know that I am unable to comment on specific intelligence, but I can provide the House with a summary of the group’s activities.
As I have said, the Base is a predominantly US-based, militant white supremacist group that was formed in 2018. It draws influence from a collection of essays by prominent national socialist James Mason that advocate the use of violence to initiate the collapse of modern society through a race war and the subsequent creation of a white ethno-state. This ideology is known as accelerationism.
The Base has links with other internationally based national socialist groups, such as Atomwaffen Division, which was proscribed by this Parliament in April, along with some individuals, and it seeks to provide training, guidance and networking.
The Base almost certainly prepares for terrorism. While it outwardly seeks to promote itself as a self-defence and survivalist group, and refutes any claims that it is involved in terrorist activity, the training that it provides is highly likely to be paramilitary in nature and preparatory to offensive action. This training would almost certainly enhance the intent and capability of trainees to conduct terrorist acts. Members of the Base have engaged in weapons and explosives training.
The Base has almost certainly promoted or encouraged acts of terrorism and elements of its membership will almost certainly continue to do so. In late 2017 the group’s founder released a series of videos that cover topics such as lone-wolf activity and leaderless resistance, and advocate guerrilla warfare.
It is essential that our strategy to counter terrorism allows us to tackle the full spectrum of activity. This includes confronting the threat from groups that prepare for acts of violence and mass murder and unlawfully glorify horrific terrorist acts, so that they are prevented from stirring up hatred and division in our communities.
When groups without a physical presence in the UK are proscribed, particularly groups like the Base, it is important to consider the wider impact that proscription has. Proscription of the Base will aid the police in their work to disrupt the threat that extreme right-wing terrorist groups pose to our national security by supporting efforts to remove online content associated with this group. It will build on the robust action that the Government have already taken in proscribing National Action, Sonnenkrieg Division, Feuerkrieg Division and Atomwaffen Division. Proscription sends a strong statement that the ideology of such groups is unacceptable in the UK, and that the UK is a hostile environment for extreme right-wing terrorism.
Our message is clear: we will always take every possible action to counter the threat from those who hate the values that we cherish. The safety and security of the public is our number one priority. I therefore commend this order to the House.
My Lords, I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said in her introduction and I will not repeat the Explanatory Memorandum for this SI. Does the Minister agree that a large proportion of the Muslim community does not agree with terrorism and that these terrorists are acting in their own personal interests?
[Inaudible]—the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia. I thank the Minster for explaining this order and I again express my thanks to those in the police and security services who work tirelessly to keep us all safe.
We have seen in recent weeks the hideous face of British racism and the disgraceful failure of senior members of the Government to support the anti-racism stance taken by the England football team. I quote from the Times opinion piece by the Conservative noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, published yesterday:
“In the contest between Priti Patel and Tyrone Mings there will only be one winner, and it won’t be the politician.”
As the Minister has explained, that is why proscribing extreme right-wing terrorist groups such as the Base is so important. I quote the Home Office press release:
“The Base has celebrated and promoted the use of violence in an attempt to establish a fascist, white ethno-state by means of a race war, and members are known to have engaged in weapons and explosives training. Its founder has also published a series of videos under his alias covering topics including”,
as the Minister has said,
“lone wolf activity, advocating guerrilla warfare, and leaderless resistance.”
When we considered the last proscription order on 22 April, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark—I warmly congratulate him on his appointment as the Labour Party Chief Whip in this House—and I questioned why it had taken so long to proscribe Atomwaffen Division when a cursory search of various news articles showed that it was linked to Sonnenkrieg Division, an organisation that had been proscribed 14 months previously. The Minister replied:
“The noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Paddick, pressed me on why we are bringing these measures forward now. Obviously, there is information that the Home Secretary receives that I cannot discuss, and she will make decisions based on the intelligence and legal information that she receives.”—[Official Report, 22/4/21; col. 1978.]
With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, if the challenge were that there did not appear to be information in the public domain to justify the proscription, the noble Baroness may have a point, but that is not the issue. The question is why, when there appears to be overwhelming evidence in the public domain that an organisation should be proscribed, it is not proscribed earlier. Any delay in proscribing such dangerous and divisive organisations runs the risk of people being influenced and atrocities being perpetrated. As MI5’s Ken McCallum warned yesterday, racism is fuelling the far-right threat in the UK.
This order proscribes the Base. I quote a BBC article published on 24 January 2020, almost 18 months ago. It says:
“The Base is a major counter-terrorism focus for the FBI. Seven alleged members were charged this month with various offenses, including conspiracy to commit murder. Court documents prepared by the FBI describe The Base as a ‘racially motivated violent extremist group’ that ‘seeks to accelerate the downfall of the United States government, incite a race war, and establish a white ethno-state’ … In social media posts that year”,
which was 2018, “Norman Spear”, an alias used by the founder of the Base,
“posted imagery and videos by the outlawed British terrorist group National Action, praised al-Qaeda, and asked for volunteers possessing various skills, including with weapons, for his new organisation”.
That is not the information that the Minister has just given us; it is information from a BBC article 18 months ago.
An article in the Guardian newspaper, published on 24 January, the same date, states:
“The white supremacy group, which has regional and international cells, extols the virtues of an all-out race war while specifically targeting African Americans and Jewish people”.
Here we have evidence from the FBI that this is a dangerous terrorist organisation, that it was promoting the UK proscribed organisation National Action and had international cells. There appears to have been, in January 2020, almost 18 months ago, sufficient grounds to proscribe the base, yet the Government are bringing forward this order only now.
After the debate on 12 April, the Minister dismissively derided my internet research. In this case, there are various serious questions for the Government to answer. In the face of overwhelming evidence from the FBI in the public domain, published by reputable news organisations 18 months ago, that this organisation should be proscribed, why has it taken the Government until now to ban it? To say that there is information that the Home Secretary receives that cannot be discussed is simply not good enough. Of course we support this order, but we would have supported it 18 months ago, when it should have been introduced.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for explaining this order. As she said, terrorist groups now recruit, radicalise and train individuals from a distance, distributing terrorist material at the click of a button. Young people, mainly young men, are sucked into a world of conspiracy theories, fascist propaganda, race hate and quasi-military action. The use of the internet for propaganda and training purposes has had an impact on this potential threat to our way of life; it also means that the Government have to respond to this threat in a sophisticated and direct way. The Government, quite rightly in the Opposition’s view, have a responsibility to act to protect young people from being sucked into this world and to protect the public from the race hate, bombs and bloodshed that these groups promote. We will support today’s order.
This is the third white supremacist hate group that Parliament has proscribed in the past year. The group, called the Base, was founded in 2018 and has been operational since then. That was three years ago. There have been TV programmes about it and there is plenty of information on the internet on its activities, so the question of delay arises—the central point that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made in his contribution. Is the Minister satisfied that this group and far-right groups like it are properly monitored and that action, such as today’s proscription order, is put in place in a timely manner for the protection of the public? My honourable friend Mr McGinn, in the other place, asked about the status of the proscription review group and the Minister, Chris Philp, described proscription as a powerful tool to degrade terrorist organisations. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on the work of the review group—for example, on how often it meets, whether she believes that the current review process is working satisfactorily and whether there is there a robust strategy within which it works. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, spoke in some detail on the information available 18 months ago, in January 2020, and made the point that there seemed to be enough information available 18 months ago to ban this group, so why the delay?
As I understand it, ministerial responsibility for dealing with these types of potentially terrorist groups currently lies with the noble Baroness. This is following the resignation of Mr Brokenshire. Yesterday in the debate in the other place, fulsome tributes were paid to Mr Brokenshire, which I am sure were well deserved. My honourable friend the Member for Barnsley East, Stephanie Peacock, in yesterday’s debate expressed a desire to meet the Minister to talk about another far-right group that is potentially terrorist in its nature; she referred to the details of that group yesterday and her work through the relevant all-party group in looking at potential right-wing terrorism activity. I hope that the Minister will meet my honourable friend so that she can explain the nature of the threat as she sees it.
There are 77 terrorist organisations currently proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000. Four are far-right groups and the majority are Islamist groups. Last October, the new director-general of MI5 warned that violent far-right terrorism was now a threat, with eight of 27 serious terrorist plots stopped in the final stages in the past three years linked to neo-fascist and racist groups. Online chat forums and video games are used as recruitment tools. The number of those under 18 among those arrested over the last three years has almost trebled. I believe that this trend is worrying and getting closer to home. The use of hateful ideologies to prey on young and vulnerable people is wrong and abhorrent and the Government have a responsibility to do everything in their power to crack down on them.
I close by paying tribute to the dedication, courage and skill of counterterrorism police and our security and intelligence services. We should be grateful that most of the proscribed organisations have never carried out a successful attack on UK soil.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. Just to go to a general point, a decision to proscribe must be based on evidence that a group is concerned in terrorism, as defined by the Terrorism Act 2000, and it must be proportionate.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, challenges me on why we are making this decision to proscribe now. Decisions on whether and when to proscribe a particular organisation are taken after extensive consideration and in light of a full assessment of available information. It is important that the decisions we take are based on robust evidence and do not adversely impact on any ongoing investigations, and, in order to keep the public safe, it is not appropriate for us to discuss any specific intelligence that led to the decision to proscribe. I know that will frustrate the noble Lord, but that is the situation.
The PRG operates as a cross-government group that supports the Home Secretary in her decision-making. It makes recommendations and provides advice to the Home Secretary on issues relating to the implementation of the proscription regime, including on the case for proscription name-change orders and consideration of deproscription applications. We do have several horizon-scanning processes in place to ensure we can tackle emerging threats. It might frustrate noble Lords, but, with those things in place, I think my right honourable friend the Home Secretary makes the right decisions at the right time, based on the evidence available to her.
As for meeting the honourable Member for Barnsley East, I have written to her—perhaps she has not got my letter yet. I am pleased that she is keen on this agenda.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in his praise for the CT police and the security intelligence services. As he says, because of their work, we have not seen a major attack in this country. I join the noble Lord also in his concern about the vulnerability of young men who may be sucked into such organisations while they are impressionable and, as he said, young.
I would also like to refute the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about the Government not standing up to racism. I speak for myself: I do not think anyone would ever accuse me of that, and I am part of this Government. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has herself been, on many occasions, the victim of trolling and racism online. I have seen some pretty horrific things said about her. The Prime Minister, only yesterday, talked about the very stern action he was going to take to tackle racism in football.
I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, that a large portion of the Muslim community does not agree with terrorism. Not only do Muslims make a great contribution to this country, but Islam is a religion of peace and Muslims, I might say, are often the victims of terrorism rather than the perpetrators.
I think I have answered all questions and I beg to move.
Arrangement of Business
We come now to 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, and a participant who wishes 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 the voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their vote counted if the Question is put, they must make this clear when speaking to the group.
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
Committee (2nd Day)
Clause 1: Local skills improvement plans
8: Clause 1, page 2, line 20, at end insert—
“(5A) All other post-16 education and training providers, including universities, school sixth forms, sixth form colleges, and adult and community learning providers, must also have due regard to the local skills improvement plan, as it relates to their provision.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment sets out the complementary roles of schools, colleges and universities.
My Lords, I move this amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie. This amendment sets out the complementary roles of schools, colleges and universities by joining up the wider education and skills system so that it better meets society’s needs and gives people the skills they need. Delivering this means ensuring that we develop the right balance of autonomy, authority and accountabilities that will enable schools, colleges and universities to focus on the complementary roles they can play together and with other partners over the long term. This must involve a genuine partnership, with providers empowered to stimulate and challenge articulated demand, rather than act as passive policy recipients. It means ensuring that this is meaningfully accessible to all and involves an effectively joined-up wider education and skills system. Colleges do not work in isolation to meet the education and training needs of their communities. Schools and universities are important parts of the system, so they should be part of the planning process. Amendment 8—in the names of my noble friends Lord Rooker and Lord Bradley, as well—therefore sets out the complementary roles of schools, colleges and universities in delivering on LSIPs.
Currently, there is a lack of a comprehensive, long-term education and skills plan that brings together all parts of the system towards the same vision. Different parts of the system have different policy priorities and initiatives. The current reform agenda is not sufficiently addressing this. It deals with only one part of the system—colleges—without exploring the need for complementary alignment with universities, schools and other providers. At the same time, this means that the role of education and skills in addressing wider policy priorities and strategies is not always recognised—for example, the role of colleges in welfare, health and net-zero policies.
There is a lack of any system to co-ordinate the 16 to 18 offer at the local and subregional level between schools and colleges. This leads to insufficient provision and limits student choice of programme—for example, when multiple competing providers concentrate on a narrow offer at the expense of less popular or minority provision.
At the university level, there is contested ground over the higher technical level 4 to level 5 provision and who is best placed to offer this, leading to unproductive competition between colleges and universities. If a whole education system approach is not taken to local skills planning, there will be a disjointed system that is not efficient or effective in its use of public money and does not best meet the needs of students and employers.
There should also be an exploration of a national 10-year education and skills strategy sitting across government, to deliver on wider policy agendas and to give stability to all parts of the system, creating a duty on schools and universities to collaborate with colleges and employers in the development of skills plans, so that the training on offer efficiently meets the need of local areas. I therefore beg to move.
I rise to support this amendment. This is such an important issue, but I can see that is difficult as well.
When I started teaching, which was many years ago, in Coventry, it was very clear which provider offered which course. The advantage was that it was very straightforward for children and schools to know where to go for catering, engineering, electronics or whatever. The disadvantage was that it squeezed out competition, which can raise standards and creativity. It is somehow getting that balance that we are looking for. I would welcome the Minister explaining how far the Government are prepared to go to make sure that there is some sort of co-ordinated provision within each skills partnership. It makes sense to allow providers to play to their strengths and it is also essential that courses that might not be economically viable but are important for the local or indeed the national economy are supported to stay open and be made available. So it is a tricky issue and I cannot recall so far in the debate on this amendment hearing the Minister outline the Government’s views on this.
To bring universities in, my noble friend Lady Wilcox made a very strong point. In the old days, it was just further education courses that were co-ordinated, but now we have a growth in private providers and universities in these contested levels as well. So in the name of clarity for students and users, and for the needs of the economy, we need some guidance from the Government about a co-ordinated approach, making sure all areas are covered. Basically, what happens is that all providers want to provide the cheap courses, and the machinery-heavy courses do not get offered. Schools are happy to go into vocational work, as long as it is classroom-based and they do not need specialist teachers. That very often leaves the college with the courses that need highly specialised tutors and heavy equipment. I would welcome the Minister somehow making sense of all that in her comments.
I support what my noble friends Lady Wilcox and Lady Morris have said. I strongly support the case for more co-ordination. It is not clear to me, in the Bill, how this is going to work, and I would like to hear an explanation from the Minister of how she thinks co-ordination will be made to work at a local level. The idea that a Secretary of State sitting in London can get into the question of which school should offer which course and how we deal with the problem that my noble friend Lady Morris described is not going to work.
There is the Education and Skills Funding Agency. In the period when I briefly had something to do with it—when I was advising my noble friend Lord Mandelson, when he was Business Secretary in charge of skills—I did not get the impression that that body had the capacity to do this job of co-ordination. It was basically responsible for making sure that public money was handled in an accountable way. What I would love to hear from the noble Baroness is an explanation of how central government intends to approach this question of co-ordination at local level. In my view—and here there is a big lacuna in the Bill—this is most effectively done by councils and mayoral authorities. It should be a devolved matter; it is an opportunity, in my view, to strengthen devolution within England. I do not sense that the noble Baroness shares that view. Perhaps she will explain to us, if she does not share that view, how she thinks this task of co-ordination will be carried out.
If the noble Baroness wishes to speak to Amendment 40A, she is entitled to do so.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to support Amendment 40A—and I hope it will be moved. It is crucial that this information goes to pre-16 year-olds, because it is at that stage they are making choices about their future. It is important that, before the vocational 16-plus stage is reached, doors are opened and aspiration is fostered and nourished. There is considerable poverty of aspiration in the years between 14 and 16. If we are to enable those young people to move into useful and rewarding further education, we shall be helping not only them but our economy.
My Lords, I am in favour of both Amendment 8, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and Amendment 40A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker. These amendments require schools, sixth-form colleges, adult community learning providers and universities to have due regard for local skills improvement plans. This sort of co-ordination between education providers and the community is absolutely essential if we are to ensure that people are armed with the skills they need to succeed in the modern workforce.
There is one omission from these two amendments, and it is one that is all too often forgotten: the contribution of independent training providers. Many of these organisations provide high-quality courses that fill skills shortages in their communities. Unlike other providers, they are not given equal access to funding—for example, in the north-east of England they are, in many cases, filling gaps in skills training but do not have the same access to public funding contracts as non-private education providers. These training providers, where—and only where—they meet the appropriate quality standards, should be included in local skills improvement plans, along with any other providers listed in these two amendments. Further, these local plans should incorporate both public and private education providers if we are to give our communities the best possible chance of meeting their specific skills gaps.
We live in a society that is rapidly changing and we need an education system that can meet the needs of this changing world. Sadly, to date in this country, and in much of the English-speaking world, university degree qualifications have always been viewed as superior and the other, more technical skills and qualifications have been looked down on. They have been the victim of a particular form of snobbery, in my view. It is quite clear that many of the areas where we face skills gaps are in these technical areas, and we must address this by improving the status of education providers that teach these skills, including those that are independent.
We need to change our understanding of education to something that people should participate in at all stages of life. With the changes in our economy, many jobs that people do today will not exist in a few years. Local plans should be considering not only where there are skills gaps but where there will likely be jobs that are going to disappear, and how people working in them can be retrained. Therefore, it will not just be school leavers or younger people who need training but people who may have worked in their current professions for many decades and who are now having to learn new skills if they are to remain employable.
Another factor to consider is how we promote training opportunities in new and imaginative ways to encourage people to take part. Many people, as we know, have not had a very positive experience of the education system and may resist the prospect of having to return to do further study, even if it will benefit them. For others, it may be the first time that they have taken part in any formal education for a very long time, so they may also be apprehensive about taking part. Local skills improvement plans must be cognisant of this as a significant barrier when trying to encourage people to retrain in areas where we currently have severe skills shortages. Once again, this is where including all providers—including those who are independent—is crucial, as their ideas and experience may help to ensure successful skills training delivery.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a non-executive director of the Careers & Enterprise Company. I was sorry not to be able to speak last week on the first day of Committee, particularly in support of Amendment 3 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and on the broader debate about the relationship between local skills improvement plans and national skills needs. I sense that this debate on Amendments 8 and 40A is a continuation of that and I think that the Committee is quite rightly looking for clarification about the relationship between all forms of education and training providers and employers, and identifying skills needs and the careers inspiration that is needed. I hope that on the next day in Committee we will get on to debating Amendment 82 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and related amendments about the vital role that schools will play in shaping the careers aspirations of their pupils and the work of careers hubs.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, I wanted to comment on Amendment 40A. It appears to be drafted relating just to schools providing sixth-form education. However, evidence shows—and it is certainly the aspiration of the Careers & Enterprise Company—that pupils of all ages, even from primary school upwards, benefit from receiving careers interactions and inspiration and hearing about the different careers and jobs that are available. I would not confine the involvement of schools in the work and the shaping of local skills improvement plans just to those with sixth forms.
I hope that the Minister will take from this debate and from what Members are saying that we would welcome further details from Ministers about the way in which the whole careers and skills ecosystem, if I can call it that, will work. That is why the results from the local skills improvement plan pilots will be so important. I do not think that anyone can doubt the critical involvement not only of education providers of all kinds in knowing the need for local skills and national skills—we particularly talked about green jobs and careers in digital, technology and artificial intelligence on the first day in Committee—but also of employers through these employer representative bodies and the local enterprise partnerships too. The sooner Ministers are able to share the results of the local skills improvement plan pilots with Members, the better, as I think that that will help to explain how this whole ecosystem will operate.
My final comment relates to these two amendments. We have to be wary of overloading schools in all ways. As everybody knows, schools are busy places; there are many demands on their time, particularly in light of the challenges from the last 16 months related to Covid and teaching through a pandemic. While schools of course have a vital role to play in facilitating careers inspiration and careers education, it cannot be done without the involvement of employers and businesses from outside. That is the model behind the Careers & Enterprise Company and other local careers initiatives. I hope that Ministers will want to balance that as they continue drafting policies and evaluating these pilots going forward.
My Lords, I aim to speak succinctly in my contribution and hope that other noble Lords will follow suit. I do not look forward to going on until midnight for the next three days of Committee. My last Tube goes at half past midnight and I might have a sense of humour failure if I miss it.
Amendment 8 brings together schools, colleges, universities and adult and community learning providers to ensure that all those involved with skills learning are working in collaboration. We do not need competition where different providers, including independent ones, cater for different members of the community when they all have the aim of improving skills and employability. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, says, we support the aim of complementary roles and look for a whole-education collaboration style.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, it is often left to the further education providers to provide the resource-intensive programmes. As we all know, further education is poorly served in funding, teachers and so on, so we look to the Government to do much more to support the further education sector, which is vital in any of the skills programmes.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, was not here to speak to his Amendment 40A but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, I will talk to it, because it is vital that sixth-form educators are aware of the full range of skills and employment opportunities. Far too often they are focused solely on academic achievement, which leaves out a whole load of young people whose skills are more practically based. We must take every step possible to ensure that young people are fully informed of all the work-based practical options which the country needs and which may play to their strengths in ways that A-levels do not. I absolutely support what the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said; we will come later to amendments to ensure that primary schools are included in careers guidance. Of course, some of the skills in the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, are the very ones that university technical colleges do so much to promote. I hope that we shall get a positive response from the Minister on these two amendments.