House of Lords
Thursday 21 October 2021
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Durham.
Introduction: Lord Sedwill
Sir Mark Philip Sedwill, KCMG, having been created Baron Sedwill, of Sherborne in the County of Dorset, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Butler of Brockwell and Lord Boyce, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
My Lords, the Government recognise the role that technology can play in improving the traceability of goods in global supply chains and are working with businesses to build understanding and raise awareness of its potential use. We encourage business and industry to collaborate and share expertise on innovative solutions that will improve supply chain transparency.
I thank the Minister for his Answer, but the United States has banned cotton from China’s Xinjiang due to the treatment of the Uighurs. Why cannot the UK follow? The techniques perfected by Oritain mean that a forensic fingerprint on garments containing cotton can show where it was grown. Cotton picked in Xinjiang ends up in garments made across Asia, from Bangladesh to Vietnam, but not in India. Does the Minister agree that fashion houses must do more in due diligence than they do now, as they are forced to do in the United States? Will the Government take a lead on this issue, or has the Chinese Communist Party reached too far inside the UK?
My Lords, the Government are fully committed to tackling the issue of Uighur forced labour in global supply chains. The measures we have taken do not currently include import bans, but we have announced a range of other measures, including a comprehensive review of export controls as they apply to Xinjiang. I assure noble Lords that we continue to keep our policy response under close review.
My Lords, can the Government update the House on any ongoing conversations that they are having with discount fashion retailers about sourcing of goods in relation to forced labour, modern slavery and child labour, which is causing such anxiety in our country?
My Lords, we continue deliberations with a whole range of businesses, including, of course, the fashion business. Ensuring a tough response to modern slavery remains a priority for this Government. We are committed to strengthening the landmark transparency provisions in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and these measures include the introduction of financial penalties on organisations which fail to publish modern slavery statements, and these will be enforced by our new single enforcement body once it comes into operation.
What are the Government doing about modern slavery in China, particularly Xinjiang, which can be identified—as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out—by elemental analysis of cotton? What is their policy on British investment in relation to China?
For the first part of my noble friend’s question, I refer to the answer I gave previously. On investment generally, we continue to pursue a positive economic relationship with China and we think that it is in our interests to increase trade with China. As an open economy, we welcome trade and investment; however, as I have said on many occasions, we are not so stupid as to welcome harmful investment from China.
During the pandemic, the Government purchased PPE from companies facing modern slavery allegations. As Covid cases sadly begin to climb again, can the Minister say how Her Majesty’s Government will ensure that NHS contracts are not awarded to companies implicated in forced labour in the Chinese region of Xinjiang?
My Lords, the same rules and advice apply to PPE as to other goods that we import into the UK. As noble Lords know, we take a market-first approach to critical supply chain resilience and are committed to championing free trade in a rules-based system. However, we have learned many lessons from the pandemic about the importance of resilience in supply chains; we continue to apply those lessons in practice.
Will the Minister order a review of the modern slavery supply chain with regards to cotton and fibre imports from that particular region of China? He referenced PPE. He will have seen that, overnight, the United States has banned the import of rubber gloves from Supermax and all its subsidiaries because there is “ample evidence” of forced labour and modern slavery. Through NHS procurement, the UK Government have a contract with Supermax worth £316 million. Will the Minister instruct an urgent inquiry to ensure that we are not using these products, which are a result of modern slavery in Malaysia?
My Lords, I declare an interest as the vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uyghurs. Has the Minister noted the all-party amendment passed in your Lordships’ House on Tuesday night, urging more concerted action in dealing with companies and countries banned in the jurisdictions of our closest allies and tainted by everything from genocide to slave labour? As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, should we not stand in unity with our Five Eyes allies? Will we not stand with companies such as H&M, which has now been boycotted in China for refusing to use cotton from Xinjiang that is farmed by slaves, and make it clear whose side we are on—on the side of the slaves or on the side of the slave-drivers?
My Lords, we always bow to the noble Lord’s deep expertise in these matters, and we all very much appreciate the close attention that he pays to them. I like to think that the United Kingdom is one of the global leaders in bringing this issue to people’s attention. We have sponsored resolutions at the UN and elsewhere in relation to this, and will continue to do so.
My Lords, I noticed with some dismay this morning that the dress which I am wearing was made in China. The label does not elucidate which part of China, but there is a very serious question about labelling of products. Often it is very difficult to know where things are made. What work are the Government doing to ensure that imports are better labelled, and how does the Minister define harm? He said that the Government do not believe in investment that creates harm. Does he have a definition of that?
My Lords, probably the easiest place to find a definition is in the schedules to the National Security and Investment Act, which became law at the end of last year. It contains details of 17 subsectors with very strict mandatory controls for matters which clearly would otherwise cause harm. On the first part of the question, I will write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the Minister talked about working with businesses regarding the supply chain. Later, he talked about rules associated with the Modern Slavery Act. Is he confident that there are adequate resources to enforce these rules and future rules, given that the businesses following them may be put at a competitive disadvantage compared with cowboys who fail to do so?
The noble Baroness makes a good point. Last year we debated the very important question of ensuring that our modern slavery laws and guidance are as effective as possible. We continue to work on that and will be introducing financial penalties. We are absolutely embarked on a road which will make possible the eradication of this egregious crime of modern slavery.
COVID-19: Type 2 Diabetes
My Lords, helping people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight is one of the most important things we can do to improve our nation’s health, as I am sure many noble Lords agree. Our world-leading strategy to meet this challenge was published in July 2020 and reflects the significant work undertaken over recent years to halve childhood obesity and create a healthier environment to help people maintain a healthy weight.
My Lords, new NHS research reveals that people seeking help to lose weight are significantly heavier now compared with those who sought help pre-pandemic. With type 2 diabetes closely linked to obesity and local public health services shown to be highly cost-effective in helping people to lose weight, what assessment has the Minister made of the link between the cuts in funding and the increasing levels of obesity and diabetes, and will the NHS evidence now drive the Government to commit to reversing public health grants and properly funding services that are essential to tackling obesity?
I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is really important that we tackle these issues and respond to the weight increases over the Covid-19 lockdowns. In March, the Government announced £100 million of extra funding for healthy weight programmes to support children, adults and families to maintain a healthy weight. Additionally, more effort has been put into providing access to information.
My Lords, currently one in 10 people in the UK are suffering from type 2 diabetes, a figure which has doubled in the past 15 years. It already gobbles up an unsustainable 10% of the NHS budget. As my noble friend said, it is preventable and treatable through maintaining a healthy weight, diet and exercise; there is no need for expensive medication. Can my noble friend continue to encourage systematic support so that people can achieve these objectives?
I thank my noble friend for that question and recognise the work she did with the Centre for Social Justice on this issue. The Government are keen to drive the NHS diabetes prevention programme, which plays a pivotal role in supporting those at risk of developing diabetes. During 2018-19, over 100,000 people took up the programme. In 2019-20, NHS England delivered the long-term-plan target, supporting around 120,000 people on the programme.
The Government, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Social Care and many other partners, including Diabetes UK, are looking at the most effective way to tackle diabetes but also to understand the trade-offs that must be made and the balance of considerations. I will write to the noble Lord on the detail of his question.
The Government and the Department of Health and Social Care are reviewing the many impacts of Covid-19 that noble Lords will acknowledge. We are still trying to understand the various implications of lockdown. We have seen increases in weight leading to more type 2 diabetes. I will write to the noble Lord giving a detailed answer to his question.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Jenkin has already mentioned, we have known for many years that reducing weight can reverse type 2 diabetes. With others, I was doing this successfully over 60 years ago. This draws attention to the urgent need for an even greater campaign to deal with the 71% of people in the UK over the age of 30 who are obese or overweight.
The Government have implemented weight-management services. Tier 2 behavioural weight-management services have been provided by 98% of local authorities thanks to the distribution of £30.5 million as part of the adult weight-management services grant. Additionally, £12.8 million was invested in an NHS digital weight-management programme for individuals with multiple long-term conditions, as well as NHS staff. There are a number of other programmes related to weight management which I may well go into in answering a later question.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the great social inequality in levels of obesity, as there has been with Covid levels. If you cannot afford a healthy diet you run a much higher risk of developing obesity. What measures will the Government explicitly put in place to support those on lower incomes to easily afford healthy diets—for example, factoring the costs of healthy diets into benefit levels, boosting healthy-start vouchers and introducing fruit and vegetable prescriptions? Right now, if you want to get a lot of calories to make you feel full, the cost differential is around a factor of 10.
My Lords, I am glad that the Government recognise that this is a huge problem, and the dangers that being overweight brings, especially during Covid. However, does my noble friend not recognise that the strategy, good as it may be, is not working? Is it not time to revert to the situation when I was young, when it was not socially acceptable to be grossly overweight, and to push individual responsibility? Government policy should tell people that they must not eat so much.
I am beginning to wish I had eaten a full breakfast. With any strategy or programme, we always have to be careful about unintended consequences. As we focus more on obesity and make more people aware of healthy living and healthy eating, it is important to have the right balance and to be aware of the impact this can have, so that we are not creating more problems, concerns and anxieties for those who suffer from eating disorders.
My Lords, one in three deaths during the first period of the pandemic were among people with diabetes. Obesity accounts for most of the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and, even without the problems of the pandemic, a type 2 diabetic, such as me, at my age, is expected to put on one or two kilos every year. Will the Minister now look to reverse what the King’s Fund says is, in real terms, a £1 billion cut in local authority public health budgets since 2015, and at providing even more support for programmes such as GP referral to fitness classes, which can help people manage their diabetes more effectively?
As well as looking at the important role that funding can play, it is important to do better with the money available. There are many things we can do to make sure that the programmes we have are more effective, but I repeat that we have to make sure that they work and we have to look at the evidence. When discussing the evidence internally in the department, I have been told that many of these programmes will be reviewed after five years to make sure that they are effective and do not lead to unintended consequences.
My Lords, the Minister made reference to the well-being strategy in his opening Answer. In the interest of joined-up government, I also urge him to take notice of another strategy, the Dimbleby review of the national food strategy. None of these problems will be resolved unless we go to their root, which is our attitude to food availability and the supply chain.
The Government will consider a number of inputs in looking at the most appropriate strategy to address type 2 diabetes and, as many noble Lords have referred to, the increase in weight of many in our population during lockdown. The Government will consider the evidence of the Dimbleby independent review throughout the development of our food strategy.
Trade Policy: Environmental Considerations
My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are committed to upholding the UK’s high environmental standards in our trade policy. We consider a wide range of environmental issues in our trade policy and in what we are seeking to pursue in multilateral fora, as well as under our new free trade agreements. This includes upholding commitments in the Paris Agreement, maintaining our right to regulate to meet net zero and, of course, co-operating on issues from forests and fisheries to greenhouse gas emissions.
My Lords, the Government’s trade strategy seems to aim to increase trade with geographically distant countries, but this does not make much environmental sense. Have the Government conducted an assessment of their trade policies on harmful climate emissions, by air or sea? Will they raise the environmental impact of trade policies at COP 26?
We will certainly raise the impact of trade policies at COP 26. On the noble Baroness’s point about where our trade agreements are being made, of course it might have been better if Australia and New Zealand were close to Europe, but they are not. They are important countries to make trade agreements with, and that trumps the question of geography, in this case.
The most effective audit we have is the deep scrutiny that noble Lords give our trade agreements and trade policy. We have some of the most advanced scrutiny mechanisms in the world, and noble Lords do a good job of auditing us and holding us to account.
Let us test that. On 14 September, the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said that the Government were kicking the can down the road or “running the clock down” on the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. Can the Government update us on when it will be established on a statutory basis? For full scrutiny, will the Minister ensure that the scrubbed legal texts of the Australia and New Zealand deals will go to the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission, so that it can fulfil its duty and report to us, before we are asked to ratify those agreements?
My Lords, as soon as I heard the magic words “Trade and Agriculture Commission” being mentioned by the noble Lord, I thought he was going to congratulate me on that fact that the Government have today published our response to the report of the Trade and Agriculture Commission on how best to advance the issues of British farmers, food producers and consumers in future trade policy. As to his point, there is a very narrow difference between the TAC that has been set up and the statutory TAC. As the noble Lord knows, that difference entirely arose because the Trade Act last year did not allow the payment of allowances to commission members given the way it was assembled at that time. It has become clear to us that, to allow for the best membership of the TAC, some form of allowance—not generous, I hasten to add—should be paid to its members. The members who will form part of the statutory TAC are those who have been appointed today to form this new TAC, and we should welcome them to their important roles.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister and all the other Ministers in the trade department on securing a trade deal with our friends and allies in New Zealand. Is he aware of reports that show that the carbon footprint for New Zealand lamb eaten in London is lower than for domestic lamb, because the vast majority of carbon emission is in the production phase, on the farm? The economies of scale and efficiency reforms that have made New Zealand lamb affordable have also reduced carbon emissions. Is not the best thing we can do for the environment to make the world richer, and is not freer trade an important lever to pull in that regard?
My noble friend makes some excellent points. I wish I had made his point on lamb myself, so I thank him for that, and for drawing the House’s attention to the agreement in principle with New Zealand being reached, as announced today. The environmental chapter of that agreement will break new ground for the UK and New Zealand in supporting our shared climate and environment goals, clean growth and the transition to a net-zero economy. I am pleased that the mood of the House is to welcome the approval in principle of this very important agreement.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests, as set out in the register. The Minister will recall the discussions we had on these issues during the passage of the Trade Bill through this House. In his comments then, and today, he was reassuring about government policies in this area, yet government practice on the Australia deal has been far from reassuring. I reiterate the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and ask the Minister whether the Government will be fully transparent and open about the terms of both the Australia and New Zealand deals to allow the scrutiny of the House, of which he is so flattering.
The noble Baroness is right to draw attention to scrutiny. I am always happy to repeat our commitment to scrutiny from the Dispatch Box. Both the Australia and New Zealand agreements are at the in-principle stage, at the moment. The full texts will be published in due course. They will be made available to the House in good time and will be scrutinised by the TAC and by your Lordships’ International Agreements Committee. We will make sure that there is time for all those processes to be completed thoroughly and to the standard that noble Lords wish.
Documents leaked to Sky News reveal that the Department for International Trade can drop both the climate asks on precedence of multilateral environmental agreements over FTA provisions and on the reference to the Paris Agreement temperature goals. This is of great concern. Can the Minister say whether the Norway agreement last week was one of very few including such clauses because Norway insisted, and otherwise, for a Conservative Government, it is always trade deals at all costs, irrespective of other issues?
Will my noble friend reaffirm that the Government’s trade policy is based on the facilitation of trade by the reciprocal removal of barriers, not on seeking excuses to retain protectionist restrictions we inherited from the EU, or signalling our approval or disapproval, or trying to influence non-trade policies of other countries except as part of multilateral agreements? Will he remember the 19th-century dictum that free trade is God’s diplomacy?
My Lords, it is of course a great pleasure to have God on our side in these matters. The noble Lord is right: we are a global trading nation. Our future prosperity depends on us being a global trading nation. This will remain one of the core priorities of this Government.
The Minister seems to be ignoring the fact that Australia has much lower food standards—incredibly low. It uses paraquat, which has been banned for years here in Britain, and antibiotics, which are also banned. Of course, we now have a trade deal with New Zealand—are we going to fly those kiwi fruits in? Australia also has incredibly low animal welfare standards. The Minister is ditching our better food for the sake of some boastful statement he can make here in the House.
The noble Baroness’s question veers toward the unfair. What do I see when I read the Australia free trade agreement? I see a comprehensive environment chapter with Australia that protects our rights to regulate to meet net zero, sets our shared commitment to building mutually supportive trade and environment policies, and establishes co-operative efforts to support our green economy through trade in a range of areas. That seems to fit the bill.
Private Equity Takeovers
My Lords, the UK’s merger regime recognises that investors play a major and positive role in the UK economy and that many UK sectors have benefited substantially from takeovers and mergers. On the few occasions that private equity-funded acquisitions have raised concerns, the Government have always carefully monitored developments and taken action when there were clear public interest grounds.
My Lords, the typical business model of private equity includes high leverage, financial engineering, tax abuse, pension dumping, job losses and asset stripping. This trail of destruction includes Silentnight, Bernard Matthews, Debenhams, Maplin, Cath Kidston, Toys “R” Us, Four Seasons and much more. When will the Government commission an independent inquiry into the impact of private equity’s destructive practices on all stakeholders?
The UK’s merger regime, which I remind the noble Lord was put in place by the last Labour Government, recognises that overseas investors play a major and positive role in the UK economy, and that many UK sectors have benefited substantially from takeovers and mergers. Such transactions can help to boost UK jobs, increase management efficiency and support businesses to grow on the world stage. We benefit from being an open and accessible economy.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware of the latest Bank of England financial stability summary, which specifically warns that the current level of debt-fuelled US equity takeovers poses a growing threat to the UK economy. Bearing that in mind, what assessment has he made of the US National Bureau of Economic Research’s academic study, which found that when private equity firms buy up public companies, employment shrinks 13% in two years after the acquisition, and the fact that that has prompted senior Democrats to introduce the Stop Wall Street Looting Act to prevent private equity funds forcing companies they purchase to take on new loans to extract dividends they could not otherwise afford? Does he appreciate the irony of the potential of that Act becoming law in the US?
My Lords, of course we look at all transactions closely and there are specific grounds to intervene, set out by the Government that the noble Lord was actually a member of, as I said. We recognise the need for greater accountability for large private companies, including those owned by private equity. We published plans to do just that in our proposals on restoring audit and governance.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware of the acronym ESG, which stands for environmental and social governance—an important way of making sure that businesses behave properly. But there are different reporting standards for listed companies and private equity companies. Will he ensure that all companies trading in this country report on a level playing field? Will he undertake to make sure that everybody affirms the same ESG standards?
As the noble Lord is aware, there are a multiplicity of different international standards, but we are of course introducing the transparency requirements on climate disclosures, as he knows. We have the audit reform proposals, which will extend the reporting requirements to many large private companies as well. We will publish our response to that consultation shortly.
My Lords, according to the financial market data company Refinitiv, private equity firms have made over 345 bids for British companies this year—the highest number since records began back in 1984. We need to ensure that new owners act responsibly, so does the Minister have confidence that the regulatory bodies have sufficient oversight and powers to intervene when private equity owners of British companies fail that duty? How can we build national economic resilience at home to promote global Britain abroad if companies are being bought up so easily and cheaply?
My Lords, we benefit in global terms from being an open and accessible economy. That brings in billions of pounds-worth of inward investment. My noble friend Lord Grimstone, who is in charge of the Office for Investment, works extremely hard to attract overseas investment. We must be very careful not to send out the message that we do not welcome inward investment into this country. That was something recognised by the previous Labour Government and certainly something recognised by this Government. Of course we keep these matters under review. We have introduced the National Security and Investment Act, which gives us additional powers to intervene on national security grounds, and we extended the grounds on which the Secretary of State can intervene under the Enterprise Act.
My Lords, some private equity companies are good managers of businesses, others rather less so. Does the Minister agree that, given the need of the Treasury to bring in extra cash, the treatment of carried interest—the favourable tax treatment of private equity operators—is no longer sustainable?
My Lords, I have never noticed any lack of interest from the Treasury in extending the tax base whenever it possibly can, but the current tax rules reflect the hybrid nature of this reward. If investment managers realise their carried interest gain within three years, that gain is treated as income and taxed accordingly. This approach is also followed by other comparable jurisdictions.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that inward investment and an economy open for global business are good, but where a UK target company has been built largely and perhaps sometimes exclusively on taxpayer-funded government contracts, should we not reconsider the current regime?
It is difficult to give specific examples, but there are grounds under national security, financial stability, media plurality or public health emergencies for the Secretary of State to intervene in mergers and takeovers, and, of course, the CMA monitors competition grounds. Beyond those factors, we welcome inward investors and I agree with the noble Lord that we should be an open and accessible economy.
My Lords, everyone agrees that there is a benefit in investment, but we are not talking about long-term or even medium-term investors. We are talking about short-term profiteers. They are opaque, undertaxed and underregulated. Will the Minister sense the mood of this House and consider regulating in this area, not just on national security grounds but on human security and economic security grounds?
We have not defined exactly what national security is, so there are grounds for the Secretary of State to intervene if we consider it appropriate. But, beyond the measures that I set out, we believe there is merit in us being an open, accessible economy, open to inward investment—and I would not characterise all private equity in the same way as the noble Baroness did.
Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Impact on Trade
My Lords, as noble Lords would expect, the Government continue to observe very closely the situation as regards trade on the island of Ireland and more broadly, for example, trade in goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. It is clear that trade in both directions between Ireland and Northern Ireland has increased significantly since the start of the year and that this constitutes trade diversion created by the pressures of the protocol.
I thank the Minister for his reply. On the protocol, he told the Centre for Policy Studies at the Conservative Party conference on 5 October that he was “keeping the other side on the hop, cultivating uncertainty with regard to how we are going to react”. Why?
My Lords, I did indeed say that, because it is my job to get the best outcome for this country in the negotiations that I am charged with conducting. That is what we did over the previous 18 months and that is what I intend to do now. I do not think it would be particularly good tactics to reveal to the other side exactly what we are going to do or how we are going to go about it.
My Lords, in addition to disrupting and diverting trade, the Northern Ireland protocol contains a systemic democratic deficit, in that laws are made with direct effect for Northern Ireland by the European Union with no opportunity for democratic say by those affected. This is unique in Europe. Does my noble friend agree that the removal of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland is a necessary but not sufficient step for correcting this anomaly and restoring this basic human right?
My Lords, I very much agree with the thrust of the question asked by my noble friend. We made very clear in the Command Paper that we published in July that the European Court of Justice and the system of law of which it is at the apex are a big part of the political difficulty that has arisen in Northern Ireland, and we need to find more balanced ways of resolving disputes in future.
My Lords, in the Minister’s recent speech, which he made in Lisbon, not in this House, he said that
“the Protocol represents a moment of EU overreach when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied”.
But are the facts not somewhat different? Is it not the case that the Johnson Government, on the Minister’s recommendation, accepted an arrangement that Theresa May said no British Prime Minister would ever accept; that the Johnson Government, presumably on the Minister’s recommendation, decided to prioritise a hard Brexit over the sustainability of the Good Friday agreement and peace and security in Northern Ireland; and that the Johnson Government, perhaps on the Minister’s recommendation, signed a treaty in the full knowledge that they had no intention of implementing its full provisions? Is it not about time that the Minister accepted some personal responsibility for the mess we are in in Ireland?
So, my Lords, I reject the implication of the question that there is any contradiction between a so-called hard Brexit, which is the only real Brexit and the only form of Brexit that allows this country the freedom it needs, and peace and security in Northern Ireland. Those two objectives are perfectly and absolutely compatible. We agreed a protocol that we hoped would do the job; it needed sensitive handling; it was highly uncertain in some of its mechanisms; and unfortunately it has not had the sensitive handling it needed. Therefore, we need to come back to the question. That is a pity, but unfortunately it is the reality.
My Lords, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency’s most recent publication, issued on 4 August, highlighted that in 2019 trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland increased by 9.9%, whereas trade with GB increased by 6.6%—so the Minister’s claim that there is trade diversion as a result of the protocol is not the case. There is now a trend, with growth in the Republic. Therefore, is it not part of the UK Government’s responsibility to promote exports from Northern Ireland to Ireland and to make sure that the Northern Ireland economy benefits from certain parts of the protocol? What are the elements of the protocol that the Minister is most proud of?
My Lords, I am proud of securing a deal that delivered democracy and took this country out of the European Union in 2019, which the people of this country voted for. On trade, the figures from the Irish Central Statistics Office for the first eight months of the year show that trade from Ireland to Northern Ireland has gone up 35% and from Northern Ireland to Ireland has gone up 50%. Those are significant figures and clearly show that there is something unusual going on—which I think is trade diversion.
I have a couple of very simple questions for the Minister about this. I tried to ask them last week, after he flew back from Lisbon, but he did not seem to want to answer them then. I shall try again today. They are very simple.
First, the Minister has sent a draft legal text of the protocol, which he says he has written, to Brussels. He does not want to show his cards on other issues but, seeing that he has already shown the text to Brussels, why is he not showing it to parliamentarians in the UK? Secondly, it is very important that he engages meaningfully and fully with elected politicians in Northern Ireland on this issue. Did he consult any Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly before he sent his draft text of the Northern Ireland protocol to Brussels?
My Lords, I think the question is based on a slight misconception that the legal text that we sent in represents some new stage or evolution in our position. It does not. It reflects the position that was set out in the Command Paper on 21 July and puts it into legal form. It is a negotiating document for the purposes of negotiations. It does not change the UK Government’s position in any way. Of course we discuss with elected politicians in Northern Ireland all the time what our position is, and we did that while preparing the Command Paper.
My Lords, I am interested in trade and especially in exports, because they are vital to UK growth and success. We heard from the Minister about trade within the island of Ireland, but how does he expect the pattern of UK trade within the EU 27, both in goods and services, to change in the years ahead?
My Lords, my noble friend identifies an important point, which is that trade in both goods and services is subject to a lot of noise at the moment—the ongoing Covid pandemic, the effects of leaving the customs union and the single market, stock building and so on—and it is difficult to isolate trends. Nevertheless, our goods exports are nearly back to the levels of 2019. Services exports and imports are down somewhat, but of course the huge impact on the movement of persons, tourism and so on has very significantly affected those figures. So it will be a long time before we reach a steady state, but I have huge confidence in the ability of our exporters and traders to manage that situation.
My Lords, can the Minister clarify whether he understood when negotiating the protocol that it was incompatible with British sovereignty, or whether he has discovered that since? He will recall that AV Dicey’s definition of UK sovereignty as indivisible, which I know he now follows, was shaped by his active and bitter opposition to Irish home rule. In those terms, the Good Friday agreement is also an infringement of indivisible UK sovereignty. Does the Minister think that should also be renegotiated?
My Lords, the difficulty we have with the protocol is not so much the sovereignty issue, because the territorial integrity of the UK and the integrity of the internal market of the UK are very clearly protected in the protocol, but the difficulty it has generated in movements of goods and trade within the United Kingdom. If the protocol was to work, it would have required very sensitive handling. Unfortunately, it has not had that sensitive handling, and therefore we have a political problem.
My Lords, the new EU ambassador to the United Kingdom presented his credentials to Her Majesty the Queen earlier this week. Afterwards there was a reception at which many Members of the House were present. The Minister was not present, nor was any representative of the Government, which—as a senior diplomat pointed out to me—would have been utterly inconceivable at an equivalent reception for a new ambassador from the United States or any of our other principal allies. I know that the Minister has now decided to set himself up as an anti-diplomat rather than a diplomat and unlearn all the arts and craft of his trade that he had accumulated over the previous 20 or 30 years, but does he not think that the interests of the United Kingdom would be well served by him once again becoming a diplomat, rather than gratuitously insulting our European partners?
My Lords, I very much wished to go to that reception. Unfortunately, as colleagues know, I was not well on Tuesday and could not attend, but my office was there and represented me. I wished to avoid any apparent discourtesy, and the ambassador has acknowledged that. It is very important that we maintain the normal diplomatic arrangements between our countries and territories, and it is absolutely my intention that we should do that.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed and we move to the second Question.
Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: EU Proposals
To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what discussions he has had with the Vice President of the European Commission following the publication of the European Union’s proposals regarding the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on 13 October.
My Lords, I am in regular contact with Vice-President Šefčovič about the full range of issues relating to the UK-EU relationship. Most recently, I met him in Brussels on 15 October for an initial discussion of the EU’s proposals. I expect to talk to him again very shortly. My teams and that of the EU have been in talks in Brussels this week about the detail of the proposals that the EU has put on the table.
My Lords, ongoing discussions will undoubtedly highlight the innumerable benefits that have flowed from the Northern Ireland protocol, encompassing business and economic development, inward investment opportunities and job creation, as well as the areas in which a joint UK-EU approach is required around mitigations for medicines and agri-food products. In view of this, can the Minister indicate whether the Government have undertaken an evidence-based assessment of the impact of the removal of the European Court of Justice on local businesses in Northern Ireland? It is a yes or no answer. By the way, no business in Northern Ireland has highlighted a problem with the European Court of Justice.
My Lords, opinions differ on the innumerable benefits of the protocol, as the noble Baroness puts it. I certainly hear concern from business about the imposition of EU law without consent that the Court of Justice of the European Union is at the summit of. The difficulty is that it is not true to say, as some do, that the protocol gives the benefit of both worlds. It gives access to the EU single market for goods but at the very significant price of restricted access to Northern Ireland’s major trading partner, which is Great Britain and the rest of the United Kingdom. That is the unsatisfactory balance that we currently have, one that needs to be redressed.
My Lords, does the Minister intend to promote the benefits of the protocol, as set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, to the business community in Northern Ireland, 67% of which believes that Northern Ireland’s status now represents many opportunities for the region? Will he say which of the many benefits set out in the European Union’s 13 October proposals he is most excited about and engaged with? For example, is it that if a lorry transports 100 different food products from GB to Northern Ireland, only one certificate will now be needed instead of 100 certificates? We would join him in such a campaign.
My Lords, my team has been in discussion with the EU on this subject all week. We are seeking to understand the detail that underlies some of the headline claims that the EU has made. It is possible that we do not fully understand that detail yet, but perhaps that will come. One aspect of the EU proposals that I am excited about is that they show that what previously it has considered impossible—changing its own laws for the special circumstances of Northern Ireland—is now possible. That is a very important and welcome step, and I hope the EU might be able to go further than the proposals it put on the table last week.
I think my noble friend would agree that the Northern Ireland protocol is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement. Does he not share my concern that, if we go back and seek to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol, we will open up and have to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement as well?
My Lords, the protocol has always been a somewhat separable bit of the withdrawal agreement, in the sense that it was renegotiated after the first version of the withdrawal agreement was agreed back at the start of 2019. It is to some extent free-standing in that sense, so I do not think that opening it up should affect wider parts of the deal. It is a text that is there to deal with a very specific problem, and therefore we need to find the correct, very specific solution.
My Lords, the New York Times ran an interesting article a few days ago under the headline “Showdown Over Northern Ireland Has a Key Offstage Player: Biden”. It was clearly briefed by administration officials and said:
“In recent days, unprompted, Mr. Biden asked his staff for an update on the negotiations between Britain and the European Union over trade arrangements in Northern Ireland. He urged them to relay a message to the Johnson government that it should not do anything that would jeopardize the peace accord in the North”.
It also said that
“pressure from the American president may cause Mr. Johnson to think twice about provoking another destabilizing clash with Brussels.”
Does that pressure do so, or are this Government really going to antagonise what they love to describe as their closest ally?
My Lords, as a Government we obviously have our own dialogue with the US Government that does not depend on messages in the New York Times. I refer back to the statement made by the Prime Minister when he was in Washington last month, when he noted that he and President Biden were “completely at one” on the importance of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We are completely at one on that subject.
I am really puzzled by the Minister’s reply to the question from his noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. Does he not acknowledge that in law the protocol is an integral part of the treaty? Does he accept that safeguard action under Article 15 of the protocol could not extend to abrogating Articles 12 and 5 of the protocol, which set out the role of the court? Does he accept that the EU could not conceivably agree to amend Article 12 to confer on a non-EU court the right to interpret EU law? If so, how would he deliver on his threat? Since it cannot be done legally, does he again envisage legislating to act illegally in a “limited and specific way”? If so, I do not believe this House would agree.
My Lords, obviously the protocol is part of the withdrawal agreement but that does not prevent its being reopened and renegotiated separately. The same is true of any treaty; it is possible to negotiate part and not the whole thing. On the Article 16 question, obviously the Article 16 provisions in the protocol are nearly sui generis. There are very few parallels for them anywhere else. The scope of how they may be used remains to be tested. What is clear is that they are safeguards to deal with an evolving and difficult socioeconomic situation and the issue of trade diversion. When and if we take action under Article 16, obviously that will be the purpose of any action. As I say, though, we hope to come to a consensual agreement rather than having to go down that road.
I take it from the answers the Minister provided to the previous Question that he did not consult Ministers in Northern Ireland about his new draft text and does not intend to publish it for the benefit of politicians in this country. I gently say to him that contentious issues in Northern Ireland are never resolved without the engagement of senior figures, and he needs to take this far more seriously. Rather than flying around Europe making speeches, why is he not speaking with Mr Šefčovič in Belfast to thrash out these issues? The people of Northern Ireland and the public here will tire of this endless Brexit drama vortex that he seems to want to keep us captured in. We want solutions and he will find them only through dialogue, and I suggest that that should take place in Belfast.
My Lords, we are obviously engaged in a very intensive dialogue on this question, both at my level and among teams and beyond that. As I said, obviously we talk to senior politicians in Northern Ireland across the range of opinion the whole time, and that is the responsibility of others in this Government as well as myself. We will publish the legal text if it is useful to the process, just as we did last year in negotiations on the trade and co-operation agreement. When it is useful and when it can help to get us closer to agreement then we will consider doing that, but at the moment it is a confidential negotiating document.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Effect of Renegotiation on Other Trade Negotiations
To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the diplomatic consequences for (1) current, and (2) future, trade negotiations, of their decision to seek to renegotiate the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
My Lords, the Government are implementing a successful programme of trade negotiations around the world. Agreement in principle was announced with New Zealand overnight, and we have already reached agreement in principle with Australia. In both cases, these are hugely beneficial free trade agreements to both parties. We do not believe that our efforts to resolve the difficulties arising from the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland will have any diplomatic consequences for our FTA negotiations programme.
That really sounds like wishful thinking. We have heard about New Zealand, and indeed I think the noble Lord was in his place at the time. We have applied to the CPTPP and we have the Australia deal. Can he really think that his willingness to tear up an agreement that he negotiated and the Prime Minister signed—in good faith, we assume—just two years ago will help the work of his fellow Ministers as they negotiate delicate deals with other countries around the world regarding the likelihood that we will hold to any agreement that we sign?
My Lords, no one is speaking of tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol. We have made very clear that our wish is to negotiate a new version of the protocol with a new balance, and to do so consensually. That is not unusual in international relations, and there are plenty of examples that one could give. On the FTA question, look at the facts: we negotiated 60-plus free trade agreements last year before withdrawal; we have a huge programme of negotiations going on; and I am sure that they will come to good and beneficial results.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in any trade negotiation, trust is important and that, having signed agreements, it is important for the UK to maintain that trust? Does he agree that, in almost all cases, the free trade agreements agreed thus far do not require us to remove regulations that we already have? Would it be possible for the UK to commit to a period until, let us say, 2024 or 2025 for maintaining our regulations in order to rebuild trust and work out a solution that can demonstrate the UK’s good faith in trying to identify a new resolution for Northern Ireland?
My Lords, as I have said on previous occasions, the question of trust is important and it takes two sides to create trust. As I set out in the speech in Lisbon to which the noble Baroness previously referred, there are a number of things that the EU has done that have not necessarily been conducive to building trust either, but we need to move on from that and generate new momentum to try to reach agreement on a revised protocol. On the question of SPS regulations, the difficulty is that free trade agreements are not the only reason why you might wish to evolve your own agri-food regulations, and indeed the EU has evolved its own autonomously since the start of 2021. Where there is divergence it is for that reason, not because of anything that we have done.
My Lords, they have not all met yet, although they have largely met. I think four of these committees still have to meet this year, then the trade partnership committee, and then we hope for another meeting of the Partnership Council before the end of the year. The agendas for specialised committees are published on GOV.UK for those who are interested. So the programme has well begun and we expect to complete a full round by the end of the year.
My Lords, can anyone trust this Government on international legal matters? They have already admitted to breaching international law again on Northern Ireland. Now they have failed to honour a protocol that they freely entered into, and they threaten to breach our clear obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Is this cavalier attitude to international legal obligations likely to be a positive or a negative feature in relation to our future partners?
My Lords, I am afraid I do not entirely agree with the suggestion that we have been cavalier about our obligations under the protocol. Unfortunately, the problems that exist in Northern Ireland are the problems of implementation of the protocol, not of non-implementation of it. We have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on setting up services to help British businesses to trade with Northern Ireland, but unfortunately that has not solved the underlying difficulties. So implementation is not the solution; renegotiation and a better solution is.
My Lords, in his speech in Portugal the Minister said that the Government are
“constantly faced with generalised accusations”
“can’t be trusted and are not a reasonable international actor.”
When I asked him last time that he was at the Dispatch Box why this might be the case, he said that was a question that he constantly asked himself. I wonder whether this constant process of self-reflection has produced a clearer answer than the one that he was able to give me at that point.
My Lords, I like to think that I engage in a constant process of self-reflection. I am reassured that it usually reaches the same result, which is that when I look at the way that this Government have acted on the international stage since Brexit was established, the role that we have played in the world, the establishment of AUKUS and our position on issues to do with China and many other issues, I think we stand as a constructive and fully responsible international player.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is internationally recognised that the UK is rightly standing by its obligations to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and that the EU has also recognised this, as evidenced by its agreement to negotiate changes to the protocol? Does he not also agree that the UK can now act as a leading advocate at the WTO of free and fair principles-based international trade, leading to greater prosperity for many millions around the world?
My noble friend makes an extremely good point: that after Brexit, as an independent global trade player, we are one of the biggest in the world. We are very influential and hope to become more so in the WTO, and to be able to stand up and speak for trade liberalisation across the world, which is of huge benefit to us all.
My Lords, will the Minister tell us what the case is for the UK being the only country in the world which has two separate Ministers and two separate departments, each dealing with roughly one-half of our overseas trade? What are the consequences for our handling of negotiations? What analysis has he received from the embassy in Washington on the realism of expecting decisive progress on a US-UK trade agreement under the Biden Administration?
My Lords, the decision taken, which I think is a good one, is that the UK-EU TCA is so sui generis—in fact, it goes much beyond trade into many wider areas such as law enforcement, road transport and so on—that it is best to handle it in a sui generis way. I do not know whether that decision is for ever, but it is the one that has been taken at the moment. We are ready to talk to the US about an FTA when it is ready. The US is conducting a review of its external trade policy at the moment. Some negotiating rounds have already taken place, but we stand ready to talk when both sides are ready.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister’s answers today and rarely have I heard answers so complacent about the concerns raised in your Lordships’ House on our international reputation and future ability to negotiate agreements, whether they be trade agreements or the complex negotiations around COP 26, if there is a lack of faith in us being trusted to keep our word on agreements we have already negotiated. I hope that he will go away and reflect on the comments he has made to your Lordships’ House today. On that issue, I bring him back to his earlier comment about the legal text. He said, “We will publish the legal text if it is useful”. We think it would be very useful and, if there is no difference from what has already been said, can he explain why he will not publish it? I bring him back to the issue of trust and transparency as something on which this Government have to make up for lost ground.
My Lords, we will publish the legal text if it is useful to the negotiating process between us and the European Union. At the moment, I am not convinced that it would be; circumstances may change, so that is not a decision of principle. To return to the first point of the question, I am of course in no way unmindful—quite the opposite—of our international reputation but, in the end, I cannot do anything about how others perceive us.
I am not complacent about things that are in our hands, which is the situation in Northern Ireland. I am in no way complacent about that and it is the focus of the activity we are trying to pursue. This Government are responsible for the prosperity and security of Northern Ireland. That is why we are pursuing the task as we are and that, along with the support of the Good Friday agreement, is our primary objective as we go forward.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed and I must ask the noble Lord to resume his seat.
Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill
I remind the House that the debate before Second Reading on the Bill took place in Grand Committee on 19 October, and call the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh.
My Lords, I beg to move formally that the Bill now be read a second time.
My Lords, I would like to put it on record that I took part in the debate in Grand Committee. Because the timing was changed twice, many who wished to take part in that Second Reading had to withdraw. This is not a very satisfactory way of proceeding. It is exceptional and I would like my noble friend’s assurance that he does not wish to do this again. Second Readings should take place on the Floor of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, much as I would like to reassure the noble Lord, these matters are not within my control. As he is no doubt well aware, these are matters agreed between the usual channels of the main party groupings. There have been extensive opportunities to take part in briefings and other matters related to the Bill.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, before we get on to the main business, can I raise a procedural point? The Deputy Speaker was in the Chair during the Questions to the noble Lord, Lord Frost—the Minister of State—and will have seen that, unusually, a large number of supplementary questions were not reached. Would it be possible for the House to refer to the Procedure and Privileges Committee to look at how these important questions, to the only Cabinet Minister answering questions in this House, can be properly dealt with? It is a matter of great importance and everyone should have the opportunity to ask that Minister questions.
That is not a question for me, as the noble Lord knows, but he is absolutely at liberty to make a representation to the committee if he wishes to do so.
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
Report (2nd Day)
35: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—
“Information about technical education and trainingInformation about technical education and training: access to English schools
(1) Section 42B of the Education Act 1997 (information about technical education: access to English schools) is amended as follows.(2) In subsection (1), for “is an opportunity” substitute “are opportunities”.(3) After subsection (1) insert—“(1A) In complying with subsection (1), the proprietor must give access to registered pupils on at least one occasion during each of the first, second and third key phase of their education.”(4) After subsection (2) insert—“(2A) The proprietor of a school in England within subsection (2) must—(a) ensure that each registered pupil meets, during each of the first and second key phases of their education, at least one provider to whom access is given (or any other number of such providers that may be specified for the purposes of that key phase by regulations under subsection (8)), and(b) ask providers to whom access is given to provide information that includes the following—(i) information about the provider and the approved technical education qualifications or apprenticeships that the provider offers,(ii) information about the careers to which those technical education qualifications or apprenticeships might lead,(iii) a description of what learning or training with the provider is like, and(iv) responses to questions from the pupils about the provider or approved technical education qualifications and apprenticeships.(2B) Access given under subsection (1) must be for a reasonable period of time during the standard school day.”(5) In subsection (5)—(a) in paragraph (c), at the end insert “and the times at which the access is to be given;”;(b) after paragraph (c) insert—“(d) an explanation of how the proprietor proposes to comply with the obligations imposed under subsection (2A).”(6) In subsection (8), after “subsection (1)” insert “or (2A)”.(7) After subsection (9) insert—“(9A) For the purposes of this section—(a) the first key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 13, and (ii) ending with 28 February in the following school year;(b) the second key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 15, and(ii) ending with 28 February in the following school year;(c) the third key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 17, and(ii) ending with 28 February in the following school year.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that providers of technical education and apprenticeships are given reasonable access to pupils in secondary schools in England at key points during the course of their education to provide relevant information about technical education and apprenticeships and that pupils meet with providers on at least two occasions.
My Lords, Amendment 35 is in my name. I am pleased to bring this amendment to the House. The Government believe strongly that young people and adults, at all stages of their career, need to be equipped to make informed choices. They need to know about the range of qualifications and training available to them so that they can progress to their chosen field. I know that it is rightly a matter of great concern for this House that all young people are introduced to the benefits of technical education and apprenticeships, so that they can make informed decisions about the next step in their education or training.
In particular, I thank my noble friend Lord Baker for his tireless commitment and vision in focusing on this important issue and for his amendment to the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, which led to the commencement of the Baker clause. This means that schools have a statutory duty to provide opportunities for pupils to meet technical education or apprenticeship providers and learn about technical education options.
As part of the original Baker clause, the Government set out clear requirements and expectations in statutory guidance, and offered support through the Careers & Enterprise Company. Despite some examples of excellent practice, the Government are still seeing too many schools failing to comply with the duty. They have seen providers blocked from going into schools or schools limiting provider encounters to selected groups of pupils. In March 2021, the UCAS report Where Next? showed that almost one in three young people said that they did not receive any information about apprenticeships from their school.
The Government originally set out our plans for how to strengthen the Baker clause in our Skills for Jobs White Paper. Thanks to engagement with your Lordships in this House, and especially with my noble friend Lord Baker, the Government now think that this is the right time to bring forward improvements to the legislation. It is time to strengthen the Baker clause so that all young people can learn about the exciting high-quality opportunities that technical education and apprenticeships can offer. This will fulfil our commitment in the White Paper to introduce the new minimum requirement, covering who is to be given access to which pupils and when.
Our amendment builds on the current duty by specifying that schools must put on three encounters with providers of approved technical education qualifications or apprenticeships. All pupils must go to the first two encounters, in either year 8 or year 9, and again in either year 10 or year 11. The third encounter, in either year 12 or year 13, will be optional for pupils to attend. We have listened to my noble friend Lord Baker’s wish to specify in more detail the number or type of providers that every pupil must meet during their mandatory encounters.
This amendment will give the Secretary of State the power to set out further details in secondary legislation, if needed. For example, it could require pupils to meet a representative from an FE college or a UTC where there is one within reasonable travelling distance of the school. The school must give each provider a reasonable amount of time to meet pupils and must timetable these visits during normal school hours. They may of course supplement this with provider visits at other times, in addition.
The amendment will also help to safeguard quality by setting parameters for every provider encounter. The school must ask the provider to share information about both the provider and the provision that it offers, to explain what career routes those options could lead to, to provide insights into what it might be like to learn or train with that provider and to answer questions from pupils. We believe that this amendment strikes a careful balance between widening access for providers and managing the requirements on schools. It also offers flexibility to amend details further in response to future policy change.
We must also remember that providers are one important element within the wider careers framework, the Gatsby benchmarks of good careers guidance. We expect schools to provide a wide range of careers activities, including curriculum learning linked to careers, employer encounters, experiences of the workplace and personal guidance, to support pupils to make fully informed choices. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 35A, which is in my name and those of others. Before explaining its purpose, I say to the Minister that the whole House appreciates how difficult it is to take over a Bill three-quarters of the way through. This is a very complicated and difficult Bill that requires a great deal of educational knowledge, and she has measured up to that enormously—it must have taken a lot of midnight oil. I thank her very much.
The purpose of these two amendments is exactly the same: to make the Baker clause workable. I drafted the Baker clause four years ago in order to improve careers guidance because I wanted students to leave school at 18 knowing about apprenticeships and about what FE colleges, independent sixth form colleges, private providers and UTCs do. Quite frankly, heads do not tell their students very much, because, for every student who goes, they lose between £5,000 and £6,000. They even keep in their schools students whom they individually believe would be better in other education training. That is the position.
When John Nash, who was then a Minister, agreed it, I was told that he would tidy up my drafting, and I thanked him for that. I begged the department to make it a legal duty for schools to hold these meetings, because heads will not be keen to—they will try to avoid them. I was told that that would be met by ministerial guidance when the Bill was on the statute book. Ministerial guidance was issued, but it was largely ignored.
When we approached schools and UTCs locally—some of them never replied—we were told that they were too busy to do this and that they could not do it. They also fobbed it off and said, “You can have a meeting in late June or July, after the exams”, when the schools are half empty. They did not even realise that, if you cannot have these meetings before 28 February each year, they are useless because, on that day, school lists close for the September of that year. So I was not very impressed with that.
As I said, when the Bill was enacted, the ministerial advice was totally ignored, so the Baker clause has not been operable for three years. The Government have now provided a way of making it operable. I do not think that this will be as effective as the new clause that I have written for two reasons. First, secondary legislation will delay the actual implementation, probably for weeks or months, quite frankly. They have to go through consultation. As we know, secondary legislation is, in many cases, never debated, but when it is, it cannot be amended. It is really a measure of government by decree rather than debate, and that is inappropriate. My proposed new clause would mean that this would come into effect on the day that the Bill receives its Third Reading in the House of Commons—much earlier than under the Government’s amendment.
The government amendment is quite defective when it says that there should be one meeting in the school. The point is that there will be three phases or times— 13 to 14, 15 to 16, and 18—when providers can go in to approach the children. But they say that there should be “at least one” meeting, which means that, if an FE school gets in first—say, on 30 November—the duty of one meeting has been met and all the others can be turned down. That is totally inappropriate. My amendment says that there should be up to three meetings—I do not think that we should disrupt schools more than that. They would not be for a full day; they would be for two or three hours each, and perhaps two or three providers could speak. That is basically what my amendment says.
The other deficiency in the Government’s amendment is that it does not mention, as my amendment does, the information which providers have to provide. That is in my proposed new subsection (2A)(b) and it includes
“(i) information about the provider and the approved technical education qualifications or apprenticeships that the provider offers … (ii) information about the careers to which those technical education qualifications or apprenticeships might lead … (iii) a description of what learning or training with the provider is like, and … (iv) responses to questions from the pupils about the provider or technical education qualifications and apprenticeships”.
So my amendment sets out clearly what the providers have to do when they go in. I am afraid that the government amendment depends on secondary legislation, which, as I have said, cannot be debated or amended in this House, and it would delay the introduction of the Bill. My amendment is a much more effective way of doing it.
When I asked the department to say that UTCs would definitely be included among providers, it said, “Well, we cannot give you that complete guarantee.” That is a great mistake, because UTCs have the best record in respect of students leaving who do not become unemployed. That is what we are very proud of. The average level of student leavers not in education, employment or training, or NEETs, is 9.3%; we are 3%. Last year, four university technical colleges had no NEETs at all: in Hull, Portsmouth, Aston in Birmingham and Sellafield’s UTC on the north-west coast. Students in schools should know that and know that they have very good career prospects by going to university technical colleges.
I have set out why I think my amendment is more effective. It would definitely come in earlier than the Government’s, probably by months, so I commend it to the House. When the time comes, I shall seek to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, in the choice between the Minister’s amendment and that of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, we are faced with action versus less action. Lloyd George famously said, “When traversing a chasm, it is desirable to do so in one leap.” I cannot think of any good reason why the House would not go for the serious action rather than the lesser action.
We are supposed to be agreed on the objective, which is that more young people should have the opportunity to engage in technical, vocational and apprenticeship routes which are suitable to them. It is very difficult to engage in those routes if you do not know about them. We are talking about schoolchildren who for the most part are not aware of those routes; they are in schools which have an academic curriculum. It is a big problem going back to the Education Act 1944, which, alas, we seem to have been incapable of putting right over the course of 50 years, that we have an unfit-for-purpose education system so far as vocational and technical education is concerned and pathways through to apprenticeships which are still largely non-existent. We are trying to put this right, and there is a broad consensus in the House that it should be put right—the problem is that the Government have produced a mouse instead of a Bill. I am afraid that this Bill is largely a placeholder put in the space marked “technical education, apprenticeships, levelling up”—we know that the Prime Minister thinks that levelling up is part of his core mission, so he has to have something which occupies that space—but it does not have a policy in it that will match the objectives.
The Minister should be prepared simply to accept the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, since it is technically possible, and it would lead to a big difference in the exposure of school-age children to technical education options. It should happen, and the fact that it is not going to happen, and it appears that we are going to have vote on it in 15 or 20 minutes, is because the Government are half-hearted, inconsistent and largely AWOL on whether we are actually going to move and start transforming provision in our schools and our educational system relative to technical education. I hope that the noble Lord’s amendment is put to the vote and carried, and maybe, on the rebound, when hopefully they are faced with a large majority, the Government will accept it.
Those of us who have had responsibility for these issues know only too well that putting before young people serious information about alternative options is a real problem in our schools. The noble Lord started the city technology colleges, and I took forward the academies programme. I am strongly in favour of schools having strong leadership and governance. You do not get successful institutions in any walk of life unless they are purpose-driven and have strong leadership and governance. The other side of having strong leadership and governance is that, by and large, the headteachers of those institutions are not wildly keen for students to go to other schools and colleges. That is for obvious reasons, as the noble Lord said: because they lose £4,000 or £5,000, and because they probably believe that what their school offers is better than what another school would offer. This is a particular problem in respect of the university technical colleges, because they recruit their students at the age of 14, which is precisely midway through secondary education. The last thing that a headteacher wants—and they will be looking after number one first and foremost—is for their students to have information about options that could lead them to leave the school halfway through.
There is a systemic failure here, which can only really be addressed by having an absolutely enforceable right for alternative providers to come into the school. For the most part—there will always be exceptions; we know that you get particularly enlightened headteachers —human nature is not going to work in an aligned way in respect of alternative providers being able to come in. We also know that that is the case because we tried the halfway house before. An amendment to a previous Bill tabled by the noble Lord did not have the teeth of this one. It did not create an enforceable right to come into a school and was dependent on guidance. He was very charitable about the guidance, saying that it was ignored, but the guidance was so weak that, even if it had been fully observed, it still would not have delivered the policy objective that he sought to achieve.
At this the second time of addressing this issue, we must not flunk it; we must actually see that young people are given the opportunity to go to an institution which, if they have a technical bent, is more suitable to them and which will prepare the way for them to go to an apprenticeship. There are number of ways in which we need to address this chronic issue—and we shall come later to issues relating directly to the apprenticeships system, which is still woefully inadequate in this country. One way to do so is to see that young people of school age, particularly at 14, which is when they start developing a greater awareness of the talents that will enable them to succeed in life, have information about, and are able to choose, institutions which are best suited to developing those talents. We cannot have an education system in a first-rate country like ours unless it is able to deliver that objective. That is what is at stake here. I hope that the House will support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker.
My Lords, we have come a long way from the days when someone considering their further education or career development would be told, “There’s a cupboard. Go and choose your prospectus”. We now have a situation where there is an academic curriculum for the academic students and the other 50% of students are pushed or cajoled into a sixth form which is clearly not suitable for them. We know why: money counts. To answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, we live in a sort of educational free-market economy where schools compete with one another. When the A-level results come out, all the banners go outside the various secondary schools trying to entice pupils to switch to their sixth forms. But I am not interested at the moment in the academic students; I am interested in those other students for whom a further educational or vocational pathway would be far better.
I want to ask the Minister quite directly why we should not support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker. It eminently makes sense; why are the Government not supporting it? I have not heard any reason given.
It is shameful that schools behave in this way. You would think that a school would want the best for its pupils. If a young girl or boy is suited to a vocational career, the school should do all in its power to make that happen, but we do not see that happening, which reflects badly on those schools. I have to say, though, that there are many secondary schools that do the opposite and—even before the clause of the noble Lord, Lord Baker—have fairs where different colleges and career representatives come along to show what is on offer. We should not need this clause; it is shameful that we do, but we do. I would be interested to know from the Minister what sanctions we placed on those schools that have not operated the current Baker clause. Is Ofsted, for example, reporting in its inspections when a school has not co-operated with or involved other FE colleges, providers or careers opportunities?
Finally, the Minister quite rightly talks about the Gatsby benchmarks but, again, not all schools have achieved the right level that they should; it is an ongoing process. We very much support this amendment and will do so if it goes to a vote.
My Lords, I will not speak at any length about these two similar amendments, because I agree wholeheartedly with what all three speakers so far have said. Both represent an improvement on the current situation but, as we have heard, Amendment 35A from the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has stronger teeth and would provide for more frequent access—three times during each of the three specified phases, rather than just once. That is much more in line with the requirements of the Gatsby career benchmarks. It would require meetings with a representative range of educational and training providers, including UTCs, rather than just one provider, and it would not rely on any as yet unspecified statutory guidance. For all those reasons, it makes it much more likely that the requirement for pupils to receive these opportunities really takes place. I will certainly support the noble Lord if he puts his Amendment 35A to a vote.
The Minister’s helpful letter to us on Tuesday included a positive section on careers information and guidance, although I continue to regret the absence of a renewed careers strategy to provide an overall context and objectives for the various laudable actions that she set out. She mentions the support given by the Careers & Enterprise Company’s personal guidance fund for activities, including training for careers professionals, and the development of a pipeline of qualified careers professionals for the future. I wonder if she has made any assessment of the numbers of such professionals needing to be trained, what level of qualification they need to be trained to, and whether the funding and other incentives on offer are sufficient to meet those needs—in other words, a sort of workforce development plan for careers professionals. That is one reason why I think it would be helpful to have a strategy that sets out all the elements that are needed to deliver the kind of careers support that we need.
I end by echoing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey: these amendments are important, and it is equally important that we make sure they are in some way enforced and the requirements are met.
My Lords, we had a fair old ding- dong last time we met on this Bill, with the Government proposing that we should destroy an entire suite of examinations in order to improve access to T-levels. Yet here they are refusing to make minor changes to the sight that children are given of T-levels—which have many other benefits—as an option.
I do not see how the Government are being consistent on this. If they want T-levels to be fully appreciated as an option by young people, they need them to be put in front of those young people, clearly and frequently. That is what my noble friend Lord Baker’s amendment would do, and the Government’s amendment would not. I am thoroughly with those noble Lords who have spoken in saying that my noble friend’s amendment is a better way forward than the Government are yet proposing.
I also encourage the Government to look at a couple of old chestnuts to do with performance tables. If you want head teachers to say to children that they will be better off in an FE college and encourage them to go to it, you ought to give them credit for the results that they achieve there. It ought to be something that appears in the performance tables, credited to the school that has made that decision; otherwise, the incentive is just to hang on to pupils for the money. If schools are risking a blip in the performance tables because the A-level results will be bad and it would have been much better if they had gone to a technical college, there will be a real incentive for schools to encourage children to take that option.
The other aspect is to provide much better data on where children end up after school. At the moment, the information provided on what happens to those who do not go to university is very thin, uninspiring and not the sort of thing that encourages a parent to say, “Oh, that looks interesting; why don’t we look at that?” The provision of data and information is really important in helping parents to help their children make decisions, and the Government are falling a long way short on that. They have the information; it is just a question of deciding that they will publish it or make it available to others who will publish it. I really encourage them to go down that road.
My noble friend the Minister said that she hoped children would be making fully informed choices. I totally agree with her. If we can bring universities up to that standard, I should be delighted as well.
My Lords, I share the sentiments of my noble friend Lord Baker about the way that my noble friend the Minister has taken a grip of this Bill, and I thank her for that. I have to say, therefore, that it is with some trepidation, and with the benefit of my business and bureaucratic experience, that I rise to throw a bit of cold water on the detail of both amendments.
As noble Lords will know from earlier discussions, I am very keen to see vocational careers education, training and, above all, apprenticeships advocated in schools—and, in fact, by employers themselves. We clearly have a problem. However, I worry about the bureaucracy that will be created by this provision; it is a concern with either version. To comply with the provisions, a lot of detailed work would have to be done by teachers, who work so hard; by providers—including UTCs, which I agree should be involved—of post-16 education; and by employers, if they join providers in schools, which is something that I think can often work well. They will have to do a lot of form-filling and more recording, health and safety-style. Then, as has been said, there will be extra guidance, but we do not know exactly what will be in that; it could make it easier or it could make it worse.
I worry that this will deter exactly the people and institutions that you want to get into schools to encourage youngsters to think about their futures and choose the right educational option. Too many people, in my view, now go to university and not enough go into good vocational routes. I have experience in Germany and Switzerland and elsewhere. To pick up on something that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, in those countries, they often move at 14 or 16, which can be extremely helpful with the vocational route.
My worry is that the beneficiary of these micro-rules will be, yet again, the consultants who will have to help with process and compliance. I am obviously very sympathetic to the objective of these amendments, but I would like some reassurance from the Minister on how we make this system simple and efficient and how we enforce it sensibly—before we go through the Lobbies. As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, was saying, there are costs and resource requirements in doing all these things in schools, and they have to come from somewhere else. So if we are going to make a change of this kind, we need to understand how it will be done and how it will be enforced, and that it will be done in a sensible and effective way, not adding needlessly to the weight of burden on our teachers.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Adonis for clearly defining the difference between Amendments 35 and 35A—I will henceforth think of Amendment 35A as “A for action”.
The skills White Paper promised a three-point plan to enforce the Baker clause, back in January 2021. Point 1 of the plan was the introduction of specific minimum requirements, but the Government’s amendment states that pupils should expect only two mandatory visits from providers of technical education and apprenticeships over the course of their secondary education, although individual schools may opt to provide more. I doubt that. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that this is wholly inadequate.
I also share the concern that leaving the details to secondary legislation is unacceptable. Unlike primary legislation, it will not be subject to the same level of scrutiny through Parliament. Moreover, it cannot be amended. I therefore fully support the new Amendment 35A—A for action—from the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that would require schools to organise three mandatory encounters with technical education and training providers over the course of a pupil’s secondary education.
Duties are important to ensure that all schools are required to provide these opportunities and that all students will receive at least three chances during the course of their secondary education. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, has had to revisit his work from four years ago. I worked in schools for over 30 years and I know that, unless instructions are on a statutory footing, advice will be ignored in an already overcrowded curriculum in England. As a former teacher, I understand how important it is for students to receive such advice, on both a statutory and regular basis. We would have preferred a mandate that pupils receive such advice at least once a year. However, we support what has been placed in front of us and will give further support if the noble Lord, Lord Baker, tests the opinion of the House.
My Lords, anybody who has sat in a meeting with heads of education can imagine discussions to work out how not to offer pupils at age 16—I do not have much knowledge of provision below that level—a full and free choice as frequently as possible, because of worries about redecorating classrooms, hiring more teachers or the other income-related things that heads need to think about. While I am sympathetic to this worry, I am even more sympathetic to the absolute need to offer pupils a full and informed choice at as many stages as we can afford. I too intend to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Baker.
My Lords, I once again thank my noble friend for his amendment and his commitment to this issue. Before I respond to the points raised by noble Lords, I would like to express my support and thanks to head teachers, who received a certain amount of criticism in this debate regarding where they place their priorities. After the last couple of years, when they have shown unstinting strength of leadership and courage in the face of incredibly difficult conditions, I would like to put on record that we owe them our thanks, first and foremost.
I will try to answer the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on why the Government are not supporting this amendment and the role of Ofsted in monitoring the Baker clause. Ofsted has updated its school inspection handbook to strengthen the focus on careers guidance, including by clarifying that inspectors will always report when a school falls short of the requirements of the provider access legislation—the Baker clause—as well as considering how it affects a school’s inspection grade. If I may, I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, regarding his detailed questions about the careers framework.
Turning to the amendment itself, I will clarify for the House my understanding of the difference between our government Amendment 35 and Amendment 35A. On a number of occasions, your Lordships referred to three provider encounters under Amendment 35A; the provisions are for three encounters per phase of education, so a total of nine—I think my maths is right. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, spoke about having at least one encounter a year, but it is more than one a year. Amendment 35A seeks to increase the number of provider encounters to nine per pupil: three during each of the first, second and third key phases of a pupil’s education.
The Government’s amendment has three mandatory offers on the part of the school, two of which are also mandatory for the pupil and would take place in the first two phases of their education, with the third, optional encounter then taking place in the last phase. My noble friend acknowledged that schools are incredibly busy places. We are trying to find a balance which underlines the priority we place on this education without taking up too much curriculum time.
I thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for her remarks regarding bureaucracy, something that everyone, not just the Government, would like to minimise. That is another reason why consulting on the detail of implementation to make it as streamlined as possible is helpful.
On the question of timing, raised by my noble friend Lord Baker, I should clarify that the implementation of our amendment is not dependent on secondary legislation. The principle and number of encounters would be set out in the Bill, as my noble friend knows, while the secondary legislation would just provide further detail on the types and numbers of providers and some other points. Our amendment would come into effect at the same time as the amendment from my noble friend.
As my noble friend set out eloquently, his amendment also seeks to name university technical colleges in the Bill as one of the providers that every pupil must meet where practicable. This would give more weight to one provider over the rest. While we understand and absolutely respect his commitment, we want to act in the interests of all providers and therefore pupils, not just university technical colleges.
We include in our amendment the power for the Secretary of State to set out further details about the number and type of providers in secondary legislation if needed. We can, as part of this, consult school and provider representatives on these matters. We must be careful not to prejudge the outcome of any consultation by giving a guarantee that we will name UTCs in the secondary legislation. Putting this detail in secondary legislation also allows us to retain more flexibility to update the legislation in line with future policy changes.
In conclusion, the Government believe that Amendment 35 supports the interests of schools and all providers and allows flexibility for future changes in secondary legislation. We are absolutely committed to making the Baker clause work better, in a way that works for pupils and providers. I therefore hope that my noble friend—
Before the Minister sits down, could she say a little bit about the enforcement of these provisions? My understanding of her reply to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, is that Ofsted will keep an eye on this. Is that all that happens? If you do not keep detailed records in the educational space, what happens to you? Perhaps this is not an issue as it is not the norm to keep them. I am mystified as to how this would work in practice.
I thank my noble friend for her incredibly kind comments earlier about how quickly I have picked up this brief. I cannot confidently respond further than I did in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Schools take Ofsted inspections extremely seriously, so I hope the fact that the inspection framework and handbook have changed to accommodate this will give my noble friend some reassurance. I will also write to her and put a copy of the letter in the Library.
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, can I ask her for a point of clarification? She mentioned that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, required nine meetings. My understanding is that it is
“on at least three occasions during each of the first, second and third key phase”.
I may be misunderstanding this, but I understand a key phase to be a two-year period, so it would be six rather than nine.
I think trying to do mental arithmetic at the Dispatch Box is risky, but, as I read it, it is three times three because of the first, second and third key phases. Maybe we both need to go to numeracy boot camp, but I think three threes are nine —or at least they were when I was at school, which admittedly was a very long time ago. I believe the correct figure is nine, because the amendment specifies the first, second and third phase of education and three encounters in each phase.
I therefore hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
No, we are dealing first with Amendment 35.
Amendment 35 agreed.
We now come to Amendment 35A, which is now in an altered form because of the passing of Amendment 35. Amendment 35A would leave out the new Clause last inserted by Amendment 35 and insert the new Clause as printed on the Marshalled List.
35A: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—
“Amendments to section 42B of the Education Act 1997
(1) Section 42B of the Education Act 1997 is amended as follows.(2) After subsection (1) insert—“(1A) In complying with subsection (1), the proprietor must give a representative range of education and training providers (including, where reasonably practicable, a university technical college) access to registered pupils on at least three occasions during each of the first, second and third key phase of their education.”(3) After subsection (2) insert—“(2A) The proprietor of a school in England within subsection (2) must—(a) ensure that each registered pupil meets, during both the first and second key phase of their education, with a representative range of education and training providers to whom access is given, and(b) ask providers to whom access is given to provide information that includes the following—(i) information about the provider and the approved technical education qualifications or apprenticeships that the provider offers,(ii) information about the careers to which those technical education qualifications or apprenticeships might lead,(iii) a description of what learning or training with the provider is like, and(iv) responses to questions from the pupils about the provider or technical education qualifications and apprenticeships.(2B) Access given under subsection (1) must be for a reasonable period of time during the standard school day.”(4) After subsection (5)(a), insert—“(aa) a requirement to provide access to a representative range of education and training providers to include where practicable a university technical college;”(5) In subsection (5)(c), after “access” insert “and the times at which the access is to be given;”(6) After subsection (5)(c), insert—“(d) an explanation of how the proprietor proposes to comply with the obligations imposed under subsection (2A).”(7) After subsection (9), insert—“(9A) For the purposes of this section—(a) the first key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 13, and(ii) ending with 28 February in the following school year;(b) the second key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 15, and (ii) ending with 28 February in the following school year;(c) the third key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 17, and(ii) ending with 28 February in the following school year.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment will ensure that Section 2 of the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, commonly known as the Baker Clause, is legally enforceable.
I am glad we have got that little bit right. I first thank all the Peers who have spoken, including some Conservatives, in support of my amendment.
As regards the number of days, I make it absolutely clear that there should be three meetings. These meetings will not last for the full day; they will last for two or three hours at the very most, with maybe two providers coming in. There would be meetings at ages 13 to 14, 14 to 16 and 16 to 18. That is not what the government amendment says—it says that they will have “at least one”. The legal advice I have is from Mr Stephen Ravenscroft, who is well known to the department because he is the leading figure on educational law, but I managed to get at him first before the department. He has given me a very clear legal position on this: the point about “at least one” is that if a provider gets in first, the others do not have a right to be heard. The school can say, “We have had at least one meeting”, so I think my amendment is actually stronger than the Government’s.
I seek to test the opinion of the House.
Before the noble Lord sits down, I am genuinely concerned that we have a fundamental understanding of the number of encounters that the two amendments seek to deliver. The government amendment says that
“the proprietor must give access to registered pupils on at least one occasion during each of”—
that is, every time; those are my words, not the amendment’s—
“the first, second and third key phase of their education.”
So there would be three mandatory encounters. The following part of our amendment says that, during each of these phases,
“The proprietor of a school … must … ensure that each registered pupil meets … at least one provider”,
so, with the greatest respect to my noble friend, a single provider is not sufficient. That is what our amendment says, so I would just like to make that point clear.
Consideration on Report adjourned.
Integrity of Electoral Processes
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, at the outset, I want to pay tribute from my own personal experience to Sir David Amess. He was a truly honourable Member, and I appreciate enormously his family’s call for more co-operation and working together. That is something I have tried to do throughout my 30 years in this Parliament.
It is perhaps sad but necessary to start by taking note of the deterioration in the public and political dialogue since David and I were first elected. During the whole of my service here, I have been privileged to work with colleagues from other parties and from none on a number of projects, not least in areas of direct relevance to the subject of this debate. It was a particular privilege to work with the late Robin Cook to reform the Commons—successfully—and try to reform this House, not quite so successfully. I have been able to co-operate closely with Conservative allies, too, in such notable reformers as Ken Clarke, Sir George Young, William Hague and Andrew Tyrie, as they then were. I have also had very constructive shadow relationships with Commons Agriculture Ministers such as John Gummer, Douglas Hogg and Nicholas Soames. At this stage in their careers, they will perhaps forgive me for blighting their preferment prospects with No. 10 by mentioning their names now.
What has changed, especially in the past two years, is that that constructive co-operation with Conservatives —now in the Johnson mould—has become impossible. That tradition of Conservative principle, combined with a pragmatic pursuit of shared values and objectives, has simply vanished. I am sorry to say that the once great Conservative and Unionist Party has become a narrow, dogmatic cult. I know that many great figures of the past and present on the Benches opposite know this to be true, though they cannot say it. Andrew Rawnsley admirably summed this up 10 days ago under the headline, “Like all cults, Borisology is detached from reality and destined to end badly”.
“The Conservative & Unionist party is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-party.”
The present leadership do not care about conserving the union. They do not feel obliged to conserve Britain’s reputation in the world—not even by maintaining the legal obligation for realistic international aid—so destroying the UK’s soft power role. They have no time for conserving business ethics, failing to apply due diligence to the award of huge contracts to their political friends and donors. They demean such core elements of our constitution as respect for the rule of law. They have even threatened the constitutional position of the monarch, with their underhand attempt at an illegal Prorogation of Parliament. Was that conservative? Likewise, tearing up international agreements signed with people the Prime Minister calls friends and partners is not conservative. It now appears that Ministers intend to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights, for which Churchill worked so hard. Is that conservative?
I owe my time in this Parliament to the people of my beloved ancestral county of Cornwall. They are feeling the distinctly unconservative, scorched-earth nature of this Government particularly keenly. It is easy to underestimate quite how badly people feel let down by the level of deceit, misrepresentation and deliberate distortion—downright leaver lies—that has become all too common since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Both the Prime Minister and Mr Gove promised that the level of EU investment funding for Cornwall, as a region of generally very low household incomes and below-average economic activity, would be fully replicated in the new post-Brexit national support programme. Tory MPs repeated that promise. EU structural fund support this year would have been some £100 million. As Cornwall Council now warns, the actual UK support now firmly promised is only £3 million. Even if the proportion of SPF is matched, the maximum would be £57 million. So much for levelling up.
Further, to add blatant insult to injury, we have just learned that Ministers have torn up their promise, made to me in this House during debates on the then Trade Bill, that all existing protections for Cornish speciality food products under the excellent EU scheme would be fully retained in future trade deals. My noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed pointed out on Thursday that the agreement with Norway and other countries has ditched that commitment. There is no protection there for Cornish pasties, clotted cream and so on. The Minister could only splutter in reply:
“You cannot get all that you ask for, of course, when you negotiate these agreements.”—[Official Report, 14/10/21; col. 2021.]
Did they even ask for this important protection? What is happening with all the other trade negotiations? It is this cavalier relationship with the truth that divorces today’s Conservative Party from its past and betrays the legacy of Macmillan, Heath, Major—and, yes, even Thatcher.
Eventually, I believe that the time of this clique will be over, both in the country and in the Conservative Party. But for now, the Johnson junta is making an insidious attempt to defy electoral gravity in perpetuity by weighting the entire system in its favour. Last week, the chair of the official Committee on Standards in Public Life said:
“It is essential … that parties obtain funding in ways that are free from suspicion that donors receive favours or improper influence in return … I doubt many would argue that our current system meets this test.”
That was a masterclass in understatement.
Yet, far from achieving cross-party and independent consensus on how to achieve transparency and safeguards, the Government’s Elections Bill actually increases the chance of elusive foreign financial inducements. It is demonstrably designed to inflate the influence of Tory millionaires while disfranchising millions of citizens who are less likely to vote Tory. It is deliberately partisan and a real threat to the basic integrity of our electoral system.
For about 150 years—since 1883, in fact—the law of the land has sought to prevent rich men buying the constituency elections that determine who will govern Britain. Candidates and their agents have been held responsible for all expenditure intended to advance their cause. This Government, in their own party interest, are attempting to reverse the 2018 Supreme Court judgment which reinforced that essential safeguard. In a feigned pursuit of “clarification”, the Bill would enable huge sums of money to be invested by the richest party in marginal seats while its candidate and his or her agent took no responsibility for it. There would be no effective control or limit.
To this, they add an attempt to change mayoral and PCC elections from the relatively fair supplementary vote system to the self-evidently less fair first past the post system, which cheats so many electors of any impact. Perhaps the most compelling line in the Government’s 2019 manifesto was the promise that they would be
“making sure that every vote counts the same—a cornerstone of democracy.”
In today’s multiparty democracy, that clearly requires the end of first past the post for the House of Commons. Parliament has legislated to make this happen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. MPs should perhaps recall the admonition, “Physician, heal thyself.” That would be an initiative on which we could all work together, co-operate and seek consensus.
I could hardly leave the House without reflecting on a lifetime commitment to changing how Members get here. I recall being accused of being “an old man in a hurry” when I was an enthusiastic proponent of the coalition Government’s substantial and sincere attempt to reform this place in 2012. I pointed out then that progressing to elections a century after they had first been envisaged in the Parliament Act 1911 could only be considered “hurried” in this Chamber. At that time, there was real cross-party consensus for promising elections—just no consensus on delivering them.
Among the deluge of reports and submissions on electoral and political reform that I have been wading through in my office, clearing the decks for departure, I came upon a previous submission by the then Leader of the Opposition here, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, entitled “Delivering a Stronger Parliament”. I will read only a short extract:
“The Senate should have 300 members called Senators ... All political members should be directly elected in largely county-based, three-member constituencies. There should be an end to the abuse of patronage of the Blair years.”
But there was a footnote:
“It is truly alarming to think that the Prime Minister could believe the perpetuation of patronage on the recent scale was appropriate to any century, least of all the 21st”.
Yet today’s Prime Minister has again turned places in this Parliament into an instrument of patronage, to be purchased at party dinners. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will do me a parting favour by repeating his former words to Mr Johnson.
We cannot escape some criticism of the media for creating the destructive atmosphere that we see today. Some of the media has had a really divisive role in the past five years. Today is Trafalgar Day: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. However, marine historians remind us that at least 10% of the crews in Nelson’s fleet were not English; they were foreigners. In the Brexiteer media, they would be branded as unpatriotic immigrants.
I plead with true Conservatives—in both Houses and beyond—to reclaim their party. For many years, I have had staring at me on my desk the reminder from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” For all my reservations about the leadership of this Government, I sincerely believe that this House is a place full of good people. My Lords, I wish you well.
My Lords, it is of course always a great pleasure for me to follow my noble friend Lord Tyler, and it is with considerable sadness that I now do so for the last time.
It was in 1964, 58 years ago, that my noble friend was first elected to the Devon County Council and became the youngest councillor in the country. In February 1974, he was elected as the Liberal MP for the Bodmin constituency. He won then by just nine votes, then narrowly lost in the October election by just 665 votes. Many people might have given up politics at that point—but not Lord Tyler.
He fought the Beaconsfield parliamentary by-election in 1982. He came a strong second, easily consigning to third place the new young Labour candidate—one Tony Blair. In 1983 and 1987, he organised the general election tours for David Steel. He became chair of the Liberal Party, while I was one of its campaign officers, and we had high hopes for the then Liberal/SDP Alliance. But at the end of that decade, my party hit the rocks in the European elections of 1989.
Sensing the national disaster ahead, I decided to abandon what was happening at my party HQ and began making the first of my many campaign visits to Cornwall to support my noble friend’s campaign there to try to become the MEP. Again, he did not win, but, after a campaign in which I worked closely with his election agent, Dame Annette Penhaligon, he was the only Liberal Democrat in the country to achieve second place in that election, polling over 30% of the vote, compared to just 6% for my party nationally. Our campaign, including the distribution of over 250,000 tabloid newspapers in his support, set in motion the process which eventually resulted in every seat in Cornwall being held by a Lib Dem MP.
In 1992, I helped him to win the North Cornwall constituency, which now included the town of Bodmin. He later became the Chief Whip in the Commons for my party, while I was its director of campaigns and elections. We worked very closely together with the late and much missed Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon.
We then became colleagues here when he retired from the other place in 2005. We worked together on many aspects of reform to your Lordships’ House, seeking, as he said, to go much further than we were able. We worked together to try to establish the principle of fairness in the funding of elections nationally, and to defend the principle of there being a level playing field in constituency campaigns, and we have worked to try to reduce the number of people unable to participate in our democracy because they are not registered to vote, to prevent the Government changing the rules of elections in favour of their own party, and to protect the independence and role of the Electoral Commission.
My noble friend’s debate today is very timely. Never before have a Government sought to gain control of the independent Electoral Commission, to change spending rules to enable marginal seats to be bought, and blatantly to increase the power that comes with millions of pounds rather than with millions of votes.
We will greatly miss my noble friend in the debates ahead, we thank him for his many contributions, and we are most grateful to Lady Tyler for everything that she has done in support of him, his constituents, and the cause of democracy.
My Lords, I have had the pleasure to write and speak privately to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, to express my regret that he is leaving this Chamber. Therefore, I shall just briefly put on the record that I have always found him generous, thoughtful, considerate and helpful, and I shall have those memories. I am wearing Liberal Democrat colours—I say with pain—but, more significantly, as he will recognise, they are one half of Cornish colours.
I should like to pick up on the issue of electoral integrity in a different way. Next year, we will have elections. One of those will be the mayoral election in Tower Hamlets. Previously, Lutfur Rahman was found guilty of corruption. He has indicated that he intends to stand again. Richard Mawrey described him as
“pathologically incapable of giving a straight answer … he was not truthful.”
He described people who worked for him as “chosen from his cronies.” He described another person as a “hatchet-man”.
Lutfur Rahman was ultimately found guilty of 10 different corruption offences. In the penultimate paragraph of Mr Mawrey’s comments in his judgment, he states:
“Mr Rahman has made a successful career by ignoring or flouting the law … and has relied on silencing his critics by accusations”.
That is a man who is now entitled to stand for election next May and has indicated that he intends to do so.
I received from Mark Baines a brief extract from a Sylheti channel where Lutfur Rahman is present. On four occasions during that meeting, different people do not refer to campaigning for votes, but repeatedly use the word “collect”. I have had it checked and confirmed that this is the correct translation of the word used. Who are these people? They are the Tower Hamlets Carers Association. In other words, they are looking after the elderly in old people’s homes, yet Lutfur Rahman’s henchmen are saying that they will collect votes.
Following the theme of the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, what should we do to achieve electoral integrity? We could comment on other aspects of the Elections Bill, but I would like to see four things, if possible. I have circulated extracts of the video from which I quoted to a number of Peers and the Minister. First, I would like the Government, on an all-party basis—because that is how the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and I have tried to work on occasions, although we have had disagreements—to bring forward the postal and proxy votes aspects of the Elections Bill, along with undue influence, and complete them to be used for the local elections next May. Secondly, I ask that the Electoral Commission prepares itself now and starts looking at the records, financial paperwork and the rest on Aspire—the party under which Lutfur Rahman and his cronies will campaign—to ensure that it has met all the required regulations, in a way that it did not previously. Thirdly, I ask the police to nominate and identify an individual. Fourthly, I ask all the political parties that are not part of Aspire to work together to defeat a man who was found to be so corrupt on a previous occasion.
My Lords, we can all agree with that but, by Jove, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is ending with a bang rather than a whimper, with the splendid and spirited speech he made—rather like the way he entered Parliament. I was there in 1974, because I was elected in 1970, and he came in and was immediately able to command the House with his speeches. He punched above his weight then and has done throughout. Naturally, I cannot agree with everything he said and certainly do not today. He is a bit of an expert in ex-parties so, when he pronounces the impending doom of mine, I take it with the proverbial pinch of salt—although I am bound to say that the slight tendency among certain members of my own party to move towards English nationalism is something I do not endorse in any possible way.
I very much disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on the future of your Lordships’ House, but the great thing about him is that he has always spoken with complete conviction—even when completely wrong. He has always been immensely courteous. He has been a true parliamentarian and this place will be the poorer for his going. I very much wish he had stayed for the forthcoming Bill on elections, because he would have had much to contribute, as my noble friend Lord Hayward will, and I hope to have my twopenneth too. It is important that the integrity of the electoral process is always maintained, because a democracy is flawed if its electoral process is not beyond criticism. We have to look at certain things, certainly at the way in which votes can be manipulated—or collected; that was a frightening quotation from my noble friend Lord Hayward a few moments ago.
I am very sad that we are seeing the end of an extraordinary parliamentary career. The thread that has run through it is persistence. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, as he is now, came into the House of Commons, was with us for six months and was gone. He was outside it for 18 years, but he maintained his political campaigning throughout, proclaiming his beliefs and his love for his beloved Cornwall. He came back for North Cornwall in 1992 and stayed for 13 years, and then came to your Lordships’ House. When I joined him five years later, it was clear that he already had an established presence here. Although he has not agreed with the fundamental basis of your Lordships’ House, as I have, he always conducted himself with total propriety and always made a contribution, using the House as it is, even though it is not how he would have wished it to be. I hope it never is as he wished, because I greatly value the Cross Benches—that is just one reason. Nobody will deny him his place in late 20th-century and early 21st-century British politics. He has made a noble and notable contribution in both Houses. I wish him well and hope he uses his visiting rights frequently.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and, in so doing, note that it has provided grants over the last 70 years to ensure both that the integrity of our electoral processes remain robust and that Governments and parliaments ensure that our voting systems enhance our democracy and do not bring it into disrepute.
I echo the many tributes that have already been paid to my noble friend Lord Tyler for his role in your Lordships’ House and so much more. As my noble friend Lord Rennard already said, he was first elected a councillor in 1964. When I joined the Liberals in 1974, he was already a well-known character. He was one of my predecessors as chairman of the Liberal Party in 1983, was elected as the MP for North Cornwall in 1992 and, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, joined this House in 2005. For the entirety of that time, he has had a passion and commitment unrivalled by any parliamentarian to ensure that the integrity of electoral processes is good. He is admired by all of any party passionate about elections, even if they disagree with some of the things he wants.
My noble friend and I have attended the Make Votes Matter campaign meetings for years, which brought together all those interested in proportional representation, initially, but it also discusses issues such as whether your Lordships’ House should become an elected chamber. Klina Jordan, the chief executive of the Make Votes Matter coalition, has written to me to say:
“Paul is a remarkable and dedicated champion of democracy. His passion for making sure all voices are heard and all people are properly represented has been a driving force in the movement to Make Votes Matter. As a leading figure in our cross-party Alliance for Proportional Representation, his immense wisdom, generosity of time and strategic insight have been invaluable. We warmly wish him a very happy, healthy and well-deserved retirement.”
I echo that to your Lordships’ House from the many hundreds of thousands of people across the country who continue to fight for proportional representation.
My noble friend Lord Tyler has spoken about the risks to the integrity of our electoral processes and that they have never been more at risk than now. Over the past few hundred years, our society and democracy have developed and changed beyond recognition but, unfortunately, our voting system has failed to keep pace. Our party believes that first past the post has no place in a modern democracy and should be replaced by a system of proportional representation. That is not just to get more Liberal Democrats and other smaller-party people represented; the key reason is to make sure that a vote counts for every voter.
The idea of a minority ruling over the majority goes against the UK population’s most basic ideas about democracy, but we have learned that with first past the post it is just the norm. For nearly 90% of the time since 1935—almost 90 years—we have had single-party majority Governments, but not one of them had the support of a majority of voters. The current Conservative Government have a majority of seats but only 43% of the votes. They gained an extra 48 seats despite an increase of only 1.2% in the vote share. Almost since the first general election, politicians who, frankly, most of us did not vote for and do not agree with have had the power to govern the UK however they like. The Liberal Democrats are particularly disadvantaged by first past the post, losing a seat despite increasing our overall vote share by 4%.
The other problem with this system, almost alone in Europe, is that it seems to operate on a two-party political basis whereby diversity is suppressed. As my noble friend Lord Tyler said, our system now enables seats to be either so safe that they never change hands or to be bought by the party that can invest the most in them, mixing national and local funding mechanisms under the law to their advantage. Our system is broken.
When so many voters are denied a voice, Parliament fails to reflect the people it is supposed to represent. It is vital that this be remedied. It is not just bad for democracy; it is bad for politics and our entire society. In saying farewell to my noble friend Lord Tyler, I shall end on this. There are many others in Parliament who will pick up and run with the work he has been steadfastly doing over the past 40 years. We will continue and at some point, we will succeed.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in regretting that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has chosen to retire. One of the few advantages of this place is that you never have to retire. Why give up such a fun place? However, he has done it. I was somewhat surprised that he made a Second Reading speech on a Bill which is not yet before us. I shall not refer to what the noble Lord said in his speech because I thought he was talking about something else. As an economist, I know one thing: forecasts are always wrong. I think the noble Lord’s forecast about the future of the party will not be right. It will be here for a long time to come—when I and most of us present are no longer here.
My worry is about something very different. It is that our democratic system is outdated. The people outside, especially those below the age of 50, or perhaps 35, do not understand why we have to go to a polling booth on a certain day to vote. Your Lordships’ House has progressed to having a Peer hub. I remember that when I was on a committee to elect the Speaker in this place—that shows how long I have been knocking around here—I asked why we should not vote more mechanically, rather than having six minutes to count the votes. I was told that there had to be a process by which the water flows from one part of the bottle to the other, to ensure that it lasts for six minutes. I also suggested that the Speaker sitting on the Woolsack should have a little computer to tell them what is happening. I was told that that is not our practice.
Now, not only do we have a Peer hub, but most of our citizens would prefer not to go to a voting booth but to vote online. Why have we not even thought about that? When I talk to my children and grandchildren, they do not understand why elections are organised in such an antediluvian way. Elections should be much more citizen friendly. Citizens should be allowed to vote whenever they want to vote. Why must it be on a particular day? They should be allowed to vote on any day of a given week, for example.
There are other things to think about. MPs’ surgeries have been very much on our minds lately. Why are we doing this completely outdated thing? Why does a citizen have to see his or her MP face to face? We have learned during the pandemic that all that is completely unnecessary. You can do it online. It would be much more convenient for our citizens not to have to see their MP face to face. The fact that they have to do so shows that the system is not very efficient. I think I am being signalled to shut up, so I shall.
My Lords, noble Lords on these and other Benches have paid tribute to my noble friend Lord Tyler, so I shall be brief. I will pick up the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that my noble friend Lord Tyler has been true parliamentarian for 30 years. He will be hugely missed, not only on our Benches but across the House. I believe it is his 80th birthday in eight days’ time, so I wish him an early happy birthday, but I say to him that 80 is no age at all.
The older I get, the more I think that 80 or 85 is no age at all. My noble friend is really being very cheeky retiring early.
My noble friend gave a compelling survey of all the threats to electoral and democratic legitimacy. I want to talk about the Government’s intention to bring in voter ID. The number of specific accusations of voter fraud at polling stations is low and very few accusations result in cautions or convictions. The Joint Committee on Human Rights did a report. In evidence, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, Bob Posner, told the committee:
“I’m not suggesting that there is a high incidence of it happening and of its being established, but we cannot say with confidence that there are not higher levels of personation than the statistics on cases brought by the police actually show. We can know only so much about that.”
That seems to me to be a bit of an Aunt Sally: we think there may be more but we have no idea and no proof. Mr Posner told the committee that making a change in introducing voter ID not only has to improve security, it also has
“to maintain complete accessibility to the system; and it has to be a workable, practical system.”
On both those scores there is considerable doubt. Voter ID is a solution in search of a problem, and one that entails considerable risks.
The Electoral Reform Society said that across the 2018 and 2019 voter ID pilots, 1,000 people were turned away from voting. The ERS, like the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has instead called for the introduction of automatic voter registration. The ERS also urged the Government to replace the current first past the post electoral system with proportional representation. It said that voters already think the UK’s system is safe and secure, but not that it is fair, so fairness should be the priority.
The JCHR called on the Government to find out whether requiring people to show ID to vote might decrease engagement with the electoral process, particularly among people from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. Cabinet Office research showed that 4% of eligible adults do not have ID that is recognisable or in date. If correct, this would mean that 2.1 million people may not have suitable photo ID to vote, especially older people, people with disabilities, the unemployed and those without qualifications. It showed that 5% of those surveyed said they would be less likely to vote in person if voter ID was introduced. That is a severe impact.
Our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, founder and director of Operation Black Vote, spoke to us about how mistrust in the Government and their institutions made him
“deeply afraid that if there is another layer of bureaucracy it will be another impediment for a group
—black and other ethnic minority voters—
that is already hesitant about fully engaging in the democratic process.”
I shall skip the bit about the ECHR, since I know noble Lords know all about the obligations of the ECHR, but I conclude with the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ conclusions. The Government must explain why they have reached the view that voter ID is necessary and proportionate, given the low number of reported cases of fraud, the even lower number of convictions and cautions, the potential for discrimination and the lack of clear measures to address potential discrimination. I hope the Minister can give me those answers today.
My Lords, when I saw the title of today’s debate, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, which is to ask the Government
“what plans they have to consult on measures to enhance the integrity of electoral processes”,
my first thought was: how appropriate for a valedictory speech from the noble Lord, following 16 years in your Lordships’ House but also a lifetime of campaigning on constitutional and political issues. I am pleased to respond on behalf of our Benches. I am only sorry that, in the four minutes available to me, I cannot do justice to the noble Lord’s career in Parliament and the campaigning he has done. I suspect that he takes his voluntary departure from your Lordships’ House with mixed emotions. It is a retirement well earned. As we heard, before taking his place in your Lordships’ House, he represented two constituencies in the House of Commons. Throughout 30 years in Parliament, he has, as we have heard from him and his colleagues, been a stalwart of his political party.
The noble Lord would expect me to say that, at times, we have differed on what reform of Parliament means and what changes could be made, but we have never disagreed on the commitment to the integrity, honesty and public confidence in our system and our representatives at every level of public service. I believe that he should take pride in the work he has done—but I have a sneaking feeling, reinforced by his comments today, that his choice of debate is not because he considers that all is well but because, as we have heard from his opening speech, like many of us he fears for the integrity of our system and processes.
I am never quite sure whether the Government are just careless about the integrity of our national institutions, or, as others have suggested, it is part of a calculated effort to undermine and erode anything that Boris Johnson sees as opposition. Some of these attempts would be quite comical if they were not probably intended. Noble Lords will recall, when we had the tax credits debate shortly after I became Leader, a government Minister threatened to introduce a thousand extra Peers into your Lordships’ House. On another occasion, there was a plan to divide Parliament and send half of it—the House of Lords—up to York. We also saw the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament, and now we even see attempts to make our independent courts system more political. Just this week, on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph, it was reported that
“Mr Raab revealed that he is devising a ‘mechanism’ to allow the Government to introduce ad hoc legislation to ‘correct’ court judgments that ministers believe are ‘incorrect’.”
I find that truly shocking.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, outlined so many of the concerns that many of us in your Lordships’ House share. In among the many other sad examples that I could give is the focus of today’s debate: the Elections Bill. The Government originally planned to call it the elections integrity Bill. Perhaps it was an examination of its content that saw that misnomer of a title soon dropped. Back when I was a Minister, a lesson I learned with regard to legislation was to clearly identify the problem you are seeking to address or resolve, then judge whether the remedy was an effective and proportionate response. The Government’s Elections Bill fails both those tests, but it is perhaps passes the Johnson test—to weaken any critics, using his largely unquestioning parliamentary majority to do so.
I want to be clear: confidence in and the integrity of our country’s system of voting is essential. There can be no compromise on that. So I thought, let us have a look at the impact assessment—perhaps that will shine a light on and identify the problem the Bill seeks to solve. Under the heading:
“What is the problem under consideration? Why is government action or intervention necessary?”,
there is no problem identified. There is nothing about abuse, merely that the Government want to ensure that,
“our elections remain secure, fair … and transparent.”
There is no justification for the measures proposed.
The question from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is moderate and sensible. He merely asks what plans the Government have to
“consult on measures to enhance the integrity of electoral processes.”
Would it not be great if the Minister could stand up and tell us something that will satisfy the entire House? When a significant constitution-related change, such as that in the Government’s Bill, are proposed, the sensible, pragmatic and decent way forward is to seek consensus across the political spectrum. There will always be differences in views on the voting system, campaigning styles and related issues, but on the most fundamental of questions about the robustness and integrity of the system, I believe there is a mainstream political consensus.
I am grateful for the opportunity that the noble Lord has given the House to address some of these issues. I am sorry he will not be with us when we get to discuss that Bill, but I will also say that these Benches are grateful for the noble Lord’s service to this House. We wish him well in his retirement and we wish him a very happy birthday.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to wind up in this debate. I shall try to watch the right clock this time. I, of course, begin, as every noble Lord who has spoken has done—and I thank all those who have spoken—by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I congratulate him not only on bringing this important subject before us—and it is an important subject—but on his valedictory speech. It is a proper recognition of his great contribution to his party to see so many of his colleagues here to wave him on his way. I share the sadness expressed from those Benches that he will no longer be with us.
It was, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, reminded us, very long ago—I think Sir Alec Douglas-Home was still Prime Minister—when the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was first elected as Britain’s youngest county councillor back in 1964. Gosh: that was the year that China exploded the atom bomb and the old Liberal party gave us the noble Lord—the noble Lord has always been a true liberal, in the very best sense of that word, which all of us endorse. Ever since then he has been a consummate servant of the county, the country and the party he loves, and of both Houses of Parliament. He is concluding 30 years of service in Parliament. I certainly will miss him.
The noble Lord was a great campaigner against the misuse of the 0870 prefix. I assure that him that, if he ever wants to telephone me in future, he will not have to dial 0870. I shall always welcome hearing from him. I shall miss him for his scrutiny. He was, as somebody said, and is still a great parliamentarian. His scrutiny was always properly persistent. They were times today when it felt a little bit like the wasp around the jam— the jam under the clotted cream, of course—but it was far more congenial. His contributions have always been congenial.
I conclude by saying that as a comrade, when we were noble friends in the coalition years at the time of the attempt to reform your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord and I found ourselves on the same side of the argument on many occasions in our views about the future—views which are rather more congenial on his Benches than they were on mine, as my noble friend Lord Cormack reminded us. However, I wish the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, very well in the future, as we all do.
It has been implied that the Bill has not had proper scrutiny or consideration. The Government have long been working on the programme of electoral integrity. We take the responsibility to preserve and build on our democratic heritage with the utmost seriousness, as does everyone in your Lordships’ House. All citizens must be able to participate in our elections and feel confident that their vote is theirs and theirs alone. That is why this Government set out plans to protect and strengthen our democracy in our manifesto, and why we have introduced the Elections Bill, which is currently progressing through the other place, to deliver on that promise. It has been the focus of significant interest and, as we have heard today, will no doubt come under fierce scrutiny when it arrives in your Lordships’ House. Twelve scrutiny sessions have already been scheduled in Committee in the other place, including four evidence sessions that took place in September.
My honourable friend in the other place set out the extensive history of the measures in the Bill. I must say to the noble Baroness opposite that many elements are long-established commitments or have stemmed from reports and reviews conducted by parliamentarians. For example, the measures to secure postal and proxy voting methods were born out of the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Pickles in his 2016 review into fraud. The overseas electors measures were set out in a specific policy statement issued in October 2016. The measures seeking to improve the accessibility of our polls were born out of the Government’s call for evidence, Access to Elections, in September 2017. The new electoral sanction for intimidation in the Bill also directly derives from the Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information consultation in July 2018, and the same consultation informed the transparency in digital campaigning methods. These were also the focus of a technical consultation on digital imprints from August 2020, the government response to which was issued in June this year. In addition, we undertook a range of voter identification pilots in 2018 and 2019. So there has been a great deal of pre-consideration, and I look forward to justifying it in answer to the challenges that will doubtless come from the Benches opposite. I think the Government can respond to those comprehensively.
Certain issues have been raised in the debate that I must touch on. My noble friend Lord Hayward gave me notice of the issue that he brought to the attention of the House. I saw by the reaction to his speech the concern that was felt across the House at the matters that he raised in his characteristically thoughtful remarks. A number of concerns have been highlighted about the current arrangements for postal voting, which do leave the system open to potential vote harvesting, and the recent reports from Tower Hamlets are concerning.
That is why the Government are introducing a number of measures designed to improve the integrity and robustness of postal voting. The Bill will provide a power to limit the number of postal votes a person may hand in at a polling station or to the returning officer on behalf of others. It is currently envisaged that, in addition to their own postal vote, an individual will be able to hand in the postal votes of up to two electors. If a person hands in postal votes on behalf of more than the prescribed number of electors, all the postal votes will be rejected. The Bill will also ban political campaigners from handling postal votes issued to others and will require those registered for a postal vote to reapply for a postal vote every three years in order to keep their absent ballot arrangement. This will provide the opportunity for someone who may initially have been convinced to have, or coerced into having, a postal vote to break out of that situation and prevent their vote being stolen.
We will have no truck with the practice of so-called family voting. It is unacceptable in any century, certainly the 21st century, that a man should go into a polling station and seek to direct the way that a woman should vote. That is already unlawful and we look to the authorities to prevent such occurrences.
I understand that the noble Lord expressed a concern that the measures in the Bill should come into force promptly in order to reduce the risk of future abuses taking place. I will certainly reflect on what he said, but it is vital that the processes that we put in place to support these measures are workable for both voters and those who administer elections. These are complex changes to deliver, but I have heard the noble Lord.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said—and I understand the historic aspiration of the Liberal Party—that first past the post has no place. The Elections Bill will legislate to change the electoral system for all elected mayors and police and crime commissioners from the supplementary vote to the well-understood and long-established system of first past the post. Britain’s long-standing national electoral system of first past the post ensures clearer accountability and allows voters to kick out the politicians who do not deliver. We do not have a third party that sits permanently in power deciding which of the two larger parties should form an Administration. First past the post is simple and fair. The person chosen to represent a constituency should be the one who receives the most votes. I must remind the House that the 2011 nationwide referendum endorsed first past the post, rejecting a change to the voting system. The referendum result should be respected. In 2011 AV was supported by a majority of the local voters in a mere 10 of the 440 local counting areas, so we will implement our manifesto commitment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, raised issues relating to voter ID. I have no doubt that we will debate that at great length when considering the Bill, so I will not anticipate all those arguments, but I understand where she is coming from. I have heard the arguments but unfortunately, I do not agree with them. Showing photographic identification is a reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that someone is who they say they are. It will allow us to take action against the vulnerabilities in the system that the 2016 report by my noble friend Lord Pickles and leading international election observers such as the OECD and the Electoral Commission all agree are a security risk. The 2021 Electoral Commission winter tracker was also very clear that the majority of the public—two in three voters, 66%—say that a requirement to show identification at polling stations would make them more confident in the security of our elections. If they are more confident, notwithstanding what the noble Baroness said, they are more likely to participate. A comprehensive equality impact assessment was published alongside the Bill. As I say, I have no doubt that we will discuss this at great length on the Elections Bill and I look forward to being of service to your Lordships’ House and going some way towards convincing your Lordships that voter ID is sensible, proportionate and desirable.
In conclusion, exactly as the Minister of State for Equalities and for Levelling Up Communities noted during her first debate on this Bill in the other place, we are indeed having a lot of scrutiny of this Bill. I look forward to that. The only thing I do not look forward to is not hearing the familiar and respected voice of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, assisting us in those considerations.
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
Report (2nd Day) (Continued)
36: Before Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—
“Personal Education and Skills Account
(1) A Personal Education and Skills Account (“PESA”) is an account—(a) held by an eligible adult (an “account holder”); and(b) which satisfies the requirements of this section.(2) An eligible adult is a person who—(a) is aged 18 or over; and(b) is ordinarily resident in England.(3) A PESA may be held only with a person (an “account provider”) who has been approved by the Secretary of State in accordance with regulations.(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations establish a body to administer the operation of the PESA scheme.(5) In the case of each person who is eligible under subsection (2), the body established under subsection (4) must open a PESA for that person.(6) If a person does not wish to hold a PESA, they must inform the body under subsection (4) in writing in accordance with regulations.(7) The Secretary of State must pay into each PESA a deposit of £4,000 during the year in which each account holder attains the age of 25 and a deposit of £3,000 during the year in which each account holder attains—(a) the age of 40; and(b) the age of 55.(8) Further contributions may be made to a PESA by—(a) an account holder;(b) employers; or (c) any other person as may be prescribed by regulations by the Secretary of State.(9) At any time after an account holder has attained the age of 25, they may transfer funding from their PESA to an approved institution for their chosen education or training course.(10) For the purposes of subsection (9) an “approved institution” is—(a) a “relevant provider” under section 18;(b) such other education or training providers as may be approved by the Office for Students.(11) Prior to an account holder making an initial funding transfer, the National Careers Service must offer a careers guidance consultation to that account holder.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides for individual “skills wallets” which may be used by a person to pay for education and training courses throughout their lifetime. The Government will make a payment of £4,000 when an individual turns 25 and then two further payments of £3,000 when an individual turns 40 and 55.
Amendment 36 provides for the introduction of personal education and skills accounts, commonly known as skills wallets. As stressed by many of your Lordships during the passage of the Bill, there is growing discontent about the way in which post-16 education and training are provided and the reality of the skills needed for our population.
We know that in future the average British worker will do several different jobs throughout their lifetime; almost half will retrain completely during the course of their career. Meanwhile, the number of adult learners has fallen dramatically, almost halving between 2004 and 2016. With technology advancing and the world of work always rapidly changing, skills learned at 18 or 21 will not last a lifetime. It has never been more important for people to continually develop new skills. Yet our higher education and student finance systems are still tailored mainly to people taking their first degree or beginning an apprenticeship around the age of 18. Meanwhile, there is a desperate shortage of funding in the FE sector. The current system limits the opportunities, and people do not get the chance to make the most of their talents. Do we not want to empower people to develop new skills, so that they can thrive in the technologies and industries that are key to Britain’s economic future? Championing flexible lifelong learning will give people the power to follow the path that best suits their ability. A skills wallet would be open to every adult over the age of 18 and resident in the UK.
I remind the House of the quite important words of the previous Secretary of State for Education when introducing the lifetime skills guarantee:
“What we are determined to do, and what we must do, is give people the opportunity to retrain and upskill, so that if one door closes, they will have the key to open others.”
He went on to say that the Government
“stand for empowering everyone in this country, wherever they live. We stand for the forgotten 50% who do not go to university.”
The measures that he wanted to see
“will embed greater flexibility in the technical and vocational system to support not just young people but adults who need to retrain and upskill at any point in their working lives.”—[Official Report, Commons, 1/10/20; col. 541.]
Those comments justify the need for this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I think there has been a regrouping; I was about to speak on an amendment that seems to have disappeared from here. I have added my name to Amendment 45A from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, which is still in this group, and of course I entirely endorse what my noble friend Lord Storey said about the importance of the skills wallet.
The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, is on lifelong learning. Of course, we would much rather see the support for this as grants, rather than loans, to attract adults with financial obligations that deter them from accruing more long-term debt—particularly if it is to encourage their own learning. The amendment is designed to monitor how well the lifelong learning arrangements are working. We particularly wish to see how restricting funding for those studying for an equal or lower-level qualification than one they already hold is impacting the nation’s skills level.
Changes in the world of work mean that many people who already have a level 3 qualification, if they are made unemployed and need to retrain, will need to be able to study for a subsequent qualification at this level or below. The lifetime skills guarantee extended the entitlement beyond those aged under 25 to all adults, but only to a limited list of level 3 qualifications and only for those who do not already have one. It is vital that adults are able to reskill at a lower level in a skill area different from the one already mastered, if that will enable them to gain employment.
This really important amendment calls for the Secretary of State
“to publish an annual report on the impact on re-skilling of funding restrictions on those who wish to pursue a qualification at a level equivalent to or lower than one they already hold.”
My Lords, I have also added my name to Amendment 45A from the noble Lord, Lord Watson. During the first day of Report, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, spoke about previous unsuccessful skills improvement initiatives and asked,
“why will it be different this time?”—[Official Report, 12/10/21; col. 1765.]
Why will the Government’s new skills system, as embodied in the Bill, work better than its predecessors? In my view, one of the answers will need to be a really vigorous and well thought-through approach to reporting, monitoring and evaluating the different elements of the strategy and how they all work together. The lifelong learning entitlement and the lifetime skills guarantee—I think I have those the right way around—are essential elements of the strategy but need to be transformed from slogans into realities. A crucial part of achieving that will be review, review, review.
I might prefer this amendment if proposed new subsection (1) ended slightly differently, to read, “a report on the impact on the overall levels of skills in England and Wales of all the provisions of this Act”, rather than confining itself to
“the rules regarding eligibility for funding for those undertaking further or higher education courses.”
In the meantime, I will content myself with supporting the noble Lord’s amendment as it stands—with its effect of ensuring that the impact of the equivalent or lower qualification rule is at least reviewed and assessed on a regular annual basis—while encouraging the Minister to look at beefing up further the process of reviewing the overall progress of the skills strategy, beyond the performance monitoring and review of designated employer representative bodies described in her letter to us.
My Lords, I slightly unexpectedly find myself to be the first person to speak to Amendment 40 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and me. Amendment 45A calls for a review to look at the issues around a restriction on allowing people to study at a level below that which they already possess. Amendment 40 goes further in removing restrictions.
I would have thought that naturally the Conservative position would be a belief that the person best placed to decide their best course of study would be the individual concerned rather than the state. This is a question of individual choice, about people knowing best their own situation. Therefore, while I very much support Amendment 45A, which at least calls for a review, I would go back to the more fundamental change in Amendment 40.
I am also in favour of Amendment 36 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Education is a public good. We hear a lot of talk about investment for levelling up. Well, investment in people is the most fundamental investment of all. It is flexible, it enables people to make choices for themselves. A new or improved railway line or better school facilities are there and accessible to people, but people making their own choices is what investment in education is all about.
I am also in favour of Amendment 48, not yet addressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. I will leave her to fully explain this, but it is worth stressing that what does not get measured and focused on does not get funded or supported. That is the principle behind that amendment.
My Lords, as this is my first speech on Report, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, to her new ministerial role, and place on record my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for her hard work on the Bill and her openness and willingness to engage with those of us on this side.
I speak specifically to the government amendments in this group. My noble friend Lady Wilcox will talk about the others in this group. We would have preferred them to be de-grouped, but time is short. However, the Government were planning to bring back for Report detailed amendments on the lifelong loan entitlement. Since they have now decided not to do that, we are left with several questions which I must ask. I apologise for doing so on Report, but we have not had an opportunity to do so otherwise.
In Committee, the Government tabled some amendments which were presented as providing some of the wiring in the basement of higher education that would be needed when Ministers unveiled their renovation plans in the form of the LLE. However, since those plans must wait until another day and, we are told, until more primary legislation, because Ministers want to wait for the consultation first, we are left with some big questions. One obvious question is: when will the consultation happen? Indeed, why is it not already out there? What is holding it up?
Ministers have brought back some parts of the wiring amendments on Report. The LLE is meant to cover courses and modules in FE and HE. Clause 14 amends the Teaching and Higher Education Act to allow for the funding of courses in FE and modules in FE and HE, a lifetime funding limit and for funding not just for an academic year. Clause 15 amends HERA to change the definition of a “higher education course” to make it clear that the regulatory regime applies to modules. Government Amendment 39 defines what a course and a module are. However, at the risk of being nerdy, I point out that the Government have not brought back the parts of an amendment that they tabled in Committee which required the Office for Students to specify fee limits for modules as well as courses. We are told offline that the Government will provide for modular fee limits after the consultation. Will that require primary legislation? Does any other aspect of the LLE require primary legislation? If so, can we have a timescale for it? If not, can the Minister say how and when Parliament will have a full debate on the shape and scope of the LLE absent primary legislation?
Where does that leave us in the gap between the Bill taking effect and the new regime being brought forward? If THEA will now permit student loan funding to cover modules which are not taken as part of a full course, does that mean that a provider could do that now but with no fee limits, or would that require regulations to be made, perhaps under THEA? If so, can the Minister assure the House that no such regulations will be brought forward ahead of the debate on the primary legislation promised to enable LLE?
I have three other questions. First, does the same definition of a module in the Bill, as it will be amended, apply for all purposes—funding and regulation—in both HERA and THEA? I ask because Clause 15 as amended by government Amendment 39 offers a definition of a module, which I mentioned in Committee. However, new subsection (1)(e) in Clause 14(1) provides that regulations under Section 28A of HERA may prescribe the meaning of “module” in relation to HE or FE. Can the Minister clarify that distinction? Secondly, on funding, irrespective of how LLE develops, does it mean that a module can be funded via the student loan book only if it is part of a full course? In other words, would the Bill as amended exclude a module which was not part of a qualification?
Finally, the Bill brings the regulation of modules clearly within the remit of the OfS but there are lots of outstanding questions about what quality looks like for modular provision. The OfS has just closed its second-phase consultation on its proposals for new quality and standard conditions, in which it repeatedly stressed that their new conditions were designed to work for modules as well as courses. It will shortly consult on new quantitative metrics. The current measures—student continuation, completion, and progression to graduate jobs—will self-evidently not transfer across to modules from full HE courses. Is the intention for that consultation to consult on new metrics which will apply to flexible modules as well as full courses? If so, is the Minister concerned that this may pre-empt decisions of this House?
I am concerned that by legislating now on the regulation of flexible provision but holding back on funding and other details, the law is being changed without adequate scrutiny of what the new system will look like. Why have the Government brought these amendments back now? Why not hold off until we have that new primary legislation and Parliament can have a full, informed and coherent debate about how this will work?
My Lords, as the Bill before us today is about education, I hope that noble Lords will not mind me veering slightly off topic for a moment. Today marks the 55th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip on 21 October 1966 that killed 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed Pantglas Junior School. I was a pupil at Pontygwaith Junior School in the Rhondda at that time, another valleys primary school built on the side of a mountain, and as we returned to school after lunch we were sent into the yard and told to put our hands together, close our eyes and pray for the children of Aberfan. I had never heard of Aberfan at that time, but I have never forgotten it since.
I speak to Amendments 40, 41, 45A and 61 in the name of my noble friend Lord Watson, who unfortunately, because of the change to the timetable, is unable to be here today. The Government originally promised to table LLE amendments ahead of Committee, but unfortunately very few of substance materialised. We were told that they would be tabled for Report, but we have now been advised by the Minister and her Bill team that this was not possible and that they intend to consult and pilot the lifelong loan entitlement before returning with new primary legislation. This is disappointing given that the LLE is supposed to be the Government’s flagship policy and is urgently needed, but it is not surprising, because the sheer complexity of what they are trying to build was immediately apparent to all—apart from, it seems, the Bill team.
Perhaps the delay will give the Minister time to reflect on the length of the LLE. At present, it will offer up to four years of equivalent funding for levels 4 to 6, and while for some people this may be enough, for others it simply will not be. Undertaking a foundation or access year plus a three-year bachelor’s degree, which is a common route, would use it all up in one go. Therefore Amendment 41, requiring the Secretary of State to consult on extending eligibility to six years to give greater flexibility, is important. It will be especially important to those studying part-time and help to encourage adult learners to take up an offer to study and upskill. It is supported by the Association of Colleges, training providers and other stakeholders that we have engaged with in preparation for this debate.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for tabling Amendment 43, which allows the Secretary of State to make provision for the LLE to include maintenance provisions to include living costs to help disadvantaged students. We tabled this amendment in Committee and, as my noble friend Lord Watson highlighted then, one of the main barriers for adult learners, highlighted in the DfE’s own impact assessment, is the cost of study, including living costs. Yet, as drafted, the LLE covers only tuition costs. The Welsh Government recently introduced reforms to tackle this issue by extending maintenance support, including means-tested grants to all students regardless of mode of study, while maintaining low tuition fees for part-time study. Unsurprisingly, this has had a huge impact on participation.
Amendment 40 removes the equivalent or lower qualification—ELQ—exemption rule for the LLE to ensure eligibility for student loan funding for another qualification at that or a lower level, to facilitate career changes. It also ensures LLE eligibility regardless of subject, intensity of study, institution or learning style. We are concerned that, unless reformed, the ELQ rule could pose a significant barrier to further education providers working with local employers to deliver training in priority sectors that support communities.
I will not repeat in full the arguments my noble friend Lord Watson gave on this issue in Committee, nor will I repeat the searching and directly targeted questions from my noble friend Lady Sherlock. The ELQ rule means that anyone qualified to level 4 cannot access government loans or grants to study a qualification at an equivalent or lower level. I suggest this must be urgently reconsidered if the LLE is to succeed in providing opportunities for people to reskill for a new career where such skills are in demand. According to the Office for Students, there are exemptions to the ELQ rule if it is a qualification in a public sector profession, such as medicine, nursing, social work or teaching, or if the student is studying for a foundation degree or receiving a disability student allowance.
Mayoral combined authorities with devolved powers have begun to move away from the ELQ rule. Indeed, the Conservative-controlled West Midlands Combined Authority is running a pilot offering fully funded care management qualifications at level 3 and 4 to black, Asian and minority-ethnic women regardless of their prior attainment. The Augar review also proposed scrapping the complex ELQ rule. The need has been recognised, and there are precedents for the Government to follow.
It was disappointing that the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, withdrew last week what was then Amendment 42, requiring the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on the impact on reskilling of funding restrictions on people requiring a qualification at a level equivalent to or below the one they already hold. We were supportive of that amendment, so it has been resubmitted in the name of my noble friend Lord Watson and appears as Amendment 45A. I do not propose to elaborate, as it is self-explanatory.
Another complex area concerns credit transfer arrangements to allow students to move between education providers. Amendment 61 is a probing amendment designed to elicit more information on this. A universal credit transfer system would have significant benefits to many students, not least in terms of widening participation. The Open University’s OpenPlus programme, where students initially study at one institution before completing their studies at another, is an example of what can be achieved. I would be very grateful if, ahead of consultation, the Minister can outline how the Government intend to address and overcome the lack of commonality which my noble friend Lord Watson raised in Committee. Can she say what discussions the DfE has had since then with the devolved Governments and what those discussions have produced? Any scheme for allowing students to use credit flexibly must enable transferability across the UK—many people living in Newport study in Bristol, and vice versa—and internationally. It also needs to support credit transfer not just in HE but between FE and HE. I hope the Minister can say how she anticipates that will be facilitated.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, for reminding us of the tragedy of Aberfan and the terrible loss of life on that day. I will speak first to the amendments in my name on the lifelong loan entitlement and then respond to your Lordships’ amendments.
The amendments being laid today primarily address the technical underpinnings of the LLE and make other minor corrections to enable a strong legislative framework. We are laying them now to introduce the enabling powers for the Secretary of State that are necessary to the delivery of the LLE from 2025. The Government previously set out that we would table additional amendments, as your Lordships have noted, outlining further detail on the modular fee limit policy of the LLE. Following further policy development and engagement with stakeholders, including debate in Committee in this House, the Government have decided not to lay these before we consult. As noble Lords have noted, these are complex issues and it is essential that our final policy approach is informed by the needs of students, providers and all key stakeholders. This complexity was demonstrated in Committee by some of the questions on the detail and implementation of the lifelong loan entitlement. Given the intricate nature of such legislation, we must not pre-empt further policy design or decisions based on the consultation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked what the consultation will contain. We intend to seek views on our ambition, objectives and coverage. This will include aspects such as but not limited to: the level of modularity —this will cover the minimum number of credits a course will need to bear to be eligible for funding; maintenance support; how to support quality provision and flexible learning; how to incentivise and enable effective credit transfer; and whether restrictions on previous study should be amended to facilitate retraining and stimulate high-quality provision. We intend to bring further primary legislation following consultation. This will allow us to meet the rollout timetable of the LLE from 2025, as originally planned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, describes herself as nerdy; in my world, that is a great compliment. I thank her for her kind remarks about my getting to grips with the role, but I also commend my noble friend Lady Chisholm, who has found herself on an equally steep learning curve. To be clear on the timing of the LLE consultation, we commit to delivering the LLE from 2025. We cannot give the noble Baroness a firm date today, but it will be lined up so that we can deliver on that commitment. She also asked whether fee limits would require primary legislation; I can confirm that they would.
The noble Baroness also asked why the Government are laying amendments on the LLE now rather than waiting for future primary legislation—I have an instinctive feeling that, if we had not laid these amendments, she might have challenged the Government on our commitment to really delivering on this. Part of the reason is to be absolutely clear that there should be no doubt about that level of commitment.
In terms of the definitions of a module in the Bill, from both a funding and a regulatory perspective, I know that the noble Baroness has been in correspondence with colleagues in the department and I am happy to put a full, detailed response in a letter in the interests of time. The THEA and HERA legislation have two very different purposes. The former makes provision for loan funding via a broad set of regulation-making powers for the Secretary of State; the latter is principally about the regulatory regime—the powers of the Office for Students—and specifically enables the setting of fee limits for higher education courses by the Secretary of State. In Clause 14, new Section 28A(1)(e) modifies Section 22 of THEA by inserting new subsection (2ZA). That enables the Secretary of State to define what “module” means in relation to a higher or further education course for the purposes of making loan regulations.
Clause 15, which is to be amended by the government amendments, takes a slightly different approach due to the different regime that it covers. It clarifies that a module of a “full course”—an HE course, for example, mentioned in Schedule 6 to the Education Reform Act 1988—is itself a category of higher education course for the purposes of Part 1 of HERA 2017 when it is taken separately from the course from which it is derived.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked whether it was the intention that a module can be funded via the loan book only if it is part of a full course. The funding of modular loans will be delivered via regulations, using the modified powers to THEA under Clause 14 of the Bill, as noted earlier. The policy intention is for the lifelong loan entitlement to fund whole courses—or their component modules, if taken separately—that meet the necessary regulatory requirements and are provided by or on behalf of a registered provider. All registered providers currently offering loan-funded provision should be able to offer modular learning through the LLE. It is not the policy intention to fund modules that are not component parts of whole courses. The Bill would allow for regulations that could include or exclude from funding modules that are not part of a qualification. We will consult on the scope and policy of the lifelong loan entitlement, including seeking views on objectives and coverage, together with aspects such as the level of modularity.
The noble Baroness also asked about the regulations on fee limits and whether these would be introduced ahead of debate on the primary legislation. Any fee regulations would have to follow an affirmative resolution procedure, so there would be a debate in both Houses if and when the primary legislation has been introduced. I hope that that answers the noble Baroness’s questions, and I thank her for giving me warning of them.
As I was saying, we intend to bring further primary legislation following consultation, and we are still committed to meeting the rollout timetable of the LLE from 2025. As a number of noble Lords have said, we share that vision for lifelong learning to make sure that everyone, no matter where they live or their background, can gain the skills that they need to progress in work at any stage of their life.
As part of the lifetime skills guarantee, the lifelong loan entitlement will be introduced from 2025, providing individuals with a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over their lifetime. The LLE will create a flexible skills system through which people can build up learning over their lifetime and have a real choice in how and when they study. It will make it easier for students to navigate the options available, and it will encourage provision to meet the needs of people, employers and the economy better. We will endeavour to keep the House updated on the progress of the development of the LLE.
I turn now to the government amendments in my name, which seek to do three things. First, they will clarify what is meant by “module”, in reference to a higher education course. Secondly, they will avoid introducing a potential bureaucratic burden on providers. Thirdly, they will correct a previous error in legislation surrounding the teaching excellence framework. Specifically, Amendment 39 will amend Clause 15, which itself amends the definition of “higher education course” in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, to make express provision for the regulation of modules.
Currently, the post-18 education student finance systems do not provide for modules. The LLE will transform student finance by supporting more flexible and modular provision. These proposed changes will provide the explicit underpinning for the delivery of modular provision. On Amendments 37, 38 and 39, Clause 15, once amended, will make specific provisions for modules in Part 1 of HERA 2017, which relates to the regulatory regime under the Office for Students. These amendments also reduce the potential burden on providers to provide or publish information in relation to modules under Section 9 of that Act.
Amendment 59 relates to the high-level quality rating, which is currently an award under the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework—TEF—for providers without an approved access and participation plan. Higher education providers with a TEF award currently benefit from an uplift to their fee limit, which means that they are able to charge at a higher level than higher education providers without a TEF award.
There is currently an error in the legislation that could prevent a timely link between TEF awards and a provider’s fee limit. For example, let us consider a provider that does not have an approved access and participation plan. Whether that provider is entitled to the TEF fee uplift in any academic year is dependent on whether it had an award on 1 January in the calendar year before the relevant academic year. This means that a provider seeking to charge the TEF fee uplift in the academic year 2022-23 would be able to do so based on an award in force in January 2021, rather than January 2022, which was the original intent. This amendment will correct this and ensure that there is a more timely link between fee limits and the TEF, helping to further incentivise excellence in higher education. Amendment 73 to Clause 27 is a related consequential amendment that sets out that the new clause in Amendment 59 will come into force two months after Royal Assent.
Finally, I turn to Amendments 68 and 69, which set out the territorial extent of the provisions contained within the Bill. The LLE provisions extend to England and Wales but apply in relation to England because we are making amendments to the English student finance system. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked about our engagement with the devolved Administrations. We have engaged with them on the LLE and on other measures in the Bill, and contact and engagement continue as work on this area progresses.
Overall, we believe that these changes will help pave the way for more flexible study and for greater parity between further and higher education. As I said, we will consult on the detail and scope of the lifelong loan entitlement in due course.
I will now respond to your Lordships’ amendments and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. I turn first to Amendment 36, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. The Government warmly share the noble Lord’s desire to promote lifelong learning. However, this amendment would create significant fiscal and logistical challenges. It has the potential to disrupt our established loan support system in order to accommodate an additional system of grants. This would substantially increase costs to the taxpayer, both in the costs of such grants themselves and in their administration.
The amendment would mean that every individual in England would have a personal education and skills account. A report on this policy was published by the Independent Commission on Lifelong Learning in March 2019, setting out that the maximum total liability to government of PESAs would be £6.6 billion per year. It is worth noting briefly that this figure is likely to be an underestimate, because the PESA envisioned in that report was for a £9,000 sum, rather than the £10,000 suggested here.
The amendment also suggests that a new body would be created to administer these learning accounts for every adult resident in England. This process would have to happen seven years before an individual can first make use of any funds at age 25, and integration of these new accounts within the Student Loans Company’s existing operations would have significant cost and operational impacts. Moreover, there is an opportunity cost to the Government depositing thousands of pounds into these accounts, only to be left idle, waiting for an unknown point of use. This poses a strong contrast to our current loan support, made available at the point of study. Finally, these significant changes would risk delaying the rollout of the lifelong loan entitlement beyond 2025.
Turning next to Amendment 41, from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the Government’s vision for a four-year post-18 education loan entitlement mirrors the four years’ full-time undergraduate training recommendation of the Independent Panel Report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. As many noble Lords will be aware, the panel reported following extensive consultation and stakeholder engagement, and sought specifically to promote both uptake of higher technical qualifications and flexible study through this recommendation.
The recommendations made were intended to strike the right balance between taxpayers and students. This amendment would potentially enable much greater cost to be borne by taxpayers than has been proposed by the Government. It is also worth noting that the existing flexibilities for part-time students will remain under the LLE and that part-time study would be able to exceed four calendar years, as needed. This would mean that, as currently, a student could study a course of four academic years at a lower intensity, over, for example, six calendar years, if they desired.
I turn to Amendment 61, again from the noble Lord, Lord Watson. I warmly welcome the interest that he has placed on ensuring that the Government have the powers needed to deliver the LLE, and agree strongly with the underlying principle. The Government believe that at the heart of the LLE is enabling greater flexibility. Where appropriate, learners must be able to accumulate and transfer credit between providers, building up meaningful qualifications over time. The Bill, and the government amendments we have tabled on the lifelong loan entitlement, provide the building blocks of a modular system; we intend to come back with further legislation once we have consulted on how that system should be made to work best in the interests of students.
In developing the LLE, we are working closely with the sector to understand current incentives and obstacles to credit transfer and recognition. We will examine how to support easier and more frequent credit transfer between providers, working towards well-integrated and aligned higher and further education provision, with flexibility that enables students to move between settings to suit their needs. So while we welcome the push behind this amendment, it remains important that consultation informs our approach to credit transfer. We must not predetermine the outcome, nor pin the Government to a path of top-down regulation, without understanding fully the impact on providers and learners.
I will now address Amendments 40 and 45A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on retraining and ELQs. The Government agree that many learners need to access courses in a more flexible way to fit study around their work, families and personal commitments, and to retrain as both their circumstances and the economy change. Developing skills across the country is a key priority for the Government as we seek to build back better from the pandemic.
In April, we launched the “free courses for jobs” offer as part of the lifetime skills guarantee. This gives all adults in England the opportunity to take their first level 3 qualification for free, regardless of their age. The offer builds upon the pre-existing legal entitlement for 19 to 23 year-olds to access their first full level 2 and/or level 3 qualification, which the free courses for jobs offer complements. Through the adult education budget, full funding is also available through legal entitlements for adults aged 19 and above to access English and maths, to improve their literacy and numeracy, and to access fully-funded digital skills qualifications for adults with no or low digital skills.
However, I should also note that existing equivalent or lower qualification rules were designed to help maintain a sustainable system. As such, we are designing the lifelong loan entitlement to support students pursuing higher and further education flexibly, but also to share the costs fairly. We want the lifelong loan entitlement to provide value for money to students, the education sector and the taxpayer. The complexity of this balance and the transformative nature of the LLE are among many reasons why we intend to consult on the detail and scope of the LLE before legislating on eligibility. It is crucial that careful consideration of the needs of providers, learners and stakeholders informs our final policy design and that we do not pre-empt the findings of the consultation.
Regarding Amendment 45A, introducing an ongoing review on eligibility into primary legislation before the policy detail is yet finalised may also prejudice the outcome of the consultation. Additionally, the Government believe that a yearly report without an end date could be an undue and non-proportionate burden to be tied to at this stage.
I again note that Amendments 40 and 45A would be out of kilter with similar legislation passed previously in your Lordships’ House in relation to student finance. As outlined earlier, much of the detail of how the system works, such as exact eligibility criteria, has been set out in secondary legislation, and the necessary monitoring and review will be undertaken after changes have been implemented and had time to embed.
On Amendment 43, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I can reassure him that the Bill already provides the necessary powers for maintenance support. Clause 14(1) modifies the powers in Section 22(1) of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, so that regulations will be able to provide for maintenance and living cost loans for eligible students taking designated modules of higher or further education courses. The introduction of this would follow consultation, which, as I have mentioned, will cover maintenance support. This amendment is therefore not necessary but I warmly welcome—and the Government agree with—the underlying principle: a need for appropriate support for students while they undertake their studies.
The Bill makes explicit provision for supporting the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement. The funding of modules of courses will help create a more flexible system of provision across higher and further education. As I have said, much of this work is subject to the consultation on the lifelong loan entitlement, which we will be launching in due course. As such, I would hope that noble Lords will feel able not to move their amendments when they are called.
Amendment 36 withdrawn.
Clause 15: Lifelong learning: amendment of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017
Amendments 37 to 39
37: Clause 15, page 18, line 17, leave out “In section 83(1) of”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the Minister’s second amendment at page 18, line 17.
38: Clause 15, page 18, line 17, after “2017” insert “is amended as follows.
(2) In section 9 (mandatory transparenc