House of Lords
Tuesday 22 February 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
Hong Kong: Political Prisoners
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Hong Kong about the (1) human rights, and (2) release, of pro- democracy political prisoners remanded in custody under that Government’s national security law.
My Lords, on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare my interests both as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and as vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong.
My Lords, the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have used the national security law to target pro-democracy figures, curtail freedoms and shrink the space for opposition, a free press and civil society. The UK continues to raise its concerns directly with Hong Kong and Chinese authorities. We continue to urge Beijing to uphold its international obligations, including the rights and freedoms protected in the joint declaration.
In thanking the noble Lord, I will put to him a question put to me by a courageous Hong Kong activist, Chung Ching Kwong, about young pro-democracy activists most at risk of arrest. Can we be told, she asked, when the Home Office will introduce the promised and welcome new regulations to include within the BNO scheme young people with a parent who is a BNO passport holder and born after 1997? What are we doing to work with other Commonwealth countries to provide an international lifeboat for young Hong Kongers who do not qualify for the BNO, and what estimate have the Government made of their number?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for his question. We are sympathetic to the circumstances of children of BNO parents born on or after 1 July 1997 and are considering what more can be done to support this cohort where they wish to build a permanent life in the United Kingdom. We will continue to bring together our international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms and to hold China to its international obligations.
The national security law poses real questions for the rule of law in Hong Kong and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms promised by China in the joint declaration. Our assessment of Hong Kong’s judicial independence is increasingly finely balanced. It is, therefore, right that it is kept under review.
My Lords, I know that there have been recent discussions between the Lord Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary and British judges who continue to serve on the Court of Final Appeal. That fine court declared recently that these new laws under the national security law trump rights guaranteed by the Basic Law. What were those talks about and what was their result?
My Lords, I recall that, before the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, judges and anti-corruption police officers were routinely seconded to Hong Kong to assist with the administration of justice under the then colonial constitution. Can the noble Earl say how many of the individuals concerned remained in post at the changeover, whether British judges still served the new Hong Kong Administration after the transfer of sovereignty and what the position is now?
My Lords, in relation to judges in Hong Kong, I answered the question on the first supplementary, but we are aware that a number of UK nationals are members of the Hong Kong police, having joined prior to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The Government have no jurisdiction over this matter; the national security law poses real questions for the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms promised by China in the joint declaration.
My Lords, while Hong Kong has been an open and free economy, it has brought great help to China. Are we making sure to point out to the Chinese Government that, if they turn it into a quasi-police state, they will lose the huge economic advantages of its success?
My Lords, the consequences of Beijing’s actions in relation to Hong Kong have been made very clear on many occasions. As the noble Lord will be aware, since 2021 we have launched a bespoke immigration route for BNOs, suspended the Hong Kong-UK extradition agreement and extended the arms embargo to cover Hong Kong.
My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether any representation has been made by Her Majesty’s Government on care for the families of those pro-democracy activists imprisoned under the national security law, particularly in the light of the withdrawal of so many human rights organisations from Hong Kong, leaving them with no recourse?
My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point about those who have been arrested under the NSL. There are difficulties here, as she will be aware, around consular assistance for BNOs and dual nationals; it is available only in third countries, but not in China, Macau and Hong Kong. However, where we have legitimate humanitarian or human rights concerns, we can and will lobby the relevant authorities and demonstrate our political support.
My Lords, following up on previous answers from the Minister, given the level of interference in the Hong Kong judicial system, does he agree that the context in which there was thought to be a continuing role for British and Commonwealth judges has fundamentally shifted? Is it not now time for those judges to be withdrawn from the judicial system? Will the Minister work with Commonwealth partners to get this done?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question. As I said, our assessment of Hong Kong’s judicial independence is increasingly finely balanced. It is therefore right that it is being kept under review. It is essential that both the Hong Kong judiciary and Hong Kong’s legal institutions can operate independently and free from political interference. Whether to withdraw judges from Hong Kong is decided by the Supreme Court, in conjunction and consultation with Her Majesty’s Government.
My Lords, when leaving Hong Kong and entering the UK, what passport do our friends actually travel on? China does not recognise dual citizenship, so which takes precedence in this instance? When will the amendment of the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Patten, to the Nationality and Borders Bill come before us? Will it come back on Report and be properly addressed?
My Lords, I cannot predict what will happen in legislation in the future, but I am sure the noble Lord will be made aware in due course. The noble Lord also asked about people travelling from Hong Kong. They are able to travel under the Hong Kong SAR passport.
My Lords, given that it is now palpably clear that human rights are under severe attack in Hong Kong, how much longer does the review of UK judges’ position have to take before they are firmly advised to play no further part in the Hong Kong judicial system?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a fair point, but these are issues relating to whether there are judges from the United Kingdom serving in Hong Kong. This is under review continually. I do not have any more information on that, but if there is any more, I will write to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I declare my position on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. I will understand if the Minister does not know that the Hong Kong Baptist University student newspaper was suppressed in January, but its staff and students suffered. The HKBU said that it could not promise to guarantee student safety if they chose to attribute their resignation to the way they had been treated. In answering the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the Minister said that he sympathised with the situation of young Hong Kongers. Is sympathy really enough for people such as those brave students, who are taking action to try to defend human rights?
I could not agree more with what the noble Baroness said on the importance of those who have been protesting. It is very clear to all who watch the newsfeed. The Government hope to be in a position to say more this issue in the forth- coming days on, ahead of Report on the Nationality and Borders Bill.
My Lords, it is a manifesto commitment to ban the import of hunting trophies from endangered animals. We will be bringing forward legislation to deliver this measure as soon as parliamentary time allows.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has just said. Will he acknowledge that the Government have the opportunity, by getting this Bill on the statute book as soon as possible, to play a significant part in saving many rare animals from a horrible and unnecessary death? Therefore, can he confirm that the Bill will go further than the manifesto commitment and cover more than 1,000 additional near-threatened species, as stated in the government press release of 10 December? Is he aware that, at the end of last year, more than 300 carcasses of endangered species had been shipped to this country since 2019? Is it not the case that any delay in enacting the legislation would result in many more large animals being killed?
My Lords, there were about 20 licensed imports of trophies in the year 2020 and I suspect that many others may have been illegally transported around the world. My noble friend is right to say that the scope of what we are proposing is all species listed in Annexes A and B of UK wildlife trade regulations, which are broadly equivalent to Appendix 1 and 2 of CITES. That is about 6,000 species. Over 1,000 further species are not listed in the WTR annexes but are assessed on the IUCN red list as near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and extinct in the wild. Only a very few of those are actually hunted for trophies.
My Lords, given that there are suspicions arising that certain other animal welfare aspects are to be dropped from the Bill to which my noble friend refers, will he forgive me if I say that I entertain considerable suspicions as to whether the Government are back-tracking?
My noble friend’s question suggests that she has the advantage on me and a greater understanding of the pre-legislative discussions that are going ahead. As far as I am concerned, what was in the manifesto will be brought forward in a Bill in the near future.
My Lords, it was reported in the media over the weekend—I think this is what the noble Baroness was referring to—that the Government are doing an about-turn on imports of fur and foie gras, both of which are abominable for those of us who have animal rights at the forefront of how we treat the natural world. Would the Minister care to comment on why there has been this about-turn?
I have read some of the speculation in the press, but this is not something that has come to me in my department as part of these discussions. We will see in the near future whether the noble Baroness is right or wrong when this legislation is published and pre-legislative discussions have taken place.
The Government are bringing in a range of animal welfare measures. We have a proud tradition in this country across parties of having concern for animal welfare. There is a long list of measures that the Government can take, have taken and will take. When the animals abroad Bill is published, everything in it has to be seen in relation to a much wider determination to protect animal welfare.
My Lords, further to the questions from noble Lords around what has been in the press, if bans on foie gras and fur imports are to be dropped from the animals abroad Bill, can the Minister confirm whether the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, is being sidelined by the Government and his department? He has previously stated that the Government would legislate to ban fur imports at the earliest available slot. There seems to be general back-tracking on animal welfare promises from this Government, so can the Minister assure us that the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, has the full support of the Prime Minister and the Treasury on these matters?
My Lords, I note that the Defra consultation on this matter received over 44,000 responses, with 86% of respondents supporting the proposed ban. As the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, said, 300 trophies have since been bought into the United Kingdom. Can the Minister tell the House how many more trophies are likely to be imported into this country before the long-awaited ban is implemented?
The noble Lord knows the length of time it takes for legislation to get on to the statute book, but once it is there, imported trophies will be banned. I would expect that, if the Bill comes in in the relatively near future, by this time next year the noble Lord’s ambitions will be realised.
My Lords, has my noble friend the Minister made any assessment of the possible unintended consequences of this legislation? In the late 1970s, Kenya banned trophy hunting and saw the number of its elephants plummet. South Africa and Rhodesia, as it then was, went the other way and said that, if you owned land, livestock on that land was your property. As a result, local people treated large animals as a renewable resource rather than a pest. Can my noble friend confirm whether the Government have assessed whether there might be increased pressure on the habitats of rare species as a result of this legislation?
As part of the consultation, we heard from a number of different organisations and Governments, including those of South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Canada, Zambia and Botswana, all of which support trophy hunting as a conservation tool. There is a wide-ranging debate about the value of well-managed conservation hunting and the impact it can have on increasing the number of rare and endangered species as against badly managed hunting, which sees large amounts of rare and endangered species killed and has no value to conservation.
Covid-19: Vaccination Programme
My Lords, the UK has committed up to £1.4 billion to help end the Covid-19 pandemic and address its impacts. This includes funding for COVAX, which has now delivered more than 1 billion vaccines worldwide. We are working with partners on how to finance Covid-19 vaccines more sustainably for 2022 and beyond. To date, the UK has donated 32.2 million doses; 29.5 million have been delivered to recipient countries. COVAX is in the process of allocating and delivering the remaining 2.6 million doses.
I thank the Minister for his detailed response, but we are way behind the WHO’s target of vaccinating 70% of the world by September. Just 6% of people across low-income countries are fully vaccinated, while 3 billion people have not received a single dose. Last month, the Prime Minister was warned by 300 leading scientists that wealthy countries were pursuing
“a reckless approach to public health”.
Will the Government step up and further commit to the UK’s £1 billion fair-share contribution towards the urgent $23 billion funding needs of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, and help to address this moral and economic dereliction of duty?
My Lords, the UK is in total agreement with the noble Lord that vaccine inequity is shocking. We are committed to supporting global vaccination and equitable access in the poorest countries. That is why we used our G7 presidency in 2021 to push for more commitments and continue to play a leading role with COVAX and other partners in strengthening procurement and delivery efforts with partner Governments. We have delivered £548 million to COVAX’s advance market commitment, which will help to deliver up to 1.8 billion doses for developing countries in 2022. To date, more than 1.19 billion vaccines have been delivered globally through COVAX to 144 participants, including 1 billion doses to almost all of the AMC-eligible countries. Some 86 of those countries are eligible, and 44 of them are in Africa.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable that, through mismanagement, this Government allowed more than 500,000 vaccines that could have gone to developing countries to be destroyed? Given that the UK has the expertise, technology, resources and production capacity to vaccinate the whole world, why is the vaccination gulf between us and the global south so great?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her question, which relates to shelf life. Decisions on donation are driven by the availability of vaccines from domestic supply. Once the Health Secretary is confident that vaccines are available to donate, the Foreign Secretary prioritises how they are shared. Avoiding vaccine expiry and the wastage of vaccines is a UK core objective, determining when and where we share and deploy our doses. For all bilateral donations, we have sought assurances that recipients have the capacity to roll out the quantity of doses in line with the national vaccination programmes ahead of their expiry date. Vaccines delivered by COVAX are delivered in consultation with countries and distributed in line with the WHO’s equitable allocation framework.
My Lords, the price point of how we declare our donated vaccines as overseas development assistance matters here, and the Centre for Global Development has a robust calculation showing that the average price the UK has paid is $4.40. This is less than the OECD’s DAC ODA amount of $6.72, but we can indeed charge what we pay for them. Can my noble friend the Minister reassure me that the Government will not make any profit from the vaccines that we donate, which were, of course, originally bought for the UK? Charging poorer countries more than we paid for these vaccines not only is morally wrong but will reduce our international development spending further.
I thank my noble friend for her question. She is right: the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee secretariat has now provided guidance for reporting donations of excess Covid-19 vaccine doses in 2021 in ODA. The UK is considering this guidance together with our other commitments and obligations and is actively engaging with the Development Assistance Committee secretariat on valuing Covid-19 vaccines in ODA assistance in 2021. The DAC secretariat will review its methodology for donations in 2022, and all donations to date have been to ODA-eligible countries.
My Lords, what consideration have the Government given to the possibility of offering tax incentives or financial aid for companies from the United Kingdom which might set up manufacturing plants in overseas countries so that they can help directly in those areas?
My Lords, I am not familiar with the tax incentives that may have been offered, but we have provided technical support to develop business cases for, for example, Biovac to manufacture vaccines in South Africa, the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal, and to the Moroccan Government. The technical support helped to catalyse investment that will see Covid-19 vaccines produced on the African continent in 2022. We also welcome the work of the COVAX supply chain and manufacturing task force, which brings together partners to identify immediate and longer-term actions to increase the volume and security of global vaccine supply.
My Lords, this March the UK is hosting the pandemic preparedness summit, at which CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, is aiming to raise $3.5 billion for its 2022-26 strategic period. Will the UK Government take this opportunity to commit £300 million and act as a diplomatic leader to ensure that CEPI has the resources it needs to continue its crucial work?
The noble Baroness is quite right: the UK is hosting the global pandemic preparedness summit on 8 March this year, and that will raise funds to achieve CEPI’s goal to develop vaccines against new threats in 100 days and rapidly scale up regional manufacturing for affordable global supply. CEPI’s new five-year strategy aims to develop vaccines to prevent future pandemics, cutting the time it takes to develop new vaccines from 300 to 100 days. The UK is a long-term partner of CEPI and one of its biggest supporters, giving £276 million in funding since 2018. There will be a pledge of more money towards CEPI at the replenishment summit next month, but I am afraid that I do not know the number. I could go on about CEPI, but I think that is enough.
My Lords, it is reported that Nigeria will give away hundreds of thousands of doses because it is unable to deliver them, and that Iran likewise has wasted nearly a million doses because they were made in America. What steps can the Government take to make sure that the infrastructure is available and that doses will not be wasted for political reasons?
I think I have already answered the question on shelf life. I obviously cannot comment on the Iranian Government. In terms of what more the Government can do, I have already outlined a number of measures we are trying to take with regards to shelf life in particular. As I say, these decisions are taken very carefully by the Foreign Office and the health department.
My Lords, will the Minister tell us what is happening for those countries which have difficulty in getting supplies in because of conflict or non-recognition? I use the example of Somaliland, where all the supplies go through Somalia and then arrive in Somaliland only when they are out of date. There are a number of countries like this, so what action is being taken to deal with these problem areas?
My Lords, the UK is supporting the humanitarian buffer of last resort to support populations displaced by conflict in various parts of the world, including Afghanistan. Obviously, we welcome continued application of this instrument to support vulnerable populations where needed.
My Lords, yesterday the Prime Minister said in the other place:
“We will continue to support other countries in developing their own surveillance capabilities, because a new variant can emerge anywhere.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/22; col. 44.]
Can the Minister detail when the Government will reinstate the overseas aid budget to 0.7% of GNI to provide that necessary capability and funding capacity to help countries in the developing world deal with new variants?
The noble Baroness is aware that I cannot say that—it is a matter for the Chancellor. But I can say this: on 30 December, the Foreign Secretary announced a £105 million emergency package to support low-income countries, particularly in Africa, to prepare for and respond to omicron. That includes scaling up testing, especially in parts of Africa where testing rates remain lowest, and it will enable health systems to track and respond more effectively to Covid-19, improving access to medical oxygen supplies, and so on.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister agrees that Her Majesty’s Government should redouble their efforts to ensure that vaccines are shared in a safe, timely and effective manner, but can he also say whether only vaccine doses that are actually used should be accounted against the ODA budget?
Windfall Tax: Oil, Gas and Energy Companies
The Government place additional taxes on the extraction of oil and gas, with companies engaged in the production of oil and gas on the UK continental shelf subject to headline tax rates on their profits that are currently more than double those paid by other businesses. To date, the sector has paid more than £375 billion in production taxes. All taxes are kept under review and any changes are considered and announced by the Chancellor.
My Lords, the primary cost of producing oil, gas and green energy has hardly changed. Only the selling price has, resulting in excessive profits without any additional effort for the companies. A windfall tax is needed to help hard-pressed households. Why are the Government so wedded to their ideology rather than helping the people?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to talk about price fluctuations in the sector, of course. In spring 2020, the price of oil crashed to below $20 a barrel. That year saw investment in the sector at an all-time low, so an abrupt tax change would create further uncertainty and potentially undermine significant investment in that sector. However, the Government remain committed to supporting households with the cost of energy and have set out plans to do so.
My Lords, instead of threatening major companies such as Shell and BP, would it not be more sensible and in the interests of UK Ltd to recognise that we need those companies to pioneer work in new areas of supply for fuel and power, particularly hydrogen and areas like it?
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and as president of the CBI, we feel that a windfall tax is not efficient, as it puts investments at risk for companies that are key to our transition to net zero. Does the Government agree? Secondly, do they agree that this is absolutely the wrong time for our tax burden to be at its highest level for 70 years? Businesses have suffered so much through the pandemic; will this not stifle what is already a fragile recovery?
My Lords, the Government agree that an abrupt tax change could put investment in this sector at risk. While the overall tax burden is high, we have had to take certain decisions to aid our recovery from the pandemic. We saw the Government put in place so much support during the pandemic, but we need to recover, for example by getting on top of NHS waiting lists.
My Lords, the Minister tells us that the Government are concerned that a windfall tax would deter companies from investment, so let us look at that. The Norwegian Government tax companies at 22% and add 53% for those that operate in the North Sea. We apply 40% tax to profits, but we have massive rebates for investment and for decommissioning, with the result that, over five years, 19 companies that operate in the North Sea have paid no tax at all. The Norwegians have no problem getting corporate investment in the North Sea; why would we have any problem getting corporate investment in the North Sea, if we took some of these unearned profits this year to help poor people with difficulties paying their own energy bills?
My Lords, I want to be absolutely clear that the Government have put in support to help people pay their energy bills—we are spending around £9 billion on that. The noble Lord is right that the UK provides tax relief for decommissioning costs, which is something that we have in common with Norway. Of course, different oil and gas fields are at different levels of maturity and have different costs relating to further extraction, and that is reflected in our approach to the North Sea oil and gas fields that we have in the UK.
My Lords, despite fine words on net zero, it is nigh on impossible to get an accurate picture of the amount of money that oil majors spent on renewables. The little we do know shows that their words pay lip service only. Eni spent less than 2% on investment in renewables, and Shell and BP spent similarly derisory amounts. It really is time to stand up to them: tax their extreme profits and use the money to help people who are having to make desperate choices between heating and eating.
My Lords, I am afraid that the Government do not agree with the approach of the noble Baroness. However, where we do agree is on the essential nature of providing further support to households that are struggling with their fuel bills. That is why we are providing a £150 cash rebate for homes in council tax bands A to D, which is about 80% of all households, and a further £144 million of discretionary funding to councils for those households that would not otherwise qualify for that rebate.
My Lords, if we were really concerned about the cost of energy to poor people in our country, would it not be a good idea to remove the green levies that are adding to their bills? Surely it is naive beyond belief to imagine that we can do without gas and oil in the immediate future. The reason that prices are so high is that we are not able to produce enough of our own gas supplies. That requires investment and surely means not taxing the people who are capable of providing it.
My Lords, my noble friend is right that in the short to medium term we will continue to need oil and gas supplies, and that is why the Government think that it is important that investment continues to be made in our oil fields. But we also need to fund the transition to a net-zero economy, where we move more towards clean and renewable energy in the longer term. That is why we have programmes such as the North Sea transition deal, to do that in a managed and orderly way.
My Lords, let me be absolutely clear: the Labour Party would immediately implement a windfall tax on oil and gas profits. Unlike the Government’s buy now, pay later scheme, our plan would provide a genuine £200 off most household bills, with targeted support of £600 for those who need it. The Chancellor will make his Spring Statement a month from tomorrow, just weeks before the energy price cap is hiked. Will the Government use that occasion to do the right thing and adopt Labour’s proposals?
My Lords, Labour may say that it would impose a windfall tax immediately but under its proposals the support would not then be passed on to consumers immediately; it would take far longer under its plans to get money into people’s pockets. Furthermore, Labour’s plans for a VAT cut would not target support at those who most need it, with some of the wealthiest households saving the most money under the proposals.
My Lords, surely the Government agree that the long-term future has to be renewable energy, yet at the moment the oil companies are putting out that 20% to 25% of our energy bills is coming from green levies, when in fact the figure is 8%. This cannot be the moment that we take our foot off the gas, so to speak. Will the Government give the House a guarantee that they will not reduce the green levy but look to increase it, so that we do not end up with these problems again and again?
My Lords, I would not speculate on the green levy or any other tax or levies outside of the Budget process. What I would say to the noble Baroness is that we remain committed to our transition to net zero. While we recognise that in the short term we need to continue our oil and gas supplies, in the longer term we need to move to greener forms of energy.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that between 2010 and 2020 real energy bills for consumers fell? That was in significant part because of the green levies which helped to reduce energy consumption, quite contrary to what the noble Lord on the Government Privy Bench has just said. Will she ensure that we do not cut these energy-saving levies, and will she make absolutely clear that what is driving up prices is the cost of fossil fuels, not of renewables and green levies?
My Lords, I believe I have already answered a question about the level of the green levy on bills. However, I have also given the reassurance that the Government are committed to their net-zero targets. That involves a transition from fossil fuels to greener forms of energy, which is why we have a plan in place to do so.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is only in this sector that the industry is not paying for future infrastructure? Will she ensure that, rather than funding renewable energy through green levies, companies will be able to go to the market and fund them in the usual way?
Living with Covid-19
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 21 February.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on our strategy for living with Covid. Before I begin, I know the whole House will join me in sending our best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen for a full and swift recovery.
It is a reminder that this virus has not gone away but, because of the efforts we have made as a country over the past two years, we can now deal with it in a very different way by moving from Government restrictions to personal responsibility, so that we protect ourselves without losing our liberties, and by maintaining our contingency capabilities so that we can respond rapidly to any new variant.
The UK was the first country in the world to administer an approved vaccine, and the first European nation to protect half its population with at least one dose. Having made the decision to refocus our NHS this winter on the campaign to get boosted now, we were the first major European nation to boost half our population, too. And it is because of the extraordinary success of this vaccination programme that we have been able to lift our restrictions earlier than other comparable countries—opening up last summer while others remained closed, and keeping things open this winter when others shut down again—making us one of the most open economies and societies in Europe, with the fastest growth anywhere in the G7 last year.
While the pandemic is not over, we have now passed the peak of the omicron wave, with cases falling, hospitalisations in England now fewer than 10,000 and still falling, and the link between infection and severe disease substantially weakened. Over 71% of all adults in England are now boosted, including 93% of those aged 70 or over. Together with the treatments and scientific understanding of the virus we have built up, we now have sufficient levels of immunity to complete the transition from protecting people with Government interventions to relying on vaccines and treatments as our first line of defence.
As we have throughout the past two years, we will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations as they decide how to take forward their own plans. Today’s strategy shows how we will structure our approach in England around four principles. First, we will remove all remaining domestic restrictions in law. From this Thursday, 24 February, we will end the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test, and so we will also end self-isolation support payments, although Covid provisions for statutory sick pay can still be claimed for a further month. We will end routine contact tracing, and no longer ask fully vaccinated close contacts and those under 18 to test daily for seven days. We will also remove the legal requirement for close contacts who are not fully vaccinated to self-isolate. Until 1 April, we will still advise people who test positive to stay at home, but after that we will encourage people with Covid-19 symptoms to exercise personal responsibility, just as we encourage people who may have flu to be considerate to others.
It is only because levels of immunity are so high and deaths are now, if anything, below where we would normally expect for this time of year that we can lift these restrictions. And it is only because we know omicron is less severe that testing for omicron on the colossal scale we have been doing is much less important and much less valuable in preventing serious illness. We should be proud that the UK has established the biggest testing programme per person of any large country in the world. This came at vast cost. The testing, tracing and isolation budget in 2020-21 exceeded the entire budget of the Home Office; it cost a further £15.7 billion in this financial year, and £2 billion in January alone, at the height of the omicron wave. We must now scale this back.
From today, we are removing the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice-weekly asymptomatic testing. And from 1 April, when winter is over and the virus will spread less easily, we will end free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public. We will continue to provide free symptomatic tests to the oldest age groups and those most vulnerable to Covid. And in line with the practice in many other countries, we are working with retailers to ensure that everyone who wants to can buy a test. From 1 April, we will also no longer recommend the use of voluntary Covid-status certification, although the NHS app will continue to allow people to indicate their vaccination status for international travel. The Government will also expire all temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act 2020. Of the original 40, 20 have already expired and 16 will expire on 24 March. The last four, relating to innovations in public service, will expire six months later, after we have made those improvements permanent via other means.
Secondly, we will continue to protect the most vulnerable with targeted vaccines and treatments. The UK Government have procured enough doses of vaccine to anticipate a wide range of possible Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendations. Today, we are taking further action to guard against a possible resurgence of the virus, accepting JCVI advice for a new spring booster offered to those aged 75 and over, to older care home residents, and to those over 12 who are immunosuppressed. The UK is also leading the way on antivirals and therapeutics, with our Antivirals Taskforce securing a supply of almost 5 million, which is more per head than any other country in Europe.
Thirdly, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advises that there is considerable uncertainty about the future path of the pandemic, and there may of course be significant resurgences. SAGE is certain that there will be new variants, and it is very possible that those will be worse than omicron. So we will maintain our resilience to manage and respond to those risks, including our world-leading Office for National Statistics survey, which will allow us to continue tracking the virus in granular detail, with regional and age breakdowns helping us to spot surges as and where they happen. And our laboratory networks will help us understand the evolution of the virus and identify any changes in characteristics.
We will prepare and maintain our capabilities to ramp up testing. We will continue to support other countries in developing their own surveillance capabilities, because a new variant can emerge anywhere. We will meet our commitment to donate 100 million vaccine doses by June, as our part of the agreement at the UK’s G7 summit to provide a billion doses to vaccinate the world over the next year. In all circumstances, our aim will be to manage and respond to future risks through more routine public health interventions, with pharmaceutical interventions as the first line of defence.
Fourthly, we will build on the innovation that has defined the best of our response to the pandemic. The vaccines taskforce will continue to ensure that the UK has access to effective vaccines as they become available, and has already secured contracts with manufacturers trialling bi-valent vaccines, which would provide protection against Covid variants. The therapeutics taskforce will continue to support seven national priority clinical trial platforms focused on prevention, novel treatments and treatments for long Covid. We are refreshing our biosecurity strategy to protect the UK against natural zoonosis and accidental laboratory leaks, as well as the potential for biological threats emanating from state and non-state actors.
Building on the five-point plan that I set out at the UN and the agreements reached at the UK’s G7 last year, we are working with our international partners on future pandemic preparedness, including through a new pandemic treaty; an effective early warning system or global pandemic radar; and a mission to make safe and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines available within the first 100 days of a future pandemic threat being identified. We will host a global pandemic preparedness summit next month.
Covid will not suddenly disappear, so those who would wait for a total end to this war before lifting the remaining regulations would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come. This Government do not believe that that is right or necessary. Restrictions take a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental wellbeing and the life chances of our children, and we do not need to pay that cost any longer. We have a population that is protected by the biggest vaccination programme in our history; we have the antivirals, the treatments and the scientific understanding of this virus; and we have the capabilities to respond rapidly to any resurgence or new variant.
It is time that we got our confidence back. We do not need laws to compel people to be considerate to others. We can rely on our sense of responsibility towards one another, providing practical advice in the knowledge that people will follow it to avoid infecting loved ones and others. So let us learn to live with this virus and continue protecting ourselves without restricting our freedoms. In that spirit, I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, the Prime Minister was clearly very upbeat throughout his Statement yesterday, announcing an end to all legal Covid restrictions in England and setting out part of the Government’s living with Covid plan. The pace and the efficiency of the vaccine programme, the justification for the changes, has been extraordinary. I again commend and thank the scientists, staff and volunteers of the National Health Service, and indeed some Ministers, for their collective efforts.
As many in your Lordships’ House have said before, Covid and our necessary response to it has taken an enormous toll on the nation’s physical and mental health, on society as a whole and on every aspect of our economy—we are all desperately keen to get back to how things were. Yet even the Prime Minister admits that Covid is not going to suddenly disappear, which means that this next stage—with a now hopefully much reduced virus—has to be well thought out, manageable and resilient over time.
I would like to probe the background to the decision with the noble Baroness and clarify some of the points about how we move forward. First, as the noble Baroness is aware, the BMA and other bodies do not believe that the decision is evidence led. Can she offer any reassurance to your Lordships’ House and state whether the decision is in line with the recommendations of SAGE, as well as those of the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser?
On these Benches, we are optimistic that we could well be moving on from the very worst of this pandemic. Vaccinations, testing and self-isolation have been highly effective in reducing infections and transmission and thereby reducing the likelihood of new variants. But the SAGE advice is that something worse than omicron will be an ever-present threat. So, with all the restrictions being removed, there is real concern that ending the legal requirements to isolate and stopping free tests on 1 April feel quite arbitrary. So, can the noble Baroness say anything further about the evidence base for the timing of those two points following restrictions being removed, and commit to placing supporting information in the Library? Also, will there be an impact assessment on the consequences of lifting restrictions all at once, alongside the testing and self-isolation, and what mitigations are being considered?
On self-isolation, the Prime Minister draws a comparison with flu in terms of staying at home. Yet we know Covid is much more highly transmissible. If I have understood this correctly, the advice is to make a personal decision on whether or not to self-isolate. But without a legal requirement, what assessment has been made of high-risk workplaces such as care homes and the National Health Service? The noble Baroness will understand that most people want to do the right thing. But some are going to struggle with, on the one hand, guidance telling them to self-isolate if positive, and, on the other hand, pressures—either financial or from an employer—forcing them to work.
Can the noble Baroness also provide further details on the cost of purchasing tests? With rapidly increasing household bills, paying for testing, particularly where an employer might require it, will be an additional pressure for many. The Prime Minister has said that free tests will be available to the oldest age groups and the most vulnerable. What about those working with them? In the Statement, Mr Johnson merely offered that the Government were working with retailers to supply tests, so can the noble Baroness shed any further light on this, including on whether the reports of £3 for each individual test are accurate and whether the price will be fixed?
Also, will there be a greater effort to support UK manufacturers rather than relying on imports? Most of the tests I have had have come from China. Also, what is the Government’s response to concerns about the sale of the UK’s flagship Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre in Oxford, at a time when vaccines are so important?
The Prime Minister reflected on the eye-watering amount of money spent on test and trace. He said it was more than the entire budget of the Home Office. Given the criticisms of that service, is the noble Baroness satisfied that the budget was well managed and value for money, or will an independent assessment be made of this?
In terms of going forward, despite the success to date of vaccines, only two-thirds of those eligible for a third jab have had one. The advice is that two jabs are not enough to provide maximum protection. With all the regulations being scrapped, how will the Government ensure that everyone eligible for a booster actually gets one? With the evidence that immunity and protection are reduced quite significantly over time, we welcome the rollout of a further booster for those who are over 75. Can the noble Baroness say how long this will be for? Will it be ongoing at least for the foreseeable future, perhaps as people reach their 75th birthday?
In the Statement, the Prime Minister committed to monitoring future outbreaks. That seems sensible. But what was missing from the Statement was what the Government would do if they identified such an outbreak—or even if the emergence of a new variant was identified. Without testing and self-isolation for those infected, I am not clear what the Government’s plan is. So, can she provide any further information on that and the purpose of the monitoring, or write to me if it is not yet available?
It is absolutely critical that the right measures are in place to support people to make the right, proportionate choices going forward. We know now that, moving forward, we have to live with the virus. But that is not the same as ignoring it, and I am really not sure that the Government have the sequencing of events or the messaging right. Following this announcement, it seems that the message that the Covid-weary public can take away is that Covid is no longer a threat, because it is not essential to know whether you have it or not, as there is no testing, and it is not essential to self-isolate if you have. That is going to lead many to conclude—wrongly, as even the Prime Minister has admitted—that the pandemic is now over. So, can the noble Baroness today give us some reassurance of what the Government’s plans are in the face of any further outbreaks or new variants and what the Government are going to do to encourage the public and signal the importance of everyone getting their booster? Also, reassurance on the issue of government monitoring of any new variants or outbreaks would be really helpful, because we need to understand why the Government are doing that and what the plan is if they identify any.
My Lords, I begin where the Prime Minister concludes his Statement:
“We do not need laws”,
“to compel people to be considerate of others. We can rely on that sense of responsibility towards one another”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/22; col. 45.]
If this were the case, many laws would not be on the statute book and, indeed, many aspects of the regulations that we have had in place over the last two years would not have been necessary. For this Prime Minister to claim that we can rely on the sense of responsibility towards one another shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness. He did not behave responsibly even when there were laws in place, so to remove all legal restraints at one fell swoop seems to me, at best, an extremely risky option. Doing so makes sense only if we are confident that the costs involved are manageable.
It is obviously a great relief that numbers are falling and that serious illness is on the wane, but the death only last week of one of my colleagues, having been in ICU with Covid, is a timely warning to us all that this disease is far from done. While everybody agrees that we have to learn to live with Covid, that is not the same as getting rid of every precautionary measure. We need to ensure that cases continue to diminish, the vulnerable are protected and pressure on the NHS is bearable.
The Prime Minister repeatedly said yesterday that taking personal responsibility requires people to test themselves and to self-isolate if they think they have the disease, but, for those on limited income, including the millions who are not eligible for sick pay, the cancellation of self-isolation support payments will make that an impossible choice. If faced with heating or eating, or paying for a coronavirus test, it is pretty obvious which will be the lowest priority. So, we have real concerns about getting rid of free testing, especially for those who are either vulnerable or have family members who are vulnerable.
The latest testing figures show that, every week, nearly 4 million people are taking regular Covid tests—on average, two a week. This includes people who take tests to protect their elderly relatives and friends, as well as vulnerable workers in people-facing industries such as hospitality who are concerned about their health. If people have to pay for this, we estimate that it could amount to an annual testing cost to an individual of up to £500. Does the Minister agree that this is simply unfeasible for many people and is also, in effect, a tax on caring? While the Prime Minister said that half a million people who are the most severely immunocompromised will get free tests, their carers and families will not.
There is also a more important principle at stake here. The Government have consistently said that the NHS is safe in our hands because it is free at the point of need. However, Covid-19 is a notifiable, highly infectious disease under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 and the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations 2010, which say that medical practitioners must test potential cases under the NHS so that infections can be managed and monitored. Currently, all notifiable disease tests are free of charge but, from 1 April, that will no longer be the case. So, how can the Government claim that the NHS will continue to be free at the point of need? In this case, it clearly will not.
The Statement refers to SAGE’s concern about the future path of the pandemic, which underlines the importance of the survey work carried out by the ONS and Imperial College. Can the Leader confirm that these surveillance operations at ONS and Imperial will continue on a substantial scale, and can she say how quickly full, free testing and tracing can be restarted in the not unlikely event of another variant emerging?
While vaccination remains a vital tool in learning to live with Covid, some people’s immune systems wane quickly after their booster jabs. The Statement says that these people will have access to antivirals and other treatments, but the antivirals must be administered within 48 hours of symptoms starting. Can the Government confirm that such people will get access to rapid testing, to be able to start these vital treatments within the first 48 hours?
Finally, the Statement mentions the UK’s G7 plan for future pandemics. How do the Government respond to comments from the WHO that countries such as the UK are dismantling the precautions needed to ensure a safe reduction in Covid? We will learn to live with Covid, but the Government have a lot more work to do to ensure that we do it with minimal risk.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. On behalf of the whole House, I send condolences to colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches on the loss of one of their dear colleagues, and to Lord Chidgey’s family. He is in our thoughts.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about SAGE advice. We have continued to take and publish the best advice and analysis from scientific groups such as SAGE and its subgroups, which has been used in decisions taken by Ministers, alongside economic and social considerations. The latest SAGE advice was referenced within the strategy that was published on 10 February. We will continue to publish SAGE advice as and when we have it.
The noble Lord rightly pointed out that the proportion of infections from the current omicron variant resulting in hospitalisations is significantly lower than in previous waves, with less than one per 100 infections, compared with over four per 100 infections during the alpha peak. Although there is a delay, we are also seeing a welcome fall in deaths, which we expect to continue.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both referred to the changes in the self-isolation regime and the legal requirement finishing on 24 February. We will be replacing that with guidance in the short term, still advising people with Covid to stay at home and avoid contact with others. From 1 April, we will be issuing new guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with Covid should take to minimise contact with other people. There will be specific guidance for staff in particularly vulnerable services, such as adult social care, healthcare, and prisons and places of detention. Health and social care workers will continue to be asked to stay at home following the lifting of the legal requirements to self-isolate. We will review over the coming weeks the long-term approach to managing Covid in health and social care settings and will publish adult social care guidance, again by 1 April.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about testing. Free symptomatic testing will remain available to those at highest risk of Covid and to social care staff. Again, details will follow ahead of 31 March. We will also set out in due course further details on which high-risk groups and settings will be eligible for continued free testing. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness also asked about the costs of tests. We will be working with retailers to establish and develop a private market for lateral flow tests. There have been private markets operating in the US and many European countries for some time now. Retailers will be setting the price, but we will be ensuring that the private testing market is properly regulated, including monitoring prices charged, and we will continue to work with UK companies in developing lateral flow tests, which the noble Baroness referred to.
The noble Baroness asked about the value of test and trace and its cost. Of course, we are all aware that we began the pandemic with no diagnostics industry and yet have conducted the most tests in Europe. We have conducted more than 460 million tests, and over 36.3 million positive cases and their contacts have been reached who could have spread the virus. We have built a testing network from scratch that can process millions of tests per day—more than any other European country—and over two billion lateral flow tests have been distributed across the UK since the start of the pandemic. That is a pretty impressive record.
The noble Baroness mentioned, rightly, that we have accepted JCVI advice for a new spring booster, to be offered to those over 75, older care home residents and those over 12 who are immunosuppressed. Those doses will be given six months after their most recent booster dose. We have also procured five million patient courses of antivirals, more than anywhere else in Europe, which is a significant supply and will provide a crucial layer of protection going forward. We are rolling out neutralising monoclonal antibodies and antiviral treatments for patients at highest risk. Up to 1.3 million patients could benefit if they are clinically eligible, and we have a plan to personally communicate with these relevant patients so that they can take advantage of the treatments that we have invested in.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked, quite rightly, about future surveillance and what we would be doing about it. UKHSA will continue to sequence infections and monitor a range of data, including infections, hospital admissions, patients in hospital and deaths with Covid. It will maintain critical surveillance capacity, including the Covid infection survey, genomic sequencing and additional data, and this will be augmented by continuing the SIREN and Vivaldi studies.
As the noble Lord and noble Baroness pointed out, we will have to keep a very close eye on the emergence of new variants, so we will retain the core capabilities and infrastructure required to scale up a proportionate response in the event of a resurgence or a new variant. Obviously, this will involve the continued use of pharmaceuticals as the first line of defence, along with continuing to develop capacity to respond in the health system. We will retain laboratory networks and diagnostic capabilities so that PCR testing can be stood back up in the event of a resurgence, and we will retain the ability to stand up the national trace response if it is needed. Local health teams will continue to use contact tracing and provide context-specific advice, where they assess that to be necessary, as part of their role in managing local outbreaks, as they do with other infectious diseases. We will also maintain the ability to increase asymptomatic testing in the NHS and care homes.
UKHSA continues to have good stocks of lateral flow tests and will manage them to enable the Government to establish an adequate stockpile that could be rapidly deployed in future outbreaks. We will also continue to run public health campaigns such as we have seen in the past to encourage people to think about their behaviour and to ensure the continuation of the good work that we have done to understand how to deal with Covid.
Finally, the noble Lord asked about the global scene. He is probably aware that in March we are hosting the Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and we are working with international partners on future pandemic preparedness, including through a new pandemic treaty, an effective early warning system—or global pandemic radar—and a mission to make safe and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines available within the first 100 days of a future pandemic threat being identified; this is, of course, a global problem.
My Lords, the 3.7 million clinically extremely vulnerable people already follow government advice for them, regularly checking the daily Covid dashboard to see how many cases there are in their area. This will be even more important when others no longer have to self-isolate when they get Covid. They cannot do this when widespread testing and the daily dashboard stop. What advice would the Leader give these people on how to assess their own risk after 1 April?
The noble Baroness is absolutely right that throughout the crisis we have led the way on data reporting, and have ensured that data is always available to the public. UKHSA will keep the content and frequency of reporting on Covid—including the GOV.UK dashboard—under close review, to ensure that statistics are being produced of the appropriate quality and transparency, and that they remain useful and relevant in accordance with the code of practice for statistics. So we will continue to publish information.
My Lords, I refer to the SAGE advice, from the last meeting, that the Leader mentioned. It was said that some people may take the removal of free and accessible testing as a signal that they should continue to attend workplace social gatherings while showing Covid symptoms. What is the Government’s response to that? Why are they getting rid of free testing?
We have always made it clear that as we move through Covid we would move away from free testing, and that is what we intend to do. As there are now high levels of immunity across the population as a result of vaccination and natural infection, future testing and isolation will play a less important role in preventing serious illness, and, as I have said in response to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, we will be working with retailers to establish and develop a private market for lateral flow tests.
My Lords, last summer and winter the CBI, of which I am president, said that there must be a three-pronged attack. The first prong was vaccines, and hats off to the Government for an excellent vaccine programme. The second was providing free lateral flow devices to businesses and citizens, and the Government have been the best in the world at doing this so far; no other country has done it like we have. The third was antiviral treatments, and the Government have almost 3 million. Why are the Government withdrawing the free lateral flow tests so early, when it has taken one year for people to get used to using them regularly? We ran out of them in December and January. They are very effective. Why are the Government doing this? Surely they are being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Businesses and citizens should be using them. We need them for a while longer.
The noble Lord will be aware that we have announced that we will end free testing, but it will not finish until the end of March; we are not stopping free testing immediately. There will obviously be the opportunity for people to get tests during that time. As the noble Baroness said, the test, trace and isolation budget in 2020-21 exceeded the entire budget of the Home Office. It cost a further £15.7 billion this financial year and £2 billion in January alone, at the height of the omicron wave. We want to move to the next phase as we begin to live with Covid, and ending free testing is one aspect of that approach.
Unusually, I congratulate the Government—first on the outstanding success of the vaccine programme, which really has been world leading, and secondly on this policy of living with Covid. It is extremely important that we rely on personal responsibility and common sense, and do not listen to the siren voices from SAGE and others who say that we must stay locked down for ever. Can my noble friend please tell me what the death rate has been in the last month, compared with the death rate in 2018-19?
I thank my noble friend. I do not have the exact figures to hand but, as I said, the reporting of deaths is always slightly delayed. It has started to decline now and we expect this to continue. The latest evidence suggests that the risk of presentation to emergency care or hospital admission with omicron is approximately half that for delta.
My Lords, access to free testing with lateral flow tests ensured that many of those who cannot afford to pay for tests were able to take them and to help prevent the transmission of highly transmissible variants. Will the Leader therefore tell the Prime Minister from your Lordships’ House today that we want the free lateral flow tests to remain for a considerable time longer to ensure that the Government have the necessary contingency capabilities to respond rapidly to any new variant, as outlined in the Government’s Statement in the other place yesterday? We know that unless other countries have the capacity to deal with variants, we are all in a state of danger.
As I mentioned in response to a previous question, we are giving notice that free lateral flow tests will come to an end at the end of March. But, as I also said in an earlier answer, we will retain laboratory networks and diagnostic capabilities to ensure that PCR testing can be stood up in the event of a resurgence or a dangerous new variant.
With these changes in various settings, can my noble friend update the House on what the guidance is now for in-patients in hospitals? Exactly what level of barrier nursing will there be to make sure that Covid patients—like those with any other contagious disease—are protected, in their own interests and those of other vulnerable in-patients?
As I said, in due course we will set out further details on which high-risk groups and settings will be eligible for continued free testing. As I also said, we will publish guidance specifically in relation to adult social care and other high-risk settings well in advance of when we move towards the end of free testing.
My Lords, I want to raise a very particular issue raised initially by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. The Government are rightly retaining free tests for exceptionally vulnerable people but by the time an exceptionally vulnerable person is found positive, it is too late; he or she may die. Will the Government consider tweaking the rules to enable the children— and maybe the husband and other members of the household—of exceptionally vulnerable people to have free lateral flow tests so that the exceptionally vulnerable person can then take exceptional measures to protect themselves if one of their household is found to have Covid?
As I say, we are not ending free testing immediately. There is some time and obviously, as I said, there will be further guidance and information on a whole range of issues including, I am sure, the situation the noble Baroness mentions. We have announced that the end of free testing is coming but we have also made it very clear that for vulnerable groups there will be further guidance and information about where testing will continue to be available.
My Lords, will the noble Baroness return to a question put to her by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, about the number of lateral flow tests that have come from the People’s Republic of China? Is she aware that by the summer of last year over a billion such tests had been bought by the United Kingdom? This week in another place, it was confirmed that we have bought 24.1 billion PPE items with China registered as their country of origin, including 10.7 billion gloves. Before we consider this further during the course of the Health and Care Bill, on an amendment from her noble friend Lord Blencathra, will the noble Baroness undertake to tell us how much has been spent on these items and what we are doing to build up our own resilience and reduce dependency?
My Lords, may I remind the House that we are not dealing with one nation but with four nations? The devolved Administrations —Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—all take their own decisions and rightly so because they held referendums and so on to give that authority to the particular nations. What discussions have taken place to try to get some resolution? For instance, yesterday I was on the train from Llandudno Junction—a wonderful area for a holiday—and I had to wear my mask until I got to Shotton; at Shotton we were entering England so I could discard my mask. Have we learned any lessons at all about international UK relations following this pandemic?
We have worked very closely with devolved Administrations throughout the pandemic to effectively support citizens but, of course, health is a devolved issue so the Administrations have made their own decisions. We have also provided £860 million to the devolved Administrations so they can take the precautions they consider necessary on top of the combined £77.6 billion confirmed in the autumn Budget, so we have worked well together. As I say, however, devolution means that it is for the Administrations to decide their way forward. I believe the First Minister of Scotland, for instance, made an announcement today about changes to the rules in Scotland so I think we are moving forwards together, albeit perhaps at a slightly different pace.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that St Augustine is alive and well on the Opposition Benches? We should remember that these measures were brought in to stop the NHS being overwhelmed. There is no sense whatever that that is happening. If we cannot remove these measures now, at a time when we have done so brilliantly in getting the population vaccinated, we never will and the cost to the economy will be enormous. To hear the president of the CBI, no less, describe £2 billion a month as penny-pinching makes me wince.
I thank my noble friend. He is right that our plan for living with Covid prioritises moving to a world where the country manages Covid like other respiratory diseases. Our response is underpinned by four principles: living with Covid by removing restrictions while encouraging safer behaviours; protecting those most vulnerable to Covid; maintaining resilience to be able to spot and respond to new variants; and securing innovations and opportunities from our Covid response, including investment in life sciences.
My Lords, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, earlier this afternoon your Lordships’ House considered the matter of global vaccine equity, and my sense was that, in many among the House, there was a feeling that more could be done on that front. Would the Leader say whether the Government also feel that more might be done to ensure vaccine equity in the UK itself, as an expression of the noble and laudable commitment to levelling up?
Certainly, we have been very focused on targeting those communities which have not taken up the vaccine as much as we would like—for a whole array of reasons. For instance, we have invested a further £22.5 million in a community vaccine champion scheme to support 60 local authorities with the lowest take-up, following a £23 million investment in the initial scheme. We have vaccine ambassadors speaking 33 languages between them who are promoting uptake across the country. The recently launched Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will systematically tackle the top preventable risk factors associated with ill health and improve the public’s health and health disparities.
My Lords, I am pleased to hear my noble friend say that the Government are still thinking about free testing for social care areas. Would it be possible for her to take back to her colleagues that, if we are not going to have free testing anymore, it would be good to ensure that there are public announcements to tell the public how they should self-isolate if they think they have any Covid symptoms—in the same way as they would with the flu, cold or other illnesses?
I entirely agree with my noble friend and, as I said, we will be producing further guidance in advance of the end of March, when free testing, for the vast majority of the general public, comes to an end. We will also be publishing further details about the high-risk settings and groups who will be eligible for continued free testing.
My Lords, good riddance to the draconian Coronavirus Act, but could the Government commit to reviewing public health laws which have been used so damagingly to attack civil liberties? Secondly, beyond rolling back laws, how are the Government planning to counter disproportionate fears and risk aversion? The nudging seems to have been rather too successful in frightening people. For example, so many in care homes are still not allowing family members to see relatives and there are miserable rules in place which are the opposite of homely and welcoming. This matter is beyond laws—there is a lot of encouraging to do.
I agree with the noble Baroness, and that is why we will continue with public health campaigns, as we have seen in the past. We will also be reiterating to the public the safe behaviours we have learnt: the washing of hands; improved hygiene; ventilation; and all those other measures that we can take which do not involve restrictions on people’s lives but which can help ensure we keep Covid at bay—which is what we all want.
My Lords, when people are in hospital and seriously ill, they are often desperate to see their own family and their family are desperate to visit them. However, at the moment, there are very severe restrictions in place. Will free testing be provided to families to facilitate them visiting and to help take a more compassionate view towards those who are often disorientated, frightened and find that they cannot even telephone their own family because they are in a hospital unit where the phone does not work?
My Lords, of course the vaccine programme has been a success, and I concede that. However, almost all of us here know people who have died of Covid. We have had the highest death rate in western Europe, and that sits badly with the tone of self-congratulation which characterised the Statement. Is it not time that the Government showed some humility as well?
I am sorry the noble Lord felt that way; I do not think that was the tone at all. However, this Statement gives people hope that we are beginning to move out of a very difficult period for citizens across the country. We are all trying to move together to a world where we can manage Covid like other respiratory diseases, because the emotional, social and economic cost of what we have all been through in the last two years has been devastating. I think the public as a whole, and all of us here, I am sure, want to try to move on while understanding the risks ahead, making sure we have surveillance and the ability to ramp things up if we need to—let us hope we do not—to make sure we can keep everybody safe.
My Lords, I understand the sensitivities and nervousness being expressed around the House about this move, but there is no right time to do this. We must move on from this virus; it is two years on. To restore confidence to the public in living with this virus, I think the Government’s decision is commendable, just as the decision not to impose isolation before Christmas turned out to be correct. On the £2 billion cost of free testing, the national insurance increase that we are about to impose—although I hope the Government may reconsider it—is planned to raise £12 billion. That is just six months’ worth of free testing.
My Lords, I regret that the noble Baroness dismissed the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, so peremptorily. We have one of the worst records on deaths from Covid in Europe. We have seen that we have one of the unhealthiest countries in Europe. We now have the freedom with Brexit to make many changes which people previously said we were unable to make. When will a programme be set out to make this country the healthiest in Europe?
As I have said, we have launched the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, which will systematically tackle the top preventable risk factors and associated ill health, such as smoking and obesity, to improve the public’s health. We will also set out a strategy to tackle the core drivers of inequality in health outcomes in a new White Paper on health disparities this year.
My Lords, at the weekend Her Majesty the Queen was reported to have tested positive. I am sure noble Lords on all sides will join me in wishing her every success, but I was struck that, immediately, some commentators and politicians jumped on the announcement, saying that therefore we must not go ahead with the unlocking. Surely the two most salient facts are that omicron will reach even the most protected person in the country and that, if a 95 year-old woman can carry on working with her typical devotion to duty, we have reached the point where these non-clinical, non-pharmaceutical interventions are, if not wholly purposeless, certainly disproportionate?
Procedure and Privileges Committee
Motion to Agree
My Lords, the report before your Lordships covers three distinct issues. Before I move to the recommendations on the conduct of Divisions, I will cover the committee’s other recommendations.
The Standing Order on sessional committees is straightforward and the report sets out the committee’s position.
On our recommendation for Oral Statements and the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, on 1 December, we debated the committee’s fourth report. This report recommended that the practice of speakers’ list for Oral Questions, which was adopted as part of our hybrid House procedures and retained after we returned largely to business as usual in September, be discontinued. Since that time, the House has been essentially self-regulating during Question Time and the Leader has brought in eligible Members who wish to participate remotely, following consultation with the usual channels. The committee’s sense is that this change has worked well and, for that reason, we now recommend it be extended to Oral Statements and repeated Urgent Questions.
I am well aware that some noble Lords believe the Lord Speaker, not the Leader, should undertake this role. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, tabled an amendment to this effect last December, which she ultimately withdrew. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is in a similar vein, seeking to provide for the Lord Speaker to call on virtual participants during Questions, Oral Statements and repeated Urgent Questions, rather than the Leader of the House. While the noble Lord’s proposal would represent a change to the procedures of the House, it also raises practical considerations, such as the configuration of the House, which would need further consideration by the Procedure and Privileges Committee before any change could be implemented. With all due deference, this is the third time this Session that we have had a debate on this issue, but I am, as always, in the hands of the House.
I now turn to the recommendations relating to the conduct of Divisions, which we debated at some length on 25 October. As noble Lords are aware, last summer, the two Houses jointly launched a project to introduce pass readers in their respective Division Lobbies to replace the clerks who, before the pandemic, would take down the names of those voting in Divisions. The pass readers were installed last October, but it was clear from our debate on 25 October that our original proposal for how to use them, which would have involved the provision of two pass readers in Prince’s Chamber and the abolition of Tellers, did not find favour.
I said to your Lordships then that the Procedure and Privileges Committee would reflect further, and we have now done so. I believe that our revised proposal meets many of the concerns expressed last October while securing the key benefits of pass readers. Under the procedure we have proposed, which is reflected in the proposed amendment to Standing Orders 52, 53 and 54, Tellers will be appointed and, if they are not appointed within three minutes, the Division will be cancelled. Noble Lords will vote in the Lobbies but will do so by presenting their security pass to one of the pass readers. They will then leave the Lobbies, as before the pandemic, by passing the Tellers.
I will not detain the House by explaining the process in more detail, as there is a very clear summary in the report, but I should comment briefly on the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which would require the House to return to the system of conducting Divisions that operated before the pandemic, without the use of pass readers, except with regard to disabled Members who have been deemed eligible to vote remotely under Standing Order 24A. Again, this is of course a matter for the House, but I underline that your Lordships’ committee was unanimous in its support for pass reader voting and for the procedure described in the report before the House today.
We have already modelled that procedure as far as possible on that which operated before the pandemic. Our proposals retain Tellers and would see voting taking place in the Division Lobbies. However, the committee has also sought to embrace innovation through the deployment of pass readers, rather than requiring clerks to record names manually, as was the case before the pandemic. I can assure your Lordships that the system will be tested fully and staff will provide whatever support is needed to noble Lords as we introduce the new system, if that is the House’s wish. I should emphasise that the Procedure and Privileges Committee will keep the new system under review, but I am confident that the introduction of pass readers will deliver significant benefits. The recording of the names of noble Lords will be faster, more reliable and more accurate, and the results will be delivered more quickly.
The experience in the other place gives me confidence in offering these assurances. Since pass readers were introduced, there have been 73 Divisions in the other place with, on average, around 450 MPs voting per Division—a total of more than 33,000 votes cast. On no occasion has the pass reader failed to record Members’ names correctly. Moreover, the system has allowed voting lists to be published online with unprecedented speed, within two to five minutes of Divisions ending.
I believe that these benefits are worth securing. As a committee, we have thought carefully about the issues raised by noble Lords last October. Our view, as reflected in our recommendations, is clear. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able not to press his amendment, particularly with the assurance I have given that we will keep the operation of the new system under review. I believe that the committee’s report—it is your committee, my Lords—deserves your Lordships’ endorsement and support. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
As an amendment to the first Motion in the name of the Senior Deputy Speaker, at the end insert “but that this House believes that the Lord Speaker should call remote participants during questions, oral statements, and repeated urgent questions, rather than the Leader of the House”.
My Lords, I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for the courteous way in which he has dealt with these issues, both formally and informally. I am most grateful to him for discussing them with me.
First, I emphasise that I think it is crucial that we have an efficient and fair system to allow our remote disabled colleagues to participate as much as possible. Secondly, I approve the extension of their ability to participate. The only issue before us is who calls them to speak, and that brings me to my amendment.
Let me say what my amendment is not. It is not a party-political issue in any way whatever. It does not in any way compare us with the other place because the other place does not have an arrangement to allow disabled people to participate remotely; in fact, yet again the other place is not as enlightened as we are in this House, just as we were first with televising the House and on many other innovations. And it is not a beauty contest; I think we would lose right away if it were.
So why am I proposing this amendment? First, the chair of all the meetings I have ever been to has been the moderator of the debate. That applies to committees of this House, where the chair calls people to speak. Secondly, the Leader of the House has many other responsibilities. Even today, just before this debate, she dealt with an important Covid Statement, and later today, she will give a Statement on the crucial issue of Ukraine. She is a member of the Cabinet, and has many other responsibilities. Why should we require her to do this, when we have a perfectly competent Lord Speaker and, if I may say so, an equally competent Senior Deputy Speaker, as well as many other Deputy Speakers who stand in and carry out that responsibility very well? In fact, we saw a perfect example of this earlier today, when my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall called the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to speak remotely on the previous Statement. She did it with skill and effectiveness. Among everything else, with due respect to the Senior Deputy Speaker, she proved that the configuration of the House, which was his main argument, is not a problem. She was able to deal with it perfectly.
I would be interested to hear colleagues’ views before I decide whether or not to press this amendment, but I now have the pleasure of moving what I think is just a simple but very important amendment.
I am grateful to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I was expecting my amendment to be called from the Woolsack, but I am glad to speak now. I begin in a similar vein to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, because another friend—although he is no longer technically my noble friend—the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, the Senior Deputy Speaker, is the very embodiment of courtesy. None of us could ever criticise him for not listening carefully and seeking to understand what we are saying.
There is a danger that we will make a permanent change to our procedures this afternoon. When electronic voting and pass reading were first talked of, it was the height of the Covid crisis and this was another way of helping. The original proposal was that, at a suitable moment, we would all vote within the Parliamentary Estate and pass readers would be installed, both in the Lobbies and the Prince’s Chamber. There was even talk of having readers in the Royal Gallery. One understands why: it would have enabled people to keep socially distancing and still discharge their duties where they should be discharged—on the premises.
There have been a few changes since then, not the least of which was announced this afternoon. When we had that debate on 25 October, my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who sits in front of me now and I hope will contribute to this debate, made one of the most perceptive interventions when he talked about the crucial role of the teller. That, for some reason, had been ignored by the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, kindly did not press the Motion that afternoon. He withdrew it and said he would take it back to the committee, and he acknowledged the force of the argument on tellers. Now he comes back with a revised version.
First, this is not something to deal with Covid anymore. It is a permanent change to our voting arrangements. He says it will be reviewed, and I hope it will, carefully and thoroughly, taking account of the views of Members in all parts. I believe we owe that to those who have joined your Lordships’ House in the last two years who, until September last year, had no idea what a proper Question Time is like. Many of them, for entirely understandable reasons, liked the idea of the printed Question list, which we had. I was always against it, as were many noble Lords who have been here for a long time, but I have lost count of the number of newer colleagues who have come to me, since we reverted to spontaneity, and said, “You and your friends were right—it is better this way”. I would like those newer Members, who have no experience of the old system of voting, to experience it, because then they will have something to measure against. That would be entirely fair and reasonable.
I would like us to go back to voting as it was at the beginning of March, two years ago. Noble Lords who were there then know the system. There is a certain conviviality in the Division Lobbies, which can be positively helpful. Of course, we are talking of voting in the Division Lobbies; this is no longer a Covid-related change.
My noble friend referred to the other place. I have a great affection for the other place; I spent 40 years there. But in many procedural ways I prefer this one. It was possibly not entirely appropriate for him to quote the figures he did, bearing in mind that in the other place the Whips control somewhere between 60% and 80% of the votes by proxy. I hope that is not going to persist and I hope it will not ever be introduced here —I have not heard any suggestion it will be, and sincerely hope it will not be. Although, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean said, I can see the Chief Whip pricking up his ears and thinking how much more interesting and desirable it might be if he could press 80 buttons—but I digress.
There is another point—it may be a simple point, and some might dismiss it. The report says:
“To cast a vote, a member must present a valid security pass to one of the pass-readers located in the division lobbies, except as otherwise provided for in Standing Orders 24A and 53.”
Those standing orders deal with the disabled, to which my noble friend referred when he introduced this. It continues:
“Having voted, a member should pass the Tellers as they leave the lobby”.
When we receive our Writ of Summons to serve in your Lordships’ House, we do not receive it with an instruction to vote electronically—or to do anything else electronically for that matter. I believe to say that a Member—because this, without amendment, is what it says—may only vote if they have a pass is a step too far. This on its own is a reason why the committee should keep this matter under the most constant review.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I want to listen to the debate. and I will decide whether or not to seek to divide the House. But it was important to bring this matter to the attention of the House and to realise that we are being asked to make a permanent change to our voting procedures and practices in your Lordships’ House. I do not believe the case has been made for that. The Covid reason—one of the buzzwords of the age—has now gone. It may come back, but it has gone for the time being as far as our practices are concerned. That is perfectly clear. I very much hope that careful thought will be given to this because to make a permanent change of this sort is a very serious step to take. In the context of Covid and Ukraine later today, this is a domestic debate. But how we conduct ourselves is of real national importance and I will listen with great care to what others have to say.
My Lords, this is not the first time we have had this debate and it will not surprise many people that I agree wholeheartedly with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Foulkes. I think it is time, maybe at the conclusion of this debate, to test the opinion of the House.
I want to put this in some kind of context. It has been 17 years since we established the position of Lord Speaker. It was highly controversial. The main concern expressed by those opposed to the inauguration of a Lord Speaker was that they feared we would end up with a Speaker like in the House of Commons. I had a great deal of sympathy for that view, but surely we can reach the conclusion now, after 17 years, that there has been at no stage the slightest evidence of the Lord Speaker here becoming like a Speaker in the House of Commons—adjudicating on points of order and the rest. We can say categorically that the Lord Speaker’s position in this House is not like the Speaker in the House of Commons and there is no remote possibility of that happening. I hope we can put that particular scare story to bed.
I also point out that, slowly over these 17 years—things do not happen quickly in this place—there has been a movement of responsibilities towards the Lord Speaker. Every one of those movements, small and slight at each stage, has seemed to be absolute common sense as soon as they have been introduced. The most recent, of course, is that the Lord Speaker now introduces the business, as opposed to the clerk sitting at the Table—for example, announcing when a Statement is to be made and what it is about. They were all common-sense proposals that the person in the chair does those things.
Does anyone listening to this short debate think that the sensible thing now would be to move the clock backwards and reinstate those responsibilities wherever they existed before—in part with the Clerk at the Table and, more significantly, with the Leader of the House? I do not think anyone does, and I am certain that, if we made the very small change that my noble friend is proposing, we would think it was common sense to go back to it after an experimental period of six months. So I hope the House will make a decision on this. I always try to understand opposing views, but I really cannot see a case for it remaining with the Leader of the House—not least, of course, because the Lord Speaker is the same person there every day. There is continuity, predictability and common sense.
I will speak briefly on the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. Again, I am very inclined to support the case he makes, for this reason: I think these pass readers are, in a sense, a solution to a problem that does not exist. I was a Teller on numerous votes over a long period when there were several ties—we had lots of excitement in those days; the tension built up and all the rest of it—and there were lots of Divisions won or lost by two, three or four votes. I cannot remember a single instance when there was a problem with the telling system that existed and we needed a recount. It worked perfectly well. The Senior Deputy Speaker said that we must move with the times—well, by all means, although we tend not to do that with any great haste normally in this Chamber. The truth is, there is no problem to be resolved—unless he can demonstrate it to me. If people can do it well enough, do we really need a machine to do the job? I am not convinced, and I await the rest of the debate to see whether I can be.
I will make one final brief plea to the Senior Deputy Speaker. He said on 13 July that the question of the sitting hours of this House would be reviewed by his committee. I would like an update, please, on how that review is going and when he expects to bring a suggestion to the House.
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with my noble friend Lord Gardiner. He listened to the debate, and he and his committee have come back with a perfectly reasonable solution. The issue that concerned us most was the role of the Tellers, and that has been sorted.
Having said that, I am concerned about the constitutional position. We get a Writ of Summons which entitles us to come here and vote. During the period of the previous Clerk of the Parliaments, when we could not get in here because of people gluing themselves to the pavement, blocking the road and everything else, I went to see him and said, “What has happened to the Sessional Orders that we pass every year?” He said, “They’re really decorative. They don’t really matter”. They matter immensely, because it means that a mob could actually prevent us voting and, more importantly, people in the other place voting—
Indeed, as my noble friend says, as in the Capitol.
So, I am just a bit concerned that, in order to cast my vote, I need a document issued by the House bureaucracy. Noble Lords may say that the House bureaucracy will never take their vote away—but I noted what happened to the previous Lord Speaker, who had her right to come and have a drink or cup of tea here taken away because she had not done the Valuing Everyone training as she had been ill. I noted also that, just before Christmas, on our very last day, those of us who use the House of Commons underground car park—I have used it twice in 22 years—were sent an email telling us that our pass would no longer work to give us access to the underground car park; this was without any consultation whatever.
So I would say to my noble friend that, if he wants to have a gadget and an electronic voting system because he thinks somehow that Tellers cannot count and clerks cannot tick off people’s names on a computer, fine, but I do worry that, in order to vote, I have to have this document. I change my suit when I come down from Scotland, noble Lords will be pleased to hear, and, sometimes, I leave my pass in my pocket and discover that I do not have it. Okay, I can get past the policeman by showing him my driving licence or something of that kind, and I am told that I can go downstairs and get another pass—but why should we have to get another pass in order to vote? If people have forgotten their pass, surely the Tellers can—
Of course you can get in without a pass; surely the noble Lord knows that perfectly well. You say to the policeman, “I am a Member of the House”, and you show him your driving licence or some other form of identification. If this is where we are moving—to a situation where our ability to come here and vote is decided by the rules of the Administration—that is an undesirable development. The way around this is simply to say that, if you do not have your pass, you can still vote by going to see the Teller. My noble friend here tells me that he has not registered for PeerHub, but he can go to the Table Office and he will be able to vote if there is a Division this afternoon. So I just think that it should not be conditional.
The other thing that I will say will probably make me very unpopular indeed. I do understand why we want to allow remote voting for those people who are not able to come to this House; I get that. I think that the numbers need to be limited and the reasons need to be genuine for that to work effectively. But I do not understand how it is possible for people to be eligible to vote remotely while also appearing in this House from time to time; I find that a bit confusing.
More importantly, one thing that really irritates me about the coverage of this House is that I read regularly how we get paid more than £300 a day. We get £300 a day to cover our expenses, overnight accommodation and whatever else is required to be able to attend this place. When we were not able to attend because of Covid, we were given half a day’s allowance if we operated remotely—but those people who appear remotely at the present time get a full day’s allowance. I believe that undermines the ability to defend the system, which is about paying that £300 or whatever it is per day to cover the expenses of attending here, and I think that should be looked at. I am sorry if I sound like Gradgrind, but we are talking here about spending public money and we need to be able to justify why it is being done.
So I say to my noble friend that I will support him but that he should think about the point made so eloquently by my noble friend Lord Cormack. There should not be an absolute requirement to have a pass in order to vote in the Division Lobbies of this House.
My Lords, I will not follow the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in everything that he said, but I would like to register my absolute support for the point he made about the Sessional Order and the importance of gaining access to this House, particularly when there are difficulties outside. On other issues, I am extremely diffident about commenting on the powers of the Lord Speakership, for reasons that the House will understand, but, having had more than a decade since I left office, I feel that I might be allowed a little leeway on the subject.
I find the opposition to the suggestion that the person sitting on the Woolsack should, in those limited circumstances, announce that the person who is going to speak remotely is about to do so bizarre and difficult to understand. I do not need to have explained to me the neuralgia there is in parts of the House and in the usual channels to anything that suggests decision-making by the person on the Woolsack. For that reason, on interventions at Question Time and when people are competing to speak, I believe that the person on the Woolsack could, at a lower temperature, give advice to the House in circumstances where there is dispute. We all know that the Leader of the House is the leader of the whole House and speaks for the whole House, but in highly charged situations where people feel strongly, the fact that the Leader is also a Member of the Government is pertinent. However, that is not what we are debating today, and it is not what I am suggesting.
I find bizarre the idea that it is perfectly in order for the person on the Woolsack to name and call the mover of an amendment—the configuration of the House does not seem to impede them in doing that—but not when the decision about who should speak has already been stitched up between the usual channels and there is no element of choice or decision. It is simply a matter of process, which, as has been described, is much more comprehensible for anyone watching the proceedings, and which much more logically lies with the person in the chair at the time. Why should we not have this miniscule change and addition to the role of the Lord Speaker? I do not think the House as we know it would collapse; it would be a small but useful change, and I certainly support the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, in his amendment.
My Lords, I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on the issue he raised about the pass reader. It seems to me that the reason that we are continuing with it is for the convenience of the administration and not for any other reason. I say to the Senior Deputy Speaker that there is a sense in which a more proactive administration is seeking to manage Members of this House in a number of ways. I caution him and the commission that we may reach a point where Members say that this is unacceptable. I think we are getting close to that point. At the end of the day, it is for Members of this House to make these decisions and not the professional administration, much as I admire the work that it does.
In relation to the Speakership, my noble friend’s amendment is so miniscule that surely the Senior Deputy Speaker will agree to it. He mentioned technical issues. I do not know whether it is that the Lord Speaker cannot see a screen from the Woolsack, but it is perfectly possible to put a screen where the book rest is—in fact, there is a screen there. Secondly, he said in the introduction that this was the third time this Session that issues have been raised about the Speakership. I put this point to him: surely it would be possible for us to have a more general review of the role of the Speaker, and then to allow us to have a proper debate.
Clearly, this has been a controversial area for many years. The House has always been keen to champion self-regulation, and page 47 of the Companion, on the conduct of the House, makes it clear that it is for Members of the House themselves to ensure the preservation of order but that it is also the role of the Leader and other Members on the Government Front Bench to advise the House.
All I would say is that while I welcome, like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, the return to Question Time as we now do it rather than having a speakers’ list—because that was clearly killing the thing off—nonetheless, self-regulation is not working. Essentially, it worked when Members were prepared to give way gracefully—I am afraid that that is not happening and I sense a reluctance of the Front Bench to intervene. I simply do not believe it is working. Surely it is time for a more fundamental review, alongside, I would certainly hope, acceptance—and I hope that my noble friend Lord Foulkes will put it to the vote—of my noble friend’s amendment today.
My Lords, I very much support the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, because I do not really buy in to this idea of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that we are all agreed that we do not want to have a Commons-type Speaker. There are many on his side of the House who precisely want a Commons-type Speaker. Let us face it: any extra powers that we give to the Lord Speaker merely move us closer to that. We have to be a little bit wary, and it is absolutely right, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, that we should have a serious debate about what sort of Lord Speaker we actually want, and try to establish how many powers he should have and how many he should not.
I did not really understand the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the Leader of the House is constantly leaping to her feet to call people to contribute remotely. As far as I can see, it is the Chief Whip who is doing that a lot of the time, and I do not think that the onerous duties on the Leader of the House are that great when the Chief Whip can deputise for her.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He talked about not giving any extension to the power of the Lord Speaker. The point I was trying to make was that this would not be giving any power to the Lord Speaker. There would be no element of choice about who was speaking; it would be giving a miniscule duty to the Lord Speaker. I do not think we should see it as part of a slippery slope towards a Commons-type Speaker at all. We should see it as a simple improvement in process in the House.
I stand corrected by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Clearly, we are not talking about powers being given to the Lord Speaker but, as she says, about duties. As you impose more duties on the Lord Speaker, obviously the role that he or she plays in the House gets greater than it was before.
I turn now to my noble friend Lord Cormack’s amendment, which basically wants us to go back to the status quo. Here, I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. We have to ask ourselves: in having these pass readers, what are we actually achieving? I will try to help my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker by suggesting that perhaps this is to save money. If it is, perhaps he can tell us how much money he thinks he is going to save by doing this, because then we could get the whole thing into perspective. Otherwise, there does not seem to me to be any seriously pressing argument as to why we should change rather than go back to the original system that we had before this pandemic started, which seemed to have worked extremely efficiently. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that the onus is on the Senior Deputy Speaker to say why we should change, when it seemed to work so very efficiently before we ever started all this.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes asked us to give our views, particularly on the role of the Speaker. I take a different view from what has been expressed by my colleagues. It is interesting to note that only two contributors to this debate have not been ex-MPs. I have been in the House for 25 years this year, and I have seen the House change from when Labour came in in 1997 and we had hundreds and hundreds of hereditaries; it was a different Chamber entirely. I then saw the change after they had left. I sense the House was probably at its best between 2000 and 2010.
We had a very good Government then, but it was nothing to do with the Government. From 2010 onwards, we had a big influx of new Peers coming in, and we have this odd situation in which we have so many on the Lib Dem Benches compared with their weight in the country—but this is the House; we are different from the Commons. I have sensed that as more and more MPs have come into this Chamber, they have exercised more and more influence and played a bigger part. I am in love with them all, so there is nothing wrong with that.
The conduct of the House has changed. My noble friend Lord Hunt put his finger on it about self-regulation. I am a radical. If we have a debate on anything, I would say we should have a debate on the composition of the House. That is what the country will require us to engage in at some stage, but we are not there. So what are we now? We are a House whose Members have respected each other, regardless of party, to a very fair degree; where the Whips have played a lesser role in the past than you find down at the other end; and where, particularly in our committees, we have worked so well. We come together and try to produce something for the common good.
When I came in here, this Chamber was about the common good and was not as political. In a sense it was, because the Tories had all the seats, but the hereditaries tempered it to a degree in that they looked for the good right across the board. I believe in self-regulation while the House continues to function and to have representatives put in it as at the moment. If we go to a different scene entirely, I think we have to look for a different type of Speaker.
With respect to my good friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I think she is perfectly right but I do not believe it would rest there. There is a push and a change taking place that would require the Lord Speaker to take on more and more responsibilities in different ways to that which we are currently talking about. I am reluctant to embrace a change that puts power with the Speaker, in a Chamber that needs fundamental change. My noble friends are normally in favour of fundamental change to the way the House is composed.
I hope we will support the report before us and not embark on what I believe is a change—a foot in the door—that would lead to even bigger changes, without a fuller debate on it than we have had to date. I hope we will back the recommendations from the committee.
My Lords, I am not sure it is to my advantage to follow my noble friend’s speech, in view of some of the matters he raised. I accept the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who said he hoped to hear some of the voices of people who are new. When we debated the matter in October, I was very new; now I am just a little less new. When I appeared on my first day, of course, I did not have PeerHub. I voted by going to the Table and asking for my name to be written on a scrap of paper; I took it that that would be sufficient to have my vote recorded.
Pass readers are clearly a matter of great convenience, as my noble friend Lord Hunt said. I was never one of those who welcomed the speakers’ list, even when I arrived and was new, but the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is quite right to say that we are talking about something that will change for ever, so it is an important point to discuss.
On my noble friend’s amendment, I take the view that change in your Lordships’ House is very small and incremental. This is one of the smallest and most incremental that I have come across but, if it is pushed to a vote, my small and incremental vote will be in favour of it.
I want to raise one question with the noble Lord, the Senior Deputy Speaker. Paragraph 5 of the report says that pass readers will be the authoritative figure for a vote. Although we will restore the role of Tellers, I must gently ask: what would happen if there was a discrepancy between the two? I hope that is not a frivolous question. With the “Hear, hears” ringing in my ears, I will sit down. I will be grateful for an answer.
My Lords, I have nothing against pass readers. There is a great deal to be said for them. However, my noble friend Lord Forsyth is utterly right. What happens if people do not have a pass or have forgotten it? In those circumstances, it would be extremely helpful if there could be a default position by which noble Lords could vote in the Table Office to meet that circumstance.
My Lords, I speak tentatively, as a new Member, particularly in relation to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
I shivered when I heard the justification for the changes to voting, and that “It was time to move with the times.” As a relatively new Member, I think that there is quite a lot that could change if that was the guiding principle of this House. One of the things that I have struggled with is learning the variety of rules and traditions. I am not criticising or complaining, but simply asking whether “move with the times” is a new slogan. If so, the pass readers are the least of the problems that this House is likely to encounter.
Also, I do not like, inside or outside this House, the way that technology can be used to suggest more profound changes as though they were a fait accompli. The way it runs is, “It’s just technology: there’s nothing to see here; don’t worry about it; we’re just collecting your data; show your papers or your pass”, wherever it may be, including outside of here, but it is often presented as though anyone who objects is a bit of a Luddite who does not get modern times. There is a point about this change that is political, and not simply one of technology, of which I am sure that we are all supportive. I need clarification on whether it would become permanent. Trials are one thing, but there is a broader point that the Covid period has led to us having to accept the new normal because we are not going back to the status quo. My view on this, and regarding the rest of society as well, is that we go back to the old normal, and if we want to change to the new normal, we have a democratic vote, either in here or outside of here, to decide whether that is what we want, rather than being told, “It is all too late for that: we’ve lived through Covid; put up with it—this is the new normal.” I do not like that.
Also, in relation to the pass readers in particular, the justification that it is convenient does not seem justifiable. I do not understand why noble Lords want to change it anyway, to be frank, but it surely should not be changed for convenience. There are lots of things in this House which are inconvenient to me all the time, as I am sure that there are to other people, but that is because it is a different place. That is the point, is it not? It has different rules and conventions. I am concerned that we are being bumped into it— steamrollered into it. If there is to be a change, I would not mind it being trialled, piloted or whatever it is, but the idea that something becomes permanent as a fait accompli I find disconcerting. Even in an undemocratic House, there must be some democratic spirit remaining, surely.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this debate. It arises, really, from a debate on 25 October in which I played a part. I understand a lot of what is being said. I am a traditionalist by instinct. I thank my noble friend, and I hope I can be forgiven the solecism of calling the Senior Deputy Speaker my noble friend, because I think he is a friend of the House in the way he is trying to get some viable arrangement for us to conduct our affairs. I thank him very much.
There was a ridiculously short time between the publication of proposals and our first debate on 25 October, and my noble friend immediately listened to what we were saying and withdrew the report. Within a matter of days, the pass readers had disappeared out of the Prince’s Chamber, the Pugin tables were back and we felt we had been listened to. Sometimes, I feel the concern of Members of this House is that they are not being listened to and decisions are being made without the consultation they would like to be a part of.
We have had some good speeches today. We have had quite good points made. I, personally, am of the view that we ought to give the proposals now before us in this report a try. But I am concerned that it may work out more difficult in practice than we suppose. The technology is fine, but we do not want to be hamstrung by a decision we make to approve this report and find ourselves going through the Lobbies with pass readers. I think we are unanimously agreed on Tellers within the House, but we are not quite sure how they are going to coexist with pass readers.
I suggest to my noble friend that he acknowledges that there is some concern about the way we will be proceeding in practice and perhaps agree that, if we accept the report before us today, we should have an opportunity, and he himself would be prepared, to initiate procedural change to match the terms of the report he has presented to us.
My Lords, I rise very briefly to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Foulkes and also to speak about what I see as a creeping managerial control that the authorities sometimes seem to put on us when we come here. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said that we have a Writ of Summons and we come here with our security passes, but Peers’ Entrance is the only way you can get in without showing one. Everywhere else, you have to have one. If you have not got yours, you can show your driving licence or something and you can get in. I saw about a year ago that we were encouraged to put our pass on the reader just inside the Peers’ Entrance. I thought that was the creeping control that was going to stop us coming in completely if we did not have our pass.
I had another example two weeks ago—I am very grateful to the Senior Deputy Speaker for the help he has given me on this—to do with electric bikes, of which I have one. One Sunday, I and maybe other colleagues got an email from the fire and safety people here saying I could not bring lithium-ion batteries into the building on my bike—maybe on wheelchairs or scooters—because they might set the building on fire. I am sure they had some good advice, because they took the advice from London Underground—and misinterpreted it, I think, but that is beside the point.
There were a couple of policemen outside who told me that they commute here by electric bike. They come on the train, cycle across London and park their bikes here. One of them said: “I got given a grant to buy one of these expensive bikes, and I cannot use it any more, because I cannot bring it here.” I thought, “Who has made the decision that we are not allowed to bring the bikes here.” The Senior Deputy Speaker is going to arrange a meeting for me to talk about this later in the week, but it is just another example. My question is: who is in charge? Anything like that, I would have suggested, should have come before the relevant committee and then, if necessary, been discussed in the House.
My Lords, I apologise for detaining the House. I will not apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for intervening while I was seated; I know that he does it himself. The point I was trying to make is that Peers should not come into this House without a security pass and they should wear their security pass whenever they are here, for security reasons. This proposal assumes that, whenever we are in the House, there will be a facility to get another pass if we lose ours; that is important. In fact, if noble Lords go and look at the exhibition in the Royal Gallery, they will find a proposal that they will not be able to get in through Peers’ Entrance without a pass—quite right too, in my view, but that is another argument for another day.
Does the noble Lord not realise, in saying, “You can’t come into this House unless you have a security pass”, that that is the very reason why some of us are concerned about this issue? This is a House of Parliament. It is not an office building.
I thought we had this argument some time ago. You can go to Black Rod’s Garden Entrance and get a temporary pass if you need it. There should be a rule for everybody that you cannot get into this building without a pass, but that is an argument for another day; I thought that we had this argument some time ago and won it, but let us move on to the debate now.
I am a member of the Procedure Committee. I support the committee’s proposals in the report, as far as they go, but I have a point of dissent because the commission made the original decision to have pass readers. I have never agreed with that as such but, if we are to have pass readers, I agree with the rules and procedures that have been agreed. In my view, the reason for having pass readers is that it will speed up the process of voting. I cannot tell noble Lords how many times, with my name—Lord Stoneham—I have been confused with the noble Lord, Lord Stone, in the Lobby when I give my name to the clerk. We have had similar problems when the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, is given to the clerk because there are two Lady Bakewells. It happens; we get mistakes. I have no doubt that the process will be quicker. I am happy that, if we have pass readers instead of Tellers, as we agreed in the procedures, it will be fine. It will increase the speed of voting in time, I am sure, once everybody gets used to it.
However, I want to make another point. At every meeting of the usual channels that I go to, what is normally being discussed is a complaint that the Government do not have enough time to get their legislation through this House and we are having far too many late nights. I just want to make the argument—the last stand, if you like—for virtual voting because it has worked amazingly well. We are talking about problems with pass readers but look what we have been through over the past two years with virtual voting. It has worked incredibly well. A minority are still having difficulties with phones, but I am sure that this could be dealt with if we put our minds to it.
I hope that we will look at the possibility of virtual voting because, if we did, it would enable us to go back to shorter times for votes. We could do them in seven or eight minutes, whereas when we go through the Lobbies, the long votes take 20 to 25 minutes. There should be a real drive to get everybody involved in the virtual voting system through their mobile phones. It is incredibly convenient. Noble Lords can vote anywhere they like in this building: in the Chamber, even in the Lobbies if they want to, but anywhere in the parliamentary building. It means that noble Lords can vote in Millbank House as well, so it overcomes the argument that we should have a post there. It also involves minimal interruption to Select Committees; indeed, it is convenient for attendance at all the other meetings we have to have in Parliament.
I therefore think that, if we put our minds to it, we would find that it is a much quicker and more convenient way of voting, and one that we have already proved can work. It will involve the actual votes being much quicker. If we are not going to have a vote before we make the final decision on the posts, I hope that in time we will at least look at this for the future, because we already have two years of experience when it has, I think, worked remarkably well and improved the convenience of the House.
I obviously do not support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but I would like to say a little about the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. I have tremendous admiration for the noble Lord and am normally on his side on every single argument; I am certainly on his side in terms of giving the Lord Speaker greater powers for calling Members at Questions. But there is a practical difficulty. If you allow the Government Front Bench, either the Leader or the Chief Whip, to decide and adjudicate when there is a dispute as to whose turn it is to ask a question, you cannot then leave to the Lord Speaker the decision on calling somebody virtually. It would add tremendous confusion, I am afraid.
Well, I accept that there is an argument there, because introducing the virtual speaker is done by the Lord Speaker in other proceedings. But this is a particular difficulty in Questions, with the pace of Question Time. You have a decision being made on the Front Bench—I do not agree with that; I think it should be made by the Lord Speaker—and then another decision being made by the Lord Speaker on the Woolsack. There is a distance between them, so there is a practical problem.
I think we should look at it and I certainly support the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that we should look at this in the round and look at the powers of the Lord Speaker. We actually had a vote on it; that is the only difficulty we have had. Maybe we should look at it again and have another vote—but I think there are difficulties with this particular proposal. Apart from that, having made my point in favour of the virtual voting system, I am supportive of the report as to where we are.
My Lords, this has certainly been an intriguing debate, and I am not surprised. One of the things that I consider is that it is impossible to satisfy all your Lordships. I could go from A to Z with the perfectly respectable arguments that have been deployed, but I think the best I can seek to do is try to answer some of the conundrums raised, as I am indeed in the House’s hands.
First, I want to be very clear that I stand here on behalf of your Lordships. There was a question about the administration. The undoubtedly important and essential work it does on our behalf is absolutely clear to me, but it is this House, this Chamber and the work of your Lordships that is the raison d’être for us all. I am very clear that these proposals are all designed to help your Lordships flourish; that is their purpose.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that we want a fair system. One of the points raised relates to the intricacies of this. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, can of course—as do all exemplary Deputy Speakers—get up when the virtual eligible speaker is the very first Member to contribute and always the very first; it is a very easy option to get up at the very beginning and call whoever it may be. What this part of the report before your Lordships seeks to do is precisely to bring Statements and Urgent Questions in line with other aspects where the eligible Member is not automatically the first Peer to have the opportunity to contribute. I have to say that some eligible Peers have expressed to me that they feel uncomfortable being asked to be the first noble Lord to speak. In the intricacy of the proposal before your Lordships, that is precisely the point.
I want also to say something about permanent change. I understand there has been a good knockabout in terms of the speed with which your Lordships and this House propose change. I do not see that what is proposed here is always about permanent change. I said in my opening remarks, particularly in the case of the pass readers, that the committee has a responsibility, as with everything, to keep these matters under review. If this does not work and if there are problems, I will be the very first to want to come back to your Lordships and say, with the deepest of regret, that I do not think this is working for the House. I put that on record, as I did at the beginning, and say it now. I can give the absolute assurance that the committee will be looking to see how this prospers if your Lordships wish it to proceed. I should also say, just to correct the record, that proxy voting in the other place has not operated since pass readers were introduced there.
I very much hope that noble Lords who have arrived here will see the House pre pandemic in so many respects in terms of that dynamic and that discourse. We are proposing changing an iPad to a pass reader. We were giving our names to a clerk with an iPad, but one of the problems that the clerks have all mentioned to me privately is that, in their experience, there has been what I would call “rider error” with the iPads. Indeed, when I was a Whip I could not work out how one of my flock who I knew simply never came to the House suddenly appeared. It was because there had been rider error in terms of the Division. Lord Hayhoe and Baroness Heyhoe Flint both had a hey-ho about them, but they did not have anything else in common. All of these things relate to the accuracy and the speed that the noble Lord referred to.
I think we have all done remarkably in terms of using PeerHub and all of those matters. I am not a great machine man myself, but nearly 30 Peers will often appear in the Table Office having difficulty in using PeerHub. That is one of the reasons why many Divisions actually take longer and why the result does take and has taken longer. So all our proposals have been designed to create accuracy and speed; it has not been about cost. It has been about seeing whether there are ways in which we can assist the House. That is the background to it.
On the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and other noble Lords spoke about—indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, raised this—my recall is that on 13 July last year the House divided on the matter of the regulation by the Woolsack. The House voted 376 to 112. That is not 17 years. As I say, we have had this discourse on three occasions in this Session. I do not think that that suggests that these matters have not been aired and put to your Lordships.
The other point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was that the same person would be on the Woolsack. Well, we all know that we have a roster. The Lord Speaker will not be on the Woolsack for all Statements—quite rightly when one has exemplary Deputy Speakers. There was a slight suggestion that I used a strange word in mentioning the “configuration” of the usual channels. However, compared with the other place we have a very isolated person on the Woolsack and part of the dynamic is ensuring going round the House in this self-regulation. It is the dynamic of, as we have all noticed, noble Lords and Baronesses in this part of the House. So when I use the word “configuration” I mean that none of these things are impossible, but they are some of the practical issues that I raised in my opening remarks but perhaps did not explain so carefully or fully.
As a matter of fact, the amendment my noble friend Lord Foulkes put forward relates to the circumstances during Oral Questions, in that the job can be done from the Woolsack and not the Front Bench. I think I was right, rather than the noble Lord, in referring to the fact that the Lord Speaker is there during that period, with very rare exceptions, and not a Deputy Speaker.
My Lords, we have before us the consideration of Statements. Yes, the noble Lord refers in his amendment to Questions as well, but the change in the report relates to Statements. That is included in the amendment. My point is that, although the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that it is the same person, that is not strictly the case—whoever is on the Woolsack will have the task of deciding when to call the eligible Member and from which part of the House in the rotation of taking turns. That is why, although I am in the hands of the House, I think it is more intricate than saying that the Lord Speaker or whoever is on the Woolsack could easily do this. I do not think it is quite as straightforward as that.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, asked me about sitting times. I assure him that I have just seen the paper that will come before the Procedure Committee at its next meeting. We will give it very thorough consideration, because it is a very important point which has been made to me by noble Lords.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and others about administration members, I reaffirm what I said at the beginning. I genuinely think we have responsibilities here; it is really important. I emphasise that my task is to support your Lordships, working with the administration, for the best interests of the House.
On the importance of having Tellers and recording the numbers passing, I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, that that is part of the essential proposal that came forward following the 25 October debate, when so many of your Lordships, on all sides of the House, said that, to have the probity of Divisions that many wanted, we must have Tellers. The committee took that fully on board. I know that some hold the view that Tellers are unnecessary, but it was understood from that debate, looking as I did across the House, that this belief was strongly held because Divisions are a key part of making the laws of the land and we need, in my view and that of the House, the rigour of coming together in passing those laws.
The point about the pass reader and its authority is that it will clearly identify every single Member who has voted, by name; as is important, we will know with speed how noble Lords have voted, but also the Teller will come back with the number and it will be presented at the Table alongside what is on the readers. It will be for the Teller to go up to whichever noble Lord is on the Woolsack to present the result. The whole essence of the pass reader is to ensure that we get it absolutely correct for all noble Lords, which I think everyone would want, for the reasons I have described. Occasionally we have had a problem, with the wrong names being ascribed to varying noble Lords.
On the very important issue of forgetting the pass or the changing of a suit, which the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, raised, a key feature was added precisely so that, if and when the Pass Office is closed, at Peers’ Entrance there will be passes available which will immediately be activated to enable a noble Lord to vote if they have come in without one.
Today, I do not want to go into the issue of whether we should be wearing passes. I feel that the House has taken a view that we should wear passes—a view taken not only for our security but for the general security of the Palace of Westminster. I understand the Writ of Summons, which goes back a very long way to previous times, when some of us might have arrived by horse to this House, but we now arrive in different manners and respects. We should let this pass reader system see how we do. If we cannot actually present a pass to a pass reader then, my goodness me, we might be in difficulties. This is not, as I say, a denial of our history—
I apologise to my noble friend, but I think he is rather trivialising this issue. It is not about whether we wear a pass or not but whether having a pass enables us to vote or not.
I will give an example: it is perfectly possible, if you keep your mobile phone and credit cards together, for you to find that your credit card has been wiped out. You could be in the Lobby and find that your pass was not actually activating the reader. I have had this experience at the pass reader as you come in from the Underground. What would we do in those circumstances? I asked my noble friend specifically. I said I would support him and his recommendations, provided there was an opportunity for someone who had a problem to be able to go to the Tellers and say, “Look, my pass didn’t work and I tried to get a pass downstairs; there is a fault”. You would not get 30 people in that situation, as in the Table Office. So could he give an undertaking that there will be a failsafe arrangement in those exceptional circumstances?
That is a very reasonable point. If, for any reason, any noble Lord’s pass did not work, I can put the assurance that clearly that would need to be addressed by going to the Teller and saying, “I can’t work this”. We would need to look into it, but the Peer would be recorded by the Teller if that was the case. It is perfectly possible that there may be a problem with the system. As I say, there has not been a problem in the other place, but if there were, we would have to undertake a manuscript arrangement, as it were. We would need to do that if the system failed. So far as the practicalities of it, I think it is reasonable to ask noble Lords to use the pass which can be obtained at the Pass Office or at Peers’ Entrance. This is not in any way offensive to the importance of either the Writ of Summons or access to the Palace.
Obviously, I am in the hands of noble Lords. I hope that, following 25 October, I have taken back the points raised and the suggestion that Statements should be under the same arrangement that we have. In my view, everything should be kept under review. We should see how these matters go and flourish. Interestingly, I have been told that Question Time has flowed much better. In point of fact, quite a lot more noble Lords—I do not have the statistics in front of me—have been able to pose questions because of the dynamic of this flow. Those are the sorts of things that I am tuned into to see how it is going.
I ask noble Lords is to support the report, mindful that the committee and I will always want to keep anything under review. If noble Lords are unhappy about something, then we will need to look at it and come back to your Lordships. With all those remarks, I am in the hands of the House.
My Lords, we have had a very good debate on both topics. I am grateful again to the Senior Deputy Speaker. However, I do not think we are dealing with whether the person coming in remotely is first. As I understand it, there is usually an understanding within the usual channels about which of the relatively small number of seriously disabled people should be allowed in remotely. Who should come in and when is usually accepted; all I am talking about is who should call them. I think implementing the decision to call them is better coming from the Chair.
As a number of noble Lords will confirm, I have been asked, again and again, whether I will press this to a vote. I said, “I have not made up my mind; I am going to consult with as many people as possible”. I have discussed it. My noble friend the shadow Chief Whip has been very helpful, I had a chat with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, the former Lord Speaker, and I have taken advice about it from others. The general advice was to listen to the debate and then decide. I have very much listened to the debate and what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley, Lord Hunt and Lord Grocott, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and particularly—I hope this does not sound patronising, in any way—the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, with her extensive experience as Lord Speaker. She said it has been quite a while since she did it, so she is impartial as a result. On the basis of what they said, I would like to test the House in relation to what I was going to describe as a modest amendment, but others have described as minuscule.
[The votes of one noble Lord in each Lobby were not included in the original figures.]
My Lords, what an exciting note on which to get up, and how tempting it is. I thank all of those who spoke favourably to my amendment. I also thank those colleagues—a dozen or so—who sent me notes or texts to say that if I put this to a Division they would be voting for it. But I listened extremely carefully to what my noble friend Lord Gardiner said, and I would like to ask him for clarification: would he consider that a reasonable time would be six months before reviewing this? Could he give me some idea of when he expects the experiment to start, and what measures he is putting in place to make it as carefully monitored as possible?
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving me this opportunity because, as stated in the report, the recommendation is:
“To mandate the House of Lords Commission, once the pass-reader system is ready”.
We need to get the passes system up and running and, as I said, be absolutely clear with a number of trials, not only for your Lordships, but for the doorkeepers and the Administration, so that all will flow well. I cannot give a precise date because we obviously also need to take into account any prevailing public health situation issues. What I can say is that six months from the time of operation of a voting system beginning is a very reasonable time, during which we would consider as a committee how it is working. I hope that is helpful to the noble Lord and your Lordships.
I am most grateful to my noble friend because that is helpful. There is an air of suspicion in the House at the moment; one has only to look at the exhibition of what is proposed of our entrance. I urge all colleagues to do that—it is an architectural abomination. Everything that my noble friend is doing to win and reinforce the trust of the House can only be to the benefit of us all. On the basis of what he has just said, I intend not to move my amendment.
Lord Cormack’s amendment to the Motion not moved.
I beg to move the Motion, as amended, standing in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question is that this Motion be agreed to—however, I am slightly concerned about the effect of the last vote on this Motion.
That is why I specifically said “as amended”.
In which case, I will read out the wording I have: “The Question is that this Motion be agreed to, only insofar as it relates to Standing Order 63, and excluding the reference to Standing Orders 52 to 54”—no?
I think the Standing Order issues would relate to the situation if the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, had moved his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Chief Whip for making to help me, but I realise that I have failed to notice that it was only in respect of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. That is entirely my mistake, and I apologise. Therefore, the Question is that this Motion, as amended, be agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed.
Standing Orders (Public Business)
Motion to Approve
That the standing orders relating to public business be amended as follows:
Standing Order 52 (Divisions)
Leave out Standing Order 52 and insert:
“52 (1) When, on the Question being put, a division is called for, the member on the Woolsack or in the Chair shall order the Bar to be cleared, and the Clerk will start the division by activating the pass-readers in the division lobbies and the electronic voting system.
(2) Two Tellers shall be appointed by the Contents and two by the Not-contents. Of these, one Teller for the Contents and one for the Not-contents shall be appointed for each division lobby.
(3) After the lapse of three minutes from the time when the Bar is ordered to be cleared, the member on the Woolsack or in the Chair shall again put the Question. If, at this point, Tellers have not been appointed either for the Contents or for the Not-contents, a division cannot take place. The member on the Woolsack or in the Chair shall declare the Question decided in favour of the side which has appointed Tellers.
(4) To cast a vote, a member must present a valid security pass to one of the pass-readers located in the division lobbies, except as otherwise provided for in Standing Orders 24A and 53. Having voted, a member should pass the Tellers as they leave the lobby.
(5) After the lapse of eight minutes from the time when the Bar is ordered to be cleared, or longer at the discretion of the member on the Woolsack or in the Chair, the doors of the Chamber shall be locked, and the member on the Woolsack or in the Chair shall inform the House or the committee of the Question which is the subject of the division.
(6) A member may vote in a division although they did not hear the Question put.”
Standing Order 53 (Votes counted in the House)
Leave out Standing Order 53 and insert:
“53 Any member may, on the ground of infirmity, have the privilege of voting in their place; and the votes of such members and of the member on the Woolsack or in the Chair shall be taken first by the Clerk.”
Standing Order 54 (Voting in wrong lobby)
Leave out Standing Order 54 and insert:
“54 If any member has by mistake voted either Content or Not-content, having intended to vote on the other side, they may go to the Clerk at the Table before the end of the division and request to change their vote. The Clerk will inform the Tellers of the change before the result of the division is announced. Members may not vote in both lobbies.”
Standing Order 63 (Sessional Committees)
Leave out “European Union Committee” and insert the following at the appropriate points in the alphabetical list of sessional committees:
“Built Environment Committee
Environment and Climate Change Committee
European Affairs Committee
Industry and Regulators Committee
Justice and Home Affairs Committee”
Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee
National Insurance Contributions Bill
My Lords, in moving the Motion that this Bill do now pass, I take the opportunity to thank noble Lords from all sides of the House for their interest and contributions to the progress of the Bill. In particular, my thanks go to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, for their constructive engagement, thoughtful contributions and thorough consideration of this piece of legislation.
As ever, I am grateful to the House authorities and parliamentary staff for their hard work behind the scenes. I acknowledge the work of the officials who have worked so hard on the Bill for many months: the Bill team; the policy teams at HMRC and Her Majesty’s Treasury; the lawyers in both departments; the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel; the clerks in this place; and, finally, my noble friend Lady Scott.
I take this opportunity very briefly to recap the importance of this Bill. It introduces new measures to unleash the potential of our ports and regenerate left-behind communities by encouraging businesses from around the world to invest in our regions, spreading jobs and investment opportunities across the country. Specifically, it introduces two employer national insurance reliefs for workers in free ports and organisations that recruit Armed Forces veterans. In doing so, it supports the delivery of the Government’s free ports programme and boosts regional growth and the employment prospects of our extraordinary veterans. The Bill also provides an exemption from self-employed NICs for test and trace support payments, which will apply retrospectively from the 2020-21 tax year. Finally, the Bill introduces changes to the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes regime. I beg to move.
My Lords, I join the Minister in his thanks, particularly to the Minister himself and his team. I commend their availability to interested parties and the many interesting Zoom meetings we have had. I also thank all Members who were involved in this Bill, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. Between us, I think we produced an excellent speed-through and we have done the Bill a total service. Finally on the thanks side, I thank my team, which is one half of Dan Stevens, without whom I could not have carried this burden.
On the substance of the Bill, I note what the Minister has said. I hope that he shows equal enthusiasm for the two rather gentler amendments that we are sending to the Commons, and I hope that we see this Bill no more.
My Lords, I have participated in the progress of this Bill and I have always appreciated the stated objectives. I know that I have disappointed the Minister with my pessimism about its likely effects, but I thank him for his unfailing courtesy during the Bill’s progress.
My Lords, it is very nice to have an opportunity to say thank you, and I really want to say thank you to the Minister and his office. Not only were his staff always courteous, but their willingness to meet us, to answer questions and provide a great deal of detail, was very helpful—certainly for me, but also for anyone not sitting on the Government Benches. We really appreciated that flow of information.
For my part I thank Sarah Pughe and Katherine Ginty, who gave me a great deal of support—and were sitting alone on my Benches for most of this Bill. It is always excellent, too, to work with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. We found a good way, I think, to pursue the primary interest of the Official Opposition while also giving space to the views coming from these Benches, and often to find common ground.
I particularly appreciated the amendments that the Minister brought forward which reflected the concerns of the Delegated Powers Committee. From a constitutional perspective, it is important that he took those on board and made change that is exceedingly sensible and constructive. I thank him very much for that.
The two gentle amendments—as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, described them—are actually rather important. One was on veterans. I hope that it will be well received when it heads back to the Commons. Our amendment, on a public—rather than non-public—register of beneficial ownership of businesses in the free ports, could hardly be more pertinent today, as we look to bring in economic sanctions against henchmen of Putin. Once again, the Prime Minister has talked very publicly about the importance of the public nature of registers, so it would have been sad not to ensure that this register started life in that way. So I hope that that amendment, too, will be very warmly received by the Commons.
It often feels as if there is an inner circle of three from across our three Benches on some of the less dramatic finance and economy-related Bills, and it has been very good to work with everyone again. I thank also the staff of the House, who are always so supportive.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.
Finance (No. 2) Bill
Second Reading (and remaining stages)
My Lords, we are here to debate the annual Finance Bill, introduced in the House of Commons following the Budget on 27 October last year. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlined then a Budget to build a stronger economy: an economy of higher wages, higher skills and rising productivity, with more investment in infrastructure, innovation and skills; stronger growth, with the UK recovering faster than our major counter- parts; a stronger labour market, with falling unemployment and record numbers of payrolled employees; and stronger public finances, with a simpler, fairer and more sustainable tax system to support businesses and consumers. That is the Government’s vision for the future of this country, and this Finance Bill will help to deliver that vision for the tax system.
It may be helpful to noble Lords to start with a little of the context behind the Bill. Our country’s economic situation has significantly improved in the past year. The UK’s real GDP growth was the highest in the G7 in 2021, at 7.5%, and the IMF is now forecasting that we will have the highest growth in the G7 again in 2022, at 4.7%. GDP remained at pre-pandemic levels in December, despite the impact of the omicron variant and plan B measures. The labour market is also performing extremely well, with the total number of employees on payrolls above pre-pandemic levels, redundancies at an all-time low and record numbers of vacancies. However, there are challenges ahead, with global supply chain disruption and high energy prices adding to inflation around the world and helping to explain the rise in inflation above the 2% target in the UK in recent months.
These are global problems, neither unique to the UK nor possible for us to fully address on our own, but the Government are committed to working with international partners to monitor global supply chain pressures and strengthen the resilience of our critical global supply chains. We are also providing support worth over £20 billion this financial year and next to help families with the cost of living. In 2021, we moved away from providing emergency economic support to focusing on our economic recovery. This is a transition from a period where the Government rightly provided unprecedented support, to a promising future.
Credit for this recovery must, of course, go to our vaccination programme, including the outstanding booster programme, but equally we must not overlook the steps that this Government have recently taken to support families and businesses, including through measures contained in the last Finance Bill. This action has boosted public finances, allowing the Government to invest at scale through the Budget and the spending review, with significant increases for government departments in overall spending.
But debt is still at a historically high level. It is set to pass £2.3 trillion and is currently at its highest level as a percentage of GDP since the early 1960s. While the level of debt is currently affordable, there are significant risks associated with elevated levels of debt. Although the fiscal outlook has been improving, new fiscal rules will help to ensure that public finances remain on a sustainable path. This approach will ensure that the Government can continue to invest in first-class public services, support people and businesses through the next stage of our economic recovery and lay the foundations for future economic growth. This is also a responsible approach to our public finances that allows the Government to respond to global challenges where needed, including the recent package of support to help households with rising energy bills, worth £9.1 billion this year.
I now turn to the content of the Finance Bill itself. The Bill contains several measures that will help build a stronger economy and help businesses to invest in the UK’s future growth and prosperity. Noble Lords will be aware that productivity in this country has long lagged behind that of our international counterparts. The Government are determined to rectify this and to help businesses to reach their full potential by making it easier for them to invest and grow. That is why, in March 2021, the Government introduced the new super-deduction. As the Chancellor noted at the Budget, now is not the time to remove tax breaks on investment. The Bill therefore extends the temporary £1 million limit of the annual investment allowance again until the end of March 2023, instead of allowing it to revert to £200,000, as planned, from the start of 2022. This higher AIA level provides businesses with more upfront support and encourages them to bring forward investment.
Measures in the Bill will also help to protect our unique culture and heritage, by making our creative tax reliefs more generous. Social distancing and wider restrictions have had a particular impact on companies relying on live performances and exhibitions to generate their core revenue, such as theatres, orchestras, museums and galleries. It is therefore right that the Government support charitable companies to put on high-quality museum and gallery exhibitions. That is why the Bill extends the tax relief for museums and galleries by another two years, to March 2024. It also doubles the tax reliefs for theatres, orchestras, museums and galleries until April 2023; they then revert to their normal rate only in April 2024. This is a tax relief for culture worth almost £0.25 billion, which will enable our creative industries to continue to flourish.
I turn now to another sector that makes an important contribution to our economic well-being, namely the maritime industry, which is responsible for 95% of our trade in goods. The UK has always been a seafaring nation and we must continue to help our shipping industry to succeed. First, that means removing any requirements for ships in the UK tonnage tax regime to fly the flag of any EU country. We will focus instead on boosting the use of the UK’s merchant shipping flag, the Red Ensign. Our flag has a well-deserved reputation for maintaining the highest international standards, and we want more ships to benefit from this by registering in the UK. Secondly, the Bill will make it easier for shipping companies to move to the UK from April this year, bringing jobs and investment to nations and regions around the UK. These measures will support our thriving shipping industry, helping to drive jobs in our coastal communities and boosting our world-renowned maritime services industry.
In March last year, the Government committed to reviewing the bank surcharge, in light of the decision to increase the corporation tax rate to 25% from 2023. As outlined in the Bill, the surcharge will be set at 3%. From 2023, this means that the overall tax rate on banks’ profits will increase from 27% to 28%, a rate that is higher than that of most other companies. This will ensure that banks continue to pay their fair share of tax, while maintaining the UK’s financial services competitiveness and safeguarding tax revenue. The Bill also raises the annual allowance to £100 million to ensure that the tax system is supportive of growth for smaller retail and challenger banks.
The economic recovery is under way, and we are investing record amounts in our public services. However, we must still take a prudent and responsible approach to our national finances, and this can mean tough choices. As the House will know, the Government are introducing a new ring-fenced health and social care levy, based on national insurance contributions. This will be supported by increasing the tax rates on dividends by 1.25 percentage points in the Bill, ensuring that those with dividend income make a contribution in line with that made by employees and the self-employed. But our generous allowances mean that everyday investors will be entirely unaffected. Around 60% of individuals with dividend income will pay no dividend tax in 2022-23.
I now turn to the new residential property developer tax. This is a 4% tax on the profits made by the largest developers carrying out residential property development activity in the UK. It forms part of the Government’s building safety package, aiming to bring an end to unsafe cladding. It will help to ensure that developers pay a fair contribution to help fund this package, and it will apply from April.
The Bill also contains measures that will help tackle economic crime, tax avoidance and tax evasion, all of which undermine our efforts to strengthen the country’s finances and build a stronger economy. The new economic crime anti-money laundering levy will help to fund new and uplifted anti-money laundering measures, including the ambitious reforms the Government announced in their 2019 Economic Crime Plan. The Bill will implement the levy on entities that are regulated for anti-money laundering purposes. These firms will benefit, both directly and indirectly, from the new and uplifted measures funded through the levy. It will impact an estimated 4,000 businesses, which will be liable to pay the levy. The amount payable will be determined by reference to the business’s size, based on its UK revenue.
I turn to tax avoidance. We know that the vast majority of tax advisers adhere to high professional standards and are an important source of support for taxpayers. However, promoters of tax avoidance schemes who use every opportunity to sidestep the rules to sell their wares fall into a very different category. The Government have taken action to clamp down on these promoters. Indeed, as a result of this action, the tax gap attributed to marketed tax avoidance has already steadily declined from its peak of £1.5 billion in 2005-06 to £0.5 billion in 2019-20—a fall from 0.4% to just 0.1% of total tax liabilities.
But we have not stopped there. We have developed, through continued engagement and consultation with stakeholders, further powers to disrupt avoidance. Measures in this Finance Bill will reduce the scope for promoters to market tax avoidance schemes. They will allow HMRC to clamp down on these schemes by giving it the power to impose penalties on UK entities that enable offshore promoters, freeze promoters’ assets to ensure that penalties they are liable for are paid, and shut down promoters which continue to sidestep the rules.
The Bill introduces tougher sanctions to tackle tobacco duty evasion, which is estimated to have cost the Exchequer £2.3 billion in 2019-20. Electronic sales suppression will also be tackled by the Bill. This is a form of tax evasion whereby a business deliberately manipulates its electronic sales records to reduce the recorded turnover of the business and corresponding tax liabilities. The Bill will make those facilitating ESS liable to a penalty fine of up to £50,000.
The Bill also helps to deliver a simpler and more sustainable tax system; for example, by simplifying the rules around basis periods. These rules determine how profits are split between tax years. The Bill will create a simpler, fairer and more transparent set of rules for the allocation of trading income to tax years. Currently, small businesses that choose an accounting date other than the dates between 31 March and 5 April face complex rules. They also face double taxation in the early years of trade and the need to maintain accurate records of overlap relief, which is often lost and not used by taxpayers. These reforms will remove this double taxation and the existing requirements of the basis period rules, creating a simpler tax environment for many small businesses.
Finally, noble Lords may also have noted that the Government brought forward a new tax during the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons. This is the new public interest business protection tax, a temporary measure aimed at protecting taxpayers and energy consumers. It is, in principle, possible for an energy business to derive value from a valuable financial asset, such as a forward purchase contract, for its own benefit and the benefit of its shareholders, while leaving its energy supply business to fail or increasing the costs of a failure. The costs of that failure would then be picked up by the taxpayer or consumers, because it would trigger a special government-funded administration regime.
Ofgem is now consulting on a range of regulatory actions that it proposes to take to ensure that the right protections are in place in these circumstances. However, it will take some time for these changes to come into effect. It would be unacceptable for the Government to allow business owners to profit from engineering this kind of outcome in the interim period, at great and direct expense to the UK taxpayer. That is why we are introducing this temporary tax. It is our hope and expectation that no business will undertake this course of action and that the tax will therefore not be charged.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has cast a long shadow over this country and our finances, but now is the time to open a new chapter in this country’s story, characterised by economic growth and renewal. We will invest in people, businesses and public services, but we will also never forget our responsibility to strengthen the public finances. A simpler, fairer and more sustainable tax system will help us achieve this. The measures in the Bill support these goals, while also continuing our long-standing efforts to tackle fraud, avoidance and evasion. For these reasons, I commend the Bill to the House and beg to move.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. I am an unpaid senior adviser to the Tax Justice Network. I too thank the Minister for her very eloquent speech, but it cannot hide the fact that the Budget does not really do anything at all for the average person. It is regressive, the word “redistribution” is missing altogether, and taxes are piled upon the poorest. On tax avoidance, all we need to do is look for evidence. I once again ask the Minister to name any big accounting firm that has been investigated, disciplined and fined after the courts declared that the tax-avoiding schemes that it marketed were unlawful. I am still yet to hear any name at all.
In the time available, I will raise three questions about the Bill. They relate to an area that I have not really seen debated either in this House or the other House. The first follows on from the Minister’s speech, relating to the tax rate on dividends. From April, it will be in the range of 8.75% to 39.35%. That is still less than the marginal rate of income tax on earned income. Earned income is taxed at 20%, 40% and 45%. Because the two rates are different, that opens the floodgates for the tax avoidance industry. Numerous schemes designed by accountants and lawyers enable clients to convert income into dividends, so that the beneficiaries pay tax at a lower rate and national insurance contributions at a zero rate. Nobody pays any national insurance on unearned income, and that includes dividends, even though those who are not paying can use the National Health Service and receive the benefit of social care.
The Government’s approach is clearly distorting taxpayer behaviour because taxpayers will try to minimise their duty. The Government are fuelling the tax avoidance industry and then expecting HMRC to go and chase down the avoidance schemes. This is an exercise in futility, and it has gone on for years and years. The Government could take a leaf out of the book of the former Conservative Chancellor, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who recognised that there is no difference between earned and unearned income—both augment somebody’s wealth and purchasing power. In 1988, the Government decided that earned income needed to be taxed at exactly the same rate as unearned income; both were taxed at the same rate—at least, that was applied to capital gains, which were taxed at the same marginal rate. So the Government at that time ended a whole variety of tax avoidance schemes. The current Government are fuelling the demand for them.
In respect of this, I ask the Minister two questions. First, why do the Government aid the tax avoidance industry by taxing unearned income at a lower rate than earned income? Secondly, what is the cost of chasing the tax avoidance schemes facilitated by the Government’s own policies? I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some numbers, and then we will see where to go.
The second issue I wish to raise relates to tax reliefs. Under this Government, and other Governments since 2010, the number of tax reliefs have vastly increased. The Office of Tax Simplification, which published its final report in November 2021, had previously identified some 1,140 tax reliefs—that is how many tax reliefs we give. The cost of principal tax reliefs is published, but the disclosures by HMRC do not cover all the tax reliefs. Even worse, little is known about the macroeconomic benefits of handing out vast numbers of tax reliefs, or the amount of tax concessions—the actual amounts that people do not pay.
Following on from this, the related question is about the anomalies and abuses of tax reliefs. Let me give one or two illustrations. The first relates to something called video games tax relief, which the Government created in 2014. It was thought that this tax relief would come to about £35 million a year. By the end of March 2020, 1,000 games had received the kitemark that they need—it is called “culturally British accreditation” and is given by the British Film Institute—as a prerequisite for getting video games tax relief. However, anything seems to go; it is nothing to do with being British. Some of the games that received this accreditation are called “Batman”—I did not know that Batman lived in Downing Street—“Goat Simulator” and “Sonic the Hedgehog” are just some examples of games that have been given this culturally British accreditation and millions in tax relief. The real truth is that this culturally British fig leaf was really designed to get around the EU Commission’s rules on state aid and, in reality, it is costing the taxpayer millions of pounds.
Two of the 1,000 games that have been accredited were published by a company called Rockstar: “Grand Theft Auto V”, which received the accreditation in 2015, and “Red Dead Redemption 2”, which received it in 2019. In 2020, Rockstar claimed £56.6 million in video games tax relief. According to its accounts, it has claimed £136.6 million in total in tax relief over the years. It has paid no corporation tax at all but has paid £67.5 million in dividends. Where exactly did those dividends come from? They came from picking the pockets of the British taxpayer. There is no other explanation for this. It does not seem to me that these kinds of tax reliefs are monitored. No evidence is provided by any government department to show what exactly the benefit to the UK economy is of this American company receiving all these tax reliefs.
I will give noble Lords another example, which relates to the James Bond films. James Bond is a quintessentially British fictional hero, but the enterprise is also very lucrative for minimising the UK tax liabilities of the foreign companies behind it. In recent years, the company known as EON, which controls the Bond movies and is behind the films, has declared pre-tax losses while simultaneously receiving a total of about £120 million in tax credits via the UK’s creative industry tax relief schemes. “Spectre”, a Bond film, received £30 million, with £47 million given to “No Time to Die”. “Skyfall” received £24 million. “Quantum of Solace” received around £21 million. The James Bond films are made and marketed through a complex labyrinth of opaque offshore entities. The upshot is that, despite receiving £120 million of subsidy, EON has been paying less than £500,000 a year in UK corporation tax. So where exactly is the benefit of these things?
I would like to talk a little more about these things. A good example concerns R&D—research and development —tax credits or reliefs. For 2019-20, 85,900 claims were made for this tax relief. Some £7.4 billion of tax reliefs were claimed on an expenditure of £47.5 billion. But the Office for National Statistics data for the UK’s total R&D spend is only £25.9 billion. How come the Government have given relief on £47.5 billion?
One explanation is that, when companies conduct research and development—there is a big issue about what that means and, as an accountant, I can tell you that you can classify almost anything as R&D and claim tax relief on it—it appears that foreign companies can also claim. A company may operate and have a subsidiary here but do its R&D in the Bahamas; it can also claim these tax reliefs. So there is a discrepancy of £21.6 billion between the HMRC and ONS data. No explanation has ever been provided by the Government of why these numbers differ and why foreign entities that have little or no economic link with the UK are able to claim these things. The tax reliefs are clearly being abused, yet there is no urgency from the Government to investigate.
I will ask the Minister to do a number of things. First, at every Budget, can we have a complete list of the tax credits? Tell us exactly what their tax cost is and what the abuses might be. Tell us whether the economic benefits that are claimed actually materialise. Have they been audited? At the moment, we get very little or almost no data.
The last issue I would like to talk about is the impending global minimum tax rate of 15%, which the Government support. While the Government are handing out 1,140-plus tax reliefs, what is the impact of these reliefs on the commitment to a 15% global minimum corporation tax rate? The Government say that they are increasing the corporation tax rate but, at the same time, they are giving so many tax reliefs and allowances—at 130% of the cost and so on—that the effective tax rate is incredibly low, and the Government are reducing it even further by handing out more and more tax reliefs. So can we also see some reconciliation from the Government on the relationship between handing out these tax reliefs and a commitment to a global minimum tax rate of 15%?
My Lords, since 1911 the House of Lords, quite rightly, has not been able to amend or reject a Finance Bill, but, in recent years, we have been given the opportunity to debate them. This enables us to range somewhat more widely over government economic policy. As the Minister realises, this Finance Bill comes at a time of unprecedented financial turbulence that is affecting so many. She will be aware of fuel price increases; oil and gas prices continue to rise, affecting everybody’s bills, and recent events in Ukraine will not help that. As she will be aware, inflation is now at its highest level for 30 years. As she indicated in her remarks, government debt as a proportion of GDP, although falling, is at record levels.
Against this background, although the Minister made a brave attempt to defend the Government’s economic policy, does she not agree that this Budget and Finance Bill are a missed opportunity for the Government? To me, and I suspect to other noble Lords, it is not entirely clear what government economic policy is today. In the light of the problems faced by ordinary families, does the Minister really think that now is the time to raise national insurance? This is ostensibly to fund social care although we know that, in the medium term, it will go towards propping up the National Health Service. Does she really think the Chancellor’s plan to reduce fuel bills is the correct way to help hard-pressed families? Does she also believe that the recent cut in universal credit was fair, just and necessary?
What is the Government’s overall strategy? The Chancellor says in public that he is a tax cutter—but how? It is clear from Mr Gove’s White Paper on levelling up that there is a split at the heart of government. The White Paper contains wonderful aspirations but no details of costs, payments or how levelling up will be funded. There is no commitment to building up business and infrastructure banks to support local enterprise. Where is the financial commitment to serious transport investment so that journey times and frequencies match those of London? Where is the serious investment in social infrastructure that is promised in the White Paper? Do the Chancellor and the Minister really believe in creating one globally competitive city in each of our regions? More particularly, will the Government let him and her do that? There is surely no point in promising a gain of £2.5 trillion, as the Government have done with levelling up to the economy, if they do not provide the resources to achieve it.
I fear that the Government hope that a Brexit dividend will save them, but this is a chimera. The £350 million paid to the NHS from Europe, promised on the side of a bus during the Brexit referendum, was a lie then and is a lie now, as the cartoonist Peter Brookes demonstrated so well in his cartoon last week, with Jacob Rees-Mogg in his favourite position, lying on top of a bus.
Great play was made by the Minister of the highest growth rate in the G7 as a result of Brexit. But, first, after 2022, there is no forecaster who thinks this will last. Secondly, it is a statement of the obvious that it is easiest to be the fastest if you start from the lowest point. Thirdly, and most worryingly, growth has come primarily from a one-off increase in public expenditure as a result of the pandemic, and the private sector has been noticeably flat. It remains the case, as the Office for Budget Responsibility said last year, that our economy will be 4% smaller each year as a result of Brexit, contrasted with only 1% as a result of the pandemic. As the chair of the Public Accounts Committee in the other place said recently, all Brexit has given our industries is
“increased costs, paperwork and border delays.”
The Government cannot say they were not warned.