House of Lords
Wednesday 1 December 2021
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.
My Lords, the Government have been clear that the current number of sewage discharges is unacceptable. Water companies are already making improvements, investing £3.1 billion in the current 2020 to 2025 planning cycle. They need to do much more, which is why we have taken action in the Environment Act and in our draft steer to Ofwat. Defra will set out the level of ambition expected in due course, including in the statutory government discharge reduction plan.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. I also thank his colleague the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, for his Answer to my Written Question last week, which was about the number of spillages in the lakes at Grasmere and Windermere. I had hoped for some sort of timetable—a few dates, a plan or process—but there was absolutely nothing. In fact, the Answer essentially committed only to maintaining existing levels of discharges, and therefore existing levels of pollution. When are the Government going to set a timetable that we can all see and measure the water companies against, for the whole of the UK?
I am not aware of those two specific cases but we will be reporting to this House on our response to the timetable on all the measures—the eight duties listed in the Environment Act, and specifically on storm outflows—in the early part of next year.
My Lords, under regulatory policy statement B2, issued by the Environment Agency on 15 October, the agency is granting dispensations to water companies for maintaining normal sewage treatment standards where they cannot get chemicals because of the “changed relationship” of the United Kingdom with the European Union. How many dispensations have been granted—they have to be notified to the agency—and how many sewage discharges have taken place in consequence of those dispensations?
I am full of admiration for how the noble Lord manages to find a Brexit angle on even quite a domestic matter. There is currently no disruption to the supply of water, its treatment or the treatment of wastewater. There was a contingency measure put in place but it has not been required by any water company.
My Lords, further to my question on Monday regarding a ban on wet wipes, can my noble friend comment on whether, with wet wipes being a significant cause of sewage blockages or overflows, the Government might support the Bill being debated on Friday in the other place to ban wet wipes? Could such a ban be introduced by secondary legislation through the new Section 141A, inserted by the Environment Act, to “prepare a plan” to reduce these discharges?
The Storm Overflows Taskforce is considering wet wipes because they can be a contributing factor, as my noble friend so rightly says, to the overflows at treatment works. Defra has announced a call for evidence, which will explore a possible ban on single-use wet wipes containing plastic. We will be looking closely at the Private Member’s Bill to see whether the Government and the Member of Parliament concerned can work together on this.
My Lords, the discharge of sewage contaminates the environment both with potentially pathogenic bacteria and with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and, indeed, with antibiotics. This all contributes to a reservoir of potential infection for humans and animals, and to the further evolution of antibiotic resistance. While the UK Government’s national action plan on antimicrobial resistance recognises this, there is no mandatory surveillance required for antibiotics or antibiotic resistance in aquatic environments. Can the Minister tell the House if and when such mandatory monitoring will be instigated to provide evidence-based mitigation measures?
The noble Lord raises a really important point. The Government are looking at this right across the piece as a “one health” approach across human and animal health, food and the environment. We have set up a project called Pathogen Surveillance in Agriculture, Food and the Environment, which brings together a number of agencies and departments. It contains a workstream focused on AMR prevalence in two river catchments. This work will strengthen our understanding. We are also working with the Environment Agency and the water company chemical investigations programme to make sure that we are all pulling in the same direction to tackle this very important matter.
My Lords, the amendment to the Environment Act that was brought forward by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, shows that this House can really improve legislation. I think everybody would agree with that. Rather surprisingly, I hasten to add, I had no role in this at all because I think I probably voted with the Government. Water companies have not always been at the forefront of cleaning up their own act—if you will excuse the pun. What has the initial reaction of the water companies been to this new amendment, and when are they going to start meeting my noble friend if they have not done so already?
The actions of water companies in relation to storm outflows has been brought into sharp relief by the debates around what is now the Environment Act, and other measures being brought forward by pressure groups and parliamentarians. Water companies are very seized of this and they have new responsibilities—not just through the provision of the Act, but through our direction to Ofwat and our ability to look at their plans to make sure that they comply. I do not think there has ever been so much focus on what they can do, and I do not think they can get away with the levels of sewage outflows into our rivers under the measures we are bringing forward.
Surfers Against Sewage has an annual water quality report which found that water companies have actually increased the amount of raw sewage dumped into our rivers and seas—an 87% increase from last year. The Government have now said that they have the tools to act and hold water companies to account. I am pleased that they now see that sewage discharges are completely unacceptable. The Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, was, however, about timescales and urgency. Can the Minister assure your Lordships that when the Surfers Against Sewage annual report is published next year it will show a significant decrease in the amount of sewage flowing into our waterways?
I am a great admirer of Surfers Against Sewage; it, along with Members of this House and others, has strengthened the hands of those in government who wanted to see that we have proper measures against sewage outflows. As I said in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, we will respond on the timescale as indicated, in the early part of next year. We are treating this as a matter of urgency, and we want to hold water companies to account to react quickly to the new measures we are bringing in.
Will my noble friend confirm that the water industry welcomes the amendment proposed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, as giving it for the first time the legal basis on which to make the necessary investment? Will the Government accept that the flip side to that is the regulations to be introduced under Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which will introduce natural flood schemes such as SUDS to prevent combined sewers overflowing? When will my noble friend bring these regulations forward?
My Lords, each day, hundreds of individuals swim in England’s largest lake, Windermere. In view of the recent revelations about periodic sewage disposal in the lake, can the Minister give the House a categorical assurance that it is safe for those swimmers to carry on doing so?
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the questions and the answers given by the Minister but remain unconvinced that much is going to change quickly—and I am really pleased that I am not a wild swimmer. Why does the Minister think it acceptable for raw sewage to continue to be discharged into our water and for water companies not to take any immediate action to prevent this? Why are shareholders’ dividends being put before water quality?
I do not speak for water companies, but I think they are taking this matter extremely seriously. My local water company, Thames Water, recently wrote to me about measures it is taking in relation to a chalk stream which it has previously polluted. I know for a fact that water companies are deeply seized of the urgency of this situation, and their encouragement to support the amendments shows willingness. We are not complacent. We will hold them to account through all the mechanisms that we can use. Where they falter, they will be fined. Southern Water was fined £90 million, the largest fine of such a kind, last year. The Government will not be afraid to continue that sort of action if required.
Early Years Interventions
My Lords, we know that the early years are key to children’s later life chances, and effective early support is crucial. That is why we have put unprecedented investment into childcare over the past decade, committed £153 million to support education recovery in the early years, rolled out the proven Nuffield Early Language Intervention, and have announced £300 million to create a network of family hubs and transform crucial Start for Life services.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her Answer. Given the crucial lifelong impact of the early years on individuals, the economy and society, and that we spend so much time, money and resources attempting to fix things later in life which could have been prevented, how do the Government plan to build on Start for Life and ensure that benefits are sustained for children beyond the age of two through the early education and childcare system?
The right reverend Prelate is a great champion of young children. We have both worked with a charity called the Nelson Trust, which looks after disadvantaged children. There is £300 million to transform Start for Life services and create a network of family hubs in half the councils across the England. It will provide thousands of families with access to support where they need it. The Department for Education, the DHSC, the DWP and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities are working together to ensure that those who need the help get it.
My Lords, perinatal mental health issues cost the NHS and social services £8 billion a year, much of that because of the impacts on children, yet half of such cases go undiagnosed and even those who are diagnosed rarely get evidence-based treatment. We welcome the women’s health strategy, but what more is being done to address this frequently overlooked cause of misery and sometimes death?
This is such a distressing time for all mothers. They have babies and expect things to be very special and magical but so often discover the opposite. We must make sure that things are put in place to help them. As of April 2019, all areas in England now have comprehensive specialist community perinatal mental health services in place, which saw 30,700 people in 2020-21, re-expanding access to psychological and talking therapies with specialist perinatal mental health services. This will see 26 hubs, with 10 new hubs in the process of being set up and the rest due to open in April 2022. These hubs will offer treatment for a range of mental health issues, from postnatal depression to severe fear of childbirth to around 6,000 new parents in the first year. The new centres will also provide specialist training for maternity staff and midwives, as well as services for reproductive health and bereavement.
My Lords, acquisition of language and communication skills are absolutely essential for children in their early years, as they underpin their future development and life prospects. However, awareness among parents and support is lacking. Support and training for early years teachers is inadequate and there is a high level of turnover in the early years workforce, which is losing experienced staff due to low salaries and lack of career benefits. There is concern about the viability of the sector. The House of Lords Public Services Committee report, Children in Crisis, published on 19 November, highlighted research by the LSE which showed that “the economic cost”—
It is coming. The research showed that the
“economic cost of failing to invest in the early years in 2018/19 was £16.13 billion”.
Does the Minister agree that investing in early years provision, such as increasing parental engagement and support and sustaining a high-quality early years workforce will be better value for money and socially beneficial? Can she please draw this to the attention of the Treasury?
As part of the Covid recovery strategy, we have invested £17 million in the delivery of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme, improving the language skills of reception-age children who need it most—language skills are so important. Of course, it will not be possible to put that in place unless we have the workforce to do it. The department is committed to supporting the sector to develop a workforce with the appropriate knowledge, skills and experience to deliver high-quality early education and childcare. We are investing £20 million in a high-quality, evidence-based professional development programme for practitioners to target disadvantaged areas and a further £10 million in funding a second phase of the programme, which will be announced shortly.
My Lords, children in deprived areas benefit most from early years education and childcare. Problems can be identified and appropriate interventions arranged. They are better prepared for school and learn valuable social and cultural skills. Big nursery chains are expanding when they can charge fees. Poorer children’s needs are often met by smaller, stand-alone nurseries that cannot survive without adequate local authority funding. The projected increase next April will not be enough to cover the increases in costs of the minimum wage, national insurance, energy, pensions, resumption of business rates and so on.
My Lords, may I please remind noble Lords that this is Question Time, not speech time? Can we please have pithy questions so that everybody can ask what they want?
Of course it is very important that the independent nursery schools carry on. We are investing additional funding for the early years entitlement worth £160 million in 2022-23. This is for local authorities to increase the hourly rates paid to childcare providers for the Government’s free childcare entitlement offers and reflects cost pressures as well as anticipated changes in the number of eligible children. The Government have confirmed the continuation of the maintained nursery schools supplementary funding throughout the SR period, providing the sector with long-term certainty. For 2022-23, we will increase the MNS supplementary hourly funding rate by 3.5%.
My Lords, it is widely accepted that the first few years of a child’s life can influence their development, education, character and aspiration. Disadvantaged and disabled children need much more help than most, so will the Government commit to additional funding, either through the early years pupil premium or a disadvantage supplement for those eligible for the two-year offer?
That was very succinct. This is a very important area and the whole point about the family hubs we are setting up across the country is that we are bringing everybody together—families, professional services and providers—and putting relationships at the heart of family help, making sure that family hubs bring together services for children of all ages, who all need help. Family hubs can include both physical locations and virtual offices to help parents.
My Lords, the additional funding announced in the spending review to support children and families, including, as the Minister said, the creation of family hubs, is very welcome, but organisations working with disabled children and parent carers, such as the Disabled Children’s Partnership, remain unclear as to how these new hubs will deliver the care that disabled children and their families require, particularly given the backlog in the delivery of those services from existing hubs. Can the Minister outline how that will be delivered once the new hubs are in place?
As the noble Lord said, it is very important that no one is left behind. The SEND review is looking at ways to improve the outcomes for children and young people with SEND. There has been a consultation and proposals will be published in the first three months of next year, when I hope we will know more.
Has my noble friend had time to read your Lordships’ Public Services Committee’s report on vulnerable children, published a fortnight ago, finding that many fall through the gaps—going into care, being excluded, joining county lines and ending up in custody—and cost far more than if there had been early intervention? Can she ensure a positive response from the Government to the committee’s recommendation that the Government should publish and fund a co-ordinated national strategy to give a better life chance to these vulnerable children?
I have to say to my noble friend that I have not read the report, but I certainly will—it is going to be my weekend reading. We welcome the report from the Lords Public Services Committee. We are reviewing its recommendations and will respond in due course. Our work and investment towards introducing family hubs that work with children and families from birth to adulthood is so important in the field of vulnerable children and young people.
HGV Driving Tests
Regulations came into force on 15 November 2021: the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021, which removed the staging element for provisional vocational licence holders wishing to drive an articulated HGV, and the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2021, which allow HGV off-road manoeuvres to be tested by approved third parties. Legislation for the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 was relaid on 23 November 2021 to allow full car licence holders to tow a trailer without having to pass a separate category B+E test.
My Lords, the Government’s emergency measures to deal with the driver shortage include ending the need for additional training and testing for qualified van and car drivers before they can tow trailers and caravans of up to 3,500 kilograms. In future, you will be able to pass your driving test one day and tow your caravan up the motorway the next, without any additional training. This requirement was originally introduced in 1997 for road safety reasons. Does the Minister agree that the Government need to look again at this irresponsible plan and heed the serious safety warnings coming from the haulage industry to preserve Britain’s good record on road safety?
The department and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency will continue to encourage people who want to drive a car and trailer to get professional training, to promote road safety and support those businesses. All car drivers wishing to tow a trailer for leisure or business will be encouraged to undertake a voluntary accreditation scheme, which is being developed with the help of the trailer industry and training providers. The scheme is planned to be launched early next year and will focus on a core model for all drivers, with sector-specific modules for different towing activities.
My Lords, almost 30 years ago I made my maiden speech in another place on road safety, after I lost one of my schoolfriends in a traffic accident. According to the Road Haulage Association, new recruits to the industry may be put off by the Government’s plans to allow longer hours. Is the Minister aware of this? What is her assessment of the implications for road safety of increasing drivers’ hours? Are there any plans for a review after 12 months to assess the impact?
We take safety very seriously. Any death on the road is one death too many. Our record on road safety is internationally recognised, and we will continue to work across a range of sectors to ensure that the details of those changes continue to support high driving standards for both HGVs and private motorists. We have committed to review the legislation at regular intervals—initially at three years and then at five.
What support is there for the Government’s proposals as far as the future of the industry is concerned? Does the Minister agree with me and the Road Haulage Association that shorter driving tests do not make for better drivers? There are enough problems around people dying as a result of collisions with heavy goods vehicles without making the driving test any easier.
I absolutely understand what the noble Lord is saying, but we held quite a big consultation. A lot of people in the industry were happy with the new rules going ahead. We have had to take some action to ease the problem, and I feel we have taken proportionate action to do this without hampering safety on the roads.
In the last 18 months, we have lost 55,000 domestic United Kingdom HGV drivers. Many reasons have been given for this, one of which is the lack of proper facilities on the routes which they cover. I know the Government have provided £32 million in the Budget to alleviate some of these problems, but does my noble friend think this is enough, particularly as there is a mammoth shortage—only 1,400 places for parking these vehicles while heavy goods vehicle drivers carry out their work?
My noble friend makes a very good point. We are committed to looking at established and new approaches to increase the provision for improved overnight lorry parking in England, as well as developing innovative approaches to provide more capacity. The Secretary of State has announced an investment of £32.5 million in the next spending period in roadside facilities for HGV drivers on the road. The funding will go towards supporting the industry to improve the security and facilities available to existing sites, making the use of lorry parks more attractive to drivers. It may also be used to increase spaces for lorry drivers in England, mainly through part funding of local proposals. This can clearly be done; my noble friend Lady Bloomfield told me this morning that a new facility has been opened in Kent which has 400 additional slots opening up over the Christmas period, with top-range food—both foreign and English—as well as showers, loos and everything else that might be needed.
As has been said, one of the issues raised in relation to the shortage of HGV drivers is the poor facilities available for such drivers to take a break out of the cab and be able to get something to eat, use clean toilets and take a shower. We continue to see massive developments in warehousing and logistics, with giant sheds being put up and distribution centres opened. Why do the Government not set minimum standards for the facilities that have to be provided for drivers, and why is that not a requirement for granting planning permission for such developments, including those facilities having to be available to all HGV drivers who wish to use them?
The noble Lord makes a good point. The Government are determined that the planning system should play its part in meeting the needs of hauliers and addressing current deficiencies. Planning plays a critical part in the allocation of land for lorry parking. On 8 November, the Secretary of State for Transport published a Written Ministerial Statement addressing the strategic national need for more lorry parking and better services and lorry parks in England, and we will be investing £32.5 million in roadside facilities. We have published planning practice guidance setting out how local planning authorities can assess the need for, and allocate land to, logistical site users, and we are accelerating work recommended by the National Infrastructure Commission to consider the appropriateness of current planning practice guidance. This includes taking forward a review of how the freight sector is currently represented in guidance.
My Lords, has the Minister ever tried to reverse a caravan, a trailer or a boat or heavy goods vehicle trailer? Would she not agree that it needs quite a lot of training? It is very nice for those who cannot be bothered to take a test to hear the Government say that we do not need a test any more, but that cannot contribute to road safety.
But the noble Lord makes an important point. The reversing exercise is one of the common reasons for failure in most of the tests; taking and passing this part of the test with an assessor from the driver’s training school will speed up this element of the test without compromising safety. The Government have announced 32 measures to tackle the driver shortage and bolster supply chains in the UK. However, we are not taking away safety, and we hope that the fact that the test will still be done, even if it is by the training school, means that it will be safe.
My Lords, I am glad that I did not ask the question about reversing. I follow up the excellent question from the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, about facilities. Has the Minister ever been to France? In France, they do not just have service areas but “aires” where heavy good vehicles can stop or park, with toilets and places where the drivers can wash, and they are all the way down every motorway and main road. If the French can do it, why cannot we?
We are heading into the ridiculous now, are we not? I answered that question when I answered my noble friend Lord Kirkhope. I could not agree more; this is very important and vital. If we do not do this, we will not get the drivers to drive our HGV lorries, and we are working on this. As I said, it can be done, because one in Kent has just opened.
Ambulance Response Times
We recognise the unprecedented pressures that the ambulance service is facing, and strong support is in place. A £55 million investment by NHS England and NHS Improvement will provide 700 additional staff in control rooms and on the front line to improve response times. This is alongside £4.4 million to keep an additional 154 ambulances on the road this winter. NHS 111 is recruiting an additional 1,100 staff, alongside a £250 million winter GP capacity fund to avoid unnecessary ambulance calls and visits to A&E.
Last week, the BBC reported that Shropshire had run out of ambulances, as every ambulance was queueing outside hospitals. Yesterday, the Shropshire Star reported that the West Midlands Ambulance Service had apologised that ambulance-hospital handover times were now four hours. This is happening all over the country, and people are dying waiting for paramedics. This is before the expected winter surge starts, so what is the Government’s emergency plan right now?
The Government understand that the reason for a number of these waits is related to the Covid pandemic and increased callouts, and we have stats for that. Ministers are in regular contact with NHS England and NHS Improvement about the performance of the emergency service care system, including the ambulance service. One Minister of State has meetings that track the improvement effort at all times, including in ambulance trusts. In addition, there is investment of £55 million to boost ambulance staff by more than 700 and £4.4 million to keep an additional 154 ambulances on the road. Also, we are looking at ways to stop people calling out an ambulance when they do not need to—when their calls could be handled without the need to call out an ambulance.
My Lords, it seems clear that the problem is a symptom of system pressures and will require a whole-system approach to resolve it once and for all—Covid, social care packages to help with discharges and local factors, and the fragility of the NHS infrastructure going in to the pandemic. The Minister has explained some of the short-term emergency plans literally to save lives, but in the absence of an NHS workforce strategy, how will the Government produce a system-wide resolution of this matter?
The noble Baroness makes a very important point: we should be looking at this in a systemic way. In fact, I did my PhD in a department of system science, where you look at problems in a holistic way—rather than analysing individual problems, you look at the whole system. We found odd unintended consequences. For example, a friend forgot his inhaler, could not get one from the chemist, could not get one from the A&E and, in the end, had to call out an ambulance. There are a number of times when ambulances are called out needlessly, and that is on top of the pressures we are already facing due to Covid. We are tackling the backlog, which, hopefully, will also reduce ambulance waiting times.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that every ambulance service in the country is currently on black alert? The problem goes both upstream, into the community, and downstream, into the hospitals and social care. What are the Government doing to decrease the number of older people being blue-lighted into A&E because they cannot get the social care services to keep them safe in their own homes?
The noble Baroness makes a very important point. We are all aware of the difficulties in different parts of the system. We have invested £450 million to upgrade A&E facilities in more than 120 separate NHS hospitals ahead of last winter, and this is being used to boost the physical capacity of A&E through expanded waiting areas, increasing the number of treatment cubicles, reducing overcrowding, et cetera. This is alongside an additional £1.8 million to place more hospital ambulance liaison officers at the most challenging acute trusts to help address the long delays, to reduce ambulance queueing and to get crews back on the road quickly.
My Lords, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and its personnel hold a special place in the hearts of the people there because of their bravery, selflessness and professionalism during 30 years of terrorist violence. With Northern Ireland currently registering the highest Covid infection rate in the UK, the ambulance service is now facing a new challenge, with waiting times trebling and some patients having to wait for up to six hours outside emergency departments to be admitted to hospital. What assurance can the Minister offer the people of Northern Ireland that Her Majesty’s Government are aware of this problem and will offer all possible support to local Ministers to help solve it?
I thank the noble Lord for raising that point and making people aware of the challenges in Northern Ireland. As he will be aware, health is a devolved issue, but we are very much aware of the challenges in all four of the devolved Administrations. If he would write to me with extra information, I should be happy to pass it on.
My Lords, it is estimated that nationally, a quarter of patients in beds are clinically ready to leave hospital but cannot do so due to problems of discharge—particularly a lack of available care in the community. With fewer available beds, ambulances cannot discharge patients to a bed, leading to a lack of ambulances and paramedics available to deal with other emergencies. What plans do the Government have to deal urgently with the problem of discharge to help the NHS get through the winter?
All noble Lords have raised important points about the pressures on different parts of the system. In taking a systemic overall view, the Secretary of State is holding regular “pressure” meetings and looking at the key metrics in getting those pressures down. He is also looking at how we can tackle things systemically from within, including discharge issues. We are looking at how to improve on discharges to make sure that there is enough space, thereby continuing to ensure not only that elderly patients are back in their homes as quickly as possible, but that we reduce the length of time that others have to wait for ambulances.
HIV and AIDS
Private Notice Question
Perhaps I may start by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for his work as the ambassador for UNAIDS and for following this issue ever since the 1980s, when he was Secretary of State. We should recognise his commitment to this issue.
We believe that the UK can be proud of its efforts. Since last World AIDS Day, the UK signed up to the progressive and ambitious political declaration at the UN high-level meeting in June and declared our commitment to delivering a new global AIDS strategy so that the world has the best chance of meeting the 2030 goal of ending AIDS altogether. Noble Lords will be aware that, domestically, we have published a new HIV action plan.
My Lords, this is World AIDS Day and the international position is anything but encouraging. Has the Minister seen the reports of the serious setbacks in the fight against AIDS over the past year, with testing figures down by 40% and an annual death toll of over 660,000? Will he join me in paying tribute to the many non-governmental organisations and volunteers around the world whose efforts have prevented the toll from AIDS becoming even more catastrophic?
I am sure that all noble Lords would like to join the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in celebrating the work of the NGOs. A lot of aid is government to government, which can sometimes be a barrier in reaching those it needs to help, especially in countries where the people who are suffering from HIV are discriminated against or stigmatised. Often, the best way to reach them is not via government but via those NGOs, so of course, I pay tribute to them, as I am sure all noble Lords do.
My Lords, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has saved 44 million lives since being founded 20 years ago. It is estimated that more than 3 million of those were thanks to UK aid. Therefore, will the Minister confirm that continued close partnership with the Global Fund will remain a central pillar of the UK Government’s planned international development and global health strategies?
I thank the noble Lord for his question and pay tribute to his work during our many years together in the European Parliament, where he was probably one of the strongest champions for LGBTQ+ issues, and AIDS and HIV awareness. My only regret is that I was not able to champion as strongly as I wanted to on ethnic diversity and the lack of it in the EU. Of course, we remain committed to the Global Fund and to other partners, including UNAIDS and the global financing facility. It is important that we all work together on this issue, not only in our own countries but particularly in countries where the situation is difficult and people have challenging health systems, and in countries where, unfortunately, gay people or those suffering from HIV are discriminated against or even stigmatised. One of the things that we can be proud of in the UK is that we stand up for those people.
My Lords, over the past 40 years, this country has led the international efforts to overcome HIV and AIDS. We have done so by leveraging our contributions to international funds. Unfortunately, in 2021, those were significantly cut, jeopardising world-leading research at a point when we were very close to some game-changing treatments and diagnostics. Will the FCDO review look, as a matter of urgency, at restoring the funding for UNAIDS and Unitaid?
I am sure that noble Lords understand the reasons for some of those cuts in terms of the pandemic and needing to redirect resources, but we are committed to continuing with funding and working at an international level. In fact, this issue has come up at a number of G7 international health meetings attended by UK representatives. The UK is seen on the diplomatic circuit as one of the leaders standing up for the rights of both gay people and people with HIV/AIDS.
My Lords, generic drugs were crucial to the global response to HIV/AIDS; I see the Minister nodding. In that case, will we learn that lesson for this pandemic and stop blocking the TRIPS waiver so that we can better vaccinate the global south and protect ourselves from new variants?
One of the best ways to help to vaccinate people across the world is through multilateral, bilateral and plurilateral partnerships. We will have donated 100 million coronavirus vaccine doses by next June. We are committed to working internationally. This issue comes up at the G7 where, once again, we are seen as leaders on the COVAX programme and other such programmes. It is important that we focus on what is effective and how we can get vaccines to those who really need them.
My Lords, following on from the noble Baroness’s question, the UK Government played a leading role in establishing the Medicines Patent Pool, which is a means of simplifying and accelerating the generic production of HIV medicines by sharing patents. Does the Minister agree that a global pooling mechanism for Covid-19 would support countries’ ability to access the vaccine and the drugs required to control Covid-19 infections? Will the Government give their full support to the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool and encourage UK pharmaceutical companies to license through it?
In tackling coronavirus and helping those who cannot access even a first dose of the vaccine while people in this country are now going for their third—even fourth—injection, it is really important that we act internationally. This issue comes up at international meetings. We are seen to be leaders in co-ordinating; we are doing much of that via the international COVAX programme and by talking to pharmaceutical companies about what more they can do.
My Lords, more than 40% of people who are diagnosed are diagnosed later in life. Can my noble friend say what the Government are doing in relation to this so that the stigma is removed and people come for testing much earlier? I welcome the government strategy as it currently stands.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned stigmatised communities. UK civil society organisations have raised concerns that previous global health strategies have failed to address the gender-specific aspects of HIV, in particular the priorities of marginalised women. Can the Minister tell us how the FCDO’s planned global health strategy will address the underlying structural inequalities that contribute to the vulnerability of girls and women?
The Government have made more money available for the funds, particularly in helping young girls and young ladies in different countries. At the same time, we must work out what we can do, as donors or as an international community, to help address some of the structural inequalities in particular countries. We can name it, we can draw awareness to it, but how much deeper can we go? Quite often, one of the best ways to do this is to support the NGOs who are right at the heart of the community, understanding these issues and understanding the structural inequalities on a daily basis.
My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, but bringing it to this country, there is still a general perception that HIV/AIDS is a gay disease. There is a growing proportion of the population that are infected who are heterosexual. Can my noble friend ensure that the messaging is directed at heterosexuals as well as the gay community?
I thank my noble friend for making that very important point and for stressing that this should be seen not just as a gay disease but as a disease that heterosexual and other people also suffer from. One of the issues in the HIV plan has been to ensure that those communities which maybe have a macho approach to a number of these issues are addressed, particularly at the local community level. It is very difficult, and we have to tread carefully, particularly with some of the ethnic minority communities, so that we are not seen to be stigmatising that community or blaming them but getting the right balance. The fundamental point that my noble friend makes is very important and we should repeat it: HIV does not affect only gay people—it also affects heterosexual people and younger communities.
When coronavirus struck us, within a year, remarkably, a number of vaccines had been produced, to huge effect. Does that not stand in marked contrast to what has happened with HIV/AIDS? Is it not amazing that 20 years after the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, did so much to establish a proper response to HIV/AIDS, we still have do not have the medical support that we need for it? Can the Minister take this back to the department and see what more can be done to improve the situation?
The noble Lord makes an incredible point. Not many people are aware that there is no cure as such yet. It is about ensuring that you reduce the risk of transmission and that those who contract HIV can live longer, as opposed to the beginning of the 1980s, when this epidemic hit us, and sadly many people lost friends, loved ones and others prematurely. On looking for a cure, I assure the noble Lord that the department is very aware of that. In my briefing for this I asked how come we still do not have a cure after so long—a question that continues to be asked. Let us pay credit to the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession. They have tried.
The noble Lord makes a very important point that we should be aware of and address. We are aware of certain countries—I have been warned not to name and shame them, sadly—which stigmatise, discriminate, or have some other explanation. One of the best ways to deal with this sometimes is not via government-to-government help but by ensuring that we get to NGOs that are working with people on the ground. Also, at the macro level, in international forums, we can raise this issue. The UK, to its credit, is seen as a world leader when raising these issues at different diplomatic forums.
My Lords, we heard earlier that HIV/AIDS has always been perceived as a gay problem, which is of course a fallacy; it is also perceived as something that young people are more likely to contract. The facts show that the over-50s have, for the past decade, been the fastest growing group contracting HIV/AIDS and living with it to quite a senior age. What is being done to target that particular group? It is not just young people who are affected by this, but they should also be vigilant in protecting themselves against HIV/AIDS.
The noble Baroness makes a very important point of which we should all be aware. It is great that we are all living longer and, as I am sure noble Lords agree, that we are being sexually active for longer. The HIV plan sets out how we look at different—for want of a better word—segments or parts of different communities where there are issues, and how we target messaging there. That is the most important thing, rather than trying to have a one size fits all that others could ignore.
My Lords, there has been a huge amount of progress in the last 30 years since—I think I may say my noble friend—my noble friend Lord Fowler did his good work. But there is still work to do in this country. I noted that the Minister proudly referred to there being perhaps less stigma in this country than elsewhere. It is true that we have no room for complacency in this regard and that this is still one of the main reasons why people who should be tested are not being tested. Can the Minister tell the House the Government’s current assessment of the infected but untested rate of HIV/AIDS in this country?
I am afraid I do not have a specific figure for the noble Baroness, but the action plan sets out how we are going to increase access to and scale up HIV testing, by focusing on populations and settings where testing rates have not been high to ensure that we tackle them, that new infections are identified rapidly and that people receive the necessary treatment faster to prevent complications. We will operate the annual HIV Testing Week between 7 and 11 February 2022, and the campaign will be called “It starts with me”. During that week we will open self-sampling HIV testing services for all residents of England, and we want to make sure that lots of different programmes are raising awareness. I know that a number of noble Lords across the House take this issue seriously and I would welcome their advice.
Road Traffic Offences (Cycling) Bill [HL]
A Bill to amend the Road Traffic Act 1988 and the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 to create criminal offences relating to dangerous, careless or inconsiderate cycling, in particular applying to a pedal cycle, an electrically assisted pedal cycle and an electric scooter.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
That Standing Order 73 (Affirmative Instruments) be dispensed with to enable motions to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 to be moved today, notwithstanding that no report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on the instruments has been laid before the House.
Procedure and Privileges Committee
Motion to Agree
My Lords, the Procedure and Privileges Committee report proposes ending the use of speakers’ lists for Oral Questions and Secretary of State Questions. It may assist the House if I briefly recount the background. Prior to the pandemic, there were no speakers’ lists for Oral Questions. Members who wished to ask a supplementary question stood and began to ask their question. If more than one Member stood, they gave way to each other. If there was a dispute about who should give way, the sense of the House, interpreted by the Leader of the House if necessary, determined which Member should speak.
During the operation of the hybrid House model, speakers’ lists were necessary for all business to manage proceedings; self-regulation was not an option with most of us participating remotely. In July, the Procedure Committee reported proposals to the House about which practices should be retained from the hybrid House model and where we should revert to pre-pandemic ways of working.
It is fair to say that the committee was split when it looked at the matter of speakers’ lists for Oral Questions in July. We decided to consult the House using the voting system on PeerHub to determine the preference of Members. That consultation found a majority in favour of keeping speakers’ lists, so we recommended that to the House and it was agreed on 13 July.
However, we undertook to keep these changes under close review, and in recent weeks it has become clear to us that many Members of the House are increasingly concerned over the effectiveness of Oral Questions. There is a strong sense that removing the element of spontaneity has limited the ability of Members to hold Ministers to account. On some occasions recently, speakers’ lists have not been full by the time they closed, and Members who might have wished to ask a supplementary question in the light of the Minister’s response have been unable to participate. The committee therefore recommends the removal of speakers’ lists for Oral Questions. If the House agrees the Motion, the use of speakers’ lists for Oral Questions will cease with effect from Monday 6 December.
As part of this change, we have considered how the House can continue to benefit from the perspectives of Members who are eligible to participate remotely. We propose that they give notice the day before of their intention to ask a supplementary on a particular Question, as they do currently to join the speakers’ lists. On the day, the normal rotation of supplementary questions between the groups and parties would take place, and at an appropriate point the Leader, on the basis of prior consultation with the usual channels, would stand and indicate that the House might wish to hear from an eligible Member belonging to the party or group whose turn it was.
There would, of course, be no guarantee that eligible Members would be called to ask a question, just as there is no guarantee that a Member physically present will be able to ask a supplementary question in the time allowed. But—and I emphasise “but”—we trust that the sense of the House, assisted by the Leader of the House, will support their continuing full participation.
The committee’s report notes that the conduct of Oral Questions before the pandemic was not immune from criticism. While it ensured spontaneity, it was often voluble and at times fractious. There were also concerns that some Members were discouraged from participating in Question Time as a result. We emphasise —and I underline “emphasise”—that it will be incumbent on all Members to respect the House’s traditions of self-regulation, mutual respect, forbearance and courtesy.
I turn to the amendments to the Motion. At the outset, I outline that all three raise broad issues about the conduct of Oral Questions and the role of the Lord Speaker and Leader—issues that are not addressed in the report before your Lordships. I am, of course, in the hands of the House. I have no mandate from the committee to express a view on the amendments, but I do have a duty to advise on the consequences if any of them is agreed.
The amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, is incompatible with the recommendations contained in the report. The report recommends the reinstatement of the pre-pandemic procedure for Oral Questions, while the noble Baroness’s amendment would confer upon the Lord Speaker the task of calling on Members. If her amendment were agreed, my Motion as amended would be self-contradictory. I would therefore propose to withdraw my original Motion and invite the Procedure and Privileges Committee to consider urgently the fundamental changes the House had decided to make to the role of the Lord Speaker, the practical implications of such a change and the implications for the House’s tradition of self-regulation.
The amendments from the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Grocott, express regret but do not conflict with the report, so if either of them were agreed I would then propose to move my Motion as amended. I would, of course, also revert to the committee to explore how the concerns expressed could be addressed.
The amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, proposes to give the Lord Speaker the power to call Members to speak during Oral Questions. The House has considered the role and powers of the Lord Speaker on a number of occasions, most recently on 13 July this year. On that occasion, the House debated an amendment along very similar lines tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and rejected it by 376 votes to 112, so the House has only recently voted by a considerable margin to retain self-regulation.
The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, expresses regret that the power to call Members participating remotely would be vested in the Leader of the House rather than the Lord Speaker. The view of most members of the committee is that this role sits best with the Leader as part of her task of assisting the House during Oral Questions, as stated in the Companion, and that prior consultation in the usual channels will help identify when to bring in remote participants.
The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, expresses a more general regret about a diminution of the role of the Lord Speaker. I assure your Lordships that the committee is absolutely not seeking any such diminution. The Lord Speaker will continue to preside at Oral Questions and to call the Members with Questions on the Order Paper and all items of business from the Woolsack.
Lastly, I should note that the report contains a short section reflecting on the debate in the House on 25 October—a debate I shall not forget—on moving to pass reader Divisions. I am very grateful to many noble Lords whom I have spoken to since that debate for the very constructive feedback received. The committee will bring revised proposals on pass reader voting to the House in due course. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, I rise to speak to my amendment to the committee’s report, which asks that the Lord Speaker be empowered to call speakers at Question Time, following the example of the House of Commons, and for that to happen initially for a trial period of six months.
In introducing this amendment, I should say that that I am a Back-Bench member of the Procedure and Privileges Committee and very pleased to serve on that committee under the chairmanship of the Senior Deputy Speaker. As the Senior Deputy Speaker pointed out, there was a clear majority on the committee for reverting to the old system at Question Time, but it was not unanimous. By speaking to my amendment today, I hope I can indicate that the committee is not a monolith wanting to impose its views on the House but a place with lively debate and with different views reflecting, I hope, the diversity of the House.
I am conscious that the amendment is, as the Senior Deputy Speaker pointed out, similar in its overall objective to one moved in July by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, whom I see is in his place. It might therefore well be asked why I am travelling down the same route, but although I am a long-standing supporter of the Lord Speaker calling questioners, I know that I, and perhaps many others, voted against the noble Lord’s amendment in July simply because we felt it followed too soon on the electronic vote which had approved the continuation of the list system by a majority of nearly 100. It was a question of timing rather than the principle. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is in his place and has indicated some sympathy with the amendment I am speaking to. I also welcome the amendments tabled by my noble friends Lord Grocott and Lord Rooker. They, too, highlight the role of the Lord Speaker in ways which I support.
During the pandemic, the House has had to adapt and change its procedures in various new and experimental ways. The adaptability it showed does great credit to our staff, to whom unstinting gratitude is due, and to Members of the House for responding to the challenges in the way that they did. I feel that this precedent of experimentation helps me, and my amendment, in calling for a six-month trial period and that it is feasible and well worth trying.
I have always been struck by the number of people who disliked our pre-Covid system of Question Time—the “shouty system” as I would call it. I remember, however, during our debate in July, that my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon said that she winced sometimes when dislike of the system was referred to simply as a women’s issue. I certainly know that many women, myself included, who are not tall in stature and do not have booming voices, find it difficult and off-putting trying to intervene at Question Time. But it is equally true that many male Members of the House also thoroughly disliked the old system, and that number included many senior and experienced parliamentarians. Across the House, many Members simply felt that trying to get in on supplementaries at Question Time was not something they would want to attempt. They particularly disliked having to try to out-shout their colleagues in the same group in the House.
The issue is largely a Back-Bench one but, of course, Question Time is very important for Back-Benchers. When I was on my own party’s Front Bench, I did not find coming in at Question Time a problem. It is the competition between Back-Benchers of the same group that causes shouting and confusion and gives a poor image of a House which otherwise regulates itself very well. Obviously, I welcome the points made in the report, and again in the House by the Senior Deputy Speaker today, about treating each other with respect. I also note the attempts made within the groupings of this House to get the system to work better—by Whips, for example. But similar exhortations in the past have not made much difference and would be less effective than what I am proposing.
Having served as a Member of Parliament in the other place for some 18 years, I felt throughout that time that the conduct of Question Time in terms of who got called worked well. I was never aware of any serious concern about it or desire to change it. Obviously not everyone can get called in on a particular Question, but the system worked fairly for Members in that if you did not get called on a particular occasion, that would be noted and rectified subsequently. I understand how strong the attachment to self-regulation is, but making the specific and narrow change that I am recommending does not open any floodgates leading to abandoning self-regulation, which works well; far from it.
Various objections to what I am proposing have been mentioned to me beside the self-regulation point, but they are unjustified. Some have said that it would put the Speaker in an invidious position in choosing. However, if the long-established approach of the House of Commons is adopted, I cannot see why our Speaker, who has shown that he has the confidence of the House and who serves the House as a whole, could not preside over a system easily as effective as that of the Commons—particularly given the less confrontational atmosphere which prevails in this House.
Some have pointed out that the Lords is more complicated in its membership because of the number of different groupings. However, the differences between the two Houses are much lesser than they were, as the old system in the other place of one governing party and one large opposition party has changed in recent years. The SNP, as we know, is the third largest party in the Commons after the Conservatives and Labour. There are also, of course, Liberal Democrat MPs and a Green MP. People have also mentioned to me the question of the size of our House and the Speaker therefore having to have quite a feat of memory to know who all the Members are. Yet the Commons has more than 600 Members and probably a higher average number of Members wanting to intervene at Question Time than we have, for various reasons. Incidentally, thinking of Members exempt from attending physically and able to participate remotely, my amendment would automatically give effect to the amendment on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker, who is asking that the Speaker and not the Leader of the House should call those participating remotely.
I can see that some technical changes might be necessary to make the system I am proposing work to best advantage. For example, it has been pointed out to me that it is not as easy to see Members from the Woolsack as it is from the Speaker’s Chair in the Commons. In the Commons, the clerk can advise the Speaker of the names of Members seeking to intervene. We need to ensure that our Speaker has the support he needs, as well as ensuring that Members—wherever they are seated—can be seen and called. But I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of the authorities of this House or the members of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, in conjunction with the Speaker, to ensure that these secondary considerations can be satisfactorily resolved, particularly in light of all the changes we have had to make during the pandemic.
A point about timing has also been raised with me. The Procedure and Privileges Committee recommends going back to the old system from the start of next week. I thought this was too soon, although I was in a minority view on the committee. But the recent emergence of the omicron variant and the consequent new health concerns that it brings reinforce my view and make me uneasy about any immediate changes which would encourage more people, not fewer, to crowd into the Chamber. Given the imminence of the Christmas Recess, it would seem sensible to me that the trial experiment I am recommending should not begin until January at the earliest.
I hope that my amendment will command some support. I believe that what I propose will ensure spontaneity, which so many Members of this House value, while allowing participation in a much fairer and more orderly way in the future. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will be brief, but I want to go slightly beyond my amendment on the Order Paper. I agree with much of what my noble friend Lady Quin has just said. I want to go back to the old system, but I did not like it because of the defects that have been put forward. That is what I really want to share.
When my noble friend Lady Amos was Leader of the House, I was her deputy and Question Time was managed. There was self-regulation, but it was managed. I have here every single Order Paper for every day that I helped to manage Question Time, and I have my notes on the bottom of where the questions came from around the House. I have the list of the different parties and groups, so that the House could see we were being fair. But from the Government Bench, you cannot see who is standing up behind you on either side—on the Cross Benches or the government side—so there is a difficulty. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said when we had a debate on this issue in November 2016, there is something wrong with a Minister deciding which Member questions another Minister. There is something fundamentally wrong about that.
I have looked at the issues and taken one example of what the situation was. Question Time was 30 minutes; I assume that we are going to keep it at 40 minutes, but that is not an issue. In the example I have, we had 34 supplementaries in 30 minutes. Yesterday, we had 32 supplementaries in 40 minutes. Unless it is managed, the questions and answers are too long.
I know that the Leader intervened on her brief visit today, but the fact is that while the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, is one of my favourite Ministers, there is supposed to be a limit on ministerial Answers of 75 words. Their Bench has to intervene to stop the long question and make sure that, within the government team, you get the short answer. If that is not done, it will become chaos and you end up with fewer questions. The idea is to get more questions to Ministers, not fewer. I can show that we were getting more questions with a partially managed system than we are getting even today.
I will make a couple of other points. I am talking about 2005 to 2007; those were the days when my noble friend Lady Amos was Leader, and I first came here in 2001. It was seen as the duty of the Leader and Deputy Leader to be at Question Time every day, because it is the only way to read the House. If you cannot read the House, you cannot really lead the House. It is pretty fundamental, to be honest, to get a sense of what is happening in the House. Then, because you are there every day, the House will accept it when you intervene to stop somebody speaking if they have gone on too long: they get their question cut in half. You may also have to cut the Minister’s reply or have to decide if it is one person or another. That is a pretty fundamental issue.
We have had some changes, of course, in the last two years. The non-aligned Members, some of whom are my noble friends, and the tiny parties can forget their participation on the scale they have had with listed Questions, because it will not happen, and they had better get used to it. From a proportional point of view, they have been having a much bigger share than what their membership has justified. The House will regulate and decide, but we might as well say this now and not wait till a row afterwards: they will get fewer opportunities in going back to the old system than they had before.
We did an analysis at one time: 50% of supplementary questions were asked by 10% of the Members. Think about it: that is the shouty lot. There were occasions when Members who could rise slowly—they were here but could not get up very quickly—would tip me off before Question Time, saying: “I’d like to get in on that Question, but I can’t stand quick enough.” I used to facilitate that, where it was possible—you could not always do it—because I knew that person could not stand as quickly as everybody else. So that is a factor.
We need someone to manage it, and it has got to be the Leader and Deputy Leader; I do not think it is fair to leave it to the Chief Whip. It really needs to be the same people, so they can read the House each day. It is no good coming in as strangers, because it will not be accepted then when you cut someone off in their prime.
It is not a perfect system. On one occasion, my noble friend Lady Amos said to me at the end of Question Time, “Jeff, you owe that Member an apology, and you’d better do it bloody quick.” I had cut someone off; the question was too long. I found out where that Member’s desk was and, at her blind side, I got on my knees and I said to Baroness Trumpington, “I’m ever so sorry.” She forgave me.
There are some serious issues here, because accountability of Ministers is the key. The more supplementary questions the better, because that is important and it is what we are here for, but the way we had it today was a good example. The questions were far too long, and the answers were twice as long as what they should have been. There has got to be discipline within the Government, and it is down to the Chief Whip, the Leader and the Deputy Leader—I am sad to say that they were both here earlier on, but not now; they ought to be here now to read what the House’s mood is on this. Anyway, I have said my piece.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friends Lady Quin and Lord Rooker, especially my noble friend Lord Rooker’s trip down memory lane, when he was the Deputy Leader and I was the Chief Whip—those were the days; it was a Rolls-Royce operation then.
My purpose in putting down an amendment was to try to put the role of the Speaker into some sort of context, because these issues are not new. It is 15 years since we had a Lord Speaker first elected. Initially—I know that quite a few Members have come quite recently—we had the bizarre situation whereby the Lord Speaker was not allowed to do anything. In fact, the Lord Speaker would process in in a very important way—the public, or some members of the public, would be able to see that—and then process in here in an important way and sit down in an important way. They would then sit there looking important but doing absolutely nothing. That was the choreography of it all. It was even more absurd than that, because, for a period of years, the Speaker of the House of Lords was the only Member of the House of Lords at Question Time who could not speak. That must be a first by anyone’s standards, but, slowly, things have improved.
I will not give the House all the signposts along the way, but they were tentative steps to begin with. One that came shortly after we introduced the post of Lord Speaker was that the Lord Speaker would announce when someone had retired from the House or if someone had died—there was a Statement. That had always been ignored in the past, but then that was announced by the Lord Speaker. That was a small step but then, a couple of years ago, we made quite a revolutionary step in the speed at which things progress in this House. We handed to the Lord Speaker the role of filling roles that were not done in the House at all previously.
Many Members will remember well that when, for example, a Statement was to be made by a Minister, the Minister would simply turn up, whatever the business was at the time would be interrupted and they would make the Statement. There was no announcement as to what the Statement was about—no punctuation. It must have been completely baffling to anyone sitting in the Gallery as to what we were now talking about. So it was agreed that the Lord Speaker could safely do that without affront to the House.
There was another brand-new idea regarding the introduction of each individual Oral Question. It used to be done by the Clerk at the Table, which was a most bizarre situation if you think about it, but we thought it was normal at the time. Then, I am happy to say, a couple of years ago, it was decided that this role would be transferred to the Lord Speaker. These were regarded as really significant, risky changes at the time, but now we can see that they have been an improvement.
Things move so slowly, but the conclusions I take from our experience of 15 years of the role is that, first, the fears that were expressed and the prophecy at the time that the Lord Speaker in this House would end up like the Speaker in the House of Commons—I would not be surprised if we have the odd person saying that in today’s discussion—have proved to be 100% wrong. The Lord Speaker in this House has nothing like the role of the Speaker in the Commons, and rightly so, in my view. We do not want endless, bogus points of order that the Speaker has to adjudicate on by saying, essentially, that they are bogus points of order—some of us have been guilty of that over the years, I must admit. All I am saying to the House is: please be calm and reassured—the horses have not been frightened. There has been no risk of the Lord Speaker acting and performing like the Speaker in the Commons. It just has not happened.
The other thing that we have learned from the last 15 years is that today’s revolutionary suggestion is tomorrow’s common sense. The two specific examples that I mentioned were to be reviewed after six months, as I recall. Does anybody in this Chamber—please say so in this debate—think that we should go back to the system where the Clerk at the Table and not the Lord Speaker announced each Question and where we did not announce anything when there was to be a Statement made in the House? No one wants to go back to those days. So let us please think about the amendments to the Motion before the House today.
The other lesson that I hope we have learned is on the slow growth, not in the power of the Lord Speaker but—to use the phrase that was used the last time we had a debate on this House—of the Lord Speaker acquiring “signposting” roles. That is not a bad phrase; it does not affect self-regulation in any way. What has happened, however, is that we have slowly moved from being a kind of private, almost unintelligible House to the observer who just happens to switch on or come to the Public Gallery into something much friendlier as far as the public are concerned and much more intelligible. I think those are lessons that we should take from the last 15 months.
I very much hope that we will not do what is proposed. I know that the Senior Deputy Speaker has dealt with this point, but there is a reversion in what is proposed in the committee’s report because, for this period of the pandemic, the Lord Speaker has been in control. He has cued in speakers, especially those acting remotely; to me, that has operated very successfully. However, now it is suggested that that power—it is a new power because we did not have remote participation in the past—should be taken away from the Lord Speaker and given to the Leader of the House. I will say no more about this issue because my noble friend Lord Rooker dealt with it so ably.
Please let us learn, after 15 years of the post, that this really is the common-sense, intelligible system that anyone who has never been to the Lords before would understand. In every other legislative Chamber in the world—indeed, at a darts club’s annual general meeting—the person who processes and sits in that position, in that chair, has some influence over the proceedings of whatever club or organisation they are a member of. I strongly support both the amendments that we have spoken to so far; I very much hope that the House will support them as well.
My Lords, I normally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I can see the point that he makes about the role of the chair, but I am completely confused by the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.
The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Grocott, seem to be arguing about who will take the voices of the House—that is, whether it should be the Leader or the Lord Speaker. I can see that that is a perfectly reasonable argument, but I am not sure how what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said—that someone would say, “We are just being like the House of Commons”—is consistent with supporting the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, which would turn this House into the House of Commons. We would all have to stand up at Question Time and the Lord Speaker would have to choose a person. As he will well recall, there would then be arguments, as they have in the other place, about whether people were being treated fairlyThe noble Lord presented it as running like clockwork but, under the previous Speaker—I must be careful not to criticise the conduct in the other place—there was a feeling, in certain parts of the House, that things were not always fair. In order to make things fair, a clerk has to stand by the chair and advise the Speaker, who perhaps is not always entirely sure of who people are—I must say, when I go down to the other place, I look at many of the faces and I am not entirely sure—because he needs to know and to keep a running total to make sure that people are treated equally.
In introducing her amendment, which acknowledges some of the practical problems, such as the fact that one cannot necessarily see the whole of the Chamber from the Woolsack, the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said that this was not beyond our wit. What are we going to do? Are we to have a ladder for the Lord Speaker to climb up? Are we to raise the Woolsack to accommodate this issue? Are we to have a clerk sitting on the Woolsack and indicating names? Are we to have a whole new bureaucracy created to work out who has spoken so many times?
I realise that I may be on thin ice here because I am probably thought to be part of the shouty brigade. I may be part of that 10%—I confess that—but, if we look at how our proceedings have occurred since we came back, we can see that we have the shouty brigade, as the noble Lord put it, operating when we have Statements or PNQs. I must say, I think that Ministers have been given a much harder time on those occasions. As part of the shouty brigade, under the old scheme, when I came into Questions and listened to a Minister giving a hopeless Answer, I would get up and say, “Could the Minister now answer this Question?” I would listen to someone making an unfair or inaccurate point, then get up and say, “Could the Minister confirm what has just been said?” It makes for a much more dynamic process.
Some of us are more shouty than others, and some of us have more knowledge than others. The difference between these proceedings, where we have to work out two days in advance to be on the list and all that, and the proceedings where we have what we had before, is quite marked. The difference in attendance is also quite marked; the number of people participating is down, and we get a series of questions—“hobbyhorses” would be too strong a word—which are particular to certain Members and prevent wider consideration. One of the differences between this House and the other place is that we are a bit more flexible about rules of order. Ministers can get a question on a general subject and find that suddenly the noble Lord, Lord West, has turned it into a question about the size of the Navy —and I think that is a very great strength.
If we want to change and be radical, along the lines of what the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, suggests, that needs careful consideration. It needs to be thought through carefully. The House authorities, the clerks and our leaders have done a brilliant job in enabling us to operate in these extraordinary circumstances caused by Covid, but we should not forget that the right thing to do is to return to the status quo ante. Then, if there are bright ideas about how we could make changes to the system, they should be considered carefully. But we should not get into a position where we no longer have the Bishops’ Bar, a Question Time that works or the Long Table, because these things were changed as a result of Covid. We should go back to where we were, in my opinion—I suppose that makes me a bit of a conservative. If we want to make changes, we should consider them very carefully.
The two amendments from the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Grocott, are not wrecking amendments, whereas that of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, is. It would mean that we could not go back to the old Question Time, which would be a matter of great regret.
If I could defend the Leader from the attacks against her, we should not forget—I notice that Ministers sometimes do—that when Ministers answer from that Dispatch Box they are not answering for their department; they are answering for the Government as a whole. If we had the old system, I would be intervening and saying, “You can’t say this is not your department; you are answering for the Government as a whole”. The Leader of the House is the Leader of the whole House. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who said how ridiculous it was that a Minister decides who gets called; a Minister does not decide that—the Leader of the House decides what the will of the House is and, as the Leader, she has a duty to represent the whole House and not just the Government. That is not something we should cast aside lightly.
My Lords, I was incredibly struck by a point the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, made. He said that there is a legitimate choice to be made between whether it is the Leader of the House or the Speaker who makes the choice when there is chaos. I had the privilege to sit on the Woolsack for three and a half years before the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, took over from me and did it a lot better than I did.
The point about not being able to see things is a bit bad; ultimately, you can see what is going on from the Woolsack a lot better than you can from the Government Front Bench. In particular, you cannot see from the Government Front Bench what is going on behind you and on the Cross Benches. It is then very difficult to make judgments about how you resolve the chaos. I go back to my experience of the Leaders of the House when I started here. I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who is regarded—and I regard him—as the Buddha of Fairness; every time he said, “Let’s have Lord X”, we would all accept it. With my noble friends Lady Amos and Lord Rooker it was exactly the same.
I have the greatest admiration for the House of Lords; I genuinely like being here, and it is its quality and reasonableness that make us survive. However, watching Question Time from the Woolsack was sometimes absolutely horrible. The sharp elbows of the shouty brigade were persistently out, and if you watched the awfulness on their faces when they did not get in, it was very ugly from time to time.
My own view is that we should continue to be self-regulating, and we definitely need to abolish speakers lists, as the report says. However, I would hand over to the Lord Speaker not the task that my noble friend Lady Quin suggested but the task of getting up when the chaos strikes. When that happens, the Lord Speaker is in the best position to make the judgment. I also agree very strongly with what my noble friend Lord Rooker said. It is jolly odd that the Leader of the House makes a decision about how a Minister is questioned. It would be much better if it was the Lord Speaker. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, brilliantly created a spectrum which is not really being suggested. The right thing to say is that when the House generates into an ugly, sharp-elbowed place, let the Lord Speaker resolve, not by decision but only by recommendation, setting out what he or she thinks the will of the House is, and express the will of the House. I would expect the House then to comply with what was suggested.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord kindly mentioned my name and my time as Leader, but I have nothing but the fondest memories of when he sat on the Woolsack, and indeed when my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern sat on the Woolsack as Lord Chancellor. Nobody thought they were irrelevant and unimportant then, and I do not think that anybody thinks that of the Lord Speaker sitting today.
This debate has descended slightly into farce, although I very much enjoyed what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker said. Surely the point is that we must return to what we had before the pandemic. Let us see how it goes, and then in six or 12 months’ time, if we want to have this debate again—we have had it many times in the past—we can do so. Actually, the system of self-regulation works surprisingly well, and the law of unintended consequences would kick in if we gave that power to the Lord Speaker, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth pointed out.
It also struck me that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, was the first Member of this House to speak who was not formerly a Member of the House of Commons. It also struck me that so many former Members of the House of Commons, excluding my noble friend Lord Forsyth, missed something of the firm smack of authority from the Speaker of the House of Commons. This is a different place—a different House with different customs and different ways of doing things. I am very glad that it is, and I hope that we will support this Motion.
My Lords, I always feel rather nervous when I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, but on this occasion I do. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and others mentioned the shouty match. I point out that that occurs only on the Labour and Conservative Benches.
I will explain why. The Liberal Democrats decide among themselves who will come in on each Question. If you are a little woman, you can come in if you know that your party has decreed that you are the person who will come in. We will have one or two speakers for the first and the second Questions, and so on, so we do not have shouty matches on our Benches. Can I recommend to my other colleagues around the House that they do that?
I add that in the balmy days of coalition, when I was a Minister on those Benches answering Questions, we were absolutely held to account. We were supposed to get in at least seven questions in the seven minutes, and when the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, was the Leader, she took us to task. Each week she would count who had not got in the requisite number of questions. Of course, there was nothing we could do if the questioner went wrong, but if we were taking far too long for our answers, by golly, our feet were put to the fire. Not all the newer Ministers realise that noble Lords are far more interested in asking their questions than in listening to the answers.
My Lords, I have never been in the House of Commons, but I have had quite a long time watching it. I am conscious that sometimes in the past, the way in which the ultimate questioner was selected was not the best, but I think that what today we are asked to do by the report is to go back to the way we had before. I am perfectly happy if later on, once we come back to what we have done, we consider whether anything more needs to be changed, but I certainly think that it is not an appropriate time to make a change of this sort when we are just coming back to the old system for the first time.
Another matter that has occurred to me is that we have all been through a very serious experience as a result of the pandemic. Who knows, that may have affected the so-called shouting crowd. I hope we will all learn to stop the shouting and extend courtesy. I believe in the very good advice,
“in honour preferring one another.”
If that system operated, we would not need anybody to pick their number.
I have to say something about the practical issue. With a House of 800 and more, it is quite difficult for anyone, even one with the skill of the present Lord Speaker, to know everybody. This business of the people who want to shout getting going is urgent, and unless you know everybody who is here, you cannot select who is the fair one to call. My strong view is that we should not change anything, except go back to where we were before, until we have had a chance to see whether the shouting mob, if that is what we call them, have changed their behaviour and been chastened by the experience we have had.
I venture to think that many of us will not wish to be involved in the shouting mechanism. I have never taken part in that—shouting is not, on the whole, my way of life—but I think there is a very good chance that people will realise that we have got back, wonderfully, to what we were before and that now we will show it to be the best possible way.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, but I cannot help but reflect for a moment on the self-regulation of the Liberal Democrats, which is obviously the firm smack that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. By the way, you have to have gone to the right school to really appreciate the firm smack. I just wish the Liberal Democrats would carry it a little further into how long their Members speak, particularly when asking questions.
I say to my noble friend Lord Grocott that I really appreciated his anecdote about the early days of the Lord Speakership and the ceremonial of moving to the Woolsack and having very little else to do. It reminded me of one or two Permanent Secretaries who hoped that their Ministers would adhere to the same strictures, and too often they did. On this really serious issue, of course there is a fine line concerning the dynamic that existed under the old system. By the way, when we came back we voted on retaining the list and people putting their names in shortly in advance—not that long in advance, but shortly in advance—of the Question being taken. We voted on that, and what we are being asked to do this afternoon is to reverse something, not necessarily to go back immediately to something that already existed.
We need to reflect carefully on why the dynamic is not there. Why are not so many questions being put? It is partly because fewer people are participating in this House. The number voting is a good indication of those who are on the premises, and it has dropped quite dramatically since we came back to fully sitting sessions. The idea that, simply by going back to a free-for- all—for that is what it is, a managed free-for-all—we will suddenly have an influx of noble Members coming back to the House is delusional. We need to address issues for the future, not for the past. Is it sensible to have some rational order in which the Lord Speaker plays a significant and important part in ensuring that the world outside sees us as we wish to be seen?
I have never had any problem getting in. It is partly that I have a loud voice and partly that people are extremely thoughtful, because they realise that I do not understand who I am upsetting when I intervene, including on my own Benches. It is also partly that Members opposite appreciate just how much I understand the dilemmas of their Ministers in having to answer for government policy; that sympathy remains. Even if I could see, from this juncture or place in the House would I be able to see whether others around are seeking to get in and would I have the sensitivity to deal with that? What is so good about barging your way in, having a loud voice and intervening on the spur of the moment because somebody has upset you, rather than putting your name in because you have a serious interest in a Question? We are not dealing with that now, because it is being ruled out by the committee.
The amendment from my noble friend Lady Quin is a rational, temporary compromise to see how it would work, and I think we should give it a go. It is a compromise between a return to a complete free-for-all and continuing with the system we voted for a few months ago. Let us try not always to revert to whichever part of the past we favour, but to move forward to the future.
My Lords, the problem at the moment is that there is no spontaneity at all. The function of the Lord Speaker is to read out a list of names, which he has been given and over which he has no influence at all. What then happens is as we saw this afternoon: people get up and read questions, which should not be allowed in your Lordships’ House, at inordinate length and we cannot get everybody in, as we could not this afternoon. As I say, there is no spontaneity at all. I believe that the system we are being asked to go back to is very sensible.
Many is the time that one would come into the Chamber, hear a Minister say something completely unsatisfactory and feel that we want to hold his feet to the fire. That does not happen at the moment, because the Minister, whoever he or she is, can get away with parliamentary murder. That is wrong. Over the last few weeks, we have seen a contrast between the system to which we are being asked to go back and this contrived, unspontaneous, boring system.
We have had Urgent Questions, Private Notice Questions and Statements. I have not heard much shoutiness in any of those. We had a very good example with the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on International AIDS Day today. Everybody who wanted to get in got in and it flowed well. The people who got in were able to refer to things that others had said. They were not getting up with a pre-prepared text.
It is very important that Question Time in your Lordships’ House is spontaneous. I spent 40 years in the other place and I much enjoyed it, but I greatly value the self-regulation of your Lordships’ House. I have not found it inhibiting or particularly difficult, and I have been able to say things that I perhaps would not have thought of saying because I was provoked by either a very good spontaneous question from another or a wholly unsatisfactory answer from the Minister.
I believe we should give the committee our full support. As my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern said a few moments ago, we can always go back to this. We are a self-regulating House, and if we decide in future to regulate ourselves differently, that is up to us, but let us accept the report, endorse its recommendations and go back next Monday to a spontaneous Question Time.
My Lords, on the spontaneity, we are being asked to do a U-turn, of which I am broadly in favour, but the point made by the tablers of the amendments could also be taken into consideration. It was not the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, might feel was obvious to everybody, that there was no need for the change made two years ago. It was not made lightly; it was made because the shouting match was a major problem. Is it not possible to tweak what is being proposed? A six-month trial period has a lot of merit to it. We can have the spontaneity as long as we deal with the shouting match.
My Lords, we have had a very interesting consideration by many noble Lords with very strong experiences of the development of the House.
I must be one of the few Ministers who, when I was a Minister, actively enjoyed Question Time, because the House was at its most electric and boisterous, but civilised. That is the really important point that I take from many of the comments made by noble Lords concerned about the committee’s very clear majority view in its consideration of how Question Time flourishes, not just for noble Lords but for the discourse we should have. I remember looking at the newspaper and thinking, “This is going to come up today”, so I always read the papers before Question Time. Indeed, if I had a fishing Question I always knew that the noble Lord, Lord West, would be there, so I had the statistics on the number of vessels at our disposal. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that I endeavoured to be Lady Trumpington’s Whip. All I can say is that one of the things I remember, and which I put to myself, was the sense and mood of the House.
We have something here that we all cherish, which is the ability for us all to make a contribution. We all come here with a voice. One of the things that we all desperately need, with which I agree and if the House agrees with the committee’s report, is to see how it can be taken more actively on board that noble Lords who have a contribution to make, and for whom the sense of the House is that they should be heard, can be heard.
I pick up the point about Lady Trumpington. There was always a shout of “Trumps!” because she had something to say that was of interest and often of humour. That blend of a civilised Question Time, whereby Members are able to ensure that Ministers give a good account of themselves, their departments and Her Majesty’s Government, is really what the committee was seeking in bringing back this proposal. I am, as I say, the servant of the House and whatever it decides I will do my utmost to facilitate. But there are some lessons that I take back from this.
I also want to say to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, which relates to my feeling the sense of the House, that he may think that he has a loud voice but my view is that he is able to ask questions and the House actively wants to hear from him. Given that sense of when a noble Lord has something important to say, the House should actively encourage hearing it because that is how we get the dynamic that is so important.
I should quickly say to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin —I think she understands this—that if her amendment were agreed, I would have to withdraw the report that the committee has brought before your Lordships because it and her amendment are contradictory. One cannot have a report seeking self-regulation but come back to a situation, if the House were to agree with her amendment, where regulation should come from the Lord Speaker and the Woolsack. I should say to the House that that would be my response, only because the committee would have to give urgent consideration to how such a view might be expressed if the noble Baroness were to press her amendment and be successful. We would need to address considerable issues of procedure and the practical implications.
I hope, however, that noble Lords will understand that all of us on the committee—indeed, the clear majority as well as those who did not share our view—have gone about our endeavour with the best intent, which is to enable noble Lords to flourish and for Question Time to flow with electricity. I was mindful of that and thought that the PNQ on HIV/AIDS was a perfect example of every noble Lord getting in and giving their experience and understanding to the House. That was also pertinent. I am obviously in the hands of the House but, for those reasons and in seeking to reply to the opinions expressed, all of which I respect, I hope that the House will understand the reasons why the committee came back with the report that it has.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken in this debate, particularly those who said words in support of my amendment. I am also grateful to those who, although they did not agree with the amendment, at least conceded that if we revert to the old system it will be possible to reconsider how it works in practice after an interval of, say, a few months. I hope that the Senior Deputy Speaker and the committee will be responsive to the fact that there were many criticisms of the old system—criticisms that still exist. Perhaps if we accept the committee’s report, we can revisit that issue within a fairly short time, particularly if it does not seem to be working satisfactorily, as I suspect it will not. I may be proved wrong and I would be quite happy to be proved wrong if suddenly Question Time allows in all those who are trying to get in rather than just a few.
Having said that, and being conscious of the fact that we can come back to this decision, I sense the weight of opinion in the House. There is also the fact that the only people who can vote are those present on the estate. When we previously voted on the system, it was a full electronic vote. Given all those considerations and the tenor of the debate, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Amendment to the Motion
Amendment to the Motion not moved.
Amendment to the Motion
Amendment to the Motion not moved.
Motion to Agree
My Lords, in moving this Motion I will also speak to the second Liaison Committee Motion, in my name, which concerns new committee activity in 2022. [Interruption.] It would be courteous to those committees that I am discussing if I might be heard.
The first Motion in my name invites the House to agree that the International Relations and Defence Committee be designated as the responsible committee of the House of Lords for the purposes of Section 3 of the Trade Act 2021 and be empowered to appoint a Sub-Committee for the purposes of carrying out this work. The report briefly sets out the history of Section 3 of the Trade Act, which was added by an amendment first moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. Section 3 authorises each House to designate a responsible committee to consider whether there exist credible reports of genocide in the territory of a prospective FTA counterparty, and to report accordingly, having taken such evidence as it considers appropriate. The role and powers—
I sense the mood of the House, and I agree.
Only one committee may be designated as the responsible committee. The Liaison Committee’s consideration of this matter has been informed by the views of the chairs of the International Agreements Committee and the International Relations and Defence Committee. Both have heavy existing workloads, and neither would be able to fulfil this statutory requirement without additional resource. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns, chair of the International Relations and Defence Committee, for agreeing that if the need arises for such scrutiny, a Sub-Committee of her committee would perform this task to fulfil the statutory requirement.
Following discussion with the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, Chair of the International Agreements Committee, we suggested that it could be helpful for there to be a memorandum of understanding between the two committees to ensure effective and timely communication between them regarding this matter. I am pleased to report that a draft memorandum has already been prepared and is being discussed between the chairs of the two committees.
I am sure that we all hope that this will be an aspect of our committee scrutiny that will need to be used little. It is, however, right that we have the necessary arrangements in place so that scrutiny can take place in a timely way if required. I am very grateful to all those involved behind the scenes in reaching the agreement that has made this possible.
Turning to new committee activity in 2022, the three special inquiry committees which the House set up last year, together with the Covid-19 committee, have all now agreed their reports, as they were required to do by the end of November. In anticipation, in July I invited Members of the House to put forward proposals for new committees to start in January 2022. All the proposals we received have been published online.
I am, once again, very grateful to all Members of the House who put forward proposals for special inquiry committees next year. The Liaison Committee had a good range of topics to choose from, and the proposals underline the range and breadth of expertise in your Lordships’ House. The committee always has a difficult task in choosing which committees to recommend, and this year was no exception. We considered all the proposals against our published set of criteria. We considered which would make best use of the knowledge and experience of Members of the House; which would complement the work of Commons departmental Select Committees; which would address areas of policy that cross departmental boundaries; and where the inquiry proposed could be capable of being confined to one year. We also took into account the balance of topics across the special inquiry committees and the work being undertaken by other committees and within government, and the feasibility of doing a topic justice in the time available to the committee.
With all those points in mind, we agreed to recommend the following proposals for three special inquiry committees, to start work in January 2022: adult social care provision, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Laming; the Fraud Act 2006 and digital fraud, a combination of related subjects proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham; and, thirdly, land use in England, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone.
Since the appointment of the first House of Lords post-legislative scrutiny committee in May 2012, the House has established a strong reputation for this relatively new aspect of its work, which plays an important part in maintaining legislative standards. Last year, in the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, we paused this activity to free up resources for a special committee to scrutinise Covid-19. In doing so, we determined to resume post-legislative scrutiny as soon as possible, and I am delighted that we are now able to do so.
In selecting legislation to recommend for post-legislative scrutiny, we were conscious that hitherto, no legislation from the Department for Education had been subject to post-legislative scrutiny by a House of Lords committee. We therefore agreed to recommend a post-legislative scrutiny committee to consider the important and wide-ranging Children and Families Act 2014.
The Liaison Committee also considered a number of other requests for additional committee resources. These matters are dealt with in our report. The committee took care and time in coming to its conclusions, and I hope that your Lordships will agree that the committee’s recommendations cover a wide range of subjects which will make excellent use of Members’ talents and contribute to debate and policy-making in a range of topical and cross-cutting areas.
I end on the same note of gratitude with which I began. All our committees, both sessional and special inquiry committees, perform vital work on behalf of us all and, in doing so, assist the national discourse. The enthusiasm with which Members across the House approach this aspect of our work is exemplary, and the dedication of the staff who support our committees is also to be very strongly commended.
So, although we are perhaps not sufficiently so on occasion, I believe that we should all be proud of the work that our committees and their staff undertake. I beg to move.
Motion to Agree
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021
Motion to Approve
My Lords, in moving these regulations, I will also speak to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021.
We have always known that a worrying new variant could pose a threat to the progress that we have made as a nation. On Friday 26 November, the World Health Organization designated variant B.1.1.529, now known as omicron, as a variant of concern. I thank the Government of South Africa for their rapid identification of this variant and exemplary transparency in alerting the world. Yesterday, the Secretary of State spoke with Minister Phaahla to convey this unanimous message from G7 Health Ministers and reaffirm our commitment to working together to address the global impact of the omicron variant.
Some 22 cases have been confirmed in England and Scotland, but we expect that number to rise over the coming days. Omicron has been spreading across numerous countries. Early indications show that it may be more transmissible than the delta variant, and that current vaccines may be less effective against it. It may also have an impact on the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, Ronapreve. We are therefore concerned that omicron may pose a substantial risk to public health. That is why we are taking decisive action against it to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists learn more about this potential threat.
Our test, trace and self-isolate system continues to be one of the key ways in which we can manage and contain the virus and protect the nation. The self-isolation regulations that we are debating today were introduced to provide a legal requirement to self-isolate for individuals who have been notified that they have tested positive for Covid-19 or are a close contact of a positive case. On 16 August, thanks to the success of the vaccine rollout, we were able to introduce a number of exemptions to self-isolation for close contacts, including for those who are fully vaccinated or under the age of 18.
Given the greater threat that may be posed by the omicron variant, we have reviewed the application of these exemptions. This latest amendment to the self-isolation regulations is targeted at helping to slow its spread. Since 4 am yesterday, all individuals notified by NHS Test and Trace or a public health official that they are a close contact of a confirmed or suspected case of the Covid-19 omicron variant will be legally required to self-isolate, regardless of their age or vaccination status. Anyone who has been notified as testing positive for Covid-19, regardless of the variant, will continue to be legally required to self-isolate.
We have also reintroduced the requirement to wear face coverings in shops, including supermarkets, banks, and close contact services such as hairdressers, on public transport, and in transport hubs. Some noble Lords may ask why face coverings are not required in hospitality venues such as cafes and pubs. I would respond that this is part of a targeted and proportionate intervention. We recognise that not everyone is able to wear a face covering. That is why health and disability exemptions will continue to apply. However, those who are able to must continue to follow the rules so that we might slow the spread of this new variant.
I stress that these measures are temporary and precautionary, and will be reviewed in three weeks, which is the period scientists say is required before it is known how the variant impacts on the effectiveness of vaccines. Ultimately, the vaccination programme, and the test, trace and isolate system continue to be our most effective way of reducing transmission, along with continuing to practise good hygiene, keeping spaces well ventilated, and wearing a face covering in enclosed or crowded spaces.
The UK Health Security Agency continues to monitor the situation closely in partnership with scientific and public health organisations across the world. Covid-19 is not going away and so we are likely to keep seeing new variants emerge. If we want to learn to live with the virus, we must follow the scientific evidence and advice and act in a proportionate and responsible way if a variant has the potential to thwart our progress. As we do this, we are taking a well-rounded view, looking not just at the impact of these measures on the virus, but on the economy, education, and non-Covid health, especially mental health. I am confident that the responses we set out today are balanced and responsible steps that are proportionate to the threat we face.
I was happy to wait for the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to speak before me. I thank the Minister for introducing and explaining the content of these statutory instruments. As we discussed on Monday, the omicron variant is a sobering reminder that this pandemic is not over. I think we all agree that we need to act with speed to bolster our defences to keep the new variant at bay and to keep each other safe through the difficult winter period.
We on these Benches were critical of the Government’s slow response to the delta variant—slow to protect our borders, slow to act to reduce transmission in the community—so we welcome swifter action regarding this variant. It is right to be acting urgently given the seriousness of the threat. While it is sad to be debating these statutory instruments after the fact again, it is definitely an improvement on discussing them after Christmas or weeks later.
Turning to the regulations and starting with the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021—I still have a problem with all the numbers on these, but this is number 1340—as I said on Monday, it is right to reintroduce masks on public transport, in shops and other settings including banks, hairdressers and post offices for those who are not exempt. However, we believe this measure should never have been abandoned. While mask wearing in public spaces forms part of the Government’s plan B, as far as we are concerned it should have been part of plan A rather than an emergency measure, as should encouraging working from home.
Now we have the issue of building confidence for compliance in the new law. The guidance will be important. When will the guidance about wearing of face masks be issued? USDAW, for example, the shopworkers union —in fact, the union I was a member of when I worked for the Co-op—said:
“Shopworkers aren’t police officers and shouldn’t be expected to act like them. They’re key workers who have kept our country going during these tough times. They deserve our respect.”
I also congratulate my friend and Co-operative colleague Paul Gerrard, who was on “Good Morning Britain” yesterday. He said on Twitter:
“We’ll make sure customers know rules & we’ll help them to follow them but we won’t put colleagues at risk”.
The Co-op is a responsible retailer, as are most of our retailers, but they all need the Government’s support. Have the guidelines been issued yet and what are the Government’s plans to support retailers?
As I said, we think these regulations are too modest and will not provide the protection the Government have described. For example, you will wear your mask to go into the off-licence to get some booze, and then you will go to a party indoors where no one will be wearing a mask. If you attend the theatre, you may get a taxi to the theatre and will wear your mask, and in the theatre some of the people in the audience may be wearing a mask but some will not. Will the Minister explain the scientific justification for those differences?
Anyone who has taken a journey on public transport in recent months will have seen at first hand the lack of compliance—I do not mean just the Prime Minister. From what all of us have seen on the Tube and elsewhere in our commute, it looks as if there has been an increase in compliance in the last 24 hours or so, but on Monday morning it was depressing to see how few people on the Tube were wearing masks. I am very pleased to say that the statutory instruments committee has been busy and has issued its report this afternoon. It says there is a long list of places where people must wear face coverings, as well as on public transport. It also remarks on the doubling of the fixed penalty, and says:
“The House may wish to ask the Minister to explain why some places were chosen and not others, and, because the list is complex, how members of the public will be able to understand where and when a mask must be worn.”
As the Minister said, it goes on to state:
“These Regulations are due to expire at the end of 20 December 2021 which falls into the period of parliamentary recess”,
so, as I said on Monday, we might need to ask the Minister how he will
“ensure that any decision to extend these Regulations is announced before the House rises.”
Will that be possible?
Why do the Government not specify ventilation in these regulations? Throughout the pandemic, these Benches have called for a radical upgrade of the ventilation of public buildings, particularly schools. We know that is not something that can be done just by clicking your fingers. It is expensive and time consuming, and possibly harder to do than asking people to wear a mask, but it is a very effective intervention. Some 18 months into this pandemic, how many public buildings now have proper ventilation systems as a result of decisions taken during the pandemic?
I turn to statutory instrument 1338 regarding self-isolation. The regulations introduce new rules for self-isolation after contact with a person who is suspected to have contracted the omicron variant of the virus. The issue is, how is it suspected? It begs the question of how on earth one will know. I am keen to hear from the Minister how the decision to introduce only two-day testing and not to reintroduce pre-departure tests, which I understand the United States of America has just announced, was reached. I am keen to know the scientific basis behind that. We have heard many reports of private tests not being followed up, perhaps especially by those offering tests at the cheapest prices. What are the Government going to do to enforce this and to ensure that bringing back two-day PCR tests will be effective? We saw in the summer how frustrating they were for people who would otherwise have been able to avoid self-isolation by being vaccinated. They will now have to stay at home for the full period. However, as we now wait to see how our vaccines and antivirals respond to the new variant, it is right that we prioritise caution and seek to limit community transmission as much as possible.
Perhaps the Minister can clarify why the Government have flatly contradicted the Covid guidance from one of their most senior health officials that people should not socialise before Christmas unless it is necessary. Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said during an interview with the BBC on Tuesday morning—I heard it on the radio—that unnecessary gatherings in the festive period should not go ahead. She said that people can do their bit to halt the spread of Covid in the next few weeks by reducing social contact. She warned that omicron is “more highly transmissible” and could have
“a significant impact on our hospitals … our behaviours in winter and particularly around Christmas we tend to socialise more so I think all of those will need to be taken into account.”
When asked if Dr Harries’s view was shared by Boris Johnson, the PM’s spokesman told reporters:
“No. Our advice to the public is as set out at the weekend. We have put advice out on face coverings and on inward travellers ... Beyond that we haven’t set out any further guidance to the public.”
Asked if people should follow what he was saying or what Dr Harries was saying, the spokesman said:
“The public should follow the guidance as set out by the Government and indeed the Prime Minister at the weekend.”
The least I can say about that is that it is confusing. I would like to have the Minister’s view.
Finally, I shall say something about people who are very vulnerable. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raises this time and again, and the Government need to take it very seriously. Even before the discovery of the new variant, people with underlying health conditions were being widely ignored, despite the fact that their case numbers remained high. Months after the official shielding programme ended, the Office for National Statistics figures from October showed that almost one in four clinically extremely vulnerable people were still shielding and that 68% were leaving the house but taking extreme extra precautions. Ministers have only made matters worse with this. Over the last few months, the Government have removed many measures that would have helped clinically vulnerable people. In England, the legal requirement to wear a mask ended as far back as July, apart from in healthcare settings and care homes, and once furlough ended in October, clinically vulnerable people had fewer options to shield themselves. Many were sent back to offices or public-facing roles without the legal right to work from home or to be paid if they could not. If the Minister cannot answer the questions about the guidelines and what should happen to clinically vulnerable people, I am very happy for him to write to me and put the answer in the Library.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these two statutory instruments retrospectively reintroducing face masks and rules for self-isolation. From these Benches, we repeat our thanks to the scientists in South Africa for their early-warning system and their excellent genomic sequencing of omicron. I also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its swift advice to your Lordships’ House.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 set out clearly the doubling of fines if somebody fails to comply without a reasonable excuse, up to a maximum of £6,400. When these regulations were first introduced last year, very few fines were issued. Face coverings are not required everywhere, which makes it even harder for this to be literally policed, as in the police intervening and issuing fines. I repeat the questions that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee asked: why were some places chosen and not others and, because the list is complex, how on earth will members of the public be able to understand where and when a mask must be worn? We completely agree with the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. The Minister knows that I have already raised this with him this week, and I heard his attempt in Grand Committee to defend the absolute nonsense about sitting in theatres versus walking around a shop or even sitting in a café in a shop, where one would, I presume, be required to wear a mask.
I also raised with him the vexed issue of local government, where since January councils have by law from central government had to meet in person, although many of them would like to return to virtual arrangements when there is a massive rise in cases. Cases are surging in certain parts of the country, and it is just extraordinary that the Government dictate to local government how it can meet. I raised this with the Minister yesterday and was grateful for his response, but I raise it again after a plea overnight from a councillor in Devon, where cases are rising very fast at the moment.
This regulation is due to expire on 20 December. Once again today, we are seeing emergency legislation to protect the public laid after it was enacted, but in this case understandably. However, it is set to expire at a point when not only will we have just risen for recess but the emerging facts of the omicron variant are only just going to be understood. The scientists say that they need a good three weeks to really understand this, so why were these regulations not set for expiry after 60, or even 90, days? It is comparatively easy, as we saw yesterday in Grand Committee, for your Lordships’ House to meet for early expiration of a regulation. It is much harder to justify setting this one for such a short period. It is treating Parliament with contempt as well.
I am really sorry to hear that Co-operative stores and Iceland have already made decisions not to follow the face mask guidance. It points to a big hole in the system that we from these Benches have repeatedly raised: which is how the regulations can be policed. The real answer, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, outlined, remains front-line retail staff, often low paid, or security staff, who do not have the authority of the police. The Co-op has rightly said that it will not put its staff at risk of attack from customers, which it says happens to tens of staff per day across the country.
This regulation is the stick, but we need a carrot too. We need to see on a daily basis senior Ministers wearing masks. I understand that the Leader of the House of Commons was finally seen wearing a mask in the Chamber today, so I presume fraternal conviviality is no longer going to protect Members on the Conservative Benches from Covid. But both his and the Prime Minister’s frankly appalling record of not wearing masks has not helped the wider public to be encouraged to take precautions themselves. By the way, I note that the Government have today confirmed that it is still essential for everyone to wear face masks in hospitals, all the time.
It was concerning that yesterday in a No. 10 press conference reference was made to a case of omicron in Croydon, but unfortunately the director of public health and the local council in Croydon had not been notified before it was made public. That would have been helpful, because they had lots of inquiries about what on earth was happening. When will this sort of information be joined up? It is vital that the experts in each area are informed before the wider public about what is going on, so that they can set up systems to reassure and support their public.
I echo the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I also heard Jenny Harries on the “Today” programme yesterday, and I thought she answered very sensibly. She has asked us repeatedly over the past 20 months to consider risk when we go into any environment. She was clear that, in winter and especially at Christmas, moving into an environment, probably mostly inside and cold, where people huddle together is not ideal and people need to think about whether they go to their usual social events. How extraordinary to have that flatly contradicted by the Prime Minister. Perhaps he needs to get a grip. That is particularly relevant in light of the other story today, about the Christmas parties at No. 10 last year after London had been asked to go into tier 3—effective lockdown.
I also ask the Minister about air filtration units for schools—and I do mean air filtration units and not CO2 monitors. This is in light of an innovative air cleaning device developed by Cambridge University and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. When they placed the relatively inexpensive air filtration machine in Covid-19 wards, it removed almost all traces of airborne SARS-CoV-2. It is a very interesting article.
On the self-isolation regulations, from these Benches we just repeat our regular plea. This Government have chosen not to pay low-paid workers a proper rate when they are asked to self-isolate. Those people are doing a public duty. They may be required by law to do it, but to offer them sick pay for that period does not reflect the duty they are doing. We know that it really matters for some people on zero-hours contracts, and that some people have not been coming forward even for tests when they suspect they have Covid because they do not know how they would put food on the table if they had to isolate for 10 days.
We are glad that the vaccination rate paid to GPs has been increased after their pleadings, but how on earth does this reduce the other pressures on primary care? I note that NHS leaders have today called for support from the military on vaccines. Running in parallel with all this is the phenomenal pressure that other NHS services are under, from the crisis in ambulance services and A&E that we discussed earlier in your Lordships’ House to delayed discharges. As the Minister knows—I am really grateful for the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—people who are clinically extremely vulnerable, especially the severely clinically extremely vulnerable and their families, were already worried about this winter, but they have been shaken further by the uncertainty surrounding the new variant.
Earlier in the year, on 15 September, the Government ended the shielding programme, as it was believed that it was no longer necessary. However, according to the Office for National Statistics, as many as one in five of those previously shielding have continued to do so. Many feel that, after this date, they were left without any support and guidance, and many—perhaps a quarter —of the clinically extremely vulnerable who were eligible for it have still not had their third primary dose because of the confusion that persists around the third primary dose and the booster jabs. So I repeat my request to the Minister—which he agreed to, but I have heard nothing—to confirm when we can meet to discuss this with Blood Cancer UK and the Anthony Nolan trust, because this is now an emergency. If the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, would like to join the meeting, I would be delighted if she were able to do so.
Everything is set for three weeks’ time. Christmas is coming towards us. I am really concerned that the tone from Ministers in the last 24 hours is that everything is going to be lifted again for Christmas, when we need to wait for the scientific advice. So can the Minister please send the message back that we should be cautious until we actually know and understand what omicron does and how dangerous it is?
My Lords, it is a pleasure and a surprise, as we are discussing an SI, to follow the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton. Although I do not agree with much, I do agree that it is very helpful that we are discussing these SIs so quickly, so I thank my noble friend the Minister. I also agree that we must not put retail workers at risk, as we are in the process of discussing in our debates on the police Bill, and that air filtration systems can be valuable in many settings.
The background to this debate is that we have taken major steps to limit the impact of Covid-19, with 115 million vaccine doses now injected in arms across the country. The more vulnerable and elderly have received boosters now totalling over 18 million, and the race is on to double this quickly. This has been well done and we must all be grateful.
We now face the challenge of the omicron—I am told that is stressed like omega, if you studied Greek, which I did not—and I rise to offer modest support for, but also some concerns about, the new regulations on masks. In particular, I agree that it is right to limit their compulsory scope to transport, shops and services such as hairdressers and banks. I am less happy with the regulation on self-isolation, which is potentially much more onerous and lasts, as we have heard, not for three weeks but until 24 March. I have some questions for my noble friend the Minister.
First, how will all this end? What virulence criteria in relation to omicron will lead to the removal of the restrictions? Can this be done at speed like their imposition or, as we have seen before, will such regulations linger on?
Second—and I have a family interest here—can there be an opt-out from travel quarantine testing for those who have recently recovered from Covid and registered as such? This is very important for children at school, where the virus continues to spread fast. I know that the travel PCR requirements are not covered in these regulations, but I hope that the Minister will answer anyway and make sure that further regulations are clear. There is so much confusion.
I would like to record my belief that both sets of regulatory proposals have a serious defect: we do not have the benefit of an impact assessment or anything like it. It may be technically true that there is an exemption for rules lasting less than a year, but it is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. An assessment of the cost and economic impact of such measures is essential to good government and the future well-being of our country, and should inform all decisions such as these. Take the first instrument on masks; the analysis in Paragraph 12 of the Explanatory Memorandum is embarrassingly inadequate and does not even mention small business. What studies have the Government conducted into children wearing masks, the negative and the positive? What is the evidence that they will help with the infectious omicron variant?
Let us consider the second set of regulations. The new self-isolation controls will have a huge impact on work, schools, health, social care and other services, as case numbers rise and the “pingdemic” of last summer returns. They also deal a body blow to the already struggling transport industry, with billions wiped off its value since last week. Do the Government prepare proper assessments to inform their actions? I hope they do; they should summarise or publish them for debates such as these. Doing so would serve to limit overreaction. The last couple of days have been full of rumours of possible overreactions, such as masks being required in theatres and restaurants, and school plays and Christmas parties cancelled. Government spokesmen should be calming matters, not encouraging people to close things down.
We have been partly saved by vaccination, but we have encountered needless damage across the economy and society over the last two years, because of our lack of attention to economics. Saturday’s BBC coverage helped me to understand why. At his press conference, the Prime Minister was sensible and serious, but the lead commentary afterwards came from a member of one of the SAGE committees, Susan Michie. She is a professor of health psychology at UCL and a well-known communist, and she wanted to go much further. Why are there a number of psychologists on SAGE and not economists—although I think there is a leading statistician? Indeed, you might ask why communists are involved at all.
On my final point, perhaps my noble friend could say whether he and the Secretary of State, both of whom are more aware than their predecessors of the importance of growth and economics to the well-being of everyone in the country, might look at the composition of SAGE and add an economist or two, now it looks as though, sadly, Covid is continuing to be more extensive than we all hoped.
My Lords, I first support what my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said about impact assessments. In fact, I have tabled a Motion on a later coronavirus order regretting the lack of impact statements, which I look forward to debating with the Minister in due course.
I start by recording what Reuters reported today from a World Health Organization official. He said that, to date, most omicron cases have been “mild” and that there is no evidence yet of reduced vaccine effectiveness. On that basis, we may find that these orders have been overhasty and that we do not see an extension of them.
I will concentrate my remarks on the mask-wearing order, because I continue to believe that there is insufficient scientific evidence on which to base requirements for people to wear masks. Much attention was paid, a week or so ago, to a meta-analysis that was published in the British Medical Journal. Its headline was that masks showed a 53% cut in the transmission of infection. When one looks at the detail of that meta-analysis, the case falls apart. Of the large number of studies included, only six related to mask wearing, of which two had a critical and four had a moderate element of bias. Of those four, only one was a properly randomised trial and its results were inconclusive. There is no evidence that scientifically supports the wearing of masks.
I will not oppose this order and I hope it runs out in a few weeks’ time, but I hope that the Minister ensures that the right messaging is put out. I have heard that the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, want it extended, including to theatres. They may like to know that this is already happening. I reveal one of my hobbies by saying that, yesterday, I received emails from both the English National Opera and the Royal Opera House telling me that, as of yesterday, they were mandating masks. I have to put up with a mask for the sake of listening to Wagner, this weekend, but the messaging that this order relates only to shops, transport and the close personal services that were referred to earlier is not out there.
In addition, when I got back to my apartment block last night, the management company had splattered the place with “Masks now required”. I challenged that today and of course there is no legal basis for that prohibition, so I have asked it to remove or alter the messaging. Unless the Government give clear messages to the public at large that this is a very limited measure for very good reason, and there is no need for it to be extended further, it will carry on spreading like some kind of virus throughout all social activity. We must not let that happen.
My Lords, I would like to add to the words of my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lady Neville-Rolfe. I am afraid the Government have got themselves in a muddle over this. This is a “worrying new variant”, as the Minister rightly said, and I think he quotes from the WHO. But while sitting here, I got an alert from the news that said exactly as my noble friend Lady Noakes just said:
“Most Omicron cases are ‘mild’ and there's no evidence to suggest vaccines may be less effective against the variant, says WHO official”,
speaking on behalf of the organisation. He specifically said that people should
“apply an evidence-informed and risk-based approach”
to travel measures and that
“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the … spread”
of the new omicron Covid variant.
We should look at the evidence, not opinions. What is the number of deaths that this or Covid are causing? I am going to yet another memorial service tomorrow for a Member of this House who died of cancer, not Covid. I think I have been to six memorial services so far this year of people who have died from cancer—nobody from Covid. All Peers should ask themselves how many people they know who have died from Covid under the age of 85.
We need to show some understanding of risk and should not be scaring people. As my noble friend Lady Noakes said, we are just scaring people into running around like headless chickens, worried about what on earth this variant means. I regret to say that I think the Government are trying to look decisive after what has not been an extremely good month or so for them. They are responding to the accusations of the Opposition that they must be more decisive and take firm action. We are keeping people scared, not keeping them safe. We are damaging children’s education and hugely damaging the economy, and cancer waiting lists are stretching. I heard today that waiting lists for hospital treatment may extend to 12 million by the end of next year. This is shocking.
My noble friend Lady Noakes asked to see the proof about face coverings, because we do not actually know if they work. Of course surgical masks work, but these flimsy paper or cardboard things we are all wearing are not effective. Since, according to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, we have to wait for the scientific advice, let us listen to the advice that Jenny Harries gave us in March last year that, in fact, if you wear a face mask you are more likely to increase the severity of any Covid you have, because you would trap all the germs and keep them there. As late as August last year, she was saying that she did not think there was any point in us wearing face masks.
I urge the Government not to listen to those, particularly from the Opposition, who want an authoritarian crackdown and would lock down society for ever, as far as I can work out, making for a docile and compliant population. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that she wants everybody fined and that it was terribly good news that we are going to double the amount of fines. I think that most fines imposed during this pandemic have actually been overturned. We need to treat the people of the United Kingdom with respect, realise that they are capable of making their own decisions and not treat them with contempt.
Lastly, after 18 months-plus of restrictions, I ask everybody in this Chamber, and the Minister in particular: have the restrictions worked? In May of last year, there had allegedly been 250,000 cases; there have now been some 10 million. What did the restrictions achieve? The vaccines have been fantastic but the restrictions have not achieved very much, except perhaps occasionally to slow down the spread. On that note I will sit down, except to say to my noble friend: this is not a good policy.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I like to spend an evening at the Royal Opera House. In fact, I have been a couple of times in the past three weeks and noticed from where I was sitting that enormous numbers of people were wearing masks—including one John Major, sitting just in front of me. I cannot see that there is any problem with sitting in the Royal Opera House and wearing a mask. In the area where I sat, there was very high compliance. It is not even just that there have been these announcements. The fact is that there was an announcement from Antonio Pappano every evening before the performance, encouraging people to wear masks. My own view is that it would have been much better if we had never stopped people wearing masks. We would not then have to start every time from a lower base to encourage people to take it up. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said that it may have stopped transmission on some occasions. Is that not good? That is what we want to happen.
My second point is about schools. The fact is that schools are not generally well-ventilated buildings. My daughter is a year 4 primary schoolteacher and, for the whole of last year, she had to teach with the windows open. This year, they have come back and again had to do so. It is not easy for a child to learn in a very cold classroom where they have to wear their coats, hats and gloves. It would be so much better if we had managed to get in a programme to bring in ventilation or some kind of air filtration scheme. Although there was a big concern about whether young people would be oppositional to the idea of wearing masks, people I know who are teachers—I do know a great many of them—have found that when you have the discussion with young people, they absolutely understand why it is important to wear masks: it is about protecting themselves, each other and their grandparents, who they may see out of school.
While a great number of things have been done too slowly, the reinstitution of wearing masks has been done in a speedy way. I hope it will continue beyond 20 December.
My Lords, on a personal level, I do not have a problem with wearing a mask. I understand that the Government are in a difficult position, because they are almost damned if they do and damned if they do not on issues of this nature. My concern is that we started off following the science but now seem to be anticipating what the science might show, in the absence of evidence that this omicron variant is any more deadly than previous variants. We seem to be ignoring the fact that, unlike when delta started, so much of the population is now vaccinated; they are therefore protected. The Government should be given enormous credit for the vaccination programme and the booster programme.
Looking at the evidence from the delta variant, as the virus progressed it became much more contagious, as all viruses tend to, but it was much less deadly. The people for whom it was particularly dangerous were those who were unvaccinated. Since we have given everybody who could have an opportunity to be vaccinated the chance to do so, and that some people have—for reasons that they know best—refused to accept the vaccine, it seems there are implications for the wider public in continuing to try to protect those people. I recognise that there are clinically vulnerable people who cannot be vaccinated, which is an issue in itself. But I am seriously concerned about wider society, particularly as the self-isolation rules will not run out until next March and have a psychologically damaging impact on society. They frighten the public and could cause, I believe, significantly higher numbers of deaths from loneliness, mental ill-health and illnesses such as cancer, which the public may be too frightened to see their doctor about, or for which GPs may now again say that they cannot see people face to face, and therefore miss the symptoms.
I hope that this mask-wearing SI will be lifted at the end of the three weeks. We need to trust the public. I agree that we need to help people understand the risks and that they need to consider them, but it is perfectly valid for people to decide that they do not consider the risks too large to stop them seeing friends and family. I have significant concerns about mandating and fining them for not doing things, when we do not have evidence to suggest those are as damaging to the public as we previously considered them to be.
My Lords, I would like to make a few comments about the mask-wearing regulations, which I strongly support while feeling that wearing masks should never have been abandoned in England. It is with great sadness that I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that at exactly this time last year I attended the funeral of a friend of mine, the exact same age as me, who died from Covid. I wonder what the families of the over 1,000 people dying from Covid each week would think if they were listening to our debate now.
The questions I would like to ask the Minister are primarily about compliance and enforcement. When I got on the Tube yesterday, it was clear to me that the message had not got across to quite a few people. I was concerned that there was no one standing at the Tube station to point out to people that it was now a legal requirement and that there were no notices making it clear that that was so, rather than a condition of passage. Those things are different. Can the Minister please explain the responsibilities for enforcement, particularly on public transport, as between, for example, Transport for London staff and the police or transport police?
It is going to be hard to get the messaging back on track after people have been told that they did not need to wear masks; now they are being told they need to again. There is a good reason for it but the bit I have not heard so far in the debate today is that mask-wearing is primarily about protecting other people. Yes, I believe scientific evidence says that it confers a degree of protection on the wearer but it is primarily about protecting others—and we do not know the medical vulnerabilities and risks of the people we sit next to, be it in this Chamber or on public transport. That is the main reason I feel mask-wearing should never have been abandoned.
I also want to ask the Minister about people who genuinely have medical exemptions. Clearly, there are people who do. Yesterday on the Tube, I was standing next to a lady who was wearing a green lanyard and a badge; personally, I found that very helpful. She was making it clear that she was exempt. To help with the compliance issue at the moment, what plans might the Government have to encourage people who are genuinely medically exempt to have badges, lanyards or exemption cards, or something like that? However, it was clear to me that a number of people not wearing masks on the Tube, yesterday and today, were certainly not genuinely exempt.
My Lords, I will intervene briefly. I do not like retrospective legislation, and even though these regulations have been introduced much more quickly than some previous ones, we should have brought them in a couple of days ago. Parliament should approve regulations before they are issued. I do not take exactly the same line as my noble friend Lady Altmann, although I generally find myself in great sympathy and agreement with her, because I think we are all tackling the unknown. Nobody knows just how severe this new variant is or how effective the vaccines—I am triple-jabbed—will be. We must bear that in mind.
I make a suggestion which I made a year or more ago, which I think has some merit. Your Lordships’ House and the other place have found our agenda dominated to a large degree by Covid and the various regulations that have been brought in to try to deal with it. I suggested then, and repeat now, that we must accept that we will be living with Covid for a very long time. I have accepted it by coming to your Lordships’ House in person almost throughout the whole pandemic, partly because I hate dealing with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but also because I like the human contact here. I also believe that, if we are Members, we have a certain duty to be here.
It would help enormously if we could have a Joint Committee of both Houses sitting in almost continuous session, where we could discuss proposals, assess evidence and not disrupt the ordinary and important business of the House. There is a parallel, in a way, with how waiting lists have been added to in the National Health Service and people have been put under enormous strain because of Covid. We would be well advised to try to have continuous parliamentary supervision and monitoring of what the Government propose in the light of all developments. I put that suggestion forward once again.
I have another specific question which I would be grateful if my noble friend would answer. I was contacted a few days ago by someone living in south-west London who is unable to have a vaccine for medical reasons. There are such people. He went to inquire of his general practitioner about the medicine that is now being developed—I am terribly sorry; I am having a senior moment and its name escapes me as I stand before your Lordships. My noble friend referred to it and will know what I am talking about. The general practitioner in question had no knowledge of it, or of where my friend could get it.
I would like an assurance from my noble friend that there is a proper dissemination of information so that doctors who are approached by those who cannot have the vaccine for genuine medical reasons can be informed. I mean genuine medical reasons, as I was one of those, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, knows, who called time and again for compulsory vaccination of those working in care homes. She is kindly nodding approval. I felt the same about those working in the National Health Service. Those who are in contact with the most vulnerable should be obliged to have protection.
We must all be understanding of the repeated dilemmas facing the Government. We all have cause to be enormously grateful and appreciative for the rollout of the vaccine. It is very important that we heed the words of Gordon Brown and do all we can to get the vaccine around the world, because in protecting others we are protecting ourselves. I would value my noble friend’s reaction to or consideration of the creation of some form of continuous parliamentary monitor. It is not just retrospective legislation that concerns me, but the fact that on 21 December both Houses will have risen and the Government will make an arbitrary decision. I would rather they had this particular protection in force until we come back. Something must be done to ensure that the Government are more answerable to Parliament than they have been.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, importantly said that the pandemic is not over. I think sometimes, listening to your Lordships’ House, that some people have not accepted that. Your Lordships’ House, based on its loudest voices, also appeared to have decided to act as though it has not in the procedural decision we made earlier.
On the mask-wearing regulations, I go back to Monday’s repeated Statement on Covid. At the time, on Twitter the hashtag “COVIDisAirborne” was trending. As far as I could trace through the mysteries of Twitter, one of its origins was Dr Kimberly Prather, chair of atmospheric chemistry at the National Academy of Sciences in the US. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the Government understand that fact, as expressed by that hashtag. A number of contributors to these debates have indicated this, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, and others addressing ventilation in schools, and both Front-Bench speakers.
Why does the mask mandate not cover cinemas and theatres? In his response on Monday’s Statement, the Minister said that it does not apply in hospitality venues, restaurants and pubs because people eat and drink there, so they are taking their masks on and off. That surely does not apply to cinemas and theatres. I still do not believe we have heard from the Minister the reason why it does not apply to those two places, with their obvious general lack of ventilation and the fact that people sit together for hours. Maybe they are spaced out; I have heard Members of your Lordships’ House make the point that, “It’s all right, I am sitting away from people”. Covid is airborne. It circulates in the air. I would love the Minister to clearly acknowledge that fact, because I do not think the Government are acting as if they do.
Also on these regulations, why do we not have a “work from home if possible” ruling in the current state of considerable uncertainty? Many have been doing it over many months; they are set up for it; it is perfectly possible; it reduces the risk and danger at a point when we really do not know how great it might be.
Finally, there have been many points in this debate I might have liked to respond to, but I will pick up just one. I ask the Minister to acknowledge how much we now rely on medical and social science experts, many of whom have worked for many hours and months above and beyond the call of duty. Will he join me in regretting that Members of your Lordships’ House should choose to attack individual experts who choose to contribute to public life and exercise their right to engage in political debate, and acknowledge that that is not an appropriate way to treat people contributing to public life?
I apologise to noble Lords— I was looking forward to so many more contributions. I hope noble Lords will forgive me for enjoying the debate rather too much. I apologise to my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh, who has been waiting for ages, and to my noble friend behind me who says he has to go to the theatre. I hope he will wear his mask when he goes to the theatre.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to today’s debate. What is really important and what it shows is that we are still debating issues and contesting the science. Clearly there is a range of views across the House on the issues raised. There is no consensus on this. That is really interesting in the way it shows that we can debate these issues and question the statistics. I will turn to some of the points noble Lords made, particularly about some of the statistics but also on the regulations.
I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not answer every single question and refer to every single noble Lord who asked them—unless noble Lords want to stay here a bit longer and my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh can go and have another teacake or something while he is waiting.
Sorry, was that offensive? I apologise for any offence caused to my noble friend. I just assumed that because I like teacakes, my noble friend also does.
I will start with some of the questions. On the question of how many people have been helped by some of these financial services, as of 17 November 2021, local authorities have reported 362,573 successful claims since the start of the scheme, totalling £181 million in test and trace support systems.
Despite the easing of the restrictions at step 4 of the road map, the Government have continued to recommend that face coverings are worn in crowded and enclosed spaces. We accept that there is wide support for reintroducing mandatory face coverings, but we have always tried to balance these issues. As I said in previous debates, we look at a number of factors, not only medical but economic and social. Also, within health itself, many mental health experts are very concerned that we might go for more lockdowns and about some of the measures that a number of noble Lords have mentioned.
As we saw in the debate, there are noble Lords who believe that we have gone too far and noble Lords who feel that we have not gone far enough unless we effectively enter a second lockdown. That shows the range of views here and the difficulty, as my noble friend, Lady Altmann, said, that the Government are damned if they do, damned if they do not, but we accept that.
So, do face masks actually work? This is where there is still a debate. I thank my noble friend Lady Noakes for pointing out the article by Professor Simon Wood, who is professor of statistics at the University of Edinburgh, in which he analysed the BMJ paper. It is in effect a meta-analysis. A number of newspapers have taken a line saying that wearing a mask cuts Covid by 53%. I encourage noble Lords to read the article, in which he takes apart the statistics as a statistician and looks at, as those who have done statistics will understand, whether we have a significant number of samples to make it statistically sound. In addition, Professor Naismith of Oxford University has been quoted as saying that
“the Scottish and English approach to masking, although formally different since July, has made no meaningful difference to delta.”
Once again we see that there is a whole range of views, but we have listened to those views. Because we do not yet know enough about this variant, we will continue to review the data. For example, some say that it is very mild in South Africa so we should not be overly concerned about it, but we also have to remember that South Africa has a different demographic in terms of younger people. We know that when the virus first struck it disproportionately affected older people—as my noble friend Lord Robathan said, people aged over 85. On the balance of the data at the moment, we believe that wearing face masks works but we have always been very careful to make sure that it is proportionate where we do it.
On the expiry of some of these measures, as the Prime Minister said on Saturday, all the provisions that have been voted on will be reviewed in three weeks. They are necessary and proportionate while we learn more. I refer to the economics Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, who talked about humans having limited knowledge. He talked about the conceit of knowledge. The way to understand a lot of complex problems is to allow the discovery process to take hold and to look at what we can learn from that process. We should be very careful not to imagine that we have total knowledge. What we have to do is assess it proportionately.
It is our hope that these regulations will no longer be necessary in three weeks’ time and that we can return to the system that we lived under last week, but in the event that we need more time to understand the effect of the variant, or that the data shows that we need to take a different approach that requires new regulations, the House will return to Parliament ahead of the Christmas Recess for a debate and vote on the regulations ahead of their coming into force.
On regulations expiring, the international travel regulations will expire at the end of 16 May 2022. The face covering regulations will expire, unless extended, at the end of 20 December 2021. The self-isolation regulations at the moment expire at the end of 24 March 2022, but we will continue to review the data. Almost daily the data is being reviewed and conversations are going on. We will also continue to review the data on the new variant and we hope to update Parliament on the review in the week commencing 13 December.
A number of noble Lords asked about facilities. We are told that setting up dedicated testing facilities at border entry points such as airports is logistically difficult at the moment, and risks delays to passenger journeys and operations. Given the turnaround for a PCR test, passengers would still have to travel to their home or the place they are staying and isolate there before receiving a result. The Government are taking a measured and proportionate response. We want to try to protect the UK from omicron while allowing continued safe travel.
A number of references were made to points made by Dr Jenny Harries. As the Prime Minster said, the guidance remains the same as the measures that were in place to fight delta. We have now brought in tougher measures, but we continue to take advice from a number of experts. Individual experts are free to give their viewpoint but we look at the balance—some of it medical, some of it clinical, but also economic and social factors—and getting that proportionate.
I need to ask the Minister about the fact that our most senior adviser on these matters gave advice that was then completely denied by No. 10 and the Government. That will at least cause confusion. It is not a question of balancing this and that; Jenny Harries was very clear in her advice about what she thought should happen. It was quite the opposite to what the Prime Minister said should happen. The Minister needs to acknowledge that that will cause confusion.
I thank the noble Baroness for raising the point, but it depends on how it is reported. The real issue here is that a number of different experts are advising. Of course, you can pick and choose which expert you decide to listen to. A few weeks ago, noble Lords were picking up on comments made by the NHS Confederation. That is not a scientific body, but noble Lords claimed that it showed that we need to lock down. It is very easy to pick and choose your experts, but we continue to listen to a wide range of experts.
One of the great things about science that we should remember is that there is no such thing as “the science says”. Science should remain contestable. Can you imagine if science was not contestable? We would still be saying, “You can’t challenge the notion that the solar system revolves around the earth.” Scientists challenged that, and that is how we advance knowledge. It is really important that we continue to contest. Scepticism is one of the most important factors in science to make sure we make progress. We will listen to a range of experts.
I ask those noble Lords who really want to lock down more, and who say that we not only have not done enough but should do more and lock people down, to look at the impact that has on people’s mental health and on our economy. I ask them to think about the wider impact and to remember that we are not in the same place we were a year ago. We have been absolutely clear that vaccines work and that the best thing we can do to get through this is to get vaccinated. It is not too late to get your first or second vaccine. I am grateful to noble Lords who have asked questions—
The Minister is now saying that there is absolutely no doubt about the science behind vaccinations. That is not a matter of opinion; there is no doubt about the need for vaccinations. He is straying into dangerous territory when he says that there is science on this side and science on that, because the Government have rightly said that vaccination is the way forward.
I apologise to the noble Baroness if I came across as sarcastic.
In terms of hospitality settings, quite rightly, as a number of noble Lords have said, even though we have mandated it in certain settings, it is being left to settings to decide. This is in line with property rights, but also something that people have been asking for—a number of noble Lords have asked “Why not just let the establishments themselves decide, so people can make a decision whether they go to somewhere where masks are mandated or somewhere where they are not mandated?” We are looking really hard at this and we want to make sure that we are proportionate. It could be that we find out that omicron is not that dangerous, but we have to make sure that we have the data and that we sequence it all. It could be that it affects us more in the UK that it would in South Africa because of the change in demographics. That is a really important point.
In terms of who is responsible for enforcement, the police and Transport for London officers have powers to issue fixed penalty notices for non-compliance with the regulations. They are using the four E’s in a proportionate way: engaging, explaining and encouraging before enforcement, just to remind people, if they can, to make sure that they wear a face mask.
The Health Secretary has also asked the JCVI to consider giving boosters to as wide a range of people as possible. If you are boosted, your response is likely to be stronger, so it is more vital than ever that we get our jabs.
On helping the rest of the world, the UK remains committed to donating 100 million doses by mid-2022. We are also extremely grateful to the South African Government; we have been talking to a number of partners, including South Africa directly, to make sure that we do not disincentivise other countries for doing the right thing by reporting the outbreak in the first place. We are doing all that we can.
I am trying to make sure that I answer all the questions; I apologise if I am not able to. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked about exemptions for children under the age of 11 and those unable to wear a face covering due to health, age, equality or disability reasons. In terms of the impact to the economy, we do not know the extent to which the variant escapes the vaccine, but as soon as we do, we will be able to make a better measure. We do not at the moment expect there to be significant economic disruption. We have said that we believe face coverings are effective at reducing transmission indoors. The recent UKHSA study suggests that all types of face coverings are, to some extent, effective, but we also welcome challenges to that data. The advice remains the same: we believe that, on balance, it is better to wear a face mask. Many noble Lords have agreed and disagreed with that, but we have to balance these things.
Proportionate measures remain in place in schools. Face coverings should now be worn in communal areas by older students and teachers. The Department for Education is looking at how we make sure that there are clear guidelines on that. We advise staff, visitors and pupils to wear face coverings in communal areas.
I turn to the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and that very personal case; it highlights—this should sober us up—those very powerful words that this is not over. We have said that consistently. It is not over. If we believed it was over, we would have removed all restrictions. It is highly likely, but not definite, that we may have to continue to get boosters. Just as we have an annual flu vaccine, we may in the future end up with an annual Covid vaccine, including looking at other strains.
We have said who is responsible. In answer to a point made by my noble friend Lord Cormack, may I suggest that he takes his point about continuous committees up with the Lord Speaker? That is not really in my remit as Minister for Health. My initial reaction is that it seems a good idea, but let us see what the Lord Speaker says.
I again thank all noble Lords for their contributions and for continuing to challenge. That is really important. I can assure my noble friend Lord Cormack that today I asked my department for a list of potential or forthcoming regulations so that we can lay them as early as possible, as my noble friend and other noble Lords suggested. I am grateful for the acknowledgement that we laid these regulations as quickly as we could, and I pledge that we will try to improve that as much as we can, I too, believe very strongly in procedure and the Government and the Executive being held to account. It is really important.
Before my noble friend sits down, I thank him for mentioning the economy. His assessment is that the impact on the economy should not be great, but of course there has already been an impact on the economy from this new strain. I think I mentioned in particular the transport industry, which has been affected. Would he be able to come back to me on this business of economic assessment—in fact, not only economic, as I am also worried about the impact of the measures being taken on things like cancer deaths. There is no time to discuss that now, but I would really like to have a further discussion, perhaps bilaterally. We will of course have my noble friend Lady’s Noakes’s regret amendment in due course, but that may be months away. It really is very important to understand the implications of what we are doing. We are doing it for the right reason, but it has a wider impact.
My noble friend raises an important point. We also have to clear about unintended consequences and the costs of what we have been doing. I read an interesting article from the leading behavioural economist Paul Ormerod, who asked where have all the economists been when it came to this debate, as economics is about considering trade-offs.
I again thank the Government of South Africa for their rapid identification of the variant and their transparency in alerting the global community. I commend our scientific and public health experts who continue to monitor the situation closely alongside our scientific and public health partnership organisations across the world. We are continuing to collaborate in order to understand the virus, including the data and the different demographics that our countries have and whether a study in one place is relevant to a study in another place.
I also thank the House for its valuable scrutiny today. The Government hope that the temporary and precautionary measures laid in these regulations will enable us to slow down the spread of the omicron variant while we gather more information on how best to deal with it and how infectious it is. The Secretary of State assured Members in the other place that if it emerges that the omicron variant is no more dangerous than the delta variant, we will not keep these measures in place for a day longer than is necessary. I hope that that is the case, but we must take precautions and act decisively until we have a fuller understanding of the omicron variant. I commend these regulations to the House.
He has sat down.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021
Motion to Approve
Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill
Clause 1: Determination in respect of certain non-domestic rating lists
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 20, at end insert—
“(7A) Before the first determination to which this section applies is made, the Valuation Office Agency must publish a statement outlining—(a) how many checks, challenges or appeals in relation to a material changes of circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic it has received and what the total monetary value of those checks, challenges or appeals is, and(b) its assessment of the impact of this section on the ability of the current system of business rates to—(i) provide an effective form of funding for local authorities; and(ii) support town centres and local high streets.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Valuation Office Agency to publish information on applications relating to a material changes of circumstances, and whether the changes introduced in this Act will support local authorities, town centres and high streets.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a member of Kirklees Council. I am speaking on Amendment 1 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Fox, and on Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake.
I and my colleagues support the principle of the proposals—as I have said at every occasion—in relation to the non-domestic rates element of the Bill. Businesses have faced challenging circumstances due to Covid, and these challenges remain. Understandably, businesses have reviewed their position, and some have decided to use the VOA check, challenge, appeal process to seek a reduction in their business rates. The VOA publishes quarterly statistics of the numbers of businesses using the process to appeal their rates. The statistics do indeed show a spike in both the check and challenge elements of the process. For example, there were around 80,000 checks requested in the March to June quarter of 2020 —this spike compares with an average of around 10,000. However, 70,000 of these checks were quickly resolved. There were around 22,000 challenges in the next quarter, but fewer than half seem to have been resolved. There is clearly a significant increase in the volume of claims being received by the VOA. However, the value of these claims, including the value of successful claims, is not revealed.
Throughout the course of the Bill, I have been concerned to establish the evidence base for its proposals, including, importantly, the total value of successful and potentially successful claims which would result in a loss of business rates income. A loss in business rates income has a direct and adverse impact on local government finances, which have already been squeezed dry. Responding in Committee to similar concerns that I raised, the Minister was unable to give a categoric assurance that there would be no loss of income for local government. The Minister stated then that
“central government will meet 75% of the costs of irrecoverable losses in business rates income for 2020-21.”—[Official Report, 10/11/21; col. GC 522.]
Can the Minister confirm that local government will not be paying for any losses in business rates due to Covid?
Further, it is widely accepted that the existing system of business rates is ineffective and woefully inadequate in ensuring that retail businesses that use online ordering are paying at the same rate as those on traditional high streets that the Government often profess to want to support but lamentably fail to.
Amendment 2, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, seeks a review of the impact of the changes and of whether business rates are fit for purpose. Any government review with recommendations to try to fix this broken system is welcome, and we support the sentiments in this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interests, particularly as a vice-president of the LGA. I will speak to Amendment 2, in my name, and to Amendment 1, as introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
As we begin Report, I remind the House that we are broadly supportive of the Bill and recognise that action needs to be taken swiftly. The measure in the Bill to rule out Covid-19-related material change of circumstances business rates appeals—that is quite a mouthful—coupled with the announcement of £1.5 billion in funding to provide additional targeted support to those businesses that have not already received rates relief, provides some certainty for local government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, referred to the impact on the finances of local government, and that of course broadens out to the challenges of the whole pandemic period. In Committee, I was reminded that, only nine months ago, I was the leader of the second largest metropolitan authority in the country. The financial aspects around Covid back then were incredibly concerning, and they continue to be so.
I emphasise the real concern expressed across the local government sector about how that figure of £1.5 billion was arrived at. It sounds a significant amount of money—and indeed it is. The point I keep coming back to is whether it matches the need that it is there to cover. Is it sufficient to prevent businesses falling through the cracks? Will it address the Government’s long-term neglect of the UK’s high streets and local businesses?
I draw attention to the wider issue that remains: whether business rates are fair and effective. In October, the CBI, along with 40 trade associations—including the British Retail Consortium, UKHospitality and the SMMT—representing about 261,000 businesses, called for the reform of the current business rates system, stating that the
“existing, outdated and outmoded business rate regime acts as a drag on … a high wage, high productivity and high investment economy.”
Amendment 2 seeks to get to the heart of this issue for businesses up and down the country. It would ensure that a report is produced on whether further legislation is needed on factors which may or may not be taken into account in making a relevant determination in relation to business rates. Her Majesty’s Opposition would like a root-and-branch reform of the business rates system, to make it fair and to help bricks-and- mortar retailers compete with online tech giants. Such reform cannot come soon enough. Data from the ONS in October revealed that up to 332,000 businesses, employing over 800,000 people, are at risk across the country. We need to shift the burden of business taxes to create a level playing field, moving away from one that punishes investment, entrepreneurship and the high street.
I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister’s comments, particularly referring back to the discussions that we had in Committee. A significant number of concerns were expressed from all sides of the Chamber at the way that this legislation has been brought forward; we need to put a marker down around that. Having said that, given the critical situation facing businesses, and therefore local authorities, and therefore communities, we recognise the need to move forward with the legislation, but we need to recognise that there are some very serious questions still to be answered.
My Lords, I want to add my comments on Amendment 2. I remind the House of my interests: I advise SME businesses and am also a landlord.
Increasingly, a number of people that I talk to, specifically in the retail sector, are very concerned that the Government are not listening to their concerns in respect of rates. Over the last 18 months, a number of companies have gone through CVAs. As a result of those CVAs, they have entered into turnover-based rents with landlords, enabling them to carry on trading from particular locations. But the size of the rates has meant that, despite having turnover rents, they are not able to carry on trading from retail premises, specifically because of the rates; more importantly, they are not able to open new locations that would otherwise be economically viable because of turnover rents, specifically because of rates.
I do not expect my noble friend the Minister to answer these concerns in this debate on this amendment, but business, particularly the retail sector, would like it acknowledged that the Government are aware of, focused on and planning steps to address this issue.
I thank noble Lords for raising two important issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, asked whether we will have data to know whether the £1.5 billion is enough and that we are not short-changing local government in any way. The noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, wanted to know about the future of business rates reform, given that we are seeing the economy shift to online and that many bricks-and-mortar businesses are struggling to pay their rates bills. I will try to address those points in turn.
I can give the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, some assurance on the availability of VOA statistics, which tell us about the adequacy of the Government’s support. During 2022, the VOA will provide new data specifically marking out Covid-related MCCs but, even in the existing data sets, we can get an insight into the nature of these cases. I quote more recent figures from October: as of 30 September 2021, 63,780 challenges were outstanding in England, the vast majority of which are on hold pending this Bill. Far more challenges could come forward from ratepayers who have already made checks—a check being the first stage in appealing the rateable value of one’s property. In the period since April 2020, the VOA has received more than 400,000 checks. So, there is a wealth of statistical evidence out there and it will be enhanced next year. This evidence cautions against any suggestion that we should introduce a like-for-like compensation for Covid-related reductions in rateable value, which, on account of this Bill, will rightly not materialise. That was never the intention, and we should not seek to create an equivalence.
On the point made by my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, we recognise that particular industries have been hit very hard by the pandemic. We have statistics on the drop in gross value added by industry, and there is a wide range of reductions by sector. That comes to the question of how we divide the £1.5 billion, which I will return to in the debate on the next group of amendments.
Let me give the Government’s most up-to-date position. Following the conclusion of the business rates review, the Government will shortly consult on measures arising from that review and seek to bring forward legislation in due course. The consultation was published only yesterday and explicitly anticipates future legislation to deliver major reforms. These include three-yearly revaluations, a major ask of ratepayers, support for property improvements and support for green plant and machinery. So, noble Lords should have complete confidence that there will be an opportunity for them to consider, debate and scrutinise these measures and the Government’s overall business rates policy.
I should have declared my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register; I forgot to do that right at the beginning. I must underline that I have not been involved with any material change of circumstance approach, but I recognise that many businesses, including many small businesses, are waiting eagerly to hear how we will resolve this situation.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. We clearly had evidence of the volume of appeals by businesses. I am still concerned about the value of those and whether sufficient money is being made available to recompense businesses, but we will come to that in the next debate. Having said that, I thank the Minister for his reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.