Tuesday 25 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.
Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the draft Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, were laid before the House on 23 November. I hardly need to remind the Committee, given the number of noble Lords from Northern Ireland who have taken an interest over the years, that the flying of flags is a very sensitive and delicate issue. Political disagreements over these issues led to the then Labour Government here in Westminster making provision on these matters in 2000 through the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000, with flag flying on government buildings in Northern Ireland becoming a matter for the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000.
The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 provide that on certain designated days the union flag, and in certain circumstances other flags, must be flown from government buildings. For the purposes of these regulations, a Northern Ireland government building is a building wholly or mainly occupied by members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The 2000 regulations also set out a number of “specified buildings” at which the union flag must be flown on the designated days in question. These buildings were chosen as they were the headquarters of Northern Ireland government departments. In 2002, the provisions of the regulations were extended by the then Government to court buildings in Northern Ireland.
After a very long gap of 18 years, the regulations were most recently amended in 2020 to deliver on a government commitment in New Decade, New Approach, which restored a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. This commitment was clear in stating that the Government will:
“Update the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to bring the list of designated flag flying days from Northern Ireland government buildings and court-houses into line with the DCMS designated days, meaning the same designated days will be observed in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK”.
The Government will continue to deliver on this commitment to align the designated days in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK.
As such, the instrument before the Committee today amends the 2000 regulations in four ways. The first two of the four amendments made by these regulations reflect the updated list of designated days for flag flying observed elsewhere in our country. They do so by amending the 2000 regulations following the sad death of His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, last April, to remove his birthday, and the wedding day of Her Majesty the Queen, as designated days. A further amendment provides for the union flag to fly on the proclamation of a new monarch. This addresses an anomaly where currently the flags regulations only make provision for half-masting in the event of the death of a member of the Royal Family or a serving or former Prime Minister, and not for subsequent full masting upon the accession of a new monarch.
I trust that noble Lords will appreciate that, as the 2000 regulations set out in law the flying of flags from government buildings in Northern Ireland, they must have regard to a wide range of possible circumstances. It is for those reasons too that the final amendment provides that the union flag need not be flown on a designated day relating to a member of the Royal Family who has died.
The 2000 flags order requires that consideration be given by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Belfast agreement when making or amending the flags regulations. I can confirm that the Secretary of State is satisfied that these regulations treat flags and emblems in a manner that is respectful of Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances, while being fully consistent with Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as an integral part of our United Kingdom. The 2000 order also requires that consideration be given to regulations ahead of them being laid by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I can confirm this took place on 8 November and want to thank the Assembly for deliberating on these regulations in a considered and thoughtful manner.
I note that the other place debated this rather technical instrument in quick order—in some five and a half minutes—on 5 January and look forward to hearing contributions from noble Lords today. In that spirit, I commend the instrument to the Committee, and I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the very technical provisions in these regulations. They deal with very sensitive issues relating to the passing of Prince Philip and the demarcation issues around the wedding day of the late Prince and Queen Elizabeth.
While the regulations make technical amendments, it is worth noting that flags and emblems in Northern Ireland have gone to the very heart of our society and community. They also lead in very much to our divided society. Northern Ireland is a divided society where flags and emblems are used on many occasions to mark out territory, define identity and cause internecine conflict between both traditions; this situation is heightened during the marching season. I suppose there are two flags: the flag of the United Kingdom and that of the Republic of Ireland. It is important that there is respect for both traditions and that we talk in terms of mutual understanding, building a shared society and having respect for political difference. Flags should not be dragged in the gutter to make a political point. Traditions should respect the value of identity and of those flags that demonstrate identity.
There is one issue, which was also raised during the Assembly debate on this on 8 November. The Minister will recall that, at the Stormont House talks, and then with the subsequent agreement, a decision was taken to establish the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. It met on many occasions and eventually presented its report to the Executive Office last year. Even though it had worked on this for a considerable time before publishing the report in December, to me the report simply kicked the can down the road. No forward plan or action plan was produced, despite a delay of some two years in the report’s publication. It concluded that paramilitary flags—which are different from the union flag and the tricolour—and murals should not be displayed, but there was no plan from the commission to deal with this. Therefore, I ask the Minister to use his good offices with the Northern Ireland Executive, and in particular the Ministers in the Executive Office, to find out when they will bring forward a plan and when they will have discussions with the Government, under the strand one commitments of the Good Friday agreement, to deal with these issues. I am in no doubt that, to build that shared society, we require mutual understanding, reconciliation and, above all, respect for political difference.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear outline of the purpose of the legislation and his explanation of the provisions in it. It deals with some necessary amendments demanded to meet life’s realities. I once again pay tribute to His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who not only gave sterling service to the nation but had a particularly important role in promoting relationships within Northern Ireland, especially through participation in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.
These amendments remove Prince Philip’s birthday and Her Majesty the Queen’s wedding day from the list of designated days to fly the union flag. I regret this is necessary, but I accept its reality. It is also vital that we prepare for the death of our monarch, and in my heart I say, as I have often sung, “Long may she reign”. We are so privileged to have as our monarch the most remarkable woman in the world, whose integrity and strength of character have shone brightly in even the most difficult of circumstances. Her example is one that we all should seek to emulate.
I will make a few other remarks in the light of what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I want to make it clear that there are not two flags for Northern Ireland; there is one—the flag of the United Kingdom. I respect the flag of the Irish Republic for what it is: the flag of the Irish Republic. I live in an area in which every day I face travelling down the road with a flag of a foreign country being flaunted in my face. That is in a neighbourhood where many people were murdered by the IRA. I believe, from the remarks that have already been made, that all noble Lords acknowledge that flags and emblems are a sensitive issue in Northern Ireland. In reality, flags are important to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland, especially bearing in mind that many innocent people’s lives were taken to preserve our position within the United Kingdom. They were murdered because they believed in that reality.
However, before noble Lords today is a provision of reality. I therefore accept it. I regret only the limit to the designated days, because I would be delighted if our flag was flown across this United Kingdom every day and was looked on not as something divisive, but in acknowledgement of the great blessings and benefits it has brought to the people of all Northern Ireland.
My Lords, is not what the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, just said the civic ideal? Both flags could fly and it would not be an issue. I often think we are too prescriptive and ready to ban things. Surely the ideal of civil liberalism is not a world in which things are banned, but a world in which things are allowed and are not a problem. I used to think the same when we were having rows about the Orange walks and parades. The liberal ideal is not one in which they do not happen, but one in which they happen and no one is bothered by them. In the same way, would it not be a wonderful world if, for example when we were having the row about the flag over Belfast City Hall, one side said, “Do you know what? We didn’t know it meant that much to you. Go ahead”, and the other side said, “We didn’t want to upset you. Do you know what? We’ll be moderate and judicious”?
Of course, we are some way from that, but these regulations, bringing Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the country so that we have the same fundamental rules in the four home nations, are a step towards that civic ideal where we can all stand before flags—let me end, in a unifying spirit, with a quote from WB Yeats—
“Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In … its night-dark folds”.
My Lords, I was not intending to speak in this debate, but I will say the following. A flag shows a nation state; the union flag represents all the countries in the United Kingdom. They also have separate flags, as when we watch football at Wembley, if we are good enough to get there. We had this debate for many years over the European flag, which was never a flag but an emblem, because it did not represent a single sovereign state.
I do not want to make things difficult. I am all for making sure that people are inclusive and that we recognise people wherever they come from. I have many friends in the Republic of Ireland and my family came from Northern Ireland, which I suppose was part of the republic of Ireland a long time ago. While I acknowledge that we are communautaire, as we used to say in the European Union, and recognise these things —we want peace and we want people to collaborate—this is a sensitive issue. I will be grateful for my noble friend the Minister’s remarks at the Dispatch Box.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, is taking part remotely. I invite the noble Baroness to speak.
My Lords, I apologise on behalf of my noble friend Lady Suttie, who is on a British Council delegation to Moscow which was delayed for a year. She has asked me to speak on her behalf. The New Decade, New Approach commitment aligned the flying of flags on designated days from government buildings in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK, as we have heard, with regard to the Belfast agreement. The Northern Ireland Assembly was consulted about the draft proposals and agreed them.
Bringing them up to date, following the sad death of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, who had visited Northern Ireland 56 times, the draft instrument removes the need to fly the flag on his birthday, Her Majesty’s wedding day or any other day on which a designated member of the Royal Family dies. I am grateful to the Minister for laying that out. It stipulates that the union flag will be flown on the proclamation of a new monarch. The Liberal Democrats support the draft flags regulations.
My Lords, I just want to ask a couple of questions.
The Explanatory Note includes the words:
“provide that the Union flag need not be flown on the designated days”
“relate to a member of the Royal Family who has died.”
Surely that should be “shall not”? It would be wholly inappropriate and insensitive to fly a flag for a member of the Royal Family who is not alive.
Could I ask which members of the Royal Family are entitled to have flags flown—the children of the monarch, or those in direct line of succession? It would be useful to know. Sadly, there are members of the Royal Family for whom flags may, or perhaps may not, be flown but whose careers, as may be inevitable from time to time, perhaps do not progress as satisfactorily as one would wish and who find themselves in difficult circumstances discrediting their name. Is there provision for the removal of such members of the Royal Family from the entitlement to have flags flown?
It is surprising that there is no existing provision making it mandatory to fly our nation’s flag on the accession of the monarch, but it is gratifying to know that the situation will be rectified. Like other Conservative and Unionist Members—and the noble Lord, Lord McCrea—who have spoken in this debate, what I like most is that the regulations provide that days and times when the flag has to be flown will be consistent with formal guidance issued in respect of United Kingdom Government buildings in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is entirely right that, throughout our country on designated days, in all parts of our country—all four portions of our United Kingdom—the same flag under which we all live should be flown. It is splendid and wonderful to think that there will be days when Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and Belfast will all be flying the emblem of our great nation.
An important day approaches, Accession Day on 6 February, marking the day in 1952 when our Queen ascended the Throne. I very much hope that that great day of 6 February will be marked in a way that is so right and appropriate, with the flag of our country flying in the four portions of our United Kingdom.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, has outlined the purpose of the regulations before us today, and, like other noble Lords, I am content to approve the regulations. As we have heard, the union flag will be flown on designated days on government and other buildings, and I very much support the proposal that the flying of the union flag in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom.
My noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick rightly set out that flags and emblems are a sensitive issue in Northern Ireland, and respect for difference is so important. I was born in London, as your Lordships can probably tell, and the union flag is the flag of the country I love; my parents were born in the Republic of Ireland, and that is the flag of my ancestors, and I very much love Ireland as well. So I think those things go together.
As the noble Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, explained, sadly, these regulations are necessary since His Royal Highness passed away. I join with the noble Lord in his warm tribute to His Royal Highness Prince Philip on his work and public service throughout his life to our great country, and I join the noble Lord in his warm tribute to Her Majesty the Queen on the work that she has given to our nation. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in looking forward to the day that we celebrate Her Majesty’s accession to the Throne, as that will be a great day for our nation.
I very much support the regulations and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have participated in this short debate, in which we have, as anticipated, exceeded by some way the consideration and scrutiny provided in the other place. Rather than making a lengthy closing speech, I shall just pick up one or two of the comments that have been made by noble Lords.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, in a typically thoughtful and constructive speech, made the point that Northern Ireland is a divided society and we have to respect both traditions. I completely agree with her and believe that the flag-flying regulations indeed conform to the letter and spirit of the commitments in the Belfast agreement, which states that:
“All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need … to ensure that”
they are used
“in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.”
I completely agree with that.
However, the flying of the union flag of course reflects the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as determined by the principle of consent in the Belfast agreement. It is worth noting that in 2019 the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal ruled that the regulations
“should be regarded as a pragmatic reflection of the current reality of the constitutional position and actively consented to in accordance with the spirit of the Agreement that Irish people, North and South, signed up to.”
So the regulations are consistent with the Belfast agreement and with respect for both main traditions in Northern Ireland, reflecting, as I say, the constitutional position.
The noble Baroness referred to the flags commission established by the Stormont House agreement, which I remember all too well as part of the UK Government negotiating team during those 11 weeks of somewhat tortuous talks. As the noble Baroness will be aware, part of the delay in publication of the flags commission report was down to the fact that there was no Executive between 2017 and 2020, which delayed matters somewhat.
I am very happy to look into the points that the noble Baroness made regarding implementation, conscious of the fact that when we discussed this in the strand one discussions at Stormont House those seven-plus years ago, it was always understood by all participants that the flags commission was a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, not Her Majesty’s Government. I think I am right in saying that, when the commission finally reported last December, it had no recommendations to make in areas that are covered by the regulations before your Lordships today. However, I will look at the point she makes regarding discussions with the Executive over how this is taken forward.
The noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, referred to the work of the Duke of Edinburgh over many years, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, whom I welcome to the Committee today—I am particularly pleased that she is speaking from the North Riding of God’s own county. I endorse everything that both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said about the Duke of Edinburgh over many decades—his tremendous record of service and duty to our nation—and I completely concur with the noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, in his sentiments about Her Majesty’s the Queen, which I totally endorse. Long may she reign.
My noble friend Lord Hannan started off by referring to what might be regarded as an ideal world and then quickly qualified himself to make it clear that we were some distance from an ideal world when it came to the flying of flags in Northern Ireland.
My noble friend Lady Foster referred to the European Union emblem, as I think she called it. I think both my noble friends will be pleased to know that the requirements for flying the European Union emblem or flag—however you wish to describe it—on Europe Day was removed by the last update of these regulations.
In reply to my noble friend Lord Lexden, if anybody in the Committee could be allowed to speak up on some of the wording of the Explanatory Memorandum it is my noble friend, and I say that having had my work as a very young researcher in the Conservative research department edited by my noble friend over a long time. If my writing style has certainly improved over the years, my noble friend has played a huge role in that.
My noble friend referred to a particular point in the memorandum. The text of the regulations as amended means that flags are not flown for members of the Royal Family who have died. That should be fairly straightforward and clear, but if the Explanatory Memorandum is a little confusing, I will certainly take that point away.
I am grateful for the support for these regulations and the update from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the Opposition. As I said, the regulations are mainly technical in nature; they bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and fulfil a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach document from January 2020.
I asked whether it would be possible to establish which members of the Royal Family —children of the monarch and those in direct line of succession—this order applies to. Was there provision to remove the flying of the flag for members of the Royal Family whose careers, sadly, fall into some discredit?
On my noble friend’s first point, I have a list, which I do not intend to read out, but I can certainly come back to him on that matter. On my noble friend’s second point, that would really be a matter for the Palace to determine and is not something that I could pronounce on. It is way above my unpaid grade.
Microchipping of Dogs (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2022
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the purpose of this short and simple instrument is to extend the sunset clause contained in the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015 by two years, until 23 February 2024. Without this instrument, the 2015 regulations will cease to have effect as of 24 February this year. This extension will enable the 2015 regulations to remain in force until we introduce a new set of regulations later this year.
The primary policy objective of the 2015 regulations is to improve animal welfare by increasing the traceability of dogs. This facilitates lost dogs being quickly reunited with their keepers. The 2015 regulations made it compulsory for dogs in England over eight weeks of age to be microchipped, unless exempted by a veterinary surgeon. The dog’s details must also be registered on a compliant database. The regulations set out the requirements which these databases must adhere to, as well as setting standards relating both to the microchips and to microchip implanters. Finally, the regulations give enforcement powers to local authorities and the police.
Under Regulation 18 of the 2015 regulations, the Government must review the regulations within five years of them coming into force. I must apologise to your Lordships that due to pressures within the department created first by EU exit and then by the pandemic, this review was published only in December last year, alongside a Defra-commissioned research report from Nottingham University which informed the review.
The review clearly demonstrates that dog microchipping has had a positive effect on reunification rates of stray dogs with their keepers. Before the intention to introduce compulsory dog microchipping was first announced in 2012, around 70% of dogs were microchipped. In 2021, that number was close to 90%.
The Nottingham University research showed that compulsory microchipping has contributed to a reduction in the number of stray dogs taken in by local authorities. This in turn has led to more of those stray dogs being reunited with their keepers. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home reported last year that stray dogs that are microchipped and have up-to-date microchip records are more than twice as likely to be reunited with their keepers than stray dogs without a microchip.
The review concluded that the current legislation is seen as an important and necessary means to achieve improvements in dog welfare by increasing the traceability of dogs and their keepers. The review, however, also highlighted areas where improvements to the micro- chipping regime would be beneficial. In particular, improvements could be made to the operation of the database system, a point raised by the Pet Theft Taskforce, which published its report last September.
Since the 2015 regulations came into force, there has been an increase in the number of databases that hold dog microchip records. These databases offer a range of services and provide choice for dog owners, but key users, such as local authorities and vets, have expressed concerns that this has made it more difficult and time-consuming to find the keeper details linked to a dog’s microchip number. In addition, to help combat pet theft we want to strengthen processes of updating a microchip record when a dog moves to a new keeper.
We are committed to addressing these issues, because we want to give every dog the best possible opportunity of being reunited with its keeper if it gets lost. We are working at pace to deliver changes, starting with a consultation that we intend to launch in March this year, which will pave the way for introducing changes to the microchipping regime.
Your Lordships will be interested to note that we announced last December that we will introduce compulsory cat microchipping, which will fulfil a manifesto commitment. As the existing microchip database system will also hold cat microchip records, we want to ensure that the database issues have been addressed before expanding the regulations to include cats. This approach is supported by stakeholders.
Our intention is to introduce a new, single set of regulations by the end of the year, which will incorporate the changes to the 2015 regulations and add a new requirement for compulsory microchipping of cats. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing the regulations extending the current regime and for highlighting what is to follow. He will be aware of the work that we did when I chaired the EFRA Committee, and I am delighted to see that that work has brought good effect. I also welcome the fact that the microchipping will be extended to cats, which implements the manifesto pledge to all cat owners and dog owners. It is very good news indeed.
I still believe that one of the best means of ensuring that prospective owners can ensure the safe birth of their puppies is for the bitch to be present at the point of sale, and I understood from our noble friend Lord Goldsmith that that is indeed the case. That, too, is very welcome. Undoubtedly, the regulations before us today, and the future regulations, have improved the animal welfare of the dogs that went missing and, as my noble friend has highlighted, have expedited the time when those dogs are reunited with their owners.
More specifically, will my noble friend tell us the timetable for the review, and not only when the regulations will come before the House but when they will take effect? I assume from his comments that the regulations that will replace the regulations before us today will take effect from the end of this year.
I record my thanks to the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, which shared the briefing with me about the regulations, and I would like to raise some of the issues that arise from that briefing.
My noble friend referred to the databases. My understanding is that currently there are only minimum requirements for a database to be compliant. There is nothing clear or obvious to a consumer that it is compliant or not compliant, and I believe that the consultation announced by my noble friend today to be held this year would provide the opportunity for that to be revisited. Would my noble friend and the department consider enhancing stipulations about database companies, making it a requirement for them to implement more systematically the process of information checking and updating to ensure the accuracy of their records? My noble friend said that compliance with microchipping is at 90%, which is very welcome if that figure is correct. When microchipping was first introduced, my understanding was that it was at 50%, so we have come a long way since then and it would be nice to think that we could close the gap on the remaining 10%.
Will my noble friend assure us this afternoon that local authorities will have sufficient resources, and indeed a legal duty, to enforce the regulations? Am I right that, at the moment, there is currently no legal obligation on any statutory body to enforce them? Will the Government produce best-practice guidance for local authorities, taking the practices that work best and rolling them out to all local authorities in future, and will they consider introducing the power to issue a conditional fixed penalty for non-compliance that could be cancelled or reduced once the keepers have complied?
I have addressed the point that there are apparently only minimum requirements for a database to be compliant. What duty is there for the database owners or the keepers to ensure that the database is regularly updated? Do they have to enter the information only once, as my noble friend suggests? What obligation are they under if they move house or the dog is sold? Who is responsible for keeping the information on the database updated, and what is the timeframe for that to be entered?
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Trees, will address all the points of relevance to veterinary surgeons, but an issue that is of concern to vets is that there should be single-portal access to the database to prevent vets, enforcement and rescuers having to search through multiple websites after scanning to find a record. That would have significant time and resource implications if that was the case.
Can my noble friend take the opportunity of the consultation to address the issue of non-compliant databases operating and appearing prominently on search engines? There are currently limited enforcement mechanisms to ensure that only compliant databases can offer services to the public. There is potential for improving the way that non-compliance is dealt with to provide the public with certainty when using a database, for example, an accreditation that databases are required to show indicating that they are compliant.
Can my noble friend further consider a legal duty on implanters to register microchips that they have implanted on to a compliant database? Equally, can he consider imposing a legal duty on puppies’ first keepers, the owner of the bitch—if you will pardon the expression—that gave birth to the puppy, to update the database with the new keeper’s details when the keeper changes?
Dogs with foreign microchips present a particular problem for disease management, especially if the keeper cannot be traced or the chip originates from a country where rabies is endemic. If an animal’s chip details were recorded on the database at the point of entry into the UK, then the length of time that it had been in the UK would be known. This would remove the need to quarantine and blood-test some of the dogs with foreign chips which come into rescue centres such as Battersea or veterinary practices, thereby reducing costs for these organisations when dealing with such animals. If my noble friend could respond either today or in writing to those concerns, I would be very grateful.
My noble friend suggested that the consultation exercise will be carried out this year on the regulations due to come into effect and that these regulations will remain in force beyond 24 February 2022 for a two-year period. Is my understanding correct that the new regulations will not take effect until then?
With those few remarks, I am delighted to welcome these regulations, but I hope that my noble friend will take the opportunity to address some of the concerns of these and the future regulations that he referred to.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his excellent introduction and his articulation of the very positive effects of compulsory dog microchipping, which I congratulate the Government for introducing in 2015. Those regulations are very well supported by the animal welfare charities, the veterinary profession and me, but as the Minister has said, there are issues and shortcomings regarding the current regulations. It is good news that the Government are considering revising those regulations and that this extension is simply a stopgap, which I support. I want to consider some of the issues, problems and deficits in the current regulations, to which the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, have responded, but I welcome the Minister’s assurance that new regulations will be brought before the House this year.
I want to discuss three current issues that have been referred to already. First, on the issue of compliance and enforcement, 74% of stray dogs handled by local authorities in Great Britain cannot be easily and simply reunited with their keeper because either there is not a microchip or the data recorded in the database is incorrect, yet failure to microchip or to keep that information correct is an offence under the current regulations. In fact, we have no idea of the proportion of dogs that are microchipped and for which the details are kept up to date. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider giving local authorities the legal duty and the resource to enforce this and many other animal welfare legislative instruments? As has been stated by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, currently there is no official body with the legal obligation to do such enforcement.
I respectfully suggest that there is little point in us introducing new or improving existing animal welfare legislation unless and until we address the problem of the inadequate enforcement of the current legislation.
The second issue, which has been mentioned, is the number of databases. Currently, 17 databases can be chosen to record information from a microchip, which creates considerable problems, as have been referred to, for those seeking to identify a given dog, including my fellow veterinary surgeons and others who should be interrogating dogs’ microchip information. The requirements for the databases are laid out in Regulation 6 of the current 2015 regulations, but are we confident that adequate checks are being made to ensure that those requirements are met?
My second question to the Minister is this. The Secretary of State has powers to request information from database operators to ascertain whether they are meeting the conditions of their operation, as set out in Regulation 6 of the 2015 regulations, but how many times has such a notice been served on a database operator?
Following that is a third question. Will the Government, in their current revisions to the microchipping regulations, consider appointing, after open invitation, a single database provider, certainly one providing a single portal of entry, the performance of which can then be properly monitored?
Finally, I briefly raise the issue of biosecurity. Substantial numbers of dogs are being imported into Britain from continental Europe, mainly legally but many illegally. All have the potential to introduce not just rabies, for which there is a legal requirement for vaccination, but a number of other canine pathogens, some of which are zoonotic and can threaten the health of both the UK canine population and its human population. Some 10% of all strays in London are now registered on a foreign database, and we have no idea how many entered the UK legally or illegally.
So my final question for the Minister is this. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to reduce these risks of disease introduction? I appreciate that I have not given notice of these questions, so I would accept responses by letter, if need be.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and for his time, and that of his officials, in providing a briefing for this statutory instrument. The microchipping of dogs, which was introduced in 2015, has made a tremendous difference to the owners of the dogs and to the dogs themselves. The safety and traceability of dogs are made easier by this process. Dogs are often lost or stolen but are reunited with their owners through the information stored on the microchip, and reducing the number of stray dogs is to be welcomed.
The sunset clause on this regulation terminates on 24 February this year. I note that the Government conducted a consultation on extending this clause, the results of which were due to be published in December 2021. Presumably this has happened. Given the instrument expires in February, the consultation was somewhat late taking place.
A second targeted consultation, to 36 stakeholders, took place in November 2021. Just over half responded. Given the level of support from those responding, I am surprised that the Government have not removed the sunset clause altogether, instead of extending it by two years. However, I understand the need to take this opportunity to rectify the anomalies in data collection and to include the compulsory microchipping of cats in future microchipping legislation. Can the Minister say what the database issues are and whether they will all be addressed in the new regulations?
Nottingham University undertook a lengthy report on the post-implementation review of the 2015 legislation, but unfortunately, probably due to my own incompetence, I could find no reference to this when I searched on the internet. Can the Minister say whether this report has been published and, if not, whether it is likely to be? Is this likely to be before the next consultation, which, according to the Explanatory Memorandum, is likely to cover areas for improvement in the existing regulations?
Currently, when you take your dog along to the vet for their routine health check or vaccinations, your vet will routinely scan the dog for their microchip. However, there is no enforced regulation on veterinary staff to report to the authorities dogs that have not been microchipped. Is this one of the anomalies which the revised legislation will include in future?
There was no updated impact assessment in the EM for this SI. As the 2015 impact assessment was still extant, can the Minister confirm that, when this new regulation has been updated to include the compulsory microchipping of cats and provisions on other database issues, an updated impact assessment will be issued to cover all aspects of the new regulations? Can he confirm that there will also be no sunset clause?
My husband and I took on a rescue dog in the spring of last year. The dog had not been maltreated, but its owner was suffering from dementia and could no longer look after it. Through the microchip, we were able to estimate roughly how old the dog was and to see that it had been vaccinated and well cared for previously. I am sure that many others who have done the same are grateful for the information provided on the microchip, but it is important that there is adequate enforcement.
Pet theft is an invidious crime and extremely upsetting to families with children and the elderly, whose only companion may be a dog or a cat. Therefore, it is important that microchipping of dogs should continue without interruption, and I would like the Minister’s reassurance that the new regulation will be laid well before the nine-year sunset clause runs out in 2024.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and for the helpful briefing he organised. On the face of it, this seems a straightforward proposal, and we certainly do not want to see the sunset clause come into force on 24 February as a result of our inaction, so we clearly support this regulation.
The question arises as to why a sunset clause was added in the first place. I have been covering this department for so long that I probably contributed to the original decision back in 2015, although I do not remember the arguments put forward at that time. But we are where we are. Of course, as the Minister said, the first report on the implementation of microchipping was due to be held within five years. I appreciate his recognition that there has been a delay, which has caused this SI to be necessary, and his apology.
I am grateful to the departmental official Craig Lee for sending me a copy of the review into the legislation. I got round to requesting it slightly before the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, had a chance to do so. It was very interesting reading, as was the report from Nottingham University that underpinned it. I was pleased to see that microchipping had achieved the desired outcomes of improving animal welfare through the increased traceability of owners and reducing the number of stray dogs.
However, the review also identifies some challenging issues, which have been echoed by noble Lords today. There is, for example—I do not know whether anybody would have foreseen this—the new plethora of microchip database companies that have sprung up. As we have heard, this has made ownership tracing more complex. Like other noble Lords, I think it would be helpful if the Minister could shed a little light on how the Government intend to deal with this. By any stretch of the imagination, having 17 databases seems impractical when trying to monitor and keep up with the ownership of individual animals.
Did we anticipate that this would happen, and is the Minister satisfied that we have the right standards for these databases and are scrutinising them before they are set up, or will that come from any new regulations? Are there any constraints on how much somebody can charge for using a database? Is that why we suddenly have so many—because they are easy money, if I can put it that way, without having to do a great deal? Noble Lords have made a case today that on the face of it seems quite sensible: that we should have a single portal of access, or indeed one database, which could be agreed through some sort of nomination process. It would certainly make people’s lives easier when trying to trace the owners of dogs, or to check the dogs’ history.
The review also identified the failure of many breeders to microchip their puppies. Will that be made more emphatic in the new regulations, so that before they are sold on the place of their ownership and birth, and so on, is recorded and a proper history is kept of the animals? It identified the failure of owners to keep their contact details on the database up to date. Again, there need to be more incentives to make sure that that happens. Even if owners are responsible, sometimes, when they move house, one of the last things they think of doing is providing the database with their latest address, but there needs to be some way to ensure that that is enforced.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, illustrated very well the problems of local authorities not overseeing compliance effectively. That is a point well made, and I would like to be reassured that the new regulations will address that. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, referred to taking in a stray dog and being able to trace its history. That was a very good example of how it can work well. That is really what we want to achieve for all dogs in future, so that there is a proper case history of the animal’s birth and well-being.
I am sure that sensible solutions to these challenges can be found, and I look forward to seeing the revised regulations later this year, which I hope will provide a comprehensive update of the scheme to ensure that microchipping reaches its full potential. I am also pleased to see that cat microchipping is now being recommended.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving us a more precise timetable for when the new consultation is expected to take place, and therefore when we will see the new regulations. He has been quite explicit on this, and I hope that we will not be here again this time next year with excuses for delays. I hope the Government meet that demand, because it seems achievable and eminently sensible.
Finally, the new regulations also have some overlap with the provisions in the kept animals Bill, particularly with regard to the dog theft elements and those referring to the import of dogs and cats. Again, there is the whole issue of how we monitor dogs that have been bred abroad, as noble Lords raised.
Noble Lords may have seen press reports that the kept animals Bill is being paused, which is a matter of regret for us. Can the Minister shed any light on when we might see that Bill in the Lords, and is it indeed true that it has been stalled in the Commons, as press reports say? If the Minister could shed some light on the progress of that Bill, we would be very grateful. I look forward to his response on these issues.
I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate.
To tackle a point raised by a number of noble Lords about the sunset clause, despite there being a sunset clause in the 2015 regulations, they were never intended to fall away seven years after coming into force. The clause was intended to put a marker in the sand for a thorough review. Now that we have done that review it is only right that we address the findings before adding the requirement for the compulsory microchipping of cats, an approach supported by key stakeholders such as Cats Protection. I am grateful for noble Lords’ support today for that move.
On the 2015 regulations review, besides a need to make it easier for key users such as dog wardens or vets to access microchip details, the Pet Theft Taskforce recommended strengthening processes in the transfer of keepership. In addition, the post-implementation review of the 2015 regulations highlighted a need to consider how to deal with records being held on more than one database—I will come back to that in a minute —and suggested the inclusion of a number of new record requirements, such as rescue back-up information, as part of it. We plan to launch a consultation, as has been said, in March.
I will tackle the points that other noble Lords have raised. A number of concerns were raised, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, about the impact assessment. The original impact assessment published alongside the 2015 regulations had assessed impacts over 10 years. The two-year extension of the regulations in this SI therefore falls within this already assessed period, meaning that no new impact assessment is needed. In addition, this SI does not introduce any policy changes. However, I assure the noble Baroness that there will be a new impact assessment for the new regulations. I think my noble friend Lady McIntosh also raised that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, also raised a point about the Nottingham University report. Defra commissioned the university to review the effectiveness of the compulsory dog microchipping policy in England and to provide views about compulsory cat microchipping. Compulsory dog microchipping, as I have said, has contributed to the reduction in the number of stray dogs handled by local authorities and an increased reunification rate for lost dogs. The research also demonstrated support for the introduction of cat micro- chipping.
The report makes a number of recommendations on how to make compulsory microchipping more effective, notably by increasing public awareness and improving the ease of navigation of the microchip databases. We will factor these recommendations in to the public consultation on proposed changes to the current dog microchipping regulations. We aim to launch the consultation, as I have said, in March. I will make sure that we send the noble Baroness the link so that she can see the University of Nottingham report.
Noble Lords asked about the legal provisions on microchipping. Since 6 April 2016, it has been a requirement for dogs in England to be microchipped. Puppies over the age of eight weeks must be registered on one of the compliant databases. That answers my noble friend’s question in part. There is a devolved issue here; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have mandatory microchipping requirements, and we are working with those Administrations to make sure that there is seamlessness across the United Kingdom. The databases are run by private companies, not by the Government or local councils. Dog owners are also required to keep their pet’s details up to date on these databases.
It was asked how we know on which database a microchip is registered. As has been pointed out, there are currently a plethora—I think that was the word the noble Baroness used—of them. Seventeen separate databases hold themselves out as compliant with the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015. If anyone wishes to find out which database a specific microchip is registered on, they need only enter the individual microchip number on a look-up facility, which is accessible from the Government’s website. It is also available from any compliant database’s website.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, asked whether we would migrate on to a single database. We consider that significant improvements can be made to the operation of the existing microchipping databases. We are exploring the possibility of creating a single point of access for key users to compliant databases. Database operators are commercial enterprises which offer a range of services and provide choice for pet owners. However, we are confident that improvements can be made to the current regime, and these will be considered as part of our consultation that starts in March.
I was asked what we are doing to stop non-compliant databases advertising to dog owners. Clearly, that is a very regrettable situation when it occurs. The Government are aware that there are databases which are not compliant. Dog owners registering their animal’s details on one of these databases are not meeting the mandatory requirements. We are discussing this with trading standards as well as with a leading internet search facility to explore how to combat the issue of non-compliant databases advertising to dog owners. A list of compliant databases can be found on the GOV.UK website.
Questions were asked about the quality standards for microchips. Under the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015, they must have a unique number which includes the manufacturer’s code and be compliant with the ISO standard. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, talked about foreign imports and dogs coming from abroad. In the UK and the European Union microchips must be compliant with international—ISO—standards. The unique number on an ISO-compliant microchip identifies the manufacturer.
As I say, microchipping policy is devolved, so all Administrations have their own regulations governing the microchipping of dogs. The consultation which asked for views on compulsory cat microchipping and potential scanning reform focused only on England. However, we are talking to the devolved Administrations.
A dog should be registered on only one database. This is fundamental; we are considering making a change on this and will include that in our consultation.
A question was asked about whether different databases are compliant with the regulations and talking to each other effectively. Each compliant database is operated as a stand-alone, commercial entity. Under the regulations, compliant databases must have processes in place to enable anyone to find out which database any microchip is registered on. We will consult further on this.
Issues have been raised by some stakeholders concerning Europetnet. The Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015 apply to England only. It is not a legal requirement for database companies to be registered with Europetnet, which is a European-wide central host of microchip details.
I was asked whether we will make it mandatory for all dogs with a foreign microchip to be registered on a compliant database as part of—I presume the noble Lord means—customs clearance or importation. The Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations already require a keeper to microchip and register their dog on a compliant database within 30 days of importation.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh wanted more details about the timings. We think that we will be able to do this by the end of the year. I am very conscious of the noble Baroness; I do not want to have to come here and say that that date has moved, but we hope that it will not. There is a role for the LGA on this—it can help local authorities by reducing costs through effective management of this issue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about pet theft, which also relates to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. I know of no delays to that Bill. I suggest that the noble Baroness does not believe everything she reads. If there are any changes to it, of course there is great pressure on parliamentary time, but I feel sure that she will get her moment to scrutinise that piece of legislation very soon.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, referred to a code of practice. We recognise that we need to consider how databases are meeting the requirement, and we will consider a code of practice when we consider the responses to the consultation.
I think I have responded to most of the questions. If any noble Lord feels that I have not responded to theirs, this is a final moment to raise it.
I am almost certain that my noble friend has responded to this point, but could he confirm that he said that if someone were to go to the GOV.UK website, it would show where the microchip was registered? That would satisfy my query about having a single portal. Has he also addressed how the Government intend to tackle the issue of dogs with microchips from France and other countries and the foreign disease risk that they represent?
That is a very good point. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and is very much in my mind as we tackle a range of new diseases coming to this country, particularly, unfortunately, with the recent importation of dogs from Afghanistan. We were told that these dogs were healthy, but it turned out that a number of them had very serious diseases, including Brucella canis, which we really want to keep out of this country.
We are constantly alert to the need for new disease provisions. Our biosecurity in this country is fundamental. Our new border control posts, particularly on the short straits, will soon come online, and this will be an opportunity to work with Border Force to make sure that we identify where risks occur. The rules on the importation of animals, particularly to tackle the scourge of puppy farming and the bringing in of large numbers of dogs for illegal trade in this country, are one of the provisions of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill that we want to see brought online.
I am grateful to hear that there will perhaps be codes of practice for the database operators. With regard to whether they are doing what they are meant to do, I specifically asked how many times the Secretary of State has served a notice on them to check that they are doing what they are meant to be doing. Perhaps the noble Lord can answer that question.
I am not aware of that, although I might just have received some inspiration. No, I have not. If the noble Lord will allow me, I will drop him a line.
I am not sure of the exact nature of the page on the government website and what guidance it gives dog owners, but I will check and give my noble friend any information I can.
With that, I hope that I have covered all the points raised.
Transport Act 2000 (Air Traffic Services Licence Modification Appeals) (Prescribed Aerodromes) Regulations 2022
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these draft regulations will be made under the powers conferred by the Transport Act 2000. The regulations set out which airports may appeal licence modification decisions made by the Civil Aviation Authority, or CAA, in respect of the en-route air traffic services licence granted under Section 6 of the Transport Act 2000. In essence, this instrument will ensure that the aerodromes likely to be materially affected by a decision to modify a licence condition are able to appeal those decisions.
Air traffic management services in the UK fall into two categories. The first are terminal air navigation services provided at individual airports. They support arrivals, departures, and planes in the vicinity of the airport typically up to an altitude of 7,000 feet. This is a competitive market, with airports procuring these services from a number of possible organisations or providing their own. The second are for planes outside of these areas, such as planes at cruising altitude, or planes being guided to gateways where they can be handed over to terminal control services of airports. These services are delivered by a monopoly provider, regulated under the en-route air traffic licence.
The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021—the ATMUA Act—updated the Transport Act 2000 to give the CAA a more effective power to modify the conditions of air traffic services licences. Currently, the only licence which has been granted is held by NATS (En Route) plc, also known as NERL, to provide certain air traffic services in the United Kingdom. Under the previous framework, the CAA could only modify the conditions of this licence with consent from the licence holder or via a determination by the Competition and Markets Authority.
To modernise the licensing framework, alongside the powers to modify the licence conditions the Act also introduced a new appeal process into the Transport Act 2000, which gives appeal rights in respect of licence modifications to three parties. The first is NERL, the licence holder; the second is the owner or operator of an aircraft whose interests are materially affected by the decision; and/or an owner or manager of a “prescribed aerodrome” whose interests are materially affected by the decision. Should any of these parties wish to appeal the decision to modify a licence condition, they could appeal to the CMA on one of more of the following grounds, namely: that the decision was based on an error of fact; that the decision was wrong in law; and/or that an error was made in the exercise of a discretion. For the relevant aerodromes to be able to appeal licence modification decisions, they must be prescribed in secondary legislation, which is what this draft instrument seeks to do.
Turning to the content of the SI, the CAA can modify the conditions set out within NERL’s licence. A licence condition relates to operational matters, such as the requirements which the licence holder must meet to maximise safety and efficiency, and includes conditions relating to control of charges—the prices that users of NERL’s services pay for the services that they receive. To modify a licence condition, the CAA first must publish a notice in relation to the proposed modification. It must state that it is proposing to modify the licence and set out what the modification is, the reasons for it and its effect. It must then give a reasonable period for NERL and the other relevant stakeholders to make representations. The Department for Transport consulted on this policy in 2017. Stakeholders were broadly supportive of the policy and no aerodromes at the time requested additional appeal rights.
As the licence conditions include control of charges for the London approach service, the Government have decided that airport operators whose interests could be materially affected by the decision to modify a licence condition are likely to be airports receiving the London approach service from the licence holder, and that these aerodromes should be able to appeal these decisions on the grounds of fairness. The London approach service consists of the control and sequencing of flights between the licence holder’s en-route service, which will be quite high up, and which operationally include holding stacks, and the tower service at London airports, which is quite low down, and which is provided at each airport by an air navigation service provider under contract with the airport operator. Airports currently receiving the London approach service from NERL are Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City, and these regulations enable those airports to appeal. These regulations have been drafted in such a way as to ensure that in the future, should another aerodrome become part of the London approach service from NERL under its licence, it too will be able to appeal modifications to licence conditions.
This instrument will ensure that the aerodromes likely to be materially affected by a decision to modify a licence condition can appeal those decisions. It is as simple as that. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the Explanatory Memorandum and the information she just gave us. There are two areas highlighted by the Explanatory Memorandum that are hugely important, which are the failures with computer systems and with NERL. But I want to raise another, which I hope has been fully rectified now. I was the rapporteur in the European Parliament in 2015 on the safe use of civil RPASs or drones, so I will reflect on what happened a couple of years ago, because this is a growing industry and we need to make sure we keep our eye on the ball.
As I recollect, between 19 and 21 December 2018, there were drone sightings at Gatwick. Regrettably, 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights were affected. This was the biggest closure since the 2010 volcanic eruption in Iceland and, I have to say, the way it was handled became quite farcical. The airport spokesman said they could not do much about it, because there was no counter-drone technology when, actually, there was, albeit it was not at Gatwick then. It also ended with two people being arrested and, fortunately, released and paid compensation. It was not exactly a good look for the UK.
In addition, we must also realise the challenge of geo-fencing in the civil drones sector. This is particularly difficult for airfields, due to their geographical size. For example, Gatwick or Heathrow—a large airport—covers several square miles, but just in their infrastructure and to their boundaries or the end of the runways. That does not include the miles of airspace above, where an aircraft can be at risk either on ascent or descent. We know this is a huge challenge.
Nevertheless, the cost of the investigation was £800,000 and it had to include the police, military and the RAF in particular. The good news that followed was that Gatwick and others installed counter-drone technology in 2019, which is now available across all the appropriate airports in the United Kingdom.
We have a world-class civil aviation industry and reputation, which I am sure all noble Lords agree we must maintain. I ask my noble friend to give me the reassurance that the CAA, which is an excellent regulatory body, will continue to have clear and detailed oversight of this area to maintain our high standards, certainly in this growing industry.
The final point I raise, which will be covered by two other noble Lords so I will not cover it in too much detail, is regarding EGNOS. I was again a rapporteur in the European Parliament on GNSS, so I have a serious interest in the systems we require to make sure our airfields are well-equipped. Since, by all accounts, EGNOS was stopped last year, a number of our peripheral, small airports have been put in huge difficulty. We have flights either being cancelled or their safety jeopardised, for both passengers and crew. They are hugely reliant on life-saving services coming in, whether to take people to the hospitals on the mainland or for other reasons.
I will finalise on those points, because I think my noble friend is aware of them and has passed them on. We look forward to meeting with the appropriate Minister at some stage, and I thank her very much for taking these points on board.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in yet another short debate on navigation systems. I was very grateful to the Minister for writing to noble Lords to clarify things after the last debate, but I was sorry that I did not get a letter saying that she had arranged a meeting with the Minister for Aviation. I hope that she may tell us more about that today.
I wanted to update noble Lords on what has happened on EGNOS since the last debate. I have been given a copy of a letter from Robert Courts MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air, to Jim McMahon MP, a Labour shadow Secretary of State, dated 22 June. The letter explains why the Government are not going ahead with EGNOS, and basically says that, in discussions with the European Commission, the Government decided that it was not considered to offer good value for the taxpayer.
I have been reflecting on what that means. Having talked to people in the Highlands and Islands, and Loganair, and having been in the Isles of Scilly last weekend, I discovered that the issue of safety of life, which the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, mentioned, is actually quite serious. In Scilly, there is no ferry in the winter, so people rely on air. There was a time between Christmas and new year this year when some people got delayed and had to spend five days in a hotel with their family, which does not come cheap.
More importantly, the Isles of Scilly and many of the Scottish islands rely on air help for medical emergencies—either a helicopter or a fixed-wing plane, depending on the circumstances. If people cannot fly due to bad navigation, usually fog, their health is at risk. I am not sure how the Minister for Aviation can say that that is not good value for money. I do not know how much he puts on a life that is lost because you cannot fly, when there is an alternative.
The Minister may not have the answers today, so perhaps she could write, but what is the actual cost of reinstalling EGNOS? There must be a cost from the European Union, even as a temporary measure. If there is an alternative, what is it, and when will it be ready? We need answers to those questions, because at the moment a lot of money is being spent on abortive attempts to keep EGNOS going, or not even start it. Maybe some of those who spent the money will look to have compensation, but it is more important that we find a solution that can be done and, I hope, worked with the European Union, even as a temporary measure.
I conclude by noting that the Channel Islands, which are not part of the UK air traffic system, have EGNOS. They have confirmed to me that they are continuing to use it, and as far as I can gather it does not cost them very much, if anything at all. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that she can soon give us a date for meeting the Air Minister.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for raising this aspect of air traffic services, and it is a pleasure to follow him. I should perhaps draw attention to my role as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation and as an aviator who is often confronted with inclement weather conditions, when the provision of satellite-assisted navigation is of enormous help.
At the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, a number of reasons were put forward from various sources as an explanation for the loss of the high-accuracy guidance provided by the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service, EGNOS, ranging from running out of negotiating time to the EU demanding an excessive amount of money to remain within the Galileo system. Seeking clarification in a Written Question to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on 20 April last year, I asked
“what financial contribution the EU requested for the UK to continue to access the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service Safety of Life service; how the request compared with the UK’s previous contributions; how they assessed value for money in view of its impact on aviation; and what plans they have to renegotiate access to this service.”
It was a disappointing response. I was told:
“The UK sought to negotiate a service access agreement on
“with the EU. However, the EU required participation in the programme along with the full associated costs of participation, as per previous years, for continued access to the EGNOS Safety of Life service. For all programmes under consideration, the Government was clear it would only participate where the terms were in the UK’s interests, and in this case, it was not considered value for money.”
The question of financial contribution was not answered.
I am bound to say that I find that quite astonishing. The whole purpose of EGNOS, which provides localiser performance with vertical guidance, commonly known as LPV accuracy, is the safe operation of aircraft. The clue is in the title: Safety of Life service. Surely this should be in the UK’s interest, and everyone else’s.
The loss of this service has had enormous financial implications for airfields, many of them small training establishments, which have assisted in EGNOS-assisted approaches. What is more, student pilots training for commercial licences have lost the opportunity to undertake the necessary practical training for those airfield approaches within the UK, with the prospect of moving to European training schools and consequent loss of revenue to UK training establishments.
Above all, it is the safety access which the EGNOS service provides and which has now been lost due to the Government putting value for money before the Safety of Life service. My question is simple: how much would it cost to retain that facility, or is it still the Government’s position that finances override the safety aspect of EGNOS?
In answer to a further Written Question of mine a year ago, I was informed:
“The Government continues to explore options for mitigating the loss of the LPV capability.”
Perhaps the Minister can update the House on exactly how much further forward we are on those much needed options and what the timescale is.
This is an extremely important issue on which the aviation community feels sorely let down, so I ask the Minister to do whatever she can to reinstate this important service, which, on the face of it, appears to have gone completely off the radar. I look forward to my noble friend’s response.
As we are considering aviation licensing issues, perhaps I can ask my noble friend’s indulgence for a moment longer on the issue of a recently adopted regulation resulting in pilots now being prevented from flying in UK airspace using US FAA flight crew licences. This is having a particular effect on helicopter operations. As the Minister will know, many pilots in the UK have FAA licences due to the costs involved with the UK’s authority, the CAA, which is one of the most expensive authorities in the developed world. I believe that Article 2(1)(b)(ii) of UK regulation 2018/1139 is the element causing problems for owners. The legislation applies to all third-country licence holders, including FAA licence holders resident in the UK, and all third-country aircraft registered in the UK.
The pressing issue is residence within the UK. If it was a case of the aircraft residing elsewhere, it would not be an issue. The legislation does not consider aircraft on the FAA register separately, as they are on a third-country register. Pilots and engineers who work on aircraft hold a multitude of different licences, not just FAA ones. Rather puzzlingly, the FAA instructor who conducts checkrides is invariably also a UK CAA examiner. Therefore, it is difficult for operators to understand why they should now be stopped from flying. We have a frustrated section of the aviation community unable to fly for business, with multimillion-pound helicopters and experienced private and commercial pilots having been made redundant through the legislation. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline how the DfT plans to address the issue.
I thank the Minister for her introduction to these regulations. I will start by addressing what is in them before turning to other issues—I do not want to disappoint her, but I will turn to other issues.
The background to these regulations seems to lie in two serious systems failures way back in 2013 and 2014. These led in due course to this SI, via the 2021 Act. It has taken a very long time to get here, in an industry where technological development is very fast paced. Both the CAA and the CMA have additional responsibilities as a result of these regulations. They are the Government’s usual maids-of-all-work; barely a week seems to pass here without them picking up some additional responsibility. I ask my usual question to the Minister: what additional resources are they being provided with as a result of these additional responsibilities?
A recent Written Answer to one of my questions revealed that two people had been assigned to the team tasked with promoting general aviation and liaison with general aviation airfields, spending £375,000. By comparison, these regulations deal with very large airports and very large numbers of large airports. How many people are to be regularly devoted to the licensing of air traffic services? How many additional people does the Minister think will be required as a result of these regulations?
I say this because paragraph 12.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers very specifically to an increase in the number of appeals. It talks about an 8% increase in the number of minor modifications appeals and a 12% increase for major modification appeals. When, where and how did these figures come about? How were they arrived at? There was no formal consultation and no full impact assessment. My concern is that, without those, it is very difficult to be that precise. I was surprised by that lack of consultation, because modifications which affect the London approach affect a very large number of users—not just large companies and airports but the users of the airports and small companies and individuals too.
I move on to the other issue, EGNOS. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for his continued work on this really important issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, and the noble Lord, Lord Davies, spoke with great expertise and knowledge on this. I have also been surprised by the lack of any apparent reference to the loss of EGNOS. I have been looking online, on the DfT website, for a formal statement; there is absolute silence, as far as I can see, on this essential issue.
Most worrying of all is the level of ignorance at an official level about EGNOS’s importance, which apparently allowed the BEIS negotiating team to conclude negotiations that took us out of the system without— it would appear—any understanding of the huge implications of that decision. There are major safety implications, with at least 18 airports affected. This goes beyond whether it is safe to take off and land; these services also provide life-saving flights, such as air ambulance flights, and essential medical supplies. The Government talk about strengthening the union and say that infrastructure is important, so much so that there was a serious study into whether we should, as a nation, spend tens of billions of pounds on building a fixed link between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, yet we appear not to have the money to be members of EGNOS.
This is a basic technology, and not being part of it reduces our links with the Highlands and Islands of Scotland at a time when we are all worried about the union. It reduces our links with the Scilly Isles. It makes life less safe for those living in those parts and in other remote areas. Its implications go well beyond the economy and tourism. What about the implications of the hundreds of millions that have been invested in this technology by the industry? I, too, would like the Minister to spell out the cost of EGNOS. The figure I found, with some difficulty, was £48 million, but I do not know whether that is accurate, or way out. I do not know whether it is an annual or one-off rejoining figure.
When the Government were—how can I put this?—caught out by the reality of the situation, they said, with schoolboy bravado, “We’ll build our own”. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has made absolutely clear, you do not do that overnight, and the industry estimates that it would take 10 to 15 years. What do we do in the meantime? Norway and Switzerland, which are not members of the EU, have negotiated access to EGNOS. Why cannot we? Will the Minister explain how much it would cost and what can be done in reality in the immediate future to plug the gap left by losing this essential technology?
I start by saying that I will probably end up making the shortest speech so far—I hasten to add that that is in no way a criticism of any speeches made, but simply a statement of fact. Like others, I thank the Minister for her explanation of the content and purpose of these regulations. Although I have in front of me a statement on the background and what the regulations do, I will not wade through it; the Minister and others have already outlined that.
I raise one issue only, but say before that that I await with great interest the answers to the questions raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Foster of Oxton and Lady Randerson, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Gower, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley. I refer to the statement by Robert Courts MP, which is in the EM:
“The intention of this measure is to ensure that airports which receive an approach control service from the licence holder through its licence are able to appeal decisions relating to modification of licence conditions”.
The EM goes on to say that:
“The number of expected licence modifications over a 20-year period is expected to be between 8 and 16 modifications for major modifications such as price controls, and between 6 and 18 modifications for minor modifications such as procedural changes.”
Like others, I am not sure what workload or otherwise that would generate, so some clarification would be helpful.
I ask that in the context of paragraph 12.4 of the EM, which has already been referred to. It says that:
“In allowing prescribed aerodromes to appeal decisions there is the potential that a greater number of appeals will be launched. However, during the consultation phrase, no aerodromes requested appeal rights, which suggests they may be unlikely to appeal modifications to licence conditions.”
Bearing in mind that the more major modifications may relate to price controls, are there any criteria for changing those price controls? If it is confidently expected that there will be no appeals, presumably, when the changes are made, if they are, they will be relatively limited as far as the prescribed aerodromes are concerned. The Minister has already mentioned which aerodromes those are.
I therefore seek further information about modifications to price controls, the criteria for making them, how frequently they are made—it appears to be fairly infrequent—and whether they have ever proved controversial before in relation to prescribed aerodromes. That is the only point I wish to raise. The subject matter covered by the SI seems straightforward and desirable, but I await the answers to the other issues that were raised with interest.
I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions today. It has turned into a general debate on air stuff, so noble Lords will not be surprised that I came here with 49 pages of briefing to answer detailed questions on the SI and am therefore unable to answer issues that have been raised that, frankly, are not even close to the scope of what is before noble Lords today.
Noble Lords mentioned EGNOS to me recently. I have confirmed with the office of the Aviation Minister that he is happy to meet with you. All noble Lords with an interest may pop along to that meeting and I hope to get there as well.
My noble friend Lady Foster asked about unmanned aircraft. I am sure she would have appreciated being in the House for the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill. We had lots of fun. It took a long time, but we talked a lot about drones and the role of the CAA. I remain reassured that the CAA has a grip on the situation. In that Bill, we gave the police extra powers to ensure that drones are appropriately enforced, where needed. I will try to get a response for my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower about American licences.
I turn to the contents of this SI. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, will recall the challenges of getting the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill through, which is where these powers very much came from. But it was not necessarily the case that there was a great big gap between that and some of the failures that happened before. There were just two failures, which were obviously both very carefully investigated by the CAA, working very closely with NATS to establish exactly what happened. That work took quite a long time, and we know that, on 25 February last year, for example, following an investigation under the Transport Act 2000, the CAA published its final decision confirming that NERL had contributed some of its statutory and licence duties and obligations in the period January 2019 into 2020 in relation to the provision of sufficient staffing resilience in the London approach service for users of Stansted and Luton airports. In making its findings, the CAA took account of the very difficult circumstances faced by the aviation sector and the significant reduction of air traffic volumes following the Covid-19 pandemic. It strikes me that, prior to those powers being available, the CAA has historically had a firm grip on NATS and its activities, and continues to get very involved wherever there may be failings.
What is under discussion today is actually a very small and narrow element of the world of licences and the provision of air traffic management services. The CAA, as is stated in the Explanatory Memorandum, rarely updates the licence—but it does, and when it does, as I set out in my opening speech, it does it by consultation with everybody who is likely to be affected. Therefore, it is not a surprise to us, and I believe should not be a surprise to the industry either, that we expect appeals to be relatively rare, because an enormous amount of consultation will go on beforehand. We know that people will be able to put forward their views—and I believe that we discussed this during the passage of the ATMUA Bill, now the ATMUA Act, as to the appeals process, how likely the appeals were likely to be, and whether there were resources at the CMA. We went through all those things, and I believe that, when the Bill was passed, we had reached a pretty good assessment about how we felt the appeals process was going to be.
We know that no airports have actually asked for these powers, but the Government have, out of an abundance of caution, given them the ability to appeal, just in case they need to. The reality is that it is only going to be about a modification that is about a change of price, because essentially everything else is not really related to the airports. The airlines and owners of the aircraft have far more beef with it. For the airports, it is really about the hand-off between up there and down here, and the charge for that hand-off that they might want to challenge, but they have never given us any indication that they would do so. The chances of getting an SI passed if they wanted to do so in future is, quite frankly, probably not huge.
That is why we are doing this—just in case they want to. We are not expecting them to do so, and they have given us no indication that they will. But we said that we would do it in the Bill; we felt that it was the fair thing to do, and that is why we are here today. The figures that we put in the EM explain that there may be a 10% increase in the number of appeals. We feel that that may be high, but we have to put something in there. In general, that is why the impact assessment is de minimis, because from this SI there will be almost no impact at all. I have some figures for costs somewhere, and I might put it in a letter afterwards, but our estimated costs are very small.
To that end, we do not see that this SI will cause the CAA to have any resource implications at all. As we know, modifications are fairly infrequent and we expect appeals to be rare. Appeals for this particular thing are possibly like hens’ teeth. I very much hope that it does not have a full-time member of staff on it. However, I will write with information on the number of people who look after NERL licensing. That is a very good challenge and I will find out exactly how big that group is.
I note that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made a very short speech; I thank him for being here because I know that he has had an incredibly busy day in the Chamber as well. However, the points he raised about whether there is likely to be an appeal and what has to happen in order for that change to happen have been covered.
I have run out of things to say from the questions that I was asked. As ever, I will look through Hansard and write if necessary.
Competition Appeal Tribunal (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2022
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the statutory instrument before us this afternoon grants the Competition Appeal Tribunal a permanent power to broadcast its hearings to the public using audio and video technology. I put it in terms of a power because the decision to broadcast in any case is subject to judicial discretion, should the judge have a reason in a particular case not to allow a hearing to be broadcast. The draft order is made under Section 32 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 with the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. Importantly, this order replaces a temporary order which will expire on 25 March 2022.
For noble Lords who are not intimately familiar with it, the Competition Appeal Tribunal, more generally known as the CAT, is a specialist tribunal whose principal functions are to hear and decide cases involving competition or economic regulatory issues, including appeals to decisions by the Competition and Markets Authority and some other economic regulators. The CAT is sponsored by BEIS, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but, as the power to make this order is conferred on the Lord Chancellor, it has therefore been drafted and laid before Parliament by the Ministry of Justice.
Noble Lords will be aware that, during the pandemic, our courts and tribunals swiftly moved to holding hearings remotely using audio and video technology. To ensure that open justice was maintained in these circumstances, a temporary provision in the Coronavirus Act 2020 allowed most courts and tribunals to transmit their proceedings to remote observers who had specifically requested access. The CAT was not included in the Coronavirus Act 2020 provisions. So, to ensure that the CAT could continue to hold its hearings and broadcast them, a temporary statutory instrument, under Section 32 of the 2013 Act that I mentioned, enabled the CAT to broadcast its proceedings via a link on its website.
That has worked successfully. In a recent case concerning Newcastle United Football Club, around 33,000 individuals from over 50 countries were interested in watching the hearing, with around 4,000 observers watching it at any one time. Whether that was due to the legal issues in that case or was related to Newcastle United Football Club, I am afraid I cannot assist the Committee.
This current and temporary SI will expire, as I say, on 25 March this year, when the Coronavirus Act 2020 is due to expire. Because the broadcasting in this tribunal has been a success, we want to make the CAT’s ability to broadcast its proceedings permanent.
This instrument reproduces the existing temporary order, with two additional provisions which I should bring to the Committee’s attention. One is provision to revoke the temporary order, which is self-explanatory. The other mirrors provision included in other instruments under this power in relation to the Court of Appeal and Crown Court and requires that any use of the footage of the CAT must be fair and accurate. For example, it cannot be used for party-political broadcasts, advertisements or promotions, light entertainment or, need I add, satire. Additionally, the CAT has guidance accompanying each hearing listed for broadcast containing a warning that it is not permitted for any person to record a live-stream hearing and that breaching this requirement would constitute contempt of court.
I underline the point that this order strengthens the principle of open justice, which is a fundamental principle in this jurisdiction and has been for centuries. It means that those who are interested will be able to watch the CAT’s proceedings from the convenience of their homes or offices, or anywhere else. Importantly, it retains ultimate judicial discretion over the actual broadcast in any particular case. I commend this instrument to the Committee.
My Lords, the Liberal Democrats have always supported open justice and continue to do so. Therefore, we very much support this instrument. During the lockdown periods, I watched my daughter-in-law, who is a judge of the First-tier Tribunal, conduct her hearings online. She has done so consistently in providing justice in the north-west. I have been very impressed with the way in which justice has been seen to be done in that area. I have nothing further to add.
My Lords, we too support these measures. It seems entirely sensible that they should continue, as they seem to have been operating satisfactorily during the various lockdowns we have been through.
As the Minister said, judicial discretion is retained. I would be interested if he could give an example of when it may be appropriate for the judge to determine that the proceedings should not be made available to members of the public who may wish to hear what is going on.
I have done my fair share of remote hearings in court from my dining room table. I sometimes did hearings in court and then proceedings in Parliament on the same day, from the same dining room chair. It can be done and I have made sure that my colleagues on the magistrates’ Bench have had training on how to behave when doing hearings via MS Teams or Zoom. In fact, we have a retired magistrate who is a former TV producer. It is very interesting to be trained to do this properly, because it is very easy for standards to slip. For the Committee’s information, we are arranging further training entitled “Keep the bar high; don’t let standards slip”, because it is very easy for that to happen when one is working remotely. We support the instrument.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the contributions to this short debate. I was particularly keen to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, on open justice, and I respectfully endorse them. That is a principle we absolutely share.
I will say a brief word about online hearings, a point which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, picked up. I want to draw a distinction between the provisions in this instrument, which relate to broadcasting hearings to those watching, and online hearings, when the advocates or witnesses are appearing online, which are slightly different but related and important. I have spoken about that on a number of occasions. Online hearings certainly have their place and, more than that, are likely to be the future of civil and sometimes criminal justice going forward.
As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, it is critical to keep standards at the requisite level. I am not sure whether a counsel who hears the phrase “keep the bar high” from a magistrates’ bench would necessarily interpret it in the right way, although that probably lies well beyond my personal experience. As to an example of a case where a judge might say that the hearing should not be broadcast, it would be rare in the Competition Appeal Tribunal for this to happen. There may be cases where you had a vulnerable witness or cases involving children, but I suspect that it will be very much the exception rather than the rule. The critical point is that we allow the individual judge in a case to make that decision for themselves, a point that has been shared across the Committee.
There is other business before the Committee. I do not intend to take more time on this, but I invite the Committee to support this instrument.
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2022
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I thank the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for its advice, which has helped to inform the order for consideration today. The advice, published on 20 November 2020, recommended that three drugs be moved from class C to class B of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The drugs are gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, which is known as GHB; gamma-Butyrolactone, which is known as GBL; and 1,4-Butanediol, which is known as 1,4-BD. I will refer to them collectively as GHB and related substances, or GHBRS.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended that all three substances be controlled under class B of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 because of their potential harm and the evidence of the prevalence of these drugs in the UK. GHBRS are central nervous system depressants. They have been used as recreational drugs, but they have also been weaponised to commit drug-facilitated sexual assault and other crimes. Although a misnomer, they are commonly referred to as date-rape drugs.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs provided wide-ranging advice on these substances. Prevalence of use increased steadily from 2005 to 2015 and has plateaued since 2015. Gamma-Butyrolactone and 1,4-Butanediol are converted to gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid on ingestion and are therefore similar in effect. There is evidence of an increasing number of deaths associated with GHBRS since the ACMD last considered the harms, including 27 recorded deaths in 2018. It was found that GHBRS can cause profound unconsciousness and that there is a high risk to users of overdose and death. Other severe effects include loss of emotional control, depression, paranoia, anxiety, aggression, and persistent cognitive impairment. There is also very strong evidence of GHBRS being used to facilitate crime, including in high-profile cases. They were used by the serial rapist Reynhard Sinaga, and the murderers Stephen Port and Gerald Matovu, to incapacitate their victims.
Clearly, it is right that we follow the advice of independent experts and tighten control on these substances. Moving them to class B will increase the maximum penalty for unlawful possession from two years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both, to five years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. This will signal to the public that offences involving these substances are treated seriously and subject to the appropriate penalties, acting as a deterrent for their possession and supply. It will ensure that sufficient punitive measures are available to the courts and will mean that the police place a higher priority on action against offences involving these substances.
The report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended not only the control of these drugs under class B of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 but that gamma-Butyrolactone and 1,4-Butanediol be placed in Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. This is the most restrictive schedule, which is applied to substances without recognised therapeutic benefit in the UK.
Currently, GBL and 1,4-BD have a unique status. Although they have no therapeutic use, it is lawful to import, export, produce, supply or possess them in circumstances where they are not intended to be used for human ingestion. This exceptional status was intended to enable the legitimate industrial use of these substances. However, the exemption has been exploited to enable illicit supply. The Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) (England, Wales and Scotland) Regulations 2021, also laid on 15 December, will therefore abolish the exemption for GBL and 1,4-BD, meaning that industrial users will need to obtain a Home Office controlled drugs licence. The 2021 regulations are subject to the negative resolution procedure, so the rescheduling of GBL and 1,4-BD is not under debate, but it is a crucial part of the package. Taken together, the two measures will deter illicit possession and supply, and reduce the availability of GHBRS, thereby preventing crime.
We all know the destructive effect that illegal drugs have on the lives not only of those who take them but of their families and wider society. This is demonstrably the case for GHBRS, which have been weaponised to enable crime. The advice from independent experts makes it clear that these substances are harmful. It follows that they must be subject to stricter controls. I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I should remind the Committee that a former partner of mine died from an accidental overdose of GHB.
I thank the Minister for introducing this order. I must admit to being in something of a quandary about how to approach it. On the one hand, I do not believe that reclassification of these drugs to class B is enough. On the other hand, the classification of drugs is largely irrelevant.
I have said before that the classification of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act has very little credibility among those for whom it is most important—those who use controlled drugs. I do not know of anyone, particularly young people, who consider what class a drug is in before deciding whether to take drugs or what drugs to take before going on a night out, for example. Similarly, those addicted to controlled drugs pay no attention to the classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act. The reclassification of GHB and associated compounds from class C to class B, as the Minister has explained, further undermines the credibility of the system of classification, as it places GHB in the same class as cannabis. GHB is used to facilitate rape and to commit murder; it can result in sudden accidental death; and it is being moved into the same class as cannabis.
GHB is a colourless, odourless liquid that can easily be mixed unknowingly into someone’s drink, for example. It can and has been used, as the Minister said, as a so-called date-rape drug because, as the impact assessment shows, it can cause drowsiness and amnesia and the victim to slip into and out of unconsciousness. It is also rapidly eliminated from the body, making it very difficult to definitively identify in criminal cases.
But it is worse than that. Taken in small quantities over a period of time, it may not cause critical short-term effects but, over a long period, it can cause mental and social health harms. People can easily become psychologically addicted. GHB is one of the few drugs from which people can die while trying to withdraw from taking it. It is very easy to overdose, as my former partner found out.
Michael apparently took some GHB before going to a party. Forgetting he had already taken some, he took another dose on arrival, realised his mistake and made himself sick to get the second dose out of his system. He was allowed to fall asleep and began to snore. At that point in the evidence, which was being given by the host of the party at the inquest into Michael’s death, the coroner interrupted and said that snoring was a sign of the respiratory system shutting down and, for future reference, was the time to call an ambulance. Michael had not been breathing for about an hour before, the hosts say, they realised and called an ambulance. I was holding Michael’s mother’s hand as we listened to the evidence at the inquest.
GHB is widely used in connection with so-called chemsex, where parties are held and drugs are consumed to overcome inhibitions that some have to such an extent that they cannot have sex without these drugs. GHB is often taken in combination with other drugs such as crystal meth, making it increasingly difficult for some to keep track of how much GHB they have actually taken. As I have described, it is very easy to go from conscious to unconscious to respiratory failure to death, whether accidentally or when GHB is weaponised by sexual predators.
Noble Lords will recall Stephen Port, who was convicted of murdering four young men by administering GHB. In terms of risk to life, if ever any drug should be classified as class A, this is it. My understanding is that, in addition to reclassification, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs advised the Home Office that a public information campaign was necessary to raise awareness of the dangers these drugs pose, as well as better data collection, such as compulsory testing for GHB in post-mortems where death is unexplained, and increased support and rehabilitation for users and those addicted. In addressing the London Assembly this morning, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner talked about Stephen Port and how, in all cases of sexual assault, they now conduct tests for GHB, even when no complaint is made. I would welcome any information the Minister has about whether that will be extended to post-mortems.
Can the Minister also explain what other measures the Home Office is taking to address—to quote the ACMD—
“strong new evidence of significant harm due to the criminal use of GHBRS, including murder, drug-facilitated sexual assault … and robbery … a marked increase in deaths … physical, mental and social health harms”?
Reclassifying GHB as a class B drug and updating the information on FRANK is simply not good enough.
The reclassification of cannabis from class C to class B was ineffective in terms of harm and use reduction. GHB is characterised here as being only as dangerous as cannabis. It was only when there was publicity about the health dangers of prolonged, excessive use of genetically modified cannabis, the potential to trigger schizophrenia in those with a propensity to it and the harm to the developing brains of young people that cannabis use declined. Education, not criminalisation, caused that reduction in use.
We have seen people who have fallen unconscious from taking GHB being dragged from dancefloors on to the streets to save nightclub operators’ licences. We have seen people hesitate to call ambulances or otherwise seek medical help for fear of being prosecuted for illegal possession of drugs. Criminalisation of drug misuse costs lives. Education on the effects of these substances is where the emphasis should be, not on rearranging the deckchairs on the “Titanic” war on drugs.
If GHB is to be illegal and is to be reclassified, it should be a class A drug. To classify it as equivalent to cannabis is quite obviously ridiculous—but the most important step is a public information campaign to ensure that people are aware of how dangerous GHB and related substances are, despite it being classified by this order only as class B.
We support the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and thank the Minister for introducing so comprehensively the details of the changes proposed. Just to remind the Committee, I sit as a magistrate and regularly deal with drug-related matters in all the jurisdictions—in youth, family and adult criminal matters. It is normal for me, when dealing with these matters, to notice that the street names of drugs change, the names recorded on the charge sheets change, and the strengths of the drugs that we are dealing with change as well. It is a moving picture; I understand the purpose of this amendment, but I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that in a sense the system is always playing catch-up with what is happening with illegal drug use.
I thought it might be interesting for the Committee if I told an anecdote about when I was sitting as a magistrate in Horseferry Road about 10 years ago. We were in a regular criminal court and we had a young man in front of us—he was an adult in his early 20s. He had his father in court, and a privately paid lawyer, and he was pleading guilty to possession of a class B drug. That drug had only recently been made illegal; it had previously been a legal drug, and he had become addicted to it. He had dropped out of college and been put on a rehabilitation programme. He was doing better—but he had been picked up in possession of the drug, and that was the matter that he was pleading guilty to.
What nobody else in the court knew except me was that our legal adviser, before she became a legal adviser, was a nurse. She googled the drug referred to and asked us to retire. She told us that the drug that he had been found in possession of was a date-rape drug, which we had been told he was addicted to. In fact, we had had it presented to us that he was a victim in unfortunate circumstances. So we had to decide how to proceed, given that potentially, given the information that we had been given, it was a much more serious matter than simple possession of a drug.
In the end, we sentenced the man for simple possession, but we got the legal adviser to go and tell the young man’s lawyer—not his father—that we knew what that drug could be used for. When we went back into court and sentenced him—and he would only have got a fine, or something—we made it very clear that there can be other connotations for people having these drugs, and things can get much more serious. In fact, the legal adviser suggested that we might send the matter up to Crown Court, although we did not do that in the end.
I support these amendments. I know that there are limitations with what is happening, and I understand the points that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made—and I agree with his points about education being better than criminalisation, although I part company with him on a number of other aspects of legalisation of certain types of drugs. Nevertheless, I welcome these amendments to the drugs Act.
I thank both noble Lords for their very constructive points during this debate. The case example that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, gave was very pertinent to how we might approach drug use in society: seeing someone as a user but also as a potential victim. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, may have told me before his moving story about the tragic consequences of using a drug that, as he said, is not only hard to detect once taken but very difficult to detect post-mortem because of how quickly it clears from the body. If someone is in a slightly confused state, having taken it and forgotten that they have taken it, the danger is compounded. I thank them both very much for those stories. On what further work will be done on post-mortem, which in itself is a difficult thing to determine, I will get more information if I can, but we recognise the difficulty of detecting post-mortem. I assume that people whose intent is criminal exploit those difficulties.
As I said earlier, the ACMD recommended that GHBRS be moved from class C to class B. We hope that reclassification will benefit the public by reflecting our new understanding of the harms of those drugs. Increased penalties for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act, coupled with the effect of the regulation in restricting supply, are expected to deter and prevent crime, but I take the points of both noble Lords about education. The Government’s drugs strategy is not a simple one of legislation; it is about support, education and moving “from harm to hope”, as the long-term strategy on drugs we have in place is called. That symbolises what the Government are trying to do.
On investment—putting our money where our mouth is—we are investing another £780 million to rebuild drug treatment and recovery services, including for young people and offenders, with new commissioning standards to drive transparency and consistency. Strengthening the evidence base for how best to deter use, ensuring that adults change their behaviour, alongside targeted activity to prevent young people from getting into this lifestyle in the first place, is really important.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said that young people do not pay attention to classification—I totally agree—so how would reclassification meet our ambition in the drugs strategy? We need to take a better approach; I think we have all recognised that. No matter who you are and where you use, you should be encouraged to change your behaviour and to face consequences if you do not. We all know that recreational drug use fuels criminal markets—they thrive on it—which has a terrible impact on those involved in supply and the communities in which it takes place.
The noble Lord also asked me about treatment available to support users of GHB. As I said earlier, there is now significant investment in treatment, which will mean that everyone who needs help with their drug use will be able to get it. Substance misuse commissioners and sexual health commissioners will be supported to work together to improve pathways between services for those who use drugs in a chemsex context, where GHB is of course frequently used, and local authorities will continue to play their role here.
On challenging the Government’s approach to drugs, we are clear that it is anchored in education and effective consequences to reduce demand, tough and intelligent enforcement to restrict supply, and evidence-based treatment to aid recovery and co-ordinated global action. As we know, the problem is a global one.
On discriminatory effects and the groups that are disproportionately affected by tougher penalties, I refer now to the MSM community. The ACMD says in its report that men who have sex with men are the largest user group of GHBRS—I do not think that is disputed. They are often taken in the context of chemsex. The changes in classification and scheduling will disproportionately impact this group. However, the potential benefits of reducing the prevalence and the harms from GHBRS will also benefit the group.
As both noble Lords have said, legislative changes in and of themselves will not act in isolation. We expect to respond shortly to the ACMD’s educational and treatment-based recommendations, which will be delivered by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities. We hope that this will help to counteract any unintended impact of the reclassification of GHBRS.
I hope that I have answered both noble Lords’ questions. I am sure that if I have not, they will intervene on me. If there are no further points, I commend the regulation to the Committee.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive explanation. I was not suggesting at all that it would be wrong if this change had a disproportionate impact on a particular section of society. My main concern is that, to me, with the knowledge that I have of controlled drugs and the way they are used, I cannot think of anything more dangerous in terms of risk to life than GHB and the related substances. Perhaps the ACMD felt that it could not do two steps at once—in other words, it could not go from class C to Class A, because that might undermine its previous assessment of the drug. As I explained, I understand that the long-term effects of cannabis can be quite damaging to people’s mental health, but there is not the same danger of cannabis being weaponised to commit sexual offences, for it to be used as a murder weapon, as it was in the Stephen Port case, or as an overdose resulting in immediate and sudden death. Yet it is being reclassified as the same class as cannabis when it appears to me, from my experience, to be far more dangerous than cannabis. Does the noble Baroness have anything to say on that point?
I did not for a moment think that the noble Lord was objecting to the disproportionate effect on certain groups. When the ACMD considers things, it considers them very carefully and keeps them under review. I have tried to outline concern today about the stigma caused by increasing the classification on those who use the drugs, but also the desire to help people with the terrible problems that these drugs can cause. I am sure that it will keep it under review, and the noble Lord may well be right: it may recommend further classification in due course.
Committee adjourned at 6.24 pm.