Thursday 20 January 2022
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, Members are encouraged to leave some distance between themselves and others and to wear a face covering when not speaking. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
The time limit for the next debate is one hour, and the advisory speaking time is wrong: your Lordships can have as much as four minutes each.
Social Media: Deaths of Children
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role played by social media in the deaths of children in the United Kingdom, including by suicide, self-harm and murder.
I declare my interests, particularly as chair of 5Rights and as a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill.
My Lords, many of you will have read reports of how, in 2017, 14 year-old Molly Russell took her own life after being bombarded by self-harm and pro-suicide images. In the days after her death, her father Ian tried to access her phone simply to try to understand what had happened to his daughter. The notes from his diary from that time make for grim reading. The woman at the so-called genius bar in the Apple store “could not help”. The promised follow-up call failed to materialise—despite Ian sitting grief-struck, pen in hand, waiting at the appointed hour. Even after he finally found a person enabled to deal with him, they were only allowed to send a template information request form by email, which required a great deal of information from Ian but did not result in him receiving the information he requested. Apple has never helped Ian to access Molly’s phone, and without the assistance—indeed, the persistence—of the coroner and the police, the data it contained would not be available to Molly’s inquest, which is still investigating the contributory causes to Molly’s death four years later.
Judy and Andy Thomas struggled similarly after the suicide of their 15 year-old daughter Frankie, unable to get anything more than an automated response. Their letters to Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri, copied to the European headquarters, went unanswered. It was only after a year of desperate letter writing to anyone who might help that I was able to arrange a call on their behalf, only for them to hear that they were not going to get the information they wanted. During Frankie’s inquest, despite evidence that her suicide was highly influenced by what she had seen online, Wattpad refused to disclose full details of Frankie’s activity on its platform, even while confirming that self-harm and suicide stories on its site should be rated mature and should not have been accessible to a user registered as a child.
Olly Stephens, who was 13 when he was murdered, had repeated problems online. He was groomed by a wannabe county lines gang, extorted by a group who stole his bike and, finally, lured to a park where he was killed, the murder having been organised online. His father Stuart says that in the hours immediately after his murder, Olly’s mother and sister had to trawl through social media sites to get evidence because they were aware that they would never get it from the tech companies.
When a child dies, parents are asked to clear out the school locker: they inherit the artefacts of a child’s life. If the authorities have access to information that may shed light on the circumstances of their death, it is shared as a matter of course—but not if that information is online. The argument made by the tech sector is that it is protecting other users, but that does not account for parents’ need for closure and evidence necessary for police and coroners, and it conveniently obscures the role of the tech companies themselves as they continue to recommend harmful material and facilitate violent abuse to other children.
In the other place two days ago, Ian Paisley MP introduced a 10-minute rule Bill to grant next of kin the right to access a smartphone and other digital devices of a person upon their death or incapacity. He made the important point that much precious material, both sentimental and material to understanding what happened, is withheld from the next of kin simply because people—particularly the young—do not think to leave a password in their will. Indeed, it is unlikely any child would even have a will. He also pointed out that access was eminently possible: in the US some states have brought in legislation, such as the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, to retrieve financial assets. Once again, money trumps child safety.
The Joint Committee made two recommendations on this issue: that the Government should consult on how terms and conditions of online services can be reformed, by law, to give bereaved parents access to data; and that Ofcom, the ICO and the Chief Coroner should review the powers of coroners to ensure that they have unfettered access to digital data, including data recommended to children by tech companies, following the death of a child—and that both of those should happen before the Bill reaches Royal Assent.
I ask the Minister to put on record today that the draft Bill will be amended so that other families do not suffer as the Russell, Thomas and Stephens families have done. We cannot bring their children back, but we can create a lasting legacy for their extraordinary courage in speaking out.
The purpose of today’s debate is not only to secure justice for bereaved families, but to highlight steps that should be taken to prevent tragedy. Sitting on the Secretary of State’s desk is a comprehensive set of recommendations from the Joint Committee that would fundamentally change how the sector treats children. They are: mandatory safety by design to scale back harmful algorithms, design features and business practices; a binding child safety code that sets out risks and mitigations in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child; alignment with the age-appropriate design code to make sure the Bill applies to all services likely to be accessed by children, so that there is nowhere to hide; mandatory cross-platform co-operation, so that risks known by one service are routinely shared with others; statutory codes for moderation and complaints, to ensure that swift action is taken before tragedy strikes; and a regulatory focus on risk rather than size. Again and again we see that small is not safe. I refer back to the content Frankie saw on Wattpad, a service that many of you will never have heard of.
There should also, of course, be the immediate introduction of age assurance, without which we will fail to deliver any of the protections that I have set out. This list is neither aspirational nor nice to have: these are essential and interdependent elements of a proportionate and enforceable regime to make our children safe. All other business sectors apply rules of product safety, and it is tragic that it has taken the death of children to give urgency to our calls for regulation.
TikTok, Meta, Apple and Alphabet are among the most valuable and profitable companies in the world, and the tech sector is now alone responsible for 25% of global GDP. But these same companies are algorithmically promoting and spreading material that nudges children into states of despair; priming kids into gambling habits with reward features that induce dopamine hits, which cause addiction; granting unfettered access to age-restricted spaces; fuelling an epidemic of eating disorders, self-harm and radicalisation; and systematically hiding the evidence. Even in a world focused on the balance sheet of loss and profit, children’s lives should not be the collateral damage of the tech sector. It is time to bring that to a halt—and halt it we can.
The Joint Committee recommendations have unprecedented support across the political spectrum, as they do across civil society. All that is required is for the Government to act. I ask the Minister, when he answers, to acknowledge that failure to have these things in place is costing children their lives—and I ask for a commitment to all the Joint Committee’s recommendations that relate to children. This is a time not for cherry-picking headline-grabbing changes, but rather for setting out an enforceable product safety regime that will keep our children safe.
Given the tech companies’ determined efforts to frustrate basic child safety requirements, I ask the Minister again to explain to the Committee how the Government can justify delaying the introduction of age assurance. They have failed to implement Part 3 of the DEA and rejected my Private Member’s Bill for privacy-preserving age assurance, instead putting their faith in a voluntary scheme which their own officials estimate would take a minimum of two years and do nothing to impact on those who do not volunteer. This implicitly goes against statements made last week in the other place by the Minister for Digital that self-regulation has failed. If the Government acted today, Ofcom could set out expectations of age assurance by the end of the year, unleashing an arms race of innovation to meet those expectations. Failing to act means that more families will suffer heartbreak and more children harm.
In spite of my many years on this beat, Olly’s father Stuart shocked me to the core when he said that, since Olly’s death, he has received over 300 taunting and abusive messages via social media—images of people waving knives, celebrating Olly’s death and threatening his wife and daughter with rape, along with pictures identifying where they live. This sector does not have the authority or willingness to police itself. My deepest thanks go to those noble Lords who have chosen to speak; given our sad subject matter, I anticipate their words with trepidation.
My Lords, I will speak to one particular issue that the noble Baroness has raised, quite rightly in my opinion, in this debate and in the report of the Draft Online Safety Bill Joint Committee, of which I know she was a very active member. This is the question of access to data from the accounts of people who have sadly taken their own lives where there is a view that it may reveal something useful and important for their grieving relatives.
I do this as somebody who used to work for a social media platform and took part in the decision-making process on responding to requests for data in these tragic circumstances. In the internal debate, we had to weigh two potential harms against each other. It was obvious that refusing to disclose data would add to the pain and distress of grieving families, which the noble Baroness eloquently described for us, and, importantly, reduce opportunities for lessons to be learned from these awful situations. But there was also a fear that disclosing data might lead to other harms if it included sensitive information related to the connections of the person who had passed away.
The reluctance to disclose is sometimes described as being for “privacy reasons”. We should be more explicit; the concern in these cases is that, in trying to address one tragedy, we take an action that leads to further tragedy. The nightmare scenario for those discussing these issues within the companies is that another young person becomes so distressed by something that has been disclosed that they go on to harm themselves in turn. This genuine fear means that platforms will likely err on the side of non-disclosure as long as providing data is discretionary for them. If we want to solve this problem, we need to move to a system where disclosure is mandated in some form of legal order. I will briefly describe how this might work.
Families should not have to go directly to companies at a time of serious distress; they should instead be able to turn to a specialist unit within our court system which can assess their request and send disclosure orders to relevant companies. The noble Baroness eloquently described the problem we have with the status quo, where people approach companies directly. The platforms would then be required to provide data to the courts, which would need to be able to carry out two functions before making it available to families and coroners as appropriate.
First, they should be able to go through the data to identify whether there are particular sensitivities that might require them to withhold or effectively anonymise any of the content. To the extent possible, they should notify affected people and seek consent to the disclosure. In many cases, the platforms will have contact details for those individuals. Secondly, they must be able to consider any conflicts of law that might arise from disclosure, especially considering content related to individuals who may be protected by laws outside of the jurisdiction of the UK courts. This would need to include making decisions on content where consent has been withheld. If we could set up a structure such as this, we could have a workable regime that would work for all interested parties.
A few minutes is obviously not long enough to cover all these issues in detail, so I will publish a more comprehensive post on my blog, which is aptly named regulate.tech. I thank the noble Baroness for creating an opportunity to consider this important issue, one I am sure we will return to during the passage of the online safety Bill.
My Lords, I was looking for something original to say in this debate, so I went back to my previous existence as a Member of the European Parliament. One of the things that is still of great regret is that, in leaving Europe, we have left all the structures around it that can be helpful when we face problems like this. In particular, I think of the work of the EU directorate for health. In Europe, most countries face problems similar to ours and are trying to solve them. Overall in Spain, suicide among young people—defined by Spain as those aged 15 to 29, which probably goes a bit further than we would—is the second highest cause of death. Spain has put €100 million into a strategy to combat it, but it is doubtful whether it will do anything because, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Allan, the key is getting access to the information. Italy is setting up an observatory, although it seems to be taking a long time. Even in Finland, which one thinks of as a very enlightened, Nordic country that deals with such issues, something like 25% of all suicides are in the age group from 15 to 24, so it is a problem that that country is also grappling with.
This is one of the great tragedies of leaving the EU. Although the EU has no formal responsibility, everyone will tell you that there are unofficial meetings of Health Ministers, where anything can be put on the agenda by any member state, so it is possible to exchange information. Have the Government gone to any effort to get information from other countries on how they are dealing with the issue, what their plans are, and whether they will publish that?
I have a couple of points from the briefing that I got. Among other things, it says that in a debate in the House of Commons, Chris Philp
“argued that they could ‘edit their algorithms tomorrow […] they should not be waiting for us to legislate; they should do the right thing today’.
Is there any sign of that right thing being done today? If so, it is certainly not recognised here. The briefing also said that
“Instagram said that it would ban graphic images of self-harm as part of a series of changes.”
Has it? Also, the online harms consultation says that the framework should include provisions to address suicide and self-harm. Has that been done?
Finally, can the Minister confirm in relation to suicide that all platforms and people of all ages will be in the scope of the final Bill when it is presented to the House? That is an important point. We need to go beyond just this group to the wider problem.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and I thoroughly agree with him that we have to go beyond this specific issue to the wider problem. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Kidron on keeping up the pressure on this incredibly important debate. I want to briefly mention two different aspects: one is about young girls and one is about young boys.
I have talked before about the sexual pressures on girls that happens online. I remember so well the anxieties of being a teenager, of trying to set up Spare Rib magazine and feeling immensely conflicted about trying to own your own sexuality and your own rights in the world, to have dignity and control, and to be able to say yes and indeed to be able to say no. Looking back, if I had been able to see the kind of pornography that is now available at a simple click, that would have been extremely hard. You are presented with streams and streams of apparently willing young women who agree to have sex with not so much as a dinner and a nice night out; what they enjoy is a semi-situation of rape, over and over. The women are almost always extremely thin, shaved, hairless, kind of perfect—almost doll-like. They are completely and utterly unreal and bear very little resemblance to what an average teenage girl is. While my noble friend Lady Kidron has spoken so movingly about girls who take their own lives, there are a lot of stages on the road to that which are about misery, dejection, unhappiness and shaming—a consciousness all the time that “I am not good enough.” Indeed, the entire advertising world—you see this hugely online—is predicated on the fact that you could be better. There is no such thing left as normal hair or a normal size. In every case, if you spend money, you will be better.
In my remaining minute and a half I will talk about what happens to young men. In particular, I want to talk about my friend Laura Bates, who wrote Everyday Sexism. She used a fake account to set herself up online as a boy. She said, “I am 15 and I’m having a tough time getting dates” and said that she had acne. To start with, there was advice about acne drugs, then a bit of advice about how to dress. Then the advice started to get a bit creepier: “Are the girls in your school being too uppity? Are they beating you in class?” Quite soon, in the course of a few weeks, Laura found herself on an incel website. The progression was just click by click. It preyed on every sort of suspicion that a young man might have that somehow women are doing better and that somehow their lot in life is not their responsibility but the result of what feminists have done.
It is not a question of arguing this or that; the point is that when you see how the end product of misogyny and incels is now “Kill the women”, that is incredibly dangerous. Right across the internet, young people are being drawn into ever more extreme points of view that bear very little relationship to their reality. It happens across sexuality and with young men. At all points the internet companies could stop this but in many instances they are just making money out of preying on people’s weakness and lack of self-respect. These are all really difficult things to talk about, and if, as has been happening in the pandemic, your online world becomes even more real than your real world, you have very little way to express those feelings and get some help.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this most important debate on the contributory role of social media to the deaths of children, and I pay tribute to her persistent campaigning on this subject. It is a timely debate given that only a month ago we received the legislative scrutiny committee’s report on the draft online harms Bill.
I want to focus on the whole question of the extent to which we understand the numbers and the causes of child deaths, not only where social media plays a significant role but in a whole range of other issues. This is a much broader problem than just this topic, although it is a superb example of why we need better research and better recording of data.
In December, your Lordships’ House debated the Second Reading of my Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill. It would require coroners to record any relevant contributory factors once a death by suicide has been officially determined. It would not be a finding in law, the results would be anonymised and published anonymously, and it would be akin to the well-established processes that hospitals have for recording comorbidities of death.
All sorts of groups are campaigning and looking for much better data. Your Lordships will know that the reason why I have brought forward the Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill is because we have been trying to get accurate stats on gambling-related suicides—many of them are of younger adults—which, according to the recent evidence from Public Health England, accounts for roughly 8% of all suicides. That is a really significant number of suicides. Regardless of the criticisms of my Bill on feasibility, there is an important principle here about how we record comorbidities and use that evidence. Again and again when campaigning against massively powerful industries, one argument is that we do not really have the statistics. I have to say that Her Majesty’s Government officially come back with the same argument again and again, so for the last five years, my question has been, “Please will you help us to start getting accurate stats?” That is why I turned up with the idea of a coroners Bill. It is absolutely crucial to get the accurate stats because, if we do not, we will never be able to devise strategies to reduce the number of suicides. You do not reduce suicides in general by saying nice and comforting things about it to people; you find out what the causes are and get a strategy to address each one. Particularly when we have something that causes 8% of deaths, we really need to collect that sort of evidence.
Of course the Government are legislating to prevent child exposure to some of the content that Molly Russell and others saw, but it is absolutely crucial that we get ways of trying to understand properly what is going on. The Government say that my Bill will not be an appropriate mechanism to collect the evidence. What it has led us to is discussions with a number of coroners about postvention studies, which may be how we can get hold of that data. However it is, we need it. Will the Minister tell the Committee specifically what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to try to get this data, rather than keeping saying, “Oh dear, we haven’t got it”? It is vital that it is collected, if we are to have an evidence-based approach to preventing suicides in relation to all associated risk factors.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this short debate, and pay tribute to the work she has done in this area. Her perseverance and tenacity are admirable.
There are many benefits of social media; it is a source of learning, advice and support for children and young people. But as we know there are many negatives too, as illustrated by the case of Molly Russell and other cases highlighted by the noble Baroness. There is also concern that harm caused by these platforms is exacerbated by the systems and processes of companies which amplify the spread of this dangerous content. Access is made easier by recommendations and algorithmically generated content suggestions. There is another concern that these companies then thwart the efforts of grieving parents to retrieve the data and information relating to their child’s online activity.
While quantifying the link between social media and children’s health is complicated, and it is argued that there is no definitive academic research, I agree with the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee that the absence of good academic evidence is not evidence that social media and screens have no effect on young people and children—they do. The Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill recently reported the evidence it has received linking self-harm and suicide attempts with accessing content online. There is therefore a strong case for taking action now, before the situation gets worse, and acting on the recommendations of the Joint Committee. It would be very short-sighted to lose the opportunity of including these in the online safety Bill.
I urge the Government to accept the Joint Committee’s recommendations to protect children as a comprehensive package. A statutory code on child online safety must be introduced, and the Bill should be extended to ensure that children are offered safety measures on all services likely to be accessed by children. Access to data by grieving parents in case of death should be included in the Bill.
Will the Government adopt in full the recommendations of the Joint Committee report and, if not, can the Minister please explain the reasons why not? Will the Government accept the proposal by the Law Commission to criminalise the encouragement of self-harm, threats of serious harm and stirring up hatred on grounds of sex, gender and disability? Can the Minister also confirm, in relation to suicide and self-harm content, that all platforms and people of all ages will be in scope of the final Bill presented to Parliament, and that age assurance will be part of the Bill? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on securing this important debate. We are kindred spirits. Like the noble Baroness, I have long campaigned to try to make the internet safer for children, and I declare an interest as a vice-president of Barnardo’s, which is also deeply concerned about these issues.
Protecting children online must be an urgent priority for this House. The online safety Bill provides hope that the internet will be made safer for everyone, particularly for children and young people, but it will not come into force until 2024, so how are we going to protect children today, especially from violent, illegal sexual pornography? We need interim measures now, because even the DCMS research has shown that too many of our children have already been exposed to harmful content online, including violent pornography. Children themselves believe that they should be protected from harmful content online and on social media, saying that social media content often made them feel negatively about themselves, humiliated, threatened, embarrassed and, in some cases, was cause for self-harm, or even suicide. Research by Facebook found that 13% of teenagers in the UK said feelings of wanting to kill themselves had started on Instagram.
The online safety Bill is a once-in-a-generation chance to help to address these problems and finally make the internet safer for children, but we also need interim measures in place now to protect children online. If we wait for the online safety Bill, a whole generation of children and young people will have been left unprotected. The legislation has already been passed in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017, which provides some level of protection for children. Why not implement it? We have already wasted almost three years so far by not doing so. Think of the harm that has been done in that time.
Along with Barnardo’s and many other children’s charities, I have been calling for the Bill to include age verification for all dangerous pornography sites, but it needs to go further to make sure that it defines harmful but legal content that depicts self-harm and glorifies suicide, so that this, too, can be put on the virtual top shelf, behind a wall and out of sight of vulnerable children. It is also essential that children can access the support they need when they have been abused, bullied and exploited online, which can lead to suicidal thoughts. They desperately need mental health support teams in their schools, too. Social media platforms need to invest in awareness-raising, as well as signposting children who may be at risk of bullying or abuse to the support they need to recover and stay safe.
What research have the Government undertaken to understand the true impact of social media on vulnerable children’s mental health? Will they agree to meet prior to the publication of the online safety Bill with Barnardo’s and other children’s charities to discuss how to ensure that it protects children from preventable harm? Why will they not implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act as an interim measure to show that they truly care about children’s well-being?
My Lords, most deaths are sad and some are tragic, but a death from suicide is particularly devastating. It leaves the survivors with a question that remains on their minds for the rest of their lives: what went wrong, what more could I have done? The death of a young person from suicide is especially gut wrenching. How can anyone, let alone someone so young, find existence so unbearable that they choose to reject the precious gift of life? Self-harm, which sometimes leads to death, belongs in the same category.
I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has secured this debate before the online safety Bill comes before the House and has pursued this issue so tenaciously for so long. I support what she said about the need for parents of a deceased child to have access to their child’s digital data, which was reiterated in the 10-minute rule Bill by Ian Paisley. If it is possible to add further pain to parents whose child has committed suicide, it is by them not really knowing, or not knowing fully enough, why their child took their own life. This happens if, for example, they leave no farewell note. The parents whose child has committed suicide, partly as a result of what they have seen and heard on social media, may have some idea of what has happened, but they will want to understand as fully as possible and to have access to their child’s data.
I will not repeat what the noble Baroness and other people have said about the terrible difficulty at the moment of parents getting access to the data and the need to do something about it. As I say, this adds to the distress of the parents, who want to know more and try to understand. As has been mentioned, the failure to allow access means that we cannot learn from it to ensure that the same or similar material is not recommended to other children.
Further than this, I simply add my support to the other measures proposed by the noble Baroness. We know how serious the problem is. We have been told that there is no exact academic data, but the surveys we have indicate that there is a link in about 25% of suicides and cases of self-inflicted harm among young people. It is very difficult to doubt that link if one has seen some of that material.
As the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Benjamin, reiterated from their experience of this, it needs to be set within a wider problem. As they will know better than I do, there is a particular fragility among young people at the moment, partly because of Covid and partly because of the intense pressure of social media.
A voluntary code is not enough, of course, so with other noble Lords I look to the Minister to support the recommendations of the Joint Committee. We need clear, firm, enforceable legislation, which is essential to prevent the circulation of harmful content and to ensure that young people simply cannot have access to it.
My Lords, this is one of those debates in which one has a developing feeling of sympathy with the Minister who is going to reply. Unfortunately, that feeling does not always survive the Minister’s speech. We will see what happens today.
It is quite clear that the internet and the online world are something that we have not really wanted to address that fully in the past. The whole system has been a little stand-offish, finding that it is a little frightening and moves very quickly. Most of us are probably happier if somebody younger than us, often our children, explains how the damned thing works.
Having said that, it is quite clear now that, in the greatest traditions of legislation, there are problems that we must deal with. One of those problems is that people feel that they are in a space where they cannot be touched, where they can do what they like and indulge themselves, and where money-making activities and things such as this are not things that the rest of society can get at, and it is none of their business to get in there.
This was brought home to me by a family friend, and this relates directly to the last point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in her opening remarks. I live in the village of Lambourn, in the “valley of the racehorse”, and one of my family friends down there is a trainer whose daughter is an up-and-coming jockey. He discovered that after a couple of bad rides his daughter was being threatened with being raped and killed. He was quite appalled when he discovered that this is regarded as fairly normal. The real problem started when he went to the police, who said, “Oh well, we’re not really going to do anything about it”.
We must have a structure where we can intervene on this, as we would on other occasions. That is one of the things that must come out of this. There are technical points—on algorithms, how you follow things through, and how the people running these sites generate interest, money or indulgence—but the fact of the matter is that we must have a very clear guide as to how we will get in and make sure that there is a price if people break any rules, laws or structures. This could be one of the restrictions. It would not stop everything, but it would give us a structure to go down.
We need knowledge from sites that suicide victims have used. We need to be able to get in and use this control, which we regard as normal everywhere else—we have laws, and if you break them, we enforce them. The police, of course, will need help with new structures. If, when the Minister replies, he could give us an idea of what this enforcement structure will be like and the Government’s thinking about it, he would have taken the first step. Not only do we need to have these structures, but people have to know about them and the fact that society has decided that we are not going to put up with this anymore. That is one of the key points here.
I will not try to follow my noble friend’s experience and technical detail on this, because I cannot. But the principle behind this must be that the Government take this seriously, act and state publicly that this happens. If they do not, we will carry on having this problem again and again, and people will not react and do something about it because it is easier just to hope that it goes away.
My Lords, we do indeed owe the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, a big debt of thanks today for bringing forward this important debate, and particularly for the way in which she addressed the issues, giving us the stories and case histories of those tragedies. Too often, this is a very dry subject: we look at the numbers, for example in the Lords briefing on this, and do not think of the human stories and the impact beyond them. That is really important for us to focus on as legislators.
In part, the online harms agenda has come about because of social media-influenced behaviours, with suicide being principal among those. But despite much fanfare about the DCMS policy work, little has yet been delivered by the Government to make the internet a safer place for children and young people.
The briefing for this debate, which I referred to, sets out very worrying trends in relation to suicide and self-harm by young people. Although correlation does not always imply causation, the evidence gathered by a variety of charities and campaign groups strongly points to a negative role played by social media. Our personal experiences reinforce and tell us that, too. My kids grew up as the internet was expanding and growing, and they often relayed to me horror stories of experiences that they and their friends had had and the impact that it had upon them.
The implementation of the age-appropriate design code was a welcome step forward, but we have a long way to go on this, and I hope we can hear more from the Minister on that. As we know, significant gaps in the regulatory landscape remain, and it is not clear whether the Government will adopt all the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, so perhaps the Minister could enlighten us a bit more on that. I know he cannot give us a full picture and pre-empt a future Queen’s Speech, but some hints would be very helpful.
Even if the Government choose to close loopholes and go further on statutory requirements, your Lordships’ House is unlikely to consider the Bill until late 2022, or possibly even 2023. As the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, the entry into force of key measures is unlikely before 2024. That delay is unacceptable, particularly at a time when young people are under great pressures—the impact of Covid, and the sense of delay to their lives and their personal development that the past two years have brought. We urgently need to bring forward more measures. I was encouraged to see that, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Government have at least adopted a position on online racist harm to footballers. That was a sign of good intent, but they need to build on it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has been tireless on this issue, and has raised it many times. We should offer as much support as we can to that campaign. Perhaps the Minister will outline some of the Government’s commitments today. When can we expect some concrete actions—legislative or non-legislative—in the current parliamentary Session? That would be a good way forward.
Debates such as this are important, but what we really need is change. We as a party stand ready to engage with colleagues from all sides, and with the platforms themselves, to make the digital world a safer place for children and young people to be, but we need more than warm words from Ministers.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for tabling this important debate, and for beginning by setting out the personal and often harrowing examples that should be uppermost in our minds as we debate these important issues. I am grateful, too, for her drawing to my attention the 10-minute rule Bill introduced in another place on Tuesday by Ian Paisley MP. I have read the transcript of his remarks, in addition to listening to the contributions of noble Lords today.
Her Majesty’s Government share the concerns raised by noble Lords today about the risks to children of harmful content and activity online, including in social media. Although many children have a positive experience online—it is important to remember that—it is clear that the presence of harmful material, and in particular content promoting suicide or self-harm, can have a serious impact on children’s mental health and well-being. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, was right to point to the fragility and vulnerability of young people, including adolescents and people well into their teens.
Sadly, we know from research, from coroners’ reports and from colleagues in the police that harmful online content, including that seen in social media, is playing an increasing role in individual suicides. In addition, figures from 2020 show that 40% of 12 to 15 year-olds who are concerned about and have experienced content promoting self-harm cite social media as the source. There is also evidence that gangs are using social media to promote gang culture, to taunt each other, and to incite violence.
The Government are determined to hold social media and other platforms to account for this harmful content, and to make the UK the safest place to be a child online. A key part of that is the online safety Bill, which, as noble Lords know, we published in draft last May. For the first time, under that Bill platforms will have a clear legal responsibility for keeping their users safe online. Platforms will have to understand the risk of harm to their users, and put systems and processes in place that improve their users’ safety.
All companies within the scope of the Bill will have to remove and limit the spread of illegal content, such as material that encourages or assists suicide, and take steps to prevent similar material from appearing. The largest tech companies will also be held to account for tackling activity and content harmful to adults who use their service. Under the new laws, those companies will have to set out clearly what content is acceptable on their platforms, and enforce their terms and conditions consistently. That will enable us to address many of the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Balfe, and to hold companies to account.
The strongest protections in the legislation will be for children. Services likely to be accessed by children will need to conduct a child safety risk assessment and provide safety measures for their child users against harmful and age-inappropriate content. Platforms likely to be accessed by children must consider the risks that children on their services face from priority harmful content—that will be set out in secondary legislation—and any other content they may identify that could cause harm to children. They will also need to consider the risk of harm from the design and operation of their systems.
We expect priority harms for children to include age-inappropriate material, such as pornography and extreme violence, and harmful material such as that which promotes eating disorders and self-harm, as well as cyberbullying. Ahead of designating the “priority harms”, which will be in scope of the legislation, the Government have commissioned research to build the evidence base on harms to children online. This research will review the prevalence and impact of a wide range of harmful content to ensure that the legislation adequately protects children from content that is harmful to them. Ofcom will have a duty to advise the Government on priority categories of harm to children and will also want to draw on evidence and views from relevant parties. That includes Barnardo’s, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. I am pleased to say that my honourable friend the Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy has already met Barnardo’s in that regard.
The regulator, Ofcom, will set out the steps that companies can take to comply with their duties through statutory codes of practice. Platforms will then be required to put in place systems and processes to mitigate the risks that they have identified. Ofcom will hold companies to account both on the standard of their risk assessments and on the safety measures that they adopt and can take enforcement measures if either of these fall short of what is expected. The approach that we are taking means that children will be much less likely to encounter harmful content in the first place and platforms will no longer, for example, be able to target harmful material at children through the use of algorithms, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, mentioned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked why the Government cannot in the meantime bring in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. The Government have taken the decision to deliver the objective of protecting children from online pornography through the online safety Bill, which we are confident will provide much greater protection to children than Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act would, as it also covers social media companies, where a considerable quantity of pornographic material is available to children at the moment. It would also not be as quick a solution as I think the noble Baroness imagines to commence Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act as an interim measure. The Government would have to designate a new regulator and that regulator would need to produce and consult on statutory guidance. The Government would then need to lay regulations before Parliament ahead of any new regime coming into force. That is why we are keen, as noble Lords today have said they are as well, to do this through the online safety Bill and to do it swiftly.
We expect companies in the scope of the duties of the online safety Bill to use age-assurance technologies to prevent children from accessing content that poses the highest risk of harm. Standards have an important role to play in delivering that and Ofcom will be able to include standards for age assurance as part of its regulatory codes. Companies will either need to follow the steps in the codes, including using these standards, or demonstrate that they achieved an equivalent outcome.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, asked whether the Bill would make reference to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I cannot pre-empt the Government’s response in full to the Joint Committee on which she served, but I note in the meantime that the Bill reflects the three principles of the general comments: for the best interests of the child to be a primary consideration; on children’s right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. Of course, on that and all the recommendations, the Government will respond in full to the Joint Committee, for whose work we are very grateful.
As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, says, regulation of this nature will require effective enforcement. We have confirmed our decision to appoint Ofcom as the regulator and our intention to give it a range of enforcement powers, which will include substantial fines and, in the most serious cases, blocking. There will also be a criminal offence for senior managers who fail to ensure that their company complies with Ofcom’s information requests, to push strong compliance in this area. Ofcom will also be required to set out in enforcement guidance how it will take into account any impact on children due to a company’s failure to fulfil its duty of care.
The Bill will apply to companies that host user-generated content or enable user-to-user interaction, as well as to search services. We have taken this approach to ensure that the Bill captures the services that pose the greatest risk of harm to users and where there is current limited regulatory oversight, without placing disproportionate regulatory burdens elsewhere.
I know that the noble Baroness and the Joint Committee have recommended aligning the scope of these measures with that of the age-appropriate design code. We are grateful for their consideration of this important issue as well. It is vital that any approach is proportionate and remains workable for businesses and Ofcom to ensure that the framework is as effective as possible. We are carefully considering the Joint Committee’s recommendations and are committed to introducing the Bill as soon as possible in this parliamentary Session. In the meantime, we are working closely with Ofcom to ensure that the implementation of the framework is as swift as possible, following passage of the legislation.
I will say a bit more about the interim measures that we are taking, as noble Lords rightly asked about that. We have a comprehensive programme of work to protect children online until the legislation is in force. Ahead of the Bill, the video-sharing platform and video-on-demand regimes are already in force, with Ofcom as the regulator. They include requirements to protect children from harmful online content such as pornography. In addition, the Government have published an interim code of practice for providers to tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, mentioned our work in asking the Law Commission to review existing legislation on abusive and harmful communications. The Law Commission has published its final report, putting forward recommendations for reform. These include a recommended new offence to tackle communications that encourage or incite self-harm. The Government are considering the recommendations and will set out our position in due course.
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, said, every death is sad—many are tragic, but they are incredibly so when they involve a young person. The Government recognise the difficulties that some bereaved parents have experienced when accessing their loved ones’ data. Disclosure of data relating to a deceased person is not prevented by the UK’s data protection legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, noted, some companies operate policies of non-disclosure to third parties, including parents, unless a user has taken active steps to nominate a person who may access his or her account after he or she dies or if there is a legal obligation to disclose the data.
We are discussing this issue with companies directly. Officials met Instagram on 22 December, for instance. We are also in discussion with the Information Commissioner’s Office about digital assets. It is important to recognise, as the Joint Committee did, that an automatic right of access is unlikely to be appropriate in every case. Some people might be concerned about the disclosure of private information or other digital assets to third parties after their death.
The Government are grateful to the Joint Committee for its recommendations in this area. While I cannot make any commitment or pre-empt the Government’s response in full, I am happy to say that we will continue to give careful consideration to this before we respond and outline our proposed next steps.
It is worth noting that coroners already have statutory powers to require evidence to be given or documents to be produced for the purpose of their inquests—this would include relevant digital data following the death of a child—with sanctions where such evidence is not given or documents produced. They are well aware of these powers.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned his Private Member’s Bill. As he knows, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is clear that it is beyond a coroner’s powers to determine why somebody died. Coroners’ investigations are about determining who died, how, when and where, but not why. However, he is right that more can be done to understand some of those circumstances. We recognise that quality information on the circumstances leading to self-harm and suicide can support better interventions to prevent them in the first place. The Department for Health and Social Care is considering including questions on gambling as part of the adult psychiatric morbidity survey this year to help establish the prevalence of suicidal tendencies linked to gambling and to improve its evidence base. As the right reverend Prelate knows, we are taking a close look at the Gambling Commission’s powers as part of our review of the Gambling Act.
The Government are deeply concerned about the impact of harmful content and activity online on children. We are committed to introducing legislation as soon as possible to ensure that platforms are held to account for this content so that future generations can have a healthy relationship with the internet. I look forward to debating that Bill when it comes to this House. In the meantime, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to today’s debate.
Government of Qatar
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of current relations with the government of Qatar.
My Lords, recent years have seen the torch of international attention shone into the recesses of the State of Qatar as it prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It is a country that, since it won the right to host the world’s leading global sports event, has been more than aware that the spotlight would shine on all aspects of its country, policies, laws and people. The Government of Qatar have turned this opportunity into a national challenge for change—a dynamic for managing the modernisation of a small country into a fast-changing leader in the region with global influence and strategic importance for the UK.
Before I seek to set out the case for this view, I declare a key interest. The background to this debate came from Sir David Amess, a close friend for nearly 40 years, who encouraged me to join the APPG on Qatar as vice-chair of the group with responsibility for sport.
Qatar lies at the strategic epicentre of many of the key issues that dominate international politics today. As we sought to manage the exit strategy from Afghanistan, it was the Qataris who brought stability and support to the lives of thousands of refugees, many of whom were seeking support in the UK. It is a country that has been vital to the UK by ensuring the security and prosperity of the Afghan people, providing safe passage to unaccompanied children heading to new homes here, fighting for the rights of women and minorities through its open dialogue with the Taliban, and evacuating 74,000 people from Afghanistan—and over 210 British citizens—while housing the British embassy to Afghanistan in Doha.
Qatar is a friend and an ally. It supplies 20% of our gas requirements and has directed its resources to co-invest with Rolls-Royce on a net-zero journey to deliver a multibillion-dollar pathway to achieve that goal by 2030, working on small modular reactors to create net-zero carbon energy at scale; to back an educational foundation for innovation in technology outside the nuclear industry, where the promotion of energy transition projects maps the steps towards pioneering climate change technology; to look to support 10,000 climate tech jobs; and to aim to create five UK unicorns by 2030 with the support of the Qatar Foundation.
The UK is offering substantial support in its hosting of the FIFA World Cup. Foster, Zaha Hadid Architects, Turner & Townsend, the FA, football clubs such as Leeds United and Sheffield United, universities such as Leeds Beckett and the University of Liverpool and many others are working on projects to harness the power of football to drive positive change.
As we know, Qatar is a country that has invested heavily in the UK and seeks a further £5 billion of investment in our economy by the end of this year. It hosts the RAF Middle East headquarters at the al-Udeid airbase, where coalition forces are based in the fight against Daesh. It works with the UK on cybersecurity. It has a joint Typhoon squadron and seeks to ensure a combined strong stand against terrorism and the promotion of peace, stability and security in the Middle East. Now, when it will become the first country in the Middle East and the Arab world to host the FIFA World Cup, we should look forward to further collaboration to ensure that football leaves a positive human, economic, social and environmental legacy for the country, the region and the world.
There are rightly matters of significant concern to Members of this House which the torch of international attention has magnified, not least the treatment of migrant workers. In the face of widespread international concern, the Qatar Government were right, from the outset, to extend an invitation to the International Labour Organization to set up a well-staffed office in Doha. Its recent in-depth analysis showed that 50 workers had lost their lives in 2020, but these included work-related deaths across all aspects of society and the economy, including, for example, road traffic accidents.
The ILO must, of course, be free to criticise and publicise its concerns, and it is. It is expected to remain and to protect the interests of the migrant labour workers after the World Cup, and I very much hope that it does. Every human rights issue must be pursued. Everyone deserves the right to work safely and securely, whether that be in Qatar, the UK or elsewhere. Qatar’s national policy on occupational safety and health has had to be transformative, and it has been. The end of the kafala system was a critically important first step and established a direction of travel for many other countries in the Middle East that retain it, either entirely or in some form. The Qataris know that they still have further to go. They will need to ensure media freedom. A minimum wage has been introduced, and the banning of exit visas is an essential and critical step. It is also essential that no action is taken against members of the LGBTQ+ community who arrive to be present for the World Cup finals. Subsequent reform must provide a welcome sign to the world and, indeed, to the world of sport.
We are to host the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham later this year. We must continue to campaign to reverse the position that the majority of Commonwealth countries participating in the Games still criminalise sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex and other forms of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in more than 30 of the 54 sovereign states of the Commonwealth, and legal in only 19. I hope my noble friend will confirm that we will continue to engage with all countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence to seek an end to those laws, for we need to continue working with international partners and civil society to promote and defend universal freedoms throughout the world.
At Oral Questions in the Lords on 30 November, calls, led excellently by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, were made by some to boycott the FIFA World Cup or to adopt the now well-trodden policy of calling for a boycott by government officials and members of the royal family of attending the event. My view is well known, not least to the noble Lord, Lord Collins: that the boycott of any sporting event by Ministers and officials is the worst example of posture politics in the world of sport. It serves little purpose. It always generates a strong response from the host city or country and is forgotten the moment the sporting event starts.
I have long taken an active stance on human rights issues, currently as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sport, Modern Slavery and Human Rights. All Governments need to act decisively on human rights abuses wherever they exist by making the strongest representations to the country concerned. I oppose calls for a boycott or the withdrawal of government support. It remains my view that for sports boycotts to be effective, they must have the broad support of the international community and be the product not of posturing or reprisal but of an astute and practical moral calculus including a wide-ranging package of trade, travel and diplomatic measures to lead to action that will best advance the cause of human rights and the well-being of those whose rights are violated, as in apartheid-ridden South Africa.
At the same time, it would be wrong to underestimate the growing international influence of sport and the power of the FIFA World Cup or Olympic movement. The goal of sport is to spread fundamental human values as widely as possible, not to confine them exclusively to the western world, as we tended to do in the 20th century. Sport is about humanity and can contribute to the changes we should all seek by unifying our whole approach in seeking the change that is necessary wherever an event is held.
I would go further and argue that one reason why the FIFA World Cup should be held in Qatar is because sport is in itself a force for good. It is a mass phenomenon that gives enjoyment to hundreds of millions of people every week. We have gone far beyond the principle of the value of sport simply as entertainment. Sport, as a universal language, can help to promote peace, tolerance, reconciliation, change and understanding. It cuts across lines of class, nationhood, ethnicity and culture that might otherwise divide, and it is an exceptional vehicle for bringing people together, bridging differences and promoting communication and understanding. As a result, I firmly believe that by working together we can help Qatar to continue on the remarkable journey that it has embarked upon. I look forward to this debate and the response from the Minister on behalf of the Government.
It is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend and to hear his views on the power of sport, which obviously he has vast experience of, and the impact that the World Cup will have on Qatar, where he also has a great deal of experience. I simply wanted to add, almost tangentially, some thoughts about culture and Qatar.
When I was the Minister for Culture many years ago, I supervised from our end the UK-Qatar year of culture, which I think was 2013, and I spent a great deal of time in that country. In fact, I randomly met Robert De Niro when I went to Qatar, which resulted in a diptel with the title “Ed Vaizey goes to Qatar. Robert De Niro’s waiting.” There is a cultural reference in there which I will leave noble Lords to work out.
I will get serious for a moment. There are two elements to the cultural links between the UK and Qatar that are worth emphasising. First, the Qatari Government have been very supportive of British culture. The emir and his wife supported a project in the British Library to digitise a great deal of records relating to Qatar and the Middle East, and they sponsored an exhibition at the V&A that highlighted Qatari cultural treasures. However, it is also interesting to note—this is where it is relevant to my noble friend’s remarks—that the Qatari Government and the emir have pushed forward the use of culture as a means of progress within the country of Qatar. They have built a state-of-the-art museum to show off cultural artefacts from Qatar and the region but, even more importantly, they have held ground-breaking exhibitions of western contemporary art that, frankly, can be quite challenging to a conservative mindset in the Middle East. That is a brave thing for them to do. I met Robert De Niro in Qatar because they were hosting a film festival, and I was out there when they hosted a fashion festival.
This is a textbook example of how countries and Governments in the Middle East can use culture frankly to push forward change and reform within society and their country. For me, as regards my engagement with Qatar, I was left with an abiding impression that this was a country committed to change and progress as well as being a valuable ally of ours.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for bringing forward this timely short debate. I declare my interest as a member of the Qatar APPG as well as my policing interests, which are in the register.
I first visited Doha in 2008 when I was on a parliamentary delegation discussing security matters. It was obvious at that time that the state was developing at an enormous rate, with buildings going up daily and facilities for the residents, and visitors, of the highest standard anywhere in the world. Yet it was still a very small city. I visited again a couple of years later and was astounded at the physical rate of progress of its cultural and built environment. It had doubled and more within those two years. What had not changed was its warm and friendly hospitality, which was demonstrated throughout our visit.
Along with colleagues, we were delighted to see the beginning of the building of its amazing Museum of Islamic Art, which the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, referred to. This was in a complex of many other cultural buildings, including a newly built opera house, a mirror-image of our own in London. The Cultural Village, as it was known, had not yet been fully completed—I expect it has been now—but it gave us a very good idea of what to expect, with an abundance of areas for poetry, music and art that would satisfy all tastes, as we have heard.
Since then, of course, Qatar has become a much valued and essential provider of around 20% of our gas needs, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to. A few years ago, I was invited to lead a delegation to visit the site at Milford Haven, where tankers transporting the liquefied natural gas from Qatar were being offloaded into state-of-the-art refineries and then distributed to our national grid. With the whole of Europe suffering the huge spike in energy prices, the UK has agreed a deal with Qatar to continue delivering LNG so that we have a safe and secure supply, one very good outcome of our trade deals.
In 2020, Qatar was the UK’s 34th largest trading partner and UK exports to Qatar were worth over £3.8 billion. As we have heard, its investments in the UK exceed £40 billion. Qatar has been a good friend to our country.
In the security industry, we sold Qatar 24 Typhoon aircraft, nine Hawks, Brimstone missiles and the services to go with them. Other investments in the UK include linking Rolls-Royce with their green energy operations. As we have heard, Qatar is one of Rolls-Royce’s biggest customers, especially for its Trent engines that power the aircraft for Qatar Airways, one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. It is also hoping to develop small modular nuclear reactors—SMRs—with Rolls-Royce, which, it is anticipated, will deliver thousands of new jobs. It is equally hoped that these jobs will be in areas of the country most in need of levelling up.
However contentious the venue, Qatar did win the right to put on the prestigious World Cup event, and we can only hope that it is as successful as other World Cups have been. There has been a lot of concern, quite rightly, about how migrant workers have been treated when building stadia for this event. Qatar’s human rights have been questioned and criticised, and I believe that its Government know that these things have to change. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to this. They have begun that process and are making strenuous efforts to address these international concerns. Qatar has created the National Human Rights Committee, which investigates abuses and is advancing the country’s standards, to take part in research programmes and advise other government bodies on human rights issues.
The Government have also developed a significant labour reform programme, and Human Rights Watch has commended Qatar on its progress and hopes that other Gulf countries might follow its lead, especially as it was the first country in the region to introduce a minimum wage. It is also the first Arab country to allow women the right to vote, although there is still a long way to go for women to have anything like equality with men.
This is a very febrile region. Qatar has its own security concerns, so it is perhaps not for us to criticise our country’s friends when they also have to face security challenges. As a good friend to our nation, we should be thankful that our trading ties with Qatar are close and secure and hope that the future plans for working together come to a happy conclusion for both our nations, especially for that troubled region.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord for initiating this debate; it certainly gives me an opportunity to reiterate some of the points that he has heard me make before. I agree with the sentiments of all the contributions that a strong relationship between the United Kingdom and all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is in everyone’s interest. However, that relationship, important as it is, must be built on the values that we hold as a country. Qatar is a growing economy with considerable regional interests and influence, and although there are clear areas where co-operation is mutually beneficial, we must use that relationship to encourage modernisation, as the noble Lord said.
I agree with the noble Lord that the spotlight on Qatar, as the Qataris themselves say, in terms of that national challenge for change, will bring strong benefits. I agree that sport can be a force for good—although, as a keen Arsenal supporter, I point out that my neighbours back Spurs, and we sometimes do not get on that well. Whenever there is a derby game one fears for one’s own safety. Nevertheless, sport is a force for good.
I also agree that simply calling for boycotts is not necessarily the appropriate solution. The decision to bid for the World Cup was a big political decision of the Qatari Government, and it was politics that made them support that bid. We have done such things ourselves, as a country, because we know that hosting such events can be a force for good in all our communities. I agree with the noble Lord that calls for boycotts should not be made lightly, and that the circumstances of the South African boycott were absolutely right, in terms of the world community, because sport was not permitted to be played in the way that we would expect. But when it comes to the Winter Olympics, there needs to be some clear political statement about the genocide against the Uighurs. A political and diplomatic boycott shows that Governments do not want to be associated with the Games. But it is not for us to interfere with sport through a general boycott. I agree with the noble Lord about that.
As for the force for good and the power of change, there is still a lot more to be done. It is only a short time now until the World Cup, and a lot of the human rights concerns remain and will overshadow the competition. As I said in November, it is eight years since the International Trade Union Confederation first warned that Qatar was not recording the deaths and injuries of migrant workers during preparations for the tournament. According to the Guardian, more than 6,500 have died since the World Cup was awarded. I accept the noble Lord’s point that there is not necessarily a direct link, but this is about the number of migrant labourers who have gone to Qatar, and the impact of that.
Trade unions are, of course, practically outlawed in Qatar, and it is a scandal that Qatar continues to hide the true picture on migrant workers. The ILO’s report published last October, which I have referred to before, identified clear gaps in the collection of data on work-related deaths and injuries, and called for improvement. Importantly, it stressed the need to move with urgency, because behind each statistic there is a worker and their family. Last November I asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, what representations the Government of the United Kingdom had made to Qatar on the ILO report. I also asked him to come back to the House on the progress made on its implementation, so that further injuries and deaths could be prevented, and the families of those killed or injured could receive proper compensation. I have had no response from the noble Lord, so I hope that the Minister here this afternoon will be able to answer those questions, which remain outstanding.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that the ILO presence is important and represents progress. But I also think that the United Kingdom has a responsibility to support the ILO and to back it in every respect.
This is not just about migrant workers; the noble Lord referred in his introduction to general oppression of minorities, particularly LGBT people. As he said, homosexuality is still illegal. The head of Qatar’s World Cup bid team has said publicly—I read it in the papers—that gay men attending the World Cup must not publicly display affection. They will be welcome, but must not display affection. As a gay man, I know what real oppression can be—forcing you to be invisible and not the person you are, unable to acknowledge the people you love. You may spend a fortune on going to the World Cup to be constantly fearful—what does it mean not to display affection? We have had cases in the Middle East where a United Kingdom citizen was charged with putting a hand on someone’s knee, something we perhaps all have done. Even the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, has done it—he has certainly done it to me in the bar a couple of times.
The important thing is how we support and back people. If we are truly saying that gay people will be welcome at the World Cup—why should they not be?—they should be able to be visible. They should certainly be able to acknowledge their sexuality in a public way, through flags, badges and things. I am not suggesting we have a blatant attack on the laws in Qatar, but the Government have a duty to protect and defend those people who go to the World Cup so that they do not have to face oppressive circumstances. The Human Rights Watch reports that we have seen mentioned the increased surveillance that will be installed for the World Cup. This could be used to target LGBT activists. In any sort of guidance the Government give, I hope they make that clear.
As has been acknowledged in this debate, the United Kingdom continues to attract significant investment from Qatar, and ties between our two countries are deepening as universities and other institutions establish a base in the Gulf. I too pay tribute to the late David Amess and I certainly pay tribute to the work of the APPG. As attention turns to the World Cup, it is incumbent on Ministers to hold the Qatari Government to account and push them even further in how they keep to their word on modernisation. I hope the noble Earl will give us a clear indication about the progress that has been made so far and the progress to be made for the future.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Moynihan for securing this debate and to all noble Lords who have contributed. I start by expressing my appreciation for the work of the all-party group and the commitment of its members to a strong UK-Qatar relationship. My noble friend mentioned his visit to Qatar with the parliamentary delegation led by Sir David Amess. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Sir David for his tireless work for his constituents and others. He was tragically killed just days after his visit to Qatar. I am also deeply grateful to the members of the Qatari royal family and Government who sent their most sincere condolences to Sir David’s family and the UK at the darkest of times.
This debate is timely. It comes at a time when the Government are working to deepen and broaden the already strong UK-Qatar relationship. The Foreign Secretary visited Qatar in October as part of her first official visit to the Gulf. Qatar is one of our closest allies in the region, and she used her time in Doha to advance the key pillars of our bilateral partnership. My right honourable friend the Minister for Middle East, James Cleverly, will visit Qatar later this month to do similar, and we are currently preparing to host the first ever UK-Qatar strategic dialogue between the Foreign Secretary and Qatar’s Foreign Minister.
Our partnership with Qatar is sustained by myriad connections and friendships between our people. They are the golden thread that drives our co-operation and dialogue in a number of areas. As noble Lords may be aware, 20,000 British nationals live and work in Qatar, and the UK is a second home to many Qataris. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, there were a record 175,000 visits from Qatar to the UK, worth more than £0.5 billion to the UK economy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, commented on trade and investment. Our strong trade and investment relationship with Qatar provides jobs throughout the UK, supporting the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Our bilateral trade currently stands at just over £4.3 billion, which includes £2.4 billion of UK exports, making Qatar the third-largest export market in the region for British firms. Qatar is also a major investor into the UK, playing a role in a huge variety of developments mentioned by noble Lords, including the Shard, Heathrow Airport and even Chelsea Barracks. Overall, Qatari investment in the UK is currently estimated at £40 billion, and the figure is growing.
The latest example of this, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, was last month’s announcement by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund of an £85 million investment in the Rolls-Royce small modular reactor programme, giving a boost to the UK’s net-zero agenda and demonstrating Qatar’s commitment to tackling climate change. Qatar is also an important partner for the UK’s energy security, as one of the world’s largest producers of liquefied natural gas. For example, QatarEnergy recently agreed a long-term contract with the national grid for capacity at the Isle of Grain natural gas import terminal east of London.
We want to grow this trade and investment relationship further, not just in Qatar but across the Gulf. That is why we are about to commence negotiations on an ambitious new free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The UK public consultation on this has just completed, and my colleagues in the Department for International Trade are working to agree a timeline for those negotiations to commence with ministries here and with our Gulf partners, including Qatar.
A number of noble Lords raised the subject of human rights. The friendship between our nations extends right to the heart of our respective Governments, as demonstrated by the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary and my noble friends Lord Grimstone and Lord Wolfson, all of whom have either met or spoken to their Qatari counterparts in recent months. These close ties provide meaningful opportunities to engage on difficult topics and influence change. The UK Government do not shy away from raising human rights concerns whenever required, in public or in private.
We also welcome progress when we see it. We welcome the concrete steps that Qatar has taken to improve workers’ rights. The priority now is full implementation and enforcement of these reforms, and there is further to go. We stand ready to further assist and support Qatar’s efforts to improve workers’ rights, including through engagement with the International Labour Organization, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
Our enduring defence partnership with Qatar is exemplified through our joint Typhoon squadron. During a recent visit to RAF Leeming by the Qatari Minister for Defence, the Defence Secretary also unveiled the UK-Qatar joint Hawk training squadron and the delivery of Qatar’s first Hawk jets by BAE Systems.
In recent years, the upcoming World Cup has been a prominent feature in our engagement. We are working with Qatari authorities to support their delivery of a safe and secure tournament. We will continue to engage on the “everybody is welcome” message so that anyone, of any background, can go and enjoy themselves. A range of British companies is playing a notable role in preparations, from the cutting-edge design of football stadia to the recently launched countdown clock. I hope we will have two of the home nations competing in November, with one of them bringing home the trophy.
Qatar plays an important role in regional and global affairs, and our Governments work closely together on a wide range of important issues. As my noble friend Lord Moynihan, said, we commend Qatar for the role that it played helping to evacuate people out of Afghanistan in the summer, including British nationals. Prior to that, Qatar also played an important role in negotiations with the Taliban. Qatar also remains an important development and humanitarian partner for the UK. For example, we value our joint UK-Qatar programme on girls’ education in Syria, and we are keen to deepen our co-operation further as we look to 2022 and beyond.
Noble Lords raised a number of questions, which I shall go through now. I start with the moving speech from the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, in relation to LGBT rights. Qatari authorities have committed, as I said, to everybody being welcome at the tournament, including LGBT visitors. We will continue to engage on this between now and the tournament, so that anyone of any background can go and enjoy themselves. Qatar has confirmed that individuals will be able to display the rainbow flag.
My noble friend Lord Vaizey brought up the subject of culture ties with Qatar. The UK works with state ministries and key cultural and educational institutions, such as Qatar Museums, Qatar Foundation and the Katara cultural village. The UK attracts 3,000 students from Qatar annually; the British Council has developed a network of 1,200 Qatari alumni who have studied in the UK and runs a UK alumni awards programme that identifies outstanding achievers and celebrates their positive impact. The British Council stages an annual British festival to maintain and strengthen the UK’s position as Qatar’s cultural partner of choice, and to celebrate UK creativity and innovation across the arts, education, science, engineering, design, culture, entertainment and tourism.
In relation to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, on human rights, our close ties allow us to engage in these difficult topics, and we continue to raise human rights issues wherever appropriate. This includes migrant workers’ rights. No aspect of our relationship with Qatar prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights in public or in private. The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally, and we continue to encourage all states, including Qatar, to uphold international human rights obligations.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on a sporting boycott. The UK Government do not favour a sporting boycott. Along with the participation of national teams in World Cups, it is a matter for the relevant football associations, which operate independently from government, as required by FIFA statutes. The noble Lord also asked what we had been doing to press the Qataris on labour rights concerns. We encourage continued close collaboration between the Government of Qatar and the ILO during the second phase of the technical co-operation programme, which runs until the end of 2023. We also encourage continued co-operation with entities such as the international trade unions.
Having engaged with Qatari authorities, the International Labour Organization has, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, this month released a comprehensive report containing recommendations to improve data collection and analysis on occupational injuries and fatalities. This is a really important step, and we welcome that this is one of the key elements of Qatar’s national policy on occupational health and safety.
In conclusion, Qatar is one of our closest allies in the Gulf. We enjoy a friendly, frank and productive partnership that benefits our mutual security and prosperity. It is a relationship we greatly value, and I am grateful to all Members of this House and the other place for their support in helping to ensure that the UK-Qatar relationship attains new heights.
Oil and Gas: Subsidies and Licensing
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to ensure that (1) subsidies, and (2) licensing decisions, related to the oil and gas industry are not subject to undue influence from outside interests.
First, I apologise for speaking seated; it is because I sprained my knee. Secondly, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Offord, to his first outing as a Minister, and I look forward very much to his maiden speech later.
Between July 2019 and March last year, government Ministers had 63 meetings with fossil fuel and biomass producers. That is nine times the number of meetings they had with renewable energy companies. That strikes me as slightly odd: a Government who chaired COP 26 and are meant to be switching to renewables very fast are meeting fossil fuel and biomass companies nine times more than the companies they are meant to be relying on to deliver the sustainable future they promise.
As well as the small private meetings, Ministers also attended hundreds of other larger group meetings with fossil fuel companies and their representatives. Fossil fuel producers were present at 309 of these, compared with 60 for renewable energy generators. Again, I do not understand why Ministers are focusing on a polluting industry that we need to shut down rather than renewables—with all the new job opportunities —which we need to grow very rapidly. But there is a clue, because the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has taken almost £1.5 million in donations from the energy industry since 2019.
I mention this slightly disturbing fact because my intention in this debate is to draw attention to the fact that we live in a corrupt country run by autocratic Ministers who facilitate their friends pocketing large amounts of public money either directly, via government contracts, or indirectly, through putting holes in the regulatory system. We have seen this recently with the fast-track scheme for PPE contracts, the second-jobs scandal involving MPs, and all sorts of lobbying, such as David Cameron on behalf of Greensill. Money buys access, and access gives you everything from subsidies to licences.
The point I am making is that corruption has real-world impacts on government policy and the lives of ordinary people. If you are in the development industry, it might give you changes to planning red tape. If you are in the energy business, it might buy you another decade of profitable polluting while the planet burns.
We have a Government who are keen to support a polluting industry that is equally keen to support the Government. That might be excused if the oil and gas industry was filling the coffers of the Treasury as well as the Conservative Party, but surprisingly that is not always the case. In a recent court case brought by some climate campaigners, the judge acknowledged that in some years oil and gas companies had paid less in taxes than they received in tax breaks. The judge wrote:
“The claimants point to clear evidence of negative taxation flows in particular years; specifically negative tax flows overall in 2015-16 and 2016-17 of £2 million and £359 million respectively.”
The judge quite rightly said that focusing on single years ignored the fact that
“the tax position over the life of the concession is at worst neutral”.
We know that the UK is one of the most profitable countries for the oil and gas industry in the world, but we cannot even be sure that it pays its own way in tax.
The Government will claim that there is no subsidy for oil and gas, as they define fossil fuel subsidies as
“measures that reduce the effective price of fossil fuels below world market prices.”
In other words, the Government are giving the industry millions of pounds in tax breaks, but this is not a subsidy because it does not result in lower prices for consumers—well, that is obviously absolutely brilliant. But if the Government do not like “subsidy”, we could just call it “fossil fuel support”. Our Government do not deny the tax breaks; they just make it clear that this does not lower prices—it just enables the companies to make more profit. In fact, it is so profitable that those making money out of this polluting industry have enough spare cash to give it to the Conservative Party. That is obviously something we need to be concerned about.
Of course, if a previous Prime Minister, Cameron, had not cut what he called the “green crap”, our energy bills would be £40 lower each. Imagine how much lower they would be if he had been serious about insulating homes and expanding cheap renewable electricity, reducing our current reliance on foreign gas.
I will not go into all the details of the donations made by the industry, directly and indirectly, as we would need far longer than the hour that we have just to list them. Our self-regulatory system of government does not stop people buying influence. Civil servants are not around to take notes when a Minister attends a party fundraiser where oil executives have paid £12,000 for a seat at the table. Civil servants cannot know what conversations go on when an MP gets a huge donation to the private office a few months before they are appointed as a Minister in charge of projects that the donor wants to push through. It has happened in the past few years and, to be fair, the Minister I am thinking about stepped aside from a major decision—but only after the media contacted them.
The National Audit Office cannot even get access to Ministers’ WhatsApp conversations with party donors about favoured projects, unless the Minister self-declares that they regard the messages as relevant. Even when Ministers have been taken to court to get those messages, suddenly the phone is broken or lost—or they do a Boris, who claimed that messages were lost when he changed his phone number. It is not very nice, is it, quite honestly? It is shameful.
Last year, we chaired COP 26, but the Government are now dishing out a large number of licences for North Sea exploration. I really do not see how that can be compatible with reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Generic conditions have to be met, but only on new submissions; as I understand it, projects already in the pipeline get a licence without reference to climate change. How is that possible?
Individuals and companies linked to the oil and gas industries have donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party in the past year, while the Government mulled over these new licences. There might be parliamentary rules that stop Peers like me from asking Written Questions about the influence that such donations have on the Ministers making the decisions—which I have tried to do, but was stopped—but it is clear and obvious that the influences is there.
We have an acknowledgement that corruption is rife, the negative impacts on our environment are clear, and I really want to hear from the Minister today how we are going to junk the broken system of self-regulation in favour of a more robust legal system that involves either the police or an end to large-scale donations. The days of having a Ministerial Code enforced by someone appointed by the Prime Minister really should be gone. It does not work when Ministers do not play by the rules.
My Lords, I start by welcoming the Minister to his post—it may be a baptism by fire—and thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for introducing this debate. My views will be pretty similar to hers on this topic.
The compelling scientific evidence tells us that we must act now to curb greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, but we seem to have an oil and gas industry which is resisting the science—not in words, because it is too clever for that, but in deeds. It is an industry that seems to have the various arms of government firmly tucked into its elbow and is leading them astray.
The OGA regulates and licenses petroleum exploration and production in the UK. Three of its 13 board members are shareholders in oil companies, and eight members of the board previously worked in the industry. There are no voices on the OGA board to put the view of climate scientists, workers or NGOs; it is not a balanced board. The Government seem to be similarly tainted. According to the Library briefing, £812,000 was donated to the Conservative Party between 2019 and 2020 by climate sceptics and fossil fuel interests.
Against this background, we must look at subsidies enjoyed by the sector. Of course, the Government insist that they do not give subsidies to fossil fuels, yet the UK’s tax regime makes it the most profitable country in the world for oil and gas companies, according to a report by Rystad Energy in January 2021. Since signing the Paris agreement, the UK has given £4 billion to oil and gas companies—and I thank the NGOs UPLIFT and Paid to Pollute for the figures. In the tax years 2015-16 and 2016-17, the Treasury gave more money to oil companies than it took from them in taxes. Here is a mind-boggling figure: in 2019, the UK received $1.72 in taxes for each barrel of oil, while at the same time and under the same conditions, Norway received $21.35 per barrel of oil. Here is another mind-boggling fact: Shell paid $1.8 billion in tax to Norway in 2020 but received from the UK Government £99.1 million, according to the company’s own annual report on payments to Governments. There are other examples, but time is short and the list is long, so I will move on.
I will quickly mention decommissioning. The UK taxpayer, not the polluters, pays the decommissioning costs of abandoned oil structures. The UK Government call this a tax rebate, but this process meets the WTO, International Energy Agency and IMF definitions of a subsidy. HMRC estimates that the cost to the UK taxpayer will be £18.3 billion—I think that is a gross underestimate. No wonder the risks of stranded assets are not a deterrent to the shameless companies pushing for new licences, because they are a licence to print money. The Government subsidise exploration, shareholders pocket dividends, and when the game is up, the company ups sticks and leaves it to the good old British taxpayer to pick up the tab. Shame on the Government for letting this continue. With vested interests whispering in their ear, it stinks of corruption. None of that tax relief is benefiting workers in the industry or you and me. We do not see the impact on our living costs, our energy bills or at the pump. The RMT union estimates that 12,000 jobs were lost in the industry in 2020. Compare that to Shell receiving £99.1 million in tax from the UK in 2020. The company went on to increase its dividend in 2021, just weeks after announcing plans to cut 330 North Sea jobs, and CEO Ben van Beurden took home $7 million in 2020. The system is rotten to the core.
The Minister will say that we have to protect the sector or we will be dependent on imports of Saudi or Russian oil and gas, but that is just not so. Most of our oil and gas imports come from Norway, and even if more was pumped from the ground, it would have to be placed on global markets and would not benefit UK citizens with lower prices. To reduce volatility and energy costs, the only solution is to produce more home-grown renewables. Put a halt to this madness and help our citizens lower their energy bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Invest in the green transition, get job security for oil and gas workers, and get energy security for the country by moving away from dependency on geopolitically unstable areas.
In ending, I want to go back to the science. The Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii recorded the highest-ever concentration of carbon dioxide in May 2021. At 419 parts per million, this is the highest since records began. We are in uncharted territory, and the rate of increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is accelerating. The time for arguing and prevaricating is over—we have to stop burning fossil fuels.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on securing this debate and look forward to the Minister’s maiden speech later.
We can point to donations or meetings, but I would like to spend a couple of minutes focusing on whether the structures of government are perhaps out of kilter with our modern goals for energy. It appears that there are legacy structures and conflicting goals within government that at times are not joined up.
In 2014, the Wood review was published and made a number of recommendations focused squarely on increasing the efficiency of the UK continental shelf in the extraction of hydrocarbons. The review then informed the Energy Act 2016 and ushered in the Oil and Gas Authority, a government-owned company that has taken over a range of responsibilities from government in relation to overseeing developments in the UK continental shelf. This body’s primary objective is maximising the economic recovery of hydrocarbons. It is therefore not necessarily a question of external influence. Rather, we have created a statutory obligation and a body single-mindedly pursuing a very narrow set of goals within our energy policy. It may be occluding the real energy agenda that we should be pursuing.
At the time of the Energy Bill in 2016, we argued that to create a new body with such a narrow remit represented a missed opportunity. It was clear even then that UK plc’s pursuit of barrels of oil and, to a lesser degree, therms of gas from the North Sea was unlikely to be the biggest priority. It is an old, mature field, and the biggest discoveries were all found decades ago. What remain are very risky and expensive fields, which the bigger operators are now finding it is not in their interests to exploit. When we think about energy security and climate considerations in the round, is it correct and right that we should have this body and this statutory obligation that skew our focus, and potentially the focus of Ministers?
The UK is rightly considered a leader on climate change, thanks to both its domestic actions and its role in international negotiations. It does not sit well for a country such as the UK, a very mature economy that has arguably benefited from the exploration of oil and gas over decades, to be seen to be trying to extract the very last drop of oil and gas out of the North Sea without a real economic case for doing so. We have had decades of relatively stable and secure energy provision. We have managed to provide a secure and affordable lowering of our carbon footprint at the same time, which has benefited businesses and consumers. Our oil and gas efforts in the North Sea and the UK continental shelf have not contributed to those goals; other sources in our energy policy do that job far more effectively. We need only look at the sudden spike in gas prices now to see how a policy based on fossil fuels can undermine our ability to deliver affordable energy.
I turn to the international case. The case will always be stated that we need to extract our oil and gas, otherwise we will be importing from other places. But in reality we do not use the majority of the oil production from the North Sea domestically, because our refineries are not fit for the refining of those oils; most of it is traded. On an economic basis, it does not matter where it is extracted—we will all face the global price set in the traded market—so that argument does not really hold water.
Another often-cited advantage to the UK is the jobs. The jobs in the North Sea oil and gas sector are very limited—around 30,000 direct jobs. Just the low-carbon economy today employs 200,000 employees, so clearly there should be a much greater focus on the low-carbon future sources of energy, rather than pursuing this very narrow goal.
We have not really addressed the problem of how a Government can develop a balanced policy fit for UK plc in terms of a large, rather than a narrow, set of interests. The risk is that, given these high prices, there will yet again be a temptation to invite in the fossil fuel experts. We will probably hear, even today, a call for a return to “drill, drill, drill”, and the idea that finding more resources will be the way out.
I argue that that would distort the reality, which is that we have a vast array of opportunities to exploit energy, which go beyond fossil fuels. We have a huge offshore wind industry and, as we have recently seen, we are granting very large licences to that sector. That is where our future lies, and it would be a mistake to invite in a narrow band of experts, yet again, to dictate to us what our energy policy should be in response to the current energy crisis.
I believe that there needs to be another Wood review—an updated opportunity to look again at what our focus should be for our own indigenous energy sources. It is clear that there are huge challenges ahead of us. From my perspective, climate is the largest of them, but equally there is energy security, and there are economic concerns that we have to address. We have huge potential to secure investment in a range of zero-emissions technologies, but we need to focus on that and make it our priority.
We should see the hydrocarbons in the North Sea in that context. They are no longer our greatest asset; if anything, they will be a net drain on the public purse in coming years. We receive very little in taxation. Let us start a review to assess whether the Government have the right bodies and the right powers in place—and if we are to have an energy Bill, let us look again at the OGA and whether the obligation it was given is correct for 2022.
My Lords, I apologise for missing the first few seconds of the debate; foolishly, I was sitting in the Chamber instead of here. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on securing the debate. I have always longed to agree with her, since I like her so much, and I do agree with her on the two objectives of the debate. I am against subsidies for the oil and gas industry, as I am against subsidies for renewables. I am also against undue influence being brought to bear on government.
The oil and gas resources with which this nation has been endowed by a beneficent providence are, essentially, the property of the people. It is right that the economic rent and value of those resources should be extracted for the benefit of the people and not given away. I first made myself an enemy of the oil industry when I published a document called North Sea Giveaway, advocating that licences should be not allocated but sold to the highest bidder, so as to extract the economic rent. For a while, it actually changed the Government’s policy. That was before I was ever a Member of Parliament; I had more influence then than I do now. Sadly, it did not continue for ever, and eventually Governments and officials went back to allocating, rather than selling, auction blocks.
Instead of extracting the money that way, they tried to do so by imposing a whole range of taxes—the royalty, the petroleum revenue tax and the supplementary corporation tax, all on top of the basic corporation tax that other industries pay. Since 1975, when oil first began to be extracted from the North Sea—I was then an energy analyst in the City—the oil industry has paid over £186 billion in those taxes to the Government.
Beyond the folly of giving away the licences rather than selling them, the idea that the UK subsidises the oil and gas industry is a nonsensical myth. The £4 billion that the noble Baroness mentioned is not a subsidy. Every industry is allowed to offset the costs it incurs to produce revenues against the revenues that those costs generate. The oil industry is no exception, but in that industry some of the costs are incurred after the revenues have been generated—in particular, the decommissioning costs. It is absolutely normal and acceptable for companies to be able to offset those costs against revenues in previous years. They get back tax that they paid on those revenues that were in excess of their costs. That is normal, and to describe it as a subsidy is, frankly, an abuse of language.
I am enjoying this very much, but can the noble Lord comment on the rules that now underwrite those decommissioning costs with taxpayers’ money? As I understand it, that will cost us in the region of £20 billion over the coming years, because we are now underwriting some of those decommissioning costs. Is that not a subsidy?
It could well be but, as I understand it, that is not the £4 billion to which the noble Baroness referred.
I am saying the wrong thing?
Maybe. It seems unwise to have got into a position in which the oil companies are required to do something that they cannot and have not been financing, and to take it to the taxpayer. I think that the noble Baroness will agree with me that up to now there has not been a subsidy. If we did not allow the costs of decommissioning to be offset against the revenues that the oilfields generate, we would effectively be taxing rather than supporting the most ecological activity that we require of oil companies; namely, the removal of what they have constructed in the North Sea.
The second thing that the noble Baroness is against is undue influence on licensing. One of the arguments in my pamphlet about the North Sea giveaway was that giving away those huge resources means that the civil servants who decide on it will be open to corruption. Amazingly, in the ensuing years, I found no evidence of that micro-corruption; nor is there any evidence of macro-corruption, in the sense of the oil and gas industries exercising undue influence. On the contrary, the offshore fields are not being developed—Cambo and the other one whose name I forget—and, onshore, hugely valuable shale resources are not being exploited. It is clearly not the oil industry that is exercising undue influence; somebody else must be. It is not those who want to reduce carbon emissions who are exercising undue influence because, by and large, particularly in the case of shale, if we import gas instead of producing our own—that is the consequence of not allowing shale exploration—we incur greater emissions, not just in transport but in liquefying and then deliquefying gas, which is an energy-intensive process.
There are two ways in which we can meet the net-zero target. One is to reduce demand, and the other is to reduce supply. The sensible way is to reduce demand. If you reduce supply ahead of reducing demand, the price goes up, as we are seeing now; the oil and gas companies make undue profits, which will upset you all greatly, and I do not particularly want to see them make undue profits either; and it will cause difficulties to households in the short term, which is what we are experiencing. I hope that we will see more realistic analysis than we have heard so far.
I want to ask the noble Lord something before he sits down. I bow to his greater understanding of the finances behind pricing of oil. Maybe he can explain why, in 2019, for each barrel of oil the UK received so much less—$1.72 in tax—than Norway’s more than $21 per barrel of oil. On the supply and demand side, would he not say that it is not one or the other? We need to do both if we are to get to net zero in the timeframes that we have set ourselves.
I have not looked at the profitability per barrel and the tax paid per barrel, but I used to do that every day 40 years ago. I assume that it is because our fields are now running down, whereas the Norwegian fields are still far from fully mature. As far as I know, Norway’s tax regime is not hugely different from our own; it was not then. On the question of whether we have to restrict supply as well as restricting demand, no, we do not. If you reduce demand and anyone has supply available and no market for it, they lose money—that is their problem—but if you reduce supply without reducing demand, you raise prices, increase profits to the industry and increase costs to ordinary households.
Before the noble Lord sits down, can I ask him how he thinks demand could be reduced?
You could do all sorts of things to reduce demand for oil and gas—requiring people to spend thousands of pounds on shifting from gas to electric heat pumps, that sort of thing. The noble Baroness knows the answer to her own question.
My Lords, can we have a little order? Also, I need to remind future speakers that the Minister needs to be speaking by 3.47 pm.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Offord, to his place and look forward to hearing his—
Sorry, I thought you were just interrupting the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, to make a point. I, also, welcome the new Minister and look forward to his maiden speech. I much enjoyed the exchange just now. It is worth pointing out that the largest single group at the climate talks was the 503 oil executives, spending the most amount of money to show off their wares.
I shall lay out a few facts. We are, undoubtedly, one of the most profitable countries in the world for oil and gas companies, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, pointed out. Since the Paris agreement, the UK has granted tax relief of £10 billion. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, would say that that is just par for the course, but we are trying to aim for a zero-carbon world.
During an exchange last week, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, posed the question about where we get our oil and gas from, and he asked
“do we use oil and gas products we generate … or do we get them from Russia or Saudi Arabia?”.—[Official Report, 11/1/2022; col. 964.]
The facts are that, in 2020, 54% of the demand for natural gas was met by domestic production, 32% from pipeline flows from Norway and the remainder met mainly by LNG cargoes from Qatar at 12%, the US at 7% and Russia only 3%.
On the climate compatibility checkpoint, according to E3G, the UK continental shelf is a mature, high-cost basin with declining reserves. The basin is oil weighted, with gas making up only 30% of remaining reserves. Even if those reserves could be brought online at speed, the UK would still be exposed to international gas markets and their inherent price volatility. To be clear, we do not need to drill anymore for our domestic consumption. The reason why the gas price is currently so high is because of how the global markets work. Companies that extract it just sell it to the highest bidder, and a lot of the gas extracted from our sites is sold to Europe, rather than being used domestically, even if we have a need for it. The argument that, if we drill more, we will have more, is an oversimplification of the issue. It will mean only that producers sell more and, due to the low domestic tax rates, there will be negligible difference to the Treasury. Our Government would have to directly intervene to ensure that domestically produced gas is used in the UK, and to date we have made no signals that that is something we are willing to do.
On the other part of this question, lobbying and licensing, the Times reported that Kwasi Kwarteng met industry officials in the days after COP to urge them to keep drilling in the North Sea, despite what was actually said in Glasgow. How is that compatible with our goal? Afterwards, on 20 December, the Government published a consultation on a new climate compatibility checkpoint, which will govern our new licensing rounds. Did the Government meet oil and gas executives to discuss this consultation before it went public? Surely, they should see that at the same time, everyone should be allowed to feed into the general discussion. For example, the document states that, for the purpose of licensing, it is not practical to separate oil from gas and that
“we understand that, for many fields, a mix of hydrocarbons (both gas and oil) is usually found, and it can be difficult to predict which reservoir fluids will be encountered at licensing stage. For that reason, we have rejected the idea that oil and gas could be licensed separately”.
However, it is not clear how or why the Government have reached that decision. We know that Cambo, for example, is—or, one hopes, was, in the past tense—going to be drilled for oil. So how have the Government got there?
This is an important point because, although we can expect continued domestic demand for gas during any transition, we already export 80% of our oil, so further extraction is just adding to global supply rather than quenching domestic needs. If that was discussed before the checkpoint was published, there is a clear conflict of interest. Oil and gas companies would obviously be in favour of tying them together, as to separate them would affect their profits. So while it is welcome that we have a consultation proposing consideration of production gaps, other parts of it raise suspicion that this is a tick-box in green-washing. “Consideration” is a really weak word.
Finally, on the current energy costs and the cost-of-living crisis, it is likely to become dire without government intervention, but I challenge the argument that this is because we do not have enough fossil fuels to burn. It is because we do not have enough renewable energy. If there had not been an effective moratorium on onshore wind since 2015, for example, our bills would now be lower. Bills are not high because of the green levies; they have been decreasing, and account for about 3% of gas bills. They are high because, as other noble Lords have mentioned, we have uninsulated homes. If the green homes grant had been better implemented, people would have lower bills. It is easy to see high bills and think that we need more of the product that is causing it but, actually, we need to quicken our transition away from it. Fossil fuels have always been volatile, whereas renewables have consistently become cheaper as well as better.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for stepping in. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Offord, to his place and look forward to his maiden speech. I cannot help noting, although I am very pleased we heard his point of view, that the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, was allowed to speak having arrived about three minutes late, when only recently in a debate on the nuclear industry, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, was refused the opportunity to speak despite arriving at almost exactly the same time. There cannot be one rule for members of the governing party and another for members of the Opposition. I hope the Government Whips will take note of that. However, I am glad we heard from the noble Lord.
The urgent need for the North Sea industry is not further subsidies or contradictory policy-making by a Government who on the one hand say that they are in favour of net zero and on the other continue to endorse the maximum economic recovery policy. The urgent need for the North Sea industry is transition. If there are tax breaks and subsidies, they must be directed at transitioning that skilled workforce out of the oil and gas industry, because that fossil fuel industry is coming to an end. That is what will happen. It is the reality, and those who think they are standing up for workers in the industry by backing further drilling are simply sending people down a blind alley.
As I mentioned during debate on the Financial Services Bill, the last part of my title—Lord Oates of Denby Grange—is taken from a colliery in Yorkshire where my grandfather and uncles all worked as coal miners. I have great respect for the people who work in the fossil fuel industry; they powered our industry and heated our homes, often working in very dangerous circumstances. However, we know what happened to the coal industry: it came to a dead stop. There was no proper transition and, as a result, communities were stranded and suffered massive social and economic deprivation that remains to this day.
Let us not pretend we are doing any favours if we go down this maximum economic recovery route and keep going until the dead stop happens. It will happen; as the International Energy Agency has stated, we cannot burn all the reserves we have already identified if we are to have any hope of keeping to 1.5 degrees. We cannot do it. The argument of the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, is that we have this stuff so let us burn it. If everybody else takes the same view, we will get nowhere near even 2 degrees but go far beyond it. That is not a problem for the noble Lord, because these things do not matter to him. He thinks the whole net-zero thing is ridiculous and absurd, and he calls anyone who stands against that an eco-fanatic. But, for those of us who care about it, there must be a logical policy.
The Government have set ambitious targets for net zero which the Liberal Democrats welcome. However, it is no good having those targets if your policy tools contradict them. Maximum economic recovery in the North Sea, and the tax subsidies, absolutely do that. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said that the reserves in the North Sea should be used for the benefit of the people. The benefit of the people would be to keep those reserves where they are, not to burn them. It would certainly be to the benefit of future generations.
How long—or how shortly—does the noble Lord think it will be before we cease to use gas, both to heat homes and as the natural source of power to deal with the intermittency from renewables? Most people think we will still be using it in 30 years’ time.
We have to transition away from using it by 2050, or at least without abatement of it. Exploiting the North Sea resources when we are trying to lead the world is not going to work. It is rank hypocrisy, and it is deeply damaging.
Let me just pick up on the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, made about energy costs. It is a complete fallacy that the way to reduce energy costs is by scrapping all the green levies, as the GWPF and other people want to do. If you look at what happened to energy costs between 2010 and 2020, in terms of the bills that people paid, you see that total household expenditure on energy fell. It did not rise. One of the reasons it fell was because the levies funded insulation of properties and measures to reduce consumption. Consumption of gas and electricity fell significantly during that time. In fact, the eco levies save people money.
I understand the position of the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, of not worrying about net zero. I do not understand the Government’s position, because they claim to worry about net zero but take actions that show the exact opposite.
I take this opportunity to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Offord, and to wish him all the best with his maiden speech. As a fairly new Member, a maiden speech being made in these circumstances is a first for me. It feels as though he is jumping in at the deep end here, but I look forward to hearing his contribution. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for securing the debate.
Time is extraordinarily limited. We have so much to discuss in this hour and we are not going to do it, so I do not want to cover too many of the points that have already been made, other than to recognise the seriousness of the examples that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and others gave of where things are going seriously wrong in the whole debate about what a subsidy is. The Government might have a technical definition of a subsidy, but there are certainly other means of getting money where it needs to be which distort the market, lower the price and make fossil fuels a much more positive option than they need to be.
In the limited time I have, I want to turn first to the very nature of the debate. Running through all this is transparency. We have so many examples of where undue influence is being brought to bear, and that lack of transparency in so many areas of public life now is becoming a real scandal. This debate fits very well into that area.
The other important area I want to dwell on is the whole issue of the plan that we need to get to net zero. It is all very well talking about where we will be in 2050 and what it will look like, but we need to know what it will look like in 2022 or 2025. The year 2030 is obviously recognised as a critical date, but the plan really is missing. For example, I took part in the debate on the Subsidy Control Bill last night. Where is the plan which says that if we are investing and giving subsidies to any range of interests, the recipients have to demonstrate that they are joining the collective effort towards net zero? I am afraid that the absence of this in government policy and the lack of costing of what it is actually going to take gives me deep cause for concern.
This is against the backdrop of the impact not only on the planet but on individual households and families, the cost of living crisis, the choices that people are making on whether they heat their homes or feed their kids, and the crisis we saw with the break in deliveries from the shortage of drivers. It is that lack of resilience and forward planning, and the whole issue of security that is wrapped around it, that I do not believe the Government are really taking seriously enough.
The other issue is the obligations that we came to from COP 26, and there is another dimension to this. Although the outcomes were lauded as some degree of success, there was watering down from other countries across the world. While we must look at local imperatives, we need also to look at the global imperatives. We have some really important discussions about trade deals coming up. Are we making sure that those countries that failed to sign up fully to COP 26 will receive our full influence?
We can talk about government action, but the Government need to empower those out there who can actually make the difference. I draw your Lordships’ attention, if they have not already seen it, to the letter from the CBI, the TUC and different green groups to the Government suggesting a really practical way forward. Until almost a year ago, I was the leader of the second largest local authority in the country, and there is a lack of powers going down to local level, where the differences can be made by reducing energy consumption and through planning and transport powers—all the things that can really make the difference and reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.
I highlight one of the asks from the letter, which is that the Government establish a cross-government initiative to review all those policy areas. Is the Minister aware that such a cross-government initiative has been set up? Do different departments of government talk to each other and say, “If this department does that, the knock-on impact will be something else”? Those are the collective actions that everyone at local level has been charged with taking for many years, but the Government are falling down.
I urge real focus to go to those areas that can assist this agenda. The clock is well and truly ticking. As the noble Baroness said, the debate about corruption is absolutely at the top of the agenda. What is being done to address what we collectively are doing to enable our dependency on fossil fuels, and all the corruption to which it leads? When will we see a real road map to achieving net zero by, at the very latest, 2050?
My Lords, it is a great honour to be here to make the final contribution to this short debate today. As a newly appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, here I am making my maiden speech in this House.
Allow me to start by thanking noble Lords for the great welcome you have given me in this place, my supporters—my noble friends Lord Kirkham and Lord Forsyth of Drumlean—Black Rod, the Clerk and, especially, the doorkeepers, who look with great amusement at me as I wander around the place in circles. I should also give special thanks to my mentor and noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley, and to my Whip and noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie, for sharing their invaluable knowledge of the workings of your Lordships’ House. We have an important debate to discuss this afternoon, but just before I do, I think it is customary on these occasions to spend a little moment on some personal matters, so let me get those out of the way now.
I was born in a modest but homely tenement at 33 Bank Street in Greenock, an industrial town west of Glasgow on the Firth of Clyde. I was educated at my local schools, Ardgowan Primary and Greenock Academy, and I got a first-class education for free. I am not the first alumnus of that school to be associated with this House; my noble friend Lady Goldie of Bishopton was a distinguished head girl of Greenock Academy, as indeed was the wife of my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley. I was dismayed when my old school was closed in 2011, having been founded in 1855. It was determined by the local council that, with Inverclyde depopulating post industrialisation, the schools needed to go down from eight to six, and it was decided that it conferred too great an advantage on the students who went to that school to study there, so it was closed. Surely that is an egregious example of levelling down in Scotland, and it was a personal motivator for me in joining this Government to support the levelling-up agenda.
So, why Lord Offord of Garvel? If you walk down Bank Street, where I was born, past the Wellpark to my local parish church, the mighty Mid Kirk, and cross the road past the magnificent Georgian Custom House on the Clyde, and then turn right along the river, you will come to Garvel Point. Garvel has long been a landmark in Greenock because it is where the deep water is located, and it was originally a safe harbour for the fishing fleets before the first industrial revolution transformed the town into a thriving trading port and shipbuilding hub. Greenock’s most famous son is the inventor and engineer James Watt, and the dock which bears his name today remains in use at Garvel Point. In fact, two of the three dry docks on the Clyde were located at Garvel, and a recent renovation project has repurposed one into the award-winning Beacon theatre.
That brings me neatly to the Question before the Committee today. One of my first ministerial duties was to participate in COP 26 in Glasgow—how fitting that the world came back to the Clyde to seek new solutions to this climate emergency. What a tremendous achievement of the UK’s two-year presidency it was to increase the global commitment to net zero from 30% to 90% of world emissions. Some say that the UK has a limited role to play in climate change as we account for only 1% of world emissions. Yet COP 26 proves that our leadership still counts, because we can demonstrate that it is possible simultaneously to grow our economy while cutting our emissions.
This is what I learned at COP 26: we have the capital, the brains and the political will to meet the climate challenge. Participating in the Net Zero Technology Centre forum—funded by the Aberdeen City Region Deal—I was so encouraged to hear technologists from the oil and gas sector in Aberdeen collaborating with Houston, Calgary, Perth and Canberra as they repurposed their assets and people into low-carbon energy sources.
How gratifying it is that Scotland has such a prominent and world-leading role to play in rebalancing the UK’s energy programme to net zero by 2050. We have all the natural resources and the existing infrastructure, plus the scientists, engineers and skilled workforce required to build a balanced scorecard in energy. Scotland contributes 60% of UK wind and 40% of the 160,000 highly skilled jobs already working in energy across the UK. This is called punching above our weight in a UK where we contribute just 8% of the population but 33% of the geography.
However, we must remember that a key word in this climate debate, already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, is “transition”, and that it is to net zero, not to zero carbon. Some 35% of our energy needs in 2050 will still come from carbon; today it is 75%, so that will be a massive reduction—more than halved. It would be foolhardy and irresponsible to ditch our world-class oil and gas sector in the North Sea to increase our carbon footprint by importing, whether from Russia—bad—or Qatar: good.
The North Sea Transition Deal is an exemplar in the G7 of a domestic oil and gas industry working in partnership with government to ensure that net zero is met by 2050. The noble Baroness asked what milestones we have along the way. By 2030, the cash flow generated in oil and gas will contribute £15 billion of long-term investment into new energy technologies. On the transition of jobs, by 2030 the UK offshore energy sector in total will increase from 160,000 to 200,000 jobs, of which two-thirds will be in low-carbon energy sources.
One of my new responsibilities is the North Sea Transition Deal, and in the last forum we had there were presentations from oil and gas companies, talking about how their target for 2025 is 50:50 investment of capex and renewables to get a return on capital in the region of 12%. Speaking as a businessman, I asked what percentage return on capital you get on each side of the scorecard. There was a certain amount of silence, because it emerged that renewables on their own do not return on capital at this point. Therefore, it is essential for the cash flow made in oil and gas to be reinvested to produce renewables. We will get transition to renewables only if it is a managed transition, using cash flow from carbon as it reduces to invest in renewables. That is absolutely essential. The two go hand in hand; you cannot have one without the other.
I will directly answer some of the questions posed in this debate, turning first to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I must say, this is a baptism of fire. I do not recognise the country she mentioned as corrupt. Maybe if I am here long enough that will emerge for me, but I do not recognise that to be the case where we are today. The financing of parties seems to be a whole new debate and perhaps can be done another time. I am on the record as saying that parties should not be financed by taxpayers. However they are financed, as long as it is transparent and legal I suggest that it is fine, but perhaps we should park that for another debate at another time.
The key thing that has come through here is the use of language and the fact that the word “subsidy” is so misused. My noble friend Lord Lilley made it very clear that as a matter of business practice, whichever industry you are in, it is entirely legitimate to off-set costs against revenues. In this sector, because the lead times are so long there is quite often a mismatch, and therefore money flows back and forwards. Since the oil and gas industry began in this country, total tax revenues of £360 billion have been received, and £33 billion in the last 10 years alone, but along the way you will see ebb and flow: money in, money back.
Tax relief is a normal part of the corporate tax system. Genuine costs and injuries such as the safe removal of infrastructure at the end of a field’s life are not a subsidy but a tax deduction and quite often, in certain cases, money flows back to the Treasury. Therefore, it is just inaccurate—perhaps self-serving—to use an emotive word such as “subsidy” when something is regulated by our own accountancy businesses, as is the case for all sectors. I push back firmly on the idea that we subsidise. We are against subsidies in this country and generally want to have free trade.
As I said before, on the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, it is essential that we transition jobs to renewables if we are to have two-thirds of jobs in low-carbon renewables. We have discovered from a study at Robert Gordon University that the onshore and offshore skills we currently have in carbon are absolutely essential to the new world. For example, when it comes to carbon storage, floating oil fields, et cetera, we currently have very transferable skills in the oil and gas industry and will transition them into renewables.
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, talked about his heritage in coal mining. We know exactly how that feels in Scotland; 40 years ago we closed the mines and started importing coal. What on earth is the point of that? Are we really going to make the same mistake again 40 years later, when we have a vibrant industry with 160,000 workers?
We are talking about a new Britain here, are we not? This is a new global Britain—a high-production, high-wage economy, with highly skilled jobs. This is an exemplar of highly skilled jobs in this country that we should be very proud of. Certainly, from a Scottish perspective, this is our second biggest industry, after fisheries, food and drink. It is one of our five exemplars in the UK, and we need to protect it.
Before I come to the end of my piece, the answer to the Question—for Hansard—is that the Government do not give subsidies to fossil fuel companies. The licences are awarded by an independent regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority, within the framework of achieving net zero. In fact, on Tuesday the High Court dismissed a case brought by climate activists that the regulator was giving unlawful subsidies.
The OGA is an independent regulator. Its staff are classified as public servants and are subject to rigorous standards and codes. Therefore I would say that the oil and gas industry is subject to a robust, multilayered regulatory system, which is independent and transparent, and there is no
“undue influence from outside interests”.
In closing this debate, let me be quite clear that the Government do not believe that decarbonising our economy means shutting the oil and gas industry, as has been said in this Room. We certainly do not believe in demonising a world-leading industry with the sort of intemperate language used by Patrick Harvie, Green Minister in the Scottish Government, who recently said that only those on the “hard right” would support oil and gas extraction. What an insult to the 160,000 workers in this vital sector. A broad range of stakeholders, from entrepreneur Sir Ian Wood to the GMB trade union, have warned politicians against creating an adverse investment environment for this vital sector. There is nothing just or fair about that, and it would set us back on the road to net zero.
May I intervene, on behalf of the Committee, to congratulate the Minister on his maiden speech? It was an eloquent, fascinating account of his background. His is a welcome Scottish voice in this House, and he will bring his experience of developing industries and business to our debates. We look forward eagerly to hearing his future contributions to our debates.
I thank the noble Lord for those kind words.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for further regulating the use of e-scooters given the safety concerns about their use.
The time limit is one hour.
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Offord of Garvel and to be able to complement him on a powerful and stimulating maiden speech. However, we are here now to ask the Government what plans they have for further regulating the use of e-scooters, given the safety concerns about their use. I feel I have won the jackpot, as this is my first QSD from the Back Benches since 2013.
E-scooters are a recent invention. Like most inventions, they potentially offer some people real advantages. Also like most inventions, they have downsides. The trick, if possible, is to maximise the advantages and minimise the disadvantages.
Unfortunately, developments so far have not been encouraging. There can be no dispute that the law is being widely flouted—never a good place to start. I believe, and the Commons Library note confirms this, that riding e-scooters on public roads is illegal, unless authorised as part of an official experiment. Let us call them Boris scooters so that people listening to the debate can understand that arrangement. I believe that many of the e-scooters that I see on roads are not part of any such experiment. Moreover, unfortunately, it is difficult for the public to identify vehicles that do not qualify—especially on a dark night. In any event, we all know from personal experience that e-scooters are often ridden on pavements, which is illegal in any circumstances. Yet there seem to be limited attempts to enforce the law.
The point, of course, is that heavy objects moving at the equivalent of a fast running speed are potentially dangerous to the public, especially to pedestrians. It is a pity that these problems have been allowed to develop without any attempt by the Government to set appropriate limits and boundaries. Speaking more personally, I live in fear of my life from e-scooters as I walk home from here. If I were disabled, I would be much more worried. The pavements have become a jungle. This has become an urgent matter; something must be done, and done quickly.
I have two possible approaches which I should like us to debate. The first would be radical: namely, to learn from the experience of motorbikes and prohibit the sale of e-scooters in the UK. Arguably, we should have banned motorbikes long ago. They give much pleasure to a small group of people, and my uncle rode one into his 80s. However, they are very dangerous and have been instrumental in the deaths of thousands of young people in the UK. What a waste! If they were invented today, I do not believe we would allow motorbikes to be used on public roads.
For the same reason, although they do not go quite as fast, there is a case for stopping the use of e-scooters on public roads—and doing so now, before more damage is done and more lives lost. There have been 258 collisions in London alone during the first six months of 2021, according to the police, and I am sure this is an underestimate, as many collisions go unreported.
As I said, the risk to the disabled is especially worrying, and I note that organisations representing them, especially the blind, very much agree. I will be particularly interested to see what my noble friends Lord Holmes and Lord Shinkwin have to say on the matter: it is great to see them here today. I add that e-scooters also generate fear for the citizen, both about being injured and being the subject of e-scooter-based mugging.
These are serious disadvantages to e-scooters, and we will hear of others, but we need also to consider the benefits, which might be economic, environmental, or from increased convenience. Taking the economic aspect first, I recognise that new consumer goods can usher in economic growth—think fridges and hoovers in the 1930s, and washing machines and dishwashers in later waves. Bicycles were actually a very early example. So far, the production of e-scooters appears to generate no economic benefit for the UK—they are predominantly manufactured overseas—so benefit must be found, if at all, elsewhere in the economic cycle, and it is difficult to see where it might lie.
We also need to understand what they will replace. There seems very little evidence that they will replace cars. The main users are young people, and they will be substituting for bicycles, including electric bikes, non-electric scooters and public transport. All of these are less dangerous, and cycling is better for your health.
Some have argued that there are environmental advantages. Interestingly, the House of Commons report suggests this may not be the case, at least at present, essentially because there is a high carbon cost in manufacturing, as well as in obtaining the rare minerals increasingly needed in large quantities for batteries. Nor can I see that, overall, there is a net benefit in convenience for society as a whole. Although I am normally free market in my approach, as colleagues will know, I think a ban would be worth considering.
However, there is a second approach, which is to regulate, provide appropriate powers and penalties, and give the police or local and transport authorities the resources needed to enforce the law. The regulations would need to cover the safety and design of the scooters so that they are less dangerous and, in particular, do not catch fire, which has been an issue mentioned in a number of recent media reports. The design might include lights and sounds. The regulations would also need to cover speed limits, mandatory helmet wearing—given their speed—perhaps a simple driving test, and compulsory insurance. We would also need existing laws to be properly enforced. If this approach were chosen, a proper costed impact assessment would be illuminating.
Perhaps my noble friend could advise on what basis current e-scooter provision has been permitted under law and whether we presently have the subordinate powers to make legislation of the sort I have outlined—or something like it—or whether a new Bill would be needed for that purpose.
I have called this debate today because I am very worried by the present situation. We are drifting into a bad place and failing to act as scooter numbers mushroom, making action needed to control them much more difficult. There are various trials going on, of course, and I look forward to an update on the results.
I am grateful to so many fellow Peers for speaking today in last business. It is because we are all looking to the Government for a response and for action on this matter. I very much look forward to the reply from my noble friend, and I hope she will surprise me.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, and I congratulate her on securing this timely and incredibly important debate. I echo her congratulations to our noble friend Lord Offord on his excellent maiden speech as well.
How can e-scooters be part of a public realm of transport which is inclusive by design? How can they fit within anything which could be seen as safe? Just today, a report mentioned the fire risks and trip hazards when they are abandoned on pavements. The riders themselves, often young men or boys from lower socioeconomic groups, can be injured and sometimes tragically killed. How is this something that any Government would seek to support in any of our key policy areas?
We are told that e-scooters are part of micro-mobility, and I can see some potential use cases there. But I ask my noble friend how e-scooters can help with people’s health? How can they help other pedestrians, who—as is suggested by the word “pedestrian”—are trying to walk on the pavement? For me, that is an impossibility and a clear and present danger, but they would be a trip hazard for anybody. The bays. often sited on pavements, take up crucial pedestrian space as well.
E-scooters are often seen as a piece of fun equipment or something to enjoy. As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, there are many analogies to the motorbike when it first emerged. But when we look at the engineering, is it not possible that even at that primary production level, e-scooters are dangerous by design? They are seen as a bit of fun, yet our A&E departments up and down the country tell a very different story. A&E doctors and nurses are having to deal with the consequences of e-scooter accidents at a time when they are already exhausted and under pressure, not least through the pandemic.
When we go to the international comparator, why would we push forward on e-scooters when nations such as Denmark, Spain, France and Israel, and the state of Texas and others, are looking to retreat, if not heavily regulate, control and withdraw from the e-scooter experiment? The law is clear, but it is not being enforced. What advice are police forces being given, and have they the resources to enforce the current legal situation?
I agree with my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe that, if not an outright ban, this is certainly time for serious consideration and a pause in what is happening. I say that for myself, as a blind person, but I say it also for all people who could become casualties of this e-scooter free-for-all. At least we need the current law to be fully enforced; we then absolutely need to look at further and closer regulation. If something is not safe, if it is not inclusive design, what part can it possibly have in a society for everybody? If we truly believe in levelling up and building back better, what place the e-scooter?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend, who spoke so eloquently, and I congratulate my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe on securing this debate. Can the Minister confirm at the outset that, in fact, e-scooters are banned on public land unless they are part of the control trial? If they are part of the control trial, we are told by the Met Office—sorry, by the Metropolitan Police; the Met Office is for forecasting of a different kind—that e-scooters are classed as a motor vehicle under the Road Traffic Act 1988. Can she tell us how many driving licences for this motorised vehicle have been issued as part of the control trials, since their commencement?
In the Minister’s view, and that of the department, does she consider that perhaps those driving an e-scooter need to realise that they have to be over the age of 16, in possession of a driving licence, and should not be riding one without insurance cover, which would lead to a £100 fine? Can she tell us how many e-scooters have been confiscated that are privately owned but being driven on public land, and how many fines have been imposed? I am sure that my noble friend shares my concern at the statistics on the sheer volume of accidents provided in the Library note. Her own department, in November 2021, records 882 accidents involving e-scooters, with 173 involving other vehicles, and 931 casualties in accidents involving e-scooters, of which there were three deaths, all of whom were e-scooter drivers. In that, 253 were seriously injured, while 675 were slightly injured.
How are the Government going to respond to the recommendations of the Association of British Insurers, which sides with my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe? If there is going to be a regulatory framework for e-scooters, it said:
“We strongly oppose the implementation of any regulatory framework that could result in liabilities falling onto the Motor Insurers’ Bureau (MIB) and premium-paying motorists without a corresponding insurance requirement for these vehicles; or some form of contribution towards the MIB’s liabilities from users of”
e-scooters and related devices. Without such a recommendation being implemented, we will all have to pay extra insurance premiums to cover the third-party liability. Do the Government intend to ensure mandatory use of helmets for e-scooter users?
My noble friend told me in reply to a Question last year that the current framework is that a person can be fined up to £300, or get six points on their licence, or their e-scooters could be impounded. I end where I began by asking her to tell us who is responsible for enforcement, how many e-scooters have been seized and how many driving licences have been endorsed and fines have been issued? What expectation can we have of better enforcement in future?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for calling this debate. I hope noble Lords will forgive me for taking part not as an expert but as someone who lives in London and has become concerned and, to be honest, bemused by the rise of e-scooters on our streets. What a meteoric rise it is; having been properly introduced only in 2018, the companies that make these vehicles are now raising millions of pounds in venture capital, a clear indication that the market for e-scooters is not slowing down any time soon.
Despite their envisaged popularity, I am still unclear whom these scooters are aimed at or what they are for. The argument you hear most is about the environmental benefits—how they will contribute to greener, cleaner spaces in our towns and cities—but is this really the case? As my noble friend just said, and according to the Royal Society of Chemistry, unless e-scooters are used daily for many years and replace a car, their impact on the environment is ultimately damaging, with high carbon costs in manufacture and mining of raw materials.
Is it realistic to suppose that e-scooters can and will replace a private car? According to recent figures by Lime, one of the companies taking part in the Government’s trial, the average journey is two kilometres—a journey that would take about 20 minutes to walk. Is it not more likely that, far from replacing car journeys, e-scooters are in fact replacing walking or cycling, both of which are far more environmentally friendly? The evidence on this is still sketchy, but the Government’s evaluation is looking at usage. If it shows that e-scooters are replacing not car journeys but active travel—a key aim of the Department for Transport—can my noble friend the Minister say whether this will be a consideration in deciding how and whether to regulate further usage? When the House of Commons Transport Committee recommended legalising their use, it also said
“it would be counter-productive if an uptake in e-scooters … primarily replaced people undertaking more active and healthy forms of travel.”
The evaluation report will also look at the user demographic of e-scooters, which will make interesting reading. The 2020 Kantar report into public attitudes revealed that there was no obvious target market for e-scooters. Some people did not feel that they were relevant for their personal transport needs. Others thought that they were not suitable for their age or stage in life—for example, because they had children. In that case, why are there so many of them?
I refer today only to London, as that is my experience. In my area, where e-scooters are supposedly banned, they seem to be the exclusive preserve, as mentioned, of 20-something men, used at all hours of the day and night, often without much care and attention. Invariably, they tend to be illegally ridden private scooters. As one online writer said when test-driving the legally trialled version:
“At a tenner an hour, or a fiver for a 25-minute run, they’re hardly a cheap commute … but restricted to the roads and banned from most parks, they’re not much of a leisure activity either.”
If we are not sure who or what they are for and the green argument is by no means clear, are these scooters really worth all the associated risks—the many rider accidents and the danger to pedestrians? I would say no. However, as I suspect they are here to stay, can my noble friend say whether the Government will take account of the experience of other European cities? Stockholm is now halving its number of e-scooters from 23,000 to 12,000, Copenhagen has banned them in the city centre and Oslo has capped the number at 8,000. Arguably, these cities are all far more suited to their use than London but, having let the genie out of the bottle, even they are having to grapple with the consequences. I fear it will not be long before we have to do the same.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for giving us the opportunity to debate such an important subject. I also thank her for her empathy: something which has been notably lacking from the Government’s approach.
The primary duty of the state is to protect the citizen. I take no pleasure in saying that that fundamental duty has not been honoured by the Government in respect of the introduction of e-scooters, and the scant regard they have shown for the safety of the UK’s 14.1 million disabled people.
Perhaps I could illustrate the point. Just over two hours ago, a wheelchair user was propelling themselves over a zebra crossing not a mile from your Lordships’ House. A cyclist was approaching from a distance, so the wheelchair user stopped to allow time for the cyclist to stop. They did not stop. Instead, they swerved at the last moment, within inches of hitting me, leaving me feeling very unsafe in my wheelchair. I made it to the House in one piece—just. Sadly, that is not a rare incident. Barely a day goes by when I do not feel threatened by e-scooter users, e-cyclists or pedal cyclists, sometimes all three and often as not on the pavement.
I know that the incident I described is not specific to the regulation of e-scooters, but it is symptomatic of the culture of impunity that this Government have allowed to take hold and, sadly, seem to be doing nothing to prevent. About 23,000 pedestrians are killed or injured in police-reported road accidents every year in Britain. Of course, disabled people are at greater risk—as I explained from my experience this afternoon. The problem is that the laws designed to protect us are not being abided by; nor are e-scooter users, cyclists or e-cyclists being required to abide by them.
My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond mentioned A&E cases. Just this Tuesday, a pedestrian was struck by an e-scooter in Hackney; she may be left with life-changing injuries. Freedom of information requests have shown that ambulance call-outs to incidents involving e-scooters jumped from 75 in 2019 to 480 in the first eight months of 2021, an increase of 540%. Yet the Metropolitan Police will reportedly now no longer routinely seize e-scooters being ridden illegally on public roads, instead confiscating them only from repeat offenders.
The UK’s disabled citizens need to hear that the Government recognise that their primary duty to protect the citizen applies equally to them. The Government have a duty to ensure that those who break the law by cycling on the pavement, going through red lights, failing to stop at zebra crossings or breaking the speed limit, outside your Lordships’ House, are punished—fined and named and shamed—so that disabled pedestrians can leave their homes without fear of being injured, whether by an e-scooter, e-bike or bicycle.
My Lords, I was rather taken with my noble friend Lady Sanderson’s questions: what are e-scooters for and who are they for? In the absence of answers to those questions, I am even more inspired by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe’s bold desire for a complete ban. But my starting position is that, if the Government want to retain and expand a commercial e-scooter rental scheme, they must ensure that the current rules and regulations are enforced and be prepared to regulate yet further.
Like other noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon, I am very concerned by the evidence of accidents provided in the Library briefing note, and indeed other anecdotal evidence supplied by correspondence to those of us taking part today. Please do not take my pragmatic approach to the continuation of commercial schemes as support for them; I just find it hard to imagine that the Government are going to revoke them. Because of that, my bigger concern is if they are to relax the law and make e-scooters permissible on public roads. As we have already heard from my noble friends this afternoon, I fear that is happening by stealth because of inertia in enforcing the current laws. As my noble friends have said, people are using these e-scooters with impunity and doing so in a reckless and often unsafe way.
I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could provide an update today on police enforcement, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh has already requested, around things such as confiscation. I would also be grateful if she were able, after today’s debate, to provide us in writing with what guidance has been provided to the police to inform how they enforce the law. I hope she will forgive my scepticism on the police’s enthusiasm to do what is required of them.
To illustrate my scepticism, the other week I observed a police officer open a gate to the Parliamentary Estate to allow a private e-scooter rider to exit. On seeing this, I said to the police officer, “That’s illegal; why didn’t you stop him?”, and the response I received was, “You’d think I could”. I said, “You’re the police; I think you should”. That was the end of the conversation.
It is bad enough when pedestrians and other road users see e-scooters flouting the law, but it provokes anger when the same e-scooters travel at speeds that exceed the limits or breach traffic lights. So the Government also need to bear in mind the frustrations of road users for whom driving is critical to their job or direct source of income, such as black cab or taxi drivers, delivery drivers and tradesmen such as plumbers, electricians and so on—the people who are struggling to enter cities to provide essential services to the people who live here or to other businesses because of increasing traffic regulations or traffic schemes. Beyond what I have already asked, my question to the Minister is: what is the department doing actively to consult the kind of users I have just described about the current e-scooter pilot schemes and the way in which private users are flouting the law? It is worth bearing in mind that the people I have just described are not the sort of people who respond to consultations, so are the Government in contact with trade bodies and firms—Pimlico Plumbers, or whatever? Can the Minister also provide us with an update on the evidence of the involvement of e-scooters in other crimes?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on introducing this debate, which has been monopolised by seven Conservative Back-Benchers. It is a very timely debate because, as we have discovered, we are trying to identify the correct new regime for e-scooters. I will take a slightly more nuanced view than some of my noble friends—and I do so as a former Secretary of State for Transport.
Where I entirely agree with everything that has been said is that we need to minimise this interregnum where there is widespread illegal use of e-scooters, alongside legal use of rented e-scooters. We have listened to the questions. What do the police do? Do they intervene only if an e-scooter is being driven dangerously? Do they stop somebody and warn them that it is illegal? Do they confiscate the e-bike? Or do they simply turn a blind eye, in which case the law is brought into disrepute? We need clarity on the final regime as soon as possible, and then enforcement.
On 24 December, the Government said they were extending several trial areas to November this year. They then have to evaluate the scheme and legislate, so what is the earliest date by which we can have a final regime, which we can then begin to enforce? What is the target date?
As for what the regime should look like, I have travelled to Westminster on two wheels for the best part of 50 years—although the wheels have a longer circumference than those on an e-scooter—so I am aware of both the benefits and the hazards of two wheels. The benefits are the speed, the certainty of the length of journey, the flexibility, the economy and the scope for replacing car use. Nottingham launched a trial zone for e-scooters in October, which saw 1 million rides in the first 12 months. The latest citizen research by the TIER project showed that 17.3% of rides replaced car journeys.
On the other hand, we have heard about the risks and hazards, not just to the rider, which can be reduced by high-visibility clothing and observing the Highway Code, but, more importantly, to other road users and pedestrians. There is no excuse whatever for riding on pavements or for anti-social behaviour.
Looking ahead, my view is that we should live with the e-scooter. While I understand all the problems outlined by my noble friends, I am not in favour of banning them. If we are to ban activities—something deeply un-Conservative—I would choose smoking before e-scootering. A ban would be an unnecessary barrier to the promotion of an individual and popular mobility scheme, which can complement public and private transport.
Having said that, I agree with my noble friends that we need parameters. I have been overtaken by someone on an e-scooter going twice as fast as the 15 mph that I do on my bike. The Dualtron e-scooter has an advertised top speed of 68 mph. I favour a maximum speed limit, as with e-bikes.
On licensing, at the moment you do not need a driving licence for an e-bike; you just have to be 14. But you do need one, even if provisional, to ride a rented e-scooter legally, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh said. If we have licences for one, we should have them for the other, and on balance I am not in favour of driving licences for either e-scooters or e-bikes. If you need a licence for an e-bike with a top speed of 15 mph, what about bicycles that go twice as fast? If we are to make it compulsory for e-scooter riders, capped at 15 mph, to wear helmets, what is the logic of exempting cyclists, who can go much faster?
Finally, I think you should be able to buy e-scooters and not have to rent them—but why are nearly all of them made in China? I understand why the trials are restricted to rental projects, but I see no reason for subsequent restrictions, which would constrain the beginning and end point of each journey because you have to dock the scooter. Owned scooters are less likely to be left around, and are likely to be ridden more carefully. I hope that these points might be taken on board.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving us this excellent opportunity, and I am surprised to find that I agree with most of the views that have been put forward. In my view, the Department for Transport is treating the 31 pilot projects rather as the Prime Minister is treating the Sue Gray report—as an excuse for lack of action, while the evidence mounts and everyone can see there is a big problem.
I start from a position of positively welcoming e-scooters, as another potential alternative to cars. They are not exactly active travel because they require very little effort, but they are emission-free at the point of use. Evidence shows that they tend to be used by young people for short journeys and are often used just for fun. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
One problem is that the Government have set up so many very long-term pilot projects that a large number of people think that all e-scooters are now legal. Another is that there is virtually no police enforcement for illegally used e-scooters outside the pilot areas, while retailers are selling hundreds of thousands of them—mostly with no warning that they are illegal on roads and pavements. It is estimated that there are now at least 1 million privately owned e-scooters across the UK. In addition, there are 23,000 available to rent.
That is a very large experiment from which to draw conclusions, and there is now plenty of evidence of the damage that the current wild west approach is doing. Nine e-scooter riders died last year, and a study in Bristol showed that only 7% of riders were wearing helmets. Indeed, the pilot schemes do not require helmet wearing. There were 951 casualties involving e-scooters, 732 of which were the riders—one as young as four—and 253 seriously injured people.
The Government seem paralysed into inaction while the rest of the world is taking this issue on. To give a snapshot of good ideas, in Germany, for instance, you have to be insured, with an annual insurance sticker; you must have lights, brakes, reflectors and a bell; and there is a 20 kilometre per hour maximum speed. France, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Portugal and Sweden have all based their rules on those that apply to cycling. Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy and Australia all seem to have rules. There are a host of ways in which sensible regulations can be introduced and technology can come to the rescue—for example, using geo-fencing to exclude them.
Despite all that regulation, however, very serious issues remain. The impact on people with disabilities has been very well outlined. I have lost more than 70% of my hearing, and I am told that they make a swishing sound as they come along, but I cannot hear that. The hire and charging model for e-scooters is not as environmentally friendly as you might think, because the batteries have a very short lifespan, and a time-based hiring system encourages people to speed to get to the end of their journey by the end of their hire time. There is also a serious and major fire risk, which has been revealed only this week, with a house destroyed by a fire due to the combustion of an e-scooter battery. So, I ask the Minister to please address that issue if she does not do anything else.
My Lords, as has been pointed out, this is one debate where the Minister gets more grief from behind her than from in front of her. I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for securing and opening this debate.
As has been said, there are concerns about the use of e-scooters and the safety implications. I do not know whether the figures I have are anywhere near accurate, but as I understand it, in London there were 258 reported collisions in the first six months of last year, and no doubt a very much larger number of near-misses, which will have caused distress and fear for other road users—but, more concerningly, for pedestrians and wheelchair users, who do not expect to be mown down while on our pavements.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People has warned that e-scooters could pose dangers for blind people and has asked the Government whether they should each make a recognisable sound to alert pedestrians. E-scooters may be used on public roads in the UK only if they are part of a trial in a select number of areas. As part of these trials, e-scooters may be unlocked using a smartphone app and are limited, as I understand it, to 15 miles per hour and certain geographical locations. As the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, said, it has been reported that these trials are to be extended to late 2022.
Despite being currently illegal to use outside of private land, the Times estimates that there may be 750,000 personally owned e-scooters, which suggests either a lot of illegal use or a lot of suitable private land, or both. Due to reports of fires and the obvious threat to safety, e-scooters have been banned from Transport for London services and premises. Some 3,600 e-scooters were apparently seized by the Met police between January and November of last year, and any owners wanting to retrieve them must pay £150 and a £10 daily storage charge. I am not quite sure what else happens to them.
As I understand it—I am sure I will be corrected if I am wrong—in October 2020, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee recommended the legalisation of e-scooters. We cannot uninvent the technology, but as the question asked by this debate indicates, we need to ensure that there are relevant and appropriate regulations in place to address the safety concerns over the use of e-scooters if their general use is to be given the go-ahead. If they can provide a safe, relatively cheap and environmentally friendly method of transport, e-scooters could have much to offer, particularly if they encourage some people who use their car for shorter journeys in our towns and cities to switch their mode of transport.
I certainly hope that, in their response today, the Government will be able to update us on the progress with the trials and any emerging findings, particularly in relation to safety, and any initial thoughts they have on the scope of regulations that would be required in connection with the use of e-scooters. It would also be helpful to know whether they are or are not contemplating their legal use on pavements, and if they are satisfied that enough is being done—taking into account the cuts in police numbers over the past decade—to enforce the current law in relation to the illegal use of personally owned e-scooters on our public roads and pavements. Finally, what engagement do the Government currently have with the RNIB and other relevant organisations representing disabled people as part of the e-scooter trials?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for securing this debate, and I thank all my Conservative colleagues for turning up as well. In my five years as a Minister, I think this is the strongest showing, proportionately, that I have ever had. There were many valuable contributions from all Benches, and I am truly grateful.
Transport is always changing and, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe noted, battery e-scooters are a relatively recent invention, although there was an internal combustion engine scooter around 100 years ago—there is a fantastic photograph of one—so maybe they will just be a fad. Who knows? But the Government believe that, with the right regulations, there is potential for significant economic, social and environmental benefits from light, zero-emission vehicles such as e-scooters. E-scooters can help to reduce emissions, as noted by a number of noble Lords. They can reduce carbon, of course, and nitrogen oxide emissions and particulates, which both contribute to poor air quality. If users switch from cars, there will be environmental benefits—but if they switch from cycling or walking, I agree that there will not be, although there may be other benefits.
Mode shift will be a key part of our considerations going forward, as was asked about by my noble friend Lady Sanderson. Based on examples from across Europe, in a pre-Covid context, we could expect modal shift to e-scooters to be around one-third from walking, one-third from public transport, 15% to 20% from car, and 10% from cycling, with around 2% for new trips. As with all emerging technologies, however, we must be mindful of the risks, and noble Lords have set out many valid concerns today. We want to ensure a measured and evidence-based approach to our policy decisions, which is of course why we are running controlled trials. They are trials, not experiments.
Let me share a few facts about the trials from the period from July 2020 to the end of November. More than 66,000 e-scooters have been approved in 31 trials across 54 areas. At the end of November, there were 23,141 e-scooters available to rent across all areas. Roughly 13 million trips had been taken, over 18.5 million miles travelled, and roughly 3 million hours ridden in total across the rental trials. To date, around a million individual users have rented an e-scooter as part of the trials.
The current regulations for trials limit e-scooters to a maximum speed of 15 and a half miles an hour and a maximum power of 5 watts. Users must have a full or provisional driving licence, and the licence is confirmed by the trial operator. While helmets are not mandatory, we, local areas and trial operators recommend that people use them. E-scooters are able to use cycle lanes, but I can confirm that it is absolutely illegal to use them on pavements. All trial e-scooters have insurance, provided by the rental operator and confirmed by the department.
The department also sets out minimum vehicle standards, including a requirement to have lights and a horn or bell to warn other road users, plus there are data-sharing requirements. All users in trials are provided with training via apps, and in some cases in person, to instruct them on safe and considerate riding. Most trial areas have dedicated parking bays and/or docking stations to help to reduce the risks caused by additional street clutter, a point made by my noble friend Lord Shinkwin.
Where problems with trials have arisen—and I agree that there have been issues—we have worked very quickly to nip them in the bud. For example, we increased the level of driving-licence checks that trial operators must perform when a new user signs up and put systems in place to ensure that you cannot get multiple sign-ups from a single driving licence.
In October 2021, the trials were extended to the end of this November. This will allow us to continue to fill data gaps and make some small changes; for example, we have introduced uniform ID plates to ensure that we can recognise e-scooters and make sure that the trials are as safe and well run as possible. We have been monitoring and evaluating the trials all the way through. It is a very fast-moving area; substantial additional data has been generated since we received an interim report last June. This has come from direct data feeds from the trial operators and survey data from, and interviews and focus groups with, e-scooter users and residents, including those whose income derives from being able to get out and about—that might be local tradespeople or taxi drivers. The final report for the trials is due relatively soon and will include all this information; we are just figuring out how to compile and present it to provide a comprehensive picture of the evidence. We hope to publish it in spring.
I have heard from many noble Lords—and, to a certain extent, I agree—that enforcement is absolutely essential. We know there are occasions where trial e-scooters are not used as they should be. We also know there are similar offences and penalties we can use for privately owned e-scooters in the public arena. For the avoidance of doubt, for my noble friend Lady McIntosh and all noble Lords, it is absolutely illegal to use a private e-scooter on public land or a public highway. These offences are available to both trial and private e-scooter users and derived from the same offences as for motor vehicles. This means they might include driving on the pavement, which applies to those using a trial e-scooter and those naughtily using a private one; not having insurance or a driving licence—this would mostly apply to people with a private e-scooter; dangerous driving, which applies to everyone; and drink-driving. E-scooter users either illegally using a private scooter in the public domain or committing an offence on a rented e-scooter, such as riding on a pavement, can be fined up to £300 and have six points put on their driving licence, and the e-scooter can be impounded.
My noble friend Lord Holmes asked whether police forces have had advice. We have issued guidelines to the National Police Chiefs’ Council on general safety and rules for trial e-scooter users. We have also made sure that, before local authorities apply to set up for a trial, we need to see evidence that they have engaged with the local police to ensure that they are well aware of what is about to happen in the area. However, the level of enforcement within each local police force is an operational matter for that police force—I suggest, in consultation with the police and crime commissioner. Many noble Lords in London may wish to write to the Mayor of London about that. Local authorities and trial operators are also required to demonstrate that the vehicles used are distinctive so that you can tell they are legal, trial e-scooters that are allowed rather than privately owned e-scooters that are not.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked for further information on confiscations and fines and the use of e-scooters in other crimes. I will follow up with whatever I can find in a letter. We are aware that a large number of people have purchased an e-scooter in recent years. That is why we believe it is so important that we conduct these very large trials to gather evidence so that we can inform future policy and any legislative basis for e-scooter users in future.
It is not illegal to sell an e-scooter. However, there are protections for the general public: under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, retailers need to give sufficient information about goods and services to consumers. These regulations carry criminal penalties, so they can be used against individual retailers. Ministers from my department have written to retailers twice, in December 2018 and again in July 2021, to set out their concerns that retailers were not providing this clear, visible and consistent information that we need.
On the safety of e-scooters themselves—are these things actually safe?—at the moment there is not enough reliable international evidence on e-scooter safety to compare them accurately with other modes. Evidence to date suggests that the rates of injuries are broadly similar when compared with pedal cycles. The overall change in safety risk will depend on the mode shift. If we see a mode shift from cars, that would of course be a positive thing, because cars can be a significantly more dangerous mode, particularly for other road users. We will look at the impact on safety overall and in the context of the sorts of journeys that are carried out on e-scooters.
We are aware that a small number of fire incidents have involved e-scooters in recent months and we are liaising with the trial operators and participating local authorities. We are also co-ordinating with a number of government departments, including the Office for Product Safety & Standards, to ensure that such matters are considered as part of regulations around any electric vehicle entering the UK.
My noble friends Lord Holmes and Lord Shinkwin both eloquently raised the challenge of e-scooters to disabled people, and of course we are well aware that there can be challenges, although to some other disabled people they may be of benefit. We particularly take the point about those who are blind or visually impaired and therefore unable to see the scooters coming. We have had numerous discussions with disability groups and we require that all e-scooters have a horn or bell so that they can make others aware. We will continue to engage with groups that we have good relationships with, including the RNIB. We want e-scooters to be as inclusive by design as possible. Indeed, all transport should be inclusive by design. I was horrified to hear about what happened to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin earlier today.
We have looked at other European countries and we will take heed of the way that they have taken forward e-scooters. For the time being we have a regulatory landscape that we put in in June 2020 following a consultation. What does that look like for the future? I know that noble Lords are looking for certainty from me but I cannot provide that today. We are still gathering and analysing the data. We want a safe, proportionate and flexible regulatory framework if we decide that is our way forward. We have been gathering plenty of evidence: we have responses to the future of transport regulatory review, and there is further stakeholder engagement to do, including state engagement with the insurance industry. No decision has been taken about the future legal status of e-scooters. Much as I would like to give a response to my noble friend Lord Young about timelines, I cannot at this moment in time. However, if they are to be legalised, we would consider removing them from the motor vehicle category and instead creating a new bespoke category of vehicles with the appropriate regulatory regime in place.
I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords—
Before my noble friend sits down, to go back to her answer on the legislative framework, would that require primary legislation to ban or regulate? Would it be necessary to have another Bill? I am very sorry that we cannot have a timeline, but it would be good to know the legislative framework.
Of course, that will depend on what we decide to do. One might assume that there would be a route with a primary framework that would set out this new type of vehicle. We have to remember that this stuff moves quickly, and one could have a system where you would have a framework from which you would then regulate to ensure that things can be adjusted as technology moves on. As I say, that is just one of many options, as I am sure the noble Baroness understands.
Committee adjourned at 4.59 pm.