House of Lords
Thursday 17 March 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Durham.
My Lords, for the first Oral Question, the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, is contributing virtually.
Barristers Leaving Criminal Practice
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to bring forward measures aimed at reducing the number of barristers leaving criminal practice.
My Lords, our plan is more work for criminal barristers at higher fees. We have made radical proposals for wholesale reform of legal aid, provided £150 million more on fees and £20 million more for longer-term reform, and increased sitting days so that the Crown Court can get through more trials. The combined effect of our plans will take expected criminal legal aid spending to £1.2 billion per year.
Does the Minister accept that before this week’s announcement, a decade of underfunding by the Government brought the criminal Bar to near collapse? Criminal advocates, having suffered a 40% real-terms cut in their earnings, were exiting criminal work in droves—a quarter of junior barristers and half of all QCs. Criminal trials were being adjourned for lack of available counsel and it was taking up to five years for cases to come to trial. Therefore, I welcome the Government’s acceptance this week of the Bellamy review recommendations, but why did it take the third threat in eight years by criminal barristers to go on strike before the Government acted? Also, does the Minister understand that it is far from clear that the Government have provided enough money for the remuneration of criminal law barristers to keep them in the system?
My Lords, it did not take the threat of a strike from the Criminal Bar Association for us to respond to Sir Christopher Bellamy’s report, but I hope that our responding in a way which has drawn broad welcome from the Bar Council, the Law Society and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives will mean that the Criminal Bar Association will withdraw its utterly ill-thought-out and unfounded strike proposal.
My Lords, I declare my interests here. Can my noble friend say what further proposals there may be to allow solicitors to appear in the higher courts?
My Lords, solicitors need a higher rights of audience certificate to appear in the higher courts. We are in discussions to ensure that this system is working well. However, as part of our response to Sir Christopher Bellamy’s report, we are looking at opening up more opportunities for legal executives to do more work in the courts, particularly in the higher courts. That would also improve diversity, because the diversity of legal executives is in much better shape than it is for solicitors and quite a lot better than it is for barristers.
My Lords, perhaps the effect of the cuts has been felt most harshly on younger barristers at the very start of the profession. Up to 25% have left the profession over the past five years, despite having done the pupillage and Bar examinations. For them, legal aid has been a lifeline, allowing them to survive and have a decent career. What assessment have the Government made of the effects of these changes on the younger barristers and the likelihood of them staying in the profession?
My Lords, we think that these changes will be a systemic change in legal aid: 3.5 million more people will be eligible for legal aid in magistrates’ courts and 2 million more people will be eligible for civil legal aid. We think that will help the Bar generally. Our other plans—for example, having more online hearings—mean that barristers are not spending money on travel and that a barrister can, for example, drop their children off at school and then attend a hearing 200 miles away.
The Minister has just mentioned travel. Has any thought been given to reimbursing barristers for the cost of travelling to and from the courts in which they are to appear, particularly in the case of junior barristers, for whom a substantial part of the fee is taken up simply by the cost of travelling to and from the court?
The noble and learned Lord is absolutely right. We do look at the cost of travel for barristers. As I have just said, we hope that increased online hearings will mean that travel costs are essentially reduced to zero, with more money therefore going into barristers’ pockets. That is something that we are looking at. We have constant discussions with the judiciary on that. Ultimately, however, whether a hearing is heard in person or online is a decision for the judge, not for Government Ministers.
My Lords, I suspect that industrial action by barristers would get as much public sympathy as industrial action by politicians. I welcome the Minister’s comments, but that was not the influence; the Government thought that it was what they wanted to do anyway. I also suspect that if the Minister had been in post earlier, we might not have seen the appalling LASPO Act, which cut so much legal aid, no doubt contributing to this problem. Following his announcement today, are the Government planning to review the impact of the changes so that they can later assess whether or not they are having the desired impact?
My Lords, as a barrister-politician, I now know where I stand in public esteem. The noble Baroness is right. One of the issues has been that there has not been a means-test review in civil legal aid, for example, for a long time. While we are not proposing to review it annually, we will keep it under review to ensure that the general package keeps in line with where public pay is and where public costs are, to ensure that the underlying principle of access to justice is maintained.
COVID-19 Vaccinations: International Athletes
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to make COVID-19 vaccinations available to athletes and support staff from any nation which requires such provision and is sending competitors (1) to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, or (2) to any other international sporting competition hosted by the United Kingdom.
My Lords, the UK has safely hosted major sporting events during the pandemic without mandating vaccination against Covid-19, supported by the comprehensive body of research undertaken by the Events Research Programme. For the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, organisers are very strongly recommending that athletes and officials get vaccinated. To date, we are not aware of any Commonwealth Games associations asking for assistance, but we continue to liaise with the Games associations on this and other matters.
I thank the Minister for that response. Does he not think it would be a good idea to be proactive and go to some of the smaller nations which do not have developed vaccination programmes and say that we will offer vaccination to all their staff who are coming to this event as a gesture of good will? It would be an extension of our soft power and surely that is what a festival of sport, such as the Games, should be.
My Lords, we are proactively working across the health sector and with our Games partners to see what additional support may be required for participants when they are in the UK. We are in regular discussions with the Commonwealth Games associations and their chief medical officers regarding the protocols which will keep everyone safe for the Games. The UK is committed to equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, treatments and tests through multilateral co-operation to end the acute phase of this pandemic.
Pursuant to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will the Government confirm that they will work with the organising committee and the WHO in particular to reach out to all 53 Commonwealth countries to promote vaccination and support the 98% vaccination level which was achieved at the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing?
Yes, we are working with Games partners and public health partners and are learning lessons from recent events such as the Summer and Winter Olympics to make sure that the message gets across very loudly and clearly that we are strongly recommending that everyone be vaccinated.
My Lords, given the attention that will be paid to the Commonwealth Games, is this not a wonderful opportunity for the Government to promote vaccination, particularly if a fourth round of vaccination is going to be inevitable, and to promote it by using some of the young people at the Games to get the message over, particularly to the young and ethnic minorities, that vaccination is important?
We know that vaccinations are very effective at protecting us from Covid-19 and are our strongest weapon in the fight against the pandemic. That is a message that is important for people still at home who have not yet been vaccinated, as well as for those visiting. The Games are an important opportunity to send that message.
My Lords, what will the residential quarters be like for the Birmingham Games? Obviously, the right arrangements can help with appropriate disease control. Cheekily, is there a housing legacy from what is being done? I declare an interest as the chair of the Built Environment Committee.
I will write to my noble friend with the full details of the housing provision and legacy, but I reassure her that there will be a robust set of protective protocols in place, including testing, temperature checks and regular cleaning, which has been developed in accordance with leading public health experts and lessons learned from other large-scale events to keep everybody safe during the Games.
My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the ERP. Will he take this opportunity to congratulate David Ross and Nick Hytner, who so excellently chaired that group and all who were involved? I declare an interest: I was honoured to serve as part of the ERP. Will he congratulate all the staff at DCMS who played such a key role in enabling spectators to be back at sporting events, fans to be back in music venues and people to be back in cultural venues across the country safely and able to enjoy the rich cultural and sporting fabric of our nation?
I most whole- heartedly congratulate everybody involved, including my noble friend, for their work in the Events Research Programme. They worked very swiftly to develop an evidence base to make sure that we could get people back to doing all the things that they missed doing during lockdown and which are so important to their well-being and mental health and to the wider economic and societal impacts.
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what arrangements have been made for feeding the athletes at the Commonwealth Games? At the last Olympics, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s completely dominated the food offer because they had paid so much money. That does not send out a great message on health, especially to our kids.
I will write to the noble Baroness about the food options for those attending the Games. Of course, it will be up to people to choose what they wish to eat and to do so in a healthy and nutritious manner.
My Lords, the pandemic is not over until it is over everywhere. In order truly to tackle it, people across the world need access to vaccines, including in African and Caribbean nations, which have been deprived of vaccines and of the ability to manufacture their own vaccines because of intellectual property protections. If proposals for a vaccine waiver are put to World Trade Organization members in the coming weeks or months, can the Minister indicate which way the UK Government will vote?
My Lords, the UK is one of the largest donors to the COVAX advance market commitment, which supports access to Covid-19 vaccinations for up to 92 low- and middle-income countries. This is a very effective mechanism and our £548 million commitment has helped COVAX deliver more than £1 billion vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. We have also donated more than 33 million vaccines. We need a truly global effort because no one country and no one pharmaceutical company would be able to do this alone.
Young Audiences Content Fund: Replacement
To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will replace the Young Audiences Content Fund which supported the production of British-made content for commercial broadcasters.
My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare my interests as in the register.
My Lords, the Government are committed to the success of our world-leading TV production sector. UK-wide television tax reliefs, including for children’s television programming, continue to play a vital role in driving production to record highs, with more than £4 billion of expenditure supported in 2021. A full evaluation of the three-year pilot Young Audiences Content Fund will take place to determine its impact. The potential for further investment will be assessed against that evaluation and against future public service broadcasting needs.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, the Government’s recent decision to close the Young Audiences Content Fund has removed a successful incentive for UK commercial broadcasters and UK producers. This is devastating for the children’s creative industry. The fund had given a new lease of life to an ailing children’s sector. It also allowed producers from diverse backgrounds to get commissioned. Interim measures need to be put in place now. What consideration are the Government giving to ensuring that other sources of investment—such as raising the production tax relief credit from 20% to, say, 40% or 50%—could be found to maintain the diversity of high-quality programming for UK children that will be freely available to all and save the children’s creative production sector from catastrophe?
My Lords, the Young Audiences Content Fund was a pilot. It is still open. It closes at the end of this month, at the end of its three-year period. It was a pilot to test a new way of financing public service television. At the end of the pilot, a full evaluation will take place to determine its impact. The noble Baroness has anticipated some of the things that might emerge from that evaluation, but I hope she will agree that it is important that it be evaluated. She mentions the tax relief that we introduced. That was aimed specifically at children’s TV, and since 2015 has directly supported 543 projects, delivering over £623 million of expenditure in children’s television production.
My Lords, the points made by the noble Baroness are well made and we support them wholeheartedly. I am grateful for the comments that the Minister has made but they do not really go far enough. More worryingly, this seems to be part of a pattern of activity and policy at DCMS—a pattern that I am sure this House will have noticed—including the issues of the future of Channel 4, the delay in securing provenance for programmes on widespread release, the BBC licence fee and charter arrangements, and regional news and journalism. The issues all seem to come up, suddenly get an announcement and then are withdrawn. Do we not need a White Paper looking more broadly at the wider context of the media, how we want it to progress in this country and the need for it to mesh more closely with a modern version of public service broadcasting?
My Lords, we are looking at that wider context. The Government have committed to ensuring that viewers and listeners benefit from a modern system of public service broadcasting that remains relevant and which continues to meet the needs of audiences, now and in the future. That is why we announced the strategic review of public service broadcasting so that we can do that. The evaluation of this fund will feed into that wider strategic review so that we can see the best way of delivering what everyone wants.
My Lords, the whole point of a pilot is to test the water and find out what works and what does not. If it does not work, scrap it, but if it does work then keep and develop it. This scheme was successful, as the Government themselves admit, with the programmes funded winning awards and being sold around the world. To simply say that there is to be an evaluation while closing the scheme does not seem like a good enough answer.
My Lords, the funds were set up using unallocated funding from the 2010 licence fee settlement to pilot contestable funding in priority areas of public service broadcasting provision. Although this and the equivalent fund for listeners performed well, any further investment of taxpayers’ funding will need to be assessed against the evaluation of the funds and future public service broadcasting needs, informed by our wider strategic review. DCMS and the fund administrators will conduct a full evaluation of the pilot against its fund criteria, including quality, innovation, additionality, provision for every part of the UK, diversity, the boost to new voices and plurality, and the reach of audience.
My Lords, in response to a question earlier this week, the Minister talked about the ever-expanding creative industries with pride, as indeed he should. However, this kind of decision really rather gives the lie to that sort of rhetoric, as it does to his earlier reference to—I cannot remember exactly what he called it—world-beating children’s programming. Does he not agree that decisions of this kind—taken, as the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty said, without any real sense of how the future might look—are extremely dispiriting for the very talented young people who are coming through and hoping for a career in this area of our creative industries, who are now feeling that perhaps it is not going to work out for them?
My Lords, this is a three-year pilot that is about to reach the end of its three years, and it must be evaluated so that we can see whether it has been as beneficial as noble Lords anticipate that it has. The noble Baroness is right that, even with the challenges of the pandemic, the industry has reached new heights of success, seeing record production in 2021, which is testament both to the UK’s status as the best place in the world to produce television and to the hard work of everyone involved in the industry. We want to evaluate the impact of the fund so we can see how best we can support them to continue to reach even greater heights.
My Lords, can the Government at least ensure that there is a continuation of funding until such time as the review has been carried out and a government decision is made about what is to happen in future? Will that decision bring to an end the days of the Government raiding the BBC licence fee for projects, however worthy they might be?
My Lords, it is important that this trial to test out new ways of contestable funding be evaluated before those decisions are taken.
My Lords, is it not weird that a three-year project has not been evaluated in the course of running it? If you were doing this in commerce, it would be automatic that you would reach the end of a pilot knowing whether or not it had been a success. To take the good bits and then dump them into space for a year and a half, or however long it will take the Government to do this, rather than continuing them because you know they are succeeding, is not the right way to run a Government.
My Lords, it is usual for a pilot to end and then be evaluated once all the data collected can be seen in the round. Noble Lords have pointed to many of the emerging conclusions, but it is right that we evaluate it in the round.
My Lords, up to the beginning of this year, 144 development projects and 55 productions had been funded, some with really great output including Irish, Scottish, Gaelic and Welsh projects. Could I push the Minister a little more on the timescale of the review? Many of his answers have said that a review is going to be carried out, but no timescale for it has been set. Are we talking about the next few weeks or next month, or is it going to drag on for months to come?
My Lords, the Young Audiences Content Fund and the Audio Content Fund have supported 220 hours of children’s television content and around 650 hours of radio content to date. We want to carry out the evaluation once the fund finishes at the end of this month and to see that as part of our wider strategic review of public service broadcasting. I cannot set out a precise timescale for the noble Lord, but we want to do that swiftly and thoroughly.
My Lords, if our creative industries are as successful as noble Lords on all sides have said, and if our audio-visual sector, including children’s content, is, as my noble friend the Minister says, world-beating, why does it need subsidy?
My Lords, in public service broadcasting it is important that we provide for all the audiences that rely on it. Children of course do not have the same consumer power that adults do, and it is important that high-quality and distinctively British content is made for children in this country, particularly when there are so many other options for them to watch programmes from around the world, particularly from across the Atlantic. That is why it is right that we support public service broadcasting and make sure that the high-quality programming that we already enjoy can continue for generations to come.
Ukraine: Discussions with US and China
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the governments of (1) the United States of America, and (2) China, about the situation in Ukraine.
My Lords, the United Kingdom is working very closely with our allies and partners in our continuing condemnation of the actions of Russia and Mr Putin in their reprehensible attack on Ukraine. We have worked very closely with the United States, and the Foreign Secretary visited it last week to further co-ordinate our support for Ukraine. We have also engaged directly with China, and have been clear that China must also stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and not condone Mr Putin’s actions.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that answer. Would he agree that the geopolitics of the world in which we live are being changed by the unjustified war with and invasion of Ukraine? Would he further agree that the Chinese are clearly uneasy about the way in which the situation is developing? As a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations, cannot the British Government take an initiative to work with the Chinese and the Americans to try to secure, for example, humanitarian corridors to enable aid to go in and people to come out safely? Will the Government try to promote these actively with all our partners, because it is the right thing to do?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Viscount on both points and I assure him that we are working very closely with the Chinese, among other countries. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke with her Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi, on Friday 25 February. She underlined the UK’s expectation of China’s role in the current crisis. As we have heard, it has an important role in the multilateral system. We are engaging at all levels, including official and ministerial.
The UN General Assembly vote, where 141 nations came together, demonstrated how we are working with key partners and other countries. It is important that we are universal in our condemnation of the Russian war on Ukraine.
My Lords, there is a lot in what the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, says. In our discussions with the Americans, are we urging them to pump and export more oil? We are urging the Saudis to do so, as are the Chinese. If we are following this path, could Ministers explain more clearly to the public that, although we are all in favour of long-term energy transformation away from fossil fuels, in the short term these measures are necessary, not only to put a squeeze on Russia over Ukraine but to avoid the hideous spikes in prices and energy costs that at present are causing so much suffering to so many people, particularly the most vulnerable?
Again, I agree with my noble friend, which is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister visited the Middle East. The immediate issue is one of energy security and of ensuring that the whole world moves totally away from reliance on Russian energy, particularly Russian gas. There are countries that are heavily reliant on Russian gas. We applaud the decisions taken recently by, for example, Germany in pausing the Nord Stream 2 project. Equally, we are seeing very strong collaboration and collective action to ensure that, from the point of view of both the global community and our own citizens, the issue of energy security remains a key priority.
My Lords, the positions of China and India are of course of concern to UK interests. Have the Government signalled to China that any preferential market access to UK financial services will be questioned? The UK is in discussions with India about a free trade agreement. It is reported today that India is in discussions with Russia for a rupee/rouble trading arrangement that would circumvent the sanctions restrictions. The head of the export organisation for India said:
“Other nations are banning exports to Russia, so it is a good time for Indian exporters to enter into the Russian market”.
Does the Minister believe that it is disagreeable that the UK will be offering preferential market access to the very financiers who are circumventing our restrictions?
My Lords, first, we have been very clear that if China wants to be seen as a responsible global actor, it needs to take concrete steps to show that it in no way condones Russia’s actions. This alludes also to providing alternative market access. India is a key strategic partner. We are building strong alliances and having clear discussions with India about its role both in conflict resolution and the long-term situation pertaining to Ukraine. I know that the Indian Foreign Minister has engaged directly with both Ukraine and Russia.
The noble Lord alluded to a report. We should wait for formal announcements. I do not want to comment on particular speculation.
My Lords, does the Minister assess that the Chinese understand that more than just the United Kingdom’s relations with Russia are in question right now? Essentially, it is not possible for a country—especially a big country—to be neutral in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If China is not clearly part of the opposition, we shall have to reassess our relations with China too.
The noble Lord points to an important role. As the noble Lord will know, China is not just another player. It is a key player on the global stage. China is not the same as Russia. It still wants to be seen as a responsible global actor, whereas Russia has launched an unprovoked and premeditated attack against a sovereign democratic state. As I have said before, China abstained in the key Security Council resolution, which directly showed its concern about the current war in Ukraine.
My Lords, I return to the point about multilateralism. Of course, our support for President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine must be complete. President Zelensky is making positive noises about the talks with Russia. We need to support him in those as well. What are the Government doing to ensure that we can back President Zelensky in those talks? We should take the outcome of the talks to the multilateral institutions and gain the support of China and others for this progress, so that we can bring this horrible war to an end.
On the noble Lord’s final comment, we all want to see that. This war has gone on now for many days and weeks with increasing and indiscriminate attacks on the Ukrainian people. This calls for the need for peace and conflict resolution. We back all current initiatives that are under way to seek a resolution. Ukraine is a sovereign nation and must lead on this. I assure the noble Lord that the Prime Minister is in daily contact with President Zelensky and is fully abreast of the current initiatives and progress. Russia can stop this in an instant. That is where the pressure should come. It needs to stop and pull back. There should be no preconditions in terms of where we go with this, but Ukraine must lead, and of course we will support President Zelensky in his peace efforts.
My Lords, is it not particularly sad for us that India, the greatest democracy in size and a crucially important member of the Commonwealth, is taking the abstaining line in the UN? Should we not be endeavouring with every diplomatic effort to ensure that India comes on side, as a democracy should?
My Lords, I am the Minister responsible for our relations with India and I can assure my noble friend that we are engaging very constructively with India about the Ukrainian war. India also recognises its important role. Of course, it has a strong historic relationship with Russia, but it also recognises that what has happened is an unprovoked attack on a sovereign state. As my noble friend said, it is important that all democracies around the world call for an immediate ceasefire. Immediately after that, it will be important to ensure that the territorial sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine is fully protected.
My Lords, on the issue of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, I was pleased yesterday to see that the FCDO’s update included in its very first point a reference to the peace talks and to President Zelensky’s demand that the world gives his country ongoing, guaranteed, legally enforceable security for its borders. It is not surprising, because the Budapest Memorandum proved worthless and unenforceable. The Minsk agreements were also unenforceable and unimplementable. Deterrence has failed. It is only serving the purposes of the bloody aggressor who is stopping us from putting in the skies some safety for the people of Ukraine.
We should now be turning our attention to how the future of Ukraine—when it is eventually negotiated, as it will have to be—can be guaranteed. The international co-operation on economics and sanctions forms the basis of that. We should be working on it now to reinforce Zelensky’s position in these negotiations.
My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the United Kingdom has a very strong relationship with Ukraine that dates back not just to the start of this Russian war of choice but is of long standing. We have been providing defensive support to Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea. Defence continues to play an important, central role in the UK’s response to the Russian invasion.
The noble Lord made a point about sanctions. This is not about now; we have already begun this work. It is multifaceted and the important thing is that we are working in unison with our key partners.
Healthy Homes Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision about the targets, plans and policies for the delivery of healthy homes and neighbourhoods, to set out the principles that define a healthy home, to make provision for statements and reports about healthy homes, to establish the office of the healthy homes commissioner, to make provisions for local housing needs, and for connected purposes.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Crisp, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Business of the House
Motion to Agree
That Standing Order 38(1) (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with on Tuesday 22 March, Tuesday 29 March, and Tuesday 5 April to enable public bills, measures and delegated legislation to be taken before oral questions on each of those days.
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness could say a bit more about the Motion before the House. My understanding is that that Motion, which we are not opposing, means that on three Tuesdays the House should sit at 11 am, for long sittings. I point out to your Lordships’ House that the House is now sitting longer and later than at any other time I can recall, either in my time in this place or beforehand.
As an official Opposition, we do not stand in the way of the Government managing their business and getting their business through—but there is a limit to what we can be expected to do. It says in Today’s Lists, “The House may sit late”. The Minister is shaking her head, so I hope she will be able to confirm that that is not the case. Too often this House has been asked to sit far later than is reasonable for good governance and good legislation.
If we are to start at 11 am on those three days, I would like an assurance from the noble Baroness that we will not sit past 10 o’clock. We do not oppose reasonable attempts by the Government to get their business through, but this macho style of government, whereby we have been here until 2 o’clock and 3 o’clock in the morning, and have regularly sat past midnight, is not the best way for us as a House to play our role as effective scrutineers of legislation in the appropriate way. I say that not in a party-political way, but in the interests of this House doing its job properly. Looking at the timings for the Report stage of the Elections Bill, we see that we have already been asked to get that through in three consecutive days. That, too, seems unreasonable to me.
All I would say to the noble Baroness is that although we do not oppose the Motion, we would like an assurance that the House will not be having regular late-night sittings to deal with what is really an overcrowded government timetable.
My Lords, we cannot let this go through without a proper debate, and I strongly support my noble friend Lady Smith on the Front Bench. This is unprecedented. I spent 26 years in the other place and I have been here for more than 16 years now—and I have never seen this happen before. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether it has ever happened before? The Government have totally lost control of their business. Why? What is the reason? The Leader of the House may say that Covid did not help, and it certainly did not, but the real trouble is the confusion at the top of government. There is total confusion about the whole process of legislation, and there are more U-turns than in an Isle of Man TT; it is unbelievable how many there have been.
I also object because the Motion means that we will be meeting every Tuesday morning. Select Committees that we serve on meet on Tuesday mornings, and they will clash with this. It is making a total mockery of business. The Government Whips are always quoting the Companion at us. We saw that yesterday, or the other day, in a despicable way, which I hope that we will hear more about later in our business. We keep having the Companion quoted at us, yet it says that our business should be finished by 10 pm—whereas, as my noble friend Lady Smith said, we have been going right through to the early hours of the morning. Indeed, we went into the early hours yesterday.
Indeed, it was this morning. This is quite disgraceful, and I wait to hear whether the Leader of the House can cite any precedent for it. The Government need to get proper control of their business, so that we do not end up with this kind of ridiculous situation.
My Lords, before the Leader of the House responds, may I ask what account was taken of the impact of these proposals on our staff?
My Lords, just to reinforce what has already been said, may I say that the problem is simple and so is the solution? The problem is that the Government are trying to do too much in one parliamentary year, and it derives from the Queen’s Speech. In the 10 months, or however long it is, since the previous Queen’s Speech, too much legislation has been put into the package.
This is not a great issue; there is plenty of time available in this House for legislation. The Government have been having Thursdays since I do not know when, and we have been sitting early and sitting late. Discussions will now be well advanced on the content of the Government’s legislative programme beginning in May—we do not know, or at least I do not, which day in May—and the Leader of the House should be tackling her Cabinet colleagues and getting them to obtain a grip now. Recognising that the Commons can guillotine legislation, and so can process it much more quickly than we in this House can—that is one of our great strengths—it is a matter of judgment as to how much can be put through during a 12-month period.
As the Leader of the House knows, she has a responsibility not just to her party but to the House as a whole. I would like a reassurance from her that she is tackling her Cabinet colleagues and telling them that they are trying to pile too much into a year for this House. With our much looser timetable for discussing Bills as they go through—that is our strength—unless this is tackled now, we will face exactly the same problem in the next 12 months. This is my specific question: is the noble Baroness tackling her colleagues in the Commons? Is she the only Member of this House in the Cabinet these days? I have lost count. She nods her head. It is particularly important, then, that she take that responsibility, and on behalf of the House, I urge her to do so.
My Lords, before my noble friend replies, may I ask her to reflect on the fact that this is a self-regulating House, and a self-regulating House requires a degree of self-restraint—in the number of amendments tabled, the number degrouped, and the length of the speeches made in pursuit of them?
My Lords, I share the concern about issues of major importance being debated in the middle of the night. Last night the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, moved a very important amendment. I was not able to speak, because there was not enough time, and we could not get answers about the implications of her proposal, because it was a late amendment. Where we have something fairly major like that, it is important that we do not just debate it in the middle of the night.
I thank noble Lords. May I first say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that I certainly am making those representations and having conversations, and I think the message is getting through, not least because I have to attend Cabinet having had about three hours’ sleep myself? I am making sure that people understand the pressure being put on this House. I assure the noble Lord that I am putting those representations forward, and that I very much hope we will not be in this position next Session.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I apologise: a new Today’s Lists has been published, which says that we will finish around 7 o’clock. I think the hope is that if we are in the middle of a group, we will finish that group, but that that will be around 7 o’clock. Obviously, the Front Benches and the Whips will work together to that end, so I can certainly say that. Noble Lords will also see that a Statement is to be repeated, which is not on the Today’s Lists published first thing this morning, so they may want to check on that.
In relation to starting at 11 am, we did indeed talk to the House authorities because of course we understand. I have passed on to Simon my thanks to the staff for all the work they are doing on our behalf; he has passed them on to the team. We did discuss the timings to make sure that they were doable. There are a few adjustments that the administration will be making to ensure that we are able to deliver the sittings. I am very grateful and I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in thanking the Clerk of the Parliaments and his entire team for everything they are doing to support our workload.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Hodgson on the point he made, and I guess we all need to reflect on that. Of course, when we start at 11 am, we will not be wanting to go on. I cannot—and will not—make a categorical promise because I may break it. I do not want to. But I am very grateful to the usual channels for the engagement we have had in working together, and I know that we all feel the same way and want to work together to make sure that we get through the business we need to, but without putting further undue pressure on noble Lords.
I am grateful to the Leader for her response. I think it is right that she takes this back to Cabinet and makes the point that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made in very strong terms. But I do just press her on the point about late nights. It is not just about not finishing late when we start early at 11 am; we are sitting longer and later—far more hours than they do down the other end of the building, as some of us will recall—but on the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, made, when we have important issues, this House is not at its best with just a few Members left to contribute to the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said that we should be briefer, perhaps, and more succinct in some of the comments we make, but it is important that crucial issues are not discussed late at night. Up to 10 pm is in the Companion but beyond that I do not think we are at our best.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord Speaker for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight about what happened on Monday night. I endeavoured to make a contribution—your Lordships were denied my pearls of wisdom on the difference between genetic modification and gene editing, but that is for another time—but was discourteously dismissed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, on the grounds that, she suggested, I had been asleep during the Minister’s contribution. I said to her that that was not true and in fact what I was doing was listening, as we do, with my ear against the speaker—fortunately, today my hearing aid batteries are now in and I am not reliant on that.
The point I wish to make is this: not only did it cause some damage—passing, I hope—to my reputation but it damaged the reputation of the House unnecessarily, in my view. There are procedures for dealing with this and it should not have been dealt with in that way.
I received what purported to be a letter of apology from the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, and it started with: “Whatever the rights or wrongs”. It seemed to me that that was not really an apology—more of an equivocation, at best—and I do not accept that it was an apology.
I felt that there was an obligation—and I said this to the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, in my reply—to set the record straight in this House, as I am endeavouring to do now, and that she should be here to hear that and, in my view, apologise to the House. That would have been the proper thing to do. She has chosen to be absent and noble Lords can draw what conclusions they like, but I thank all those people, especially those on the opposite Benches—not just them, my comrades as well—who came to me and expressed their concern about the behaviour which they regarded as appalling and discourteous. I thank the Lord Speaker for the opportunity to set the record straight.
The Question is that the Business of the House Motion be agreed to.
Human Medicines (Coronavirus and Influenza) (Amendment) Regulations 2022
Human Medicines (Amendments Relating to the Early Access to Medicines Scheme) Regulations 2022
Motions to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 7 February be approved.
Relevant documents: 31st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Considered in Grand Committee on 14 March
Committee (3rd Day)
Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Constitution Committee, 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 21st Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 25: Third parties capable of giving notification for purposes of Part 6 of PPERA
41: Clause 25, page 35, leave out line 6
My Lords, I am acutely aware of the call from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, so I will try to avoid speaking for too long, but at times there are points of principle that one has to address. Of course, the good thing about Committee is that the House is at its best in terms of probing what exactly is meant by and what is the intent of particular clauses. I have sought to get a clear view about the impact of Clause 25 and where it could lead.
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has said many times in the House that the majority of non-party campaigning organisations, whether they are unions, charities or think tanks, do not exist primarily to campaign in elections. Expressing a public view at election time is not their primary purpose. The vast majority of their expenditure and activity is on other work, and they generally have quite limited staff—or volunteers, for that matter—to give support for election regulation compliance. The rules require these non-party campaigners to make a judgment about where they have incurred regulated expenditure.
As we have heard in previous debates—of course, lot of these clauses are interrelated—the guidance of the independent Electoral Commission is invaluable in helping non-party organisations navigate incredibly difficult and complicated rules that are defined loosely in legislation. There is a requirement to lean on the Electoral Commission. The fact that a Secretary of State could, under the Bill, direct the commission to amend its guidance—in effect, changing the rules—is deeply worrying.
As we have heard previously in Committee, election expenditure is regulated for the 12 months leading up to a general election. As the Minister rightly pointed out, this has been in place for quite a while. If the definition of what constitutes regulated campaigning were to change during that period, organisations would clearly find themselves having breached the rules retrospectively. That, of course, is the chilling effect that we have referred to that we need properly to address.
It goes without saying that this level of ministerial and therefore political oversight of the Electoral Commission undermines the independence of the regulator and opens the door to political interference in the regulation of campaign activity by party and non-party campaigners alike. This is deeply worrying; it conflicts with our democratic traditions and is an extension of the trend of governmental interference in previously independent regulators.
The legal definition of “joint campaigning” is loose and organisations rely on the Electoral Commission’s guidance to tread the line between working in a formal coalition and the usual sharing of information and communication that happens organically between organisations that have common goals, even if they do not have a common structure.
Were the Secretary of State to direct the commission to change this guidance, it could dramatically change the political campaigning landscape. I will come on to a particular concern that the Labour Party has on how it can impact on our structures, particularly in that since our establishment, the Labour Party’s constitution is a federal body, with independent organisations coming together to establish it. That structure remains in place despite the introduction in 1917 of individual membership. We are a hybrid organisation—federal but having the rights of individual membership.
The effect of Clauses 23 and 24 together would be to allow the Secretary of State, by statutory instrument, to add, remove or define permitted participants in electoral campaigns, and to prevent the categories of organisation spending more than £700 on an election campaign in the 12-month period. The Minister has said to my colleagues that the clauses are there to add, and there may be changing circumstances. We have tabled these amendments because those categories of organisations in PPERA include trade unions, and the idea that we are now contemplating putting into legislation the power for a Secretary of State to remove that category, which could include trade unions, is extremely worrying. The Minister might be able to give an assurance that he and his Government have no intention of doing that and that this is not what the Bill is about or what this clause seeks to do, and I may trust him, but I am not sure that a future Government might not exploit the powers that he seeks in this Bill to damage traditional democratic campaigning, including trade unions.
The TUC has met the Bill team, and so has TULO, the organisation of trade unions that are affiliated to the Labour Party. They have expressed their concerns. I hope that the Minister can acknowledge those concerns, even if this was not his intent with this clause, and come up with ways that they can be properly addressed, so that we are not opening the door to a further possibility of attacks on democratic organisations such as trade unions, which are incredibly tightly regulated at the moment. Their political funds are regulated, their structures are regulated through the certification officer, and they must file annual returns which include all their political fund expenditure. I hope that the Minister can address our concerns and those of the trade union movement. I beg to move.
My Lords, if this amendment is agreed, I cannot call Amendment 44, because of pre-emption.
My Lords, I will speak on whether Clause 25 should stand part, which is grouped with these amendments in an attempt to improve Clause 25. I will begin with some remarks about Part 4 as we have so far examined it.
I came away from Tuesday’s Committee much more worried about the coherence of this Bill than I had been until then. We learned that Clause 18 is there primarily to reverse the court’s judgment in the Thanet election case, although the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, in her reply, attempted to persuade us that it does not really change the law; in which case, the clause is not necessary. We learned that Clause 22 was entirely about the threat to our electoral system posed by a body called Advance Together, which, on examination, fought five seats in the 2019 election and gained in total just over 400 votes. We did not learn the purpose of Clause 24. Indeed, after the Minister’s explanation, I and others were more puzzled about the purpose of this clause than we had been before we started, and worried as to whether there is some underhand objective that we have not yet uncovered.
When reading through Section 88 of PPERA last night, which defines “recognised third parties”, I could find no reference to unincorporated associations as recognised third parties. Can the Minister or his staff kindly inform me before Report whether the inclusion of unincorporated associations in Clause 24 is intended to bring these bodies within this category for the first time or whether they were already covered in existing legislation? I also found in the briefing a reference to permitting only overseas-based unincorporated associations consisting entirely of UK citizens, which is not the wording in the Government’s text.
The Minister gave us to believe that the small group of former Liberal Democrats who formed Advance Together, and then merged it into Renew, represented a major threat to the UK, but that foreign money and foreign interference, most evidently from Russia, do not present any serious threat. The Minister suggested that the paragraphs in the ISC’s Russia report and elsewhere that flag up the seriousness of that threat are little more than “innuendo”. It is astonishing that he can suggest that Russian interference should not be a serious concern to us as we consider this Bill—at this point above all.
Now we have Clause 25, which gives full power to the Secretary of State to add or remove descriptions of third parties from the approved list. I am grateful to the Minister for offering us a government amendment to delete the power to
“make such amendments of this Part as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”,
but this is only because the Government consider that PPERA already provides sufficient authority. As I wade through sections of PPERA to understand the provisions of this Bill, with the occasional reference to the earlier Representation of the People Act, I am repeatedly reminded of the CSPL’s declaration in its report on election finance that there is an “unarguable” case in favour of consolidating and simplifying electoral law.
The Minister must recognise, as he struggles to explain and justify this Bill clause by clause, that it totally fails to consolidate or simplify. The Electoral Commission’s briefing for Second Reading stated, accurately, that the changes in Part 4, including these clauses,
“would add new requirements to laws which many campaigners have said are already complex and hard to understand. The added complexity of these changes could deter some from campaigning at elections ... Voters could therefore ... hear from a narrower range of sources.”
It therefore falls to the Minister to justify the inclusion of Clause 25 and the powers that it gives to the Secretary State, and to explain, as we keep asking, what problem it is intended to resolve. If he cannot persuade us that it is necessary, we shall ask for it to be removed.
My Lords, I support the intention to oppose Clause 25 standing part of the Bill, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. In so doing, I also support Amendments 41 and 42, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.
Clause 25 introduces significant delegation of powers in relation to Clause 24, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has indicated. We understood from the Minister last week that the purpose of Clause 24 is to protect the country from electioneering by overseas organisations. I am quite happy to support the Government in that purpose. However, the Minister was unable to assure the Committee last week that non-charitable civil society organisations in this country would remain outside the scope of Clause 24 and therefore also, importantly, of Clause 25. I hope that the Minister can clarify this significant point in his summing up.
I do not want to repeat my concerns about Clauses 24 and 25, which I expressed last Thursday, so will focus solely on the delegated powers in Clause 25, and in so doing declare my interest as a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.
It is concerning that, in Clause 25, the Government have provided wide-ranging powers for Ministers to amend Section 88 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to which Clause 24 applies. In a sense, it feels a little unnatural to be talking about Clause 25 when these two clauses are so very closely aligned and intertwined. The Government need a very good reason to introduce Henry VIII powers under which a Minister can amend an Act of Parliament.
I want to focus on Clause 25(1)(b) in that respect. I am sure that the Minister is aware that the DPRRC has particular concerns about this paragraph, which relates to the list of third-party organisations that can exceed the spending limits contained in Section 94 of PPERA. He may also be aware that, in its memorandum to the DPRRC, the department admits that preventing other categories of third party being able to campaign has the potential to impinge on freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR and the right to enjoy a free election under Article 3 of the first protocol of the convention. The department has argued that it is important that, if a legitimate category of third party emerges, it can be added quickly to the legitimate categories to ensure that these restrictions on campaigning remain proportionate and no more extensive than is necessary to meet the aim of preventing campaigning by those with no genuine stake in the UK. As I said, I understand that objective, but this clause seems to go much wider and, with the delegated powers in Clause 25, we have no idea where it may go. The DPRRC is clear that the Minister needs to explain the need for Ministers to have Henry VIII powers to remove third parties. If Ministers are unable to provide a satisfactory explanation, these powers are inappropriate. That is the view of the DPRRC, not my view—I am simply a member.
I have brought this issue to the Floor of the Committee because if the Minister can explain the need for these Henry VIII powers in Clause 25 it may help noble Lords when deciding whether to bring back this issue on Report. I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that organisations based in the UK and which are not controlled from overseas will be clearly excluded by the Bill from Clauses 24 and Clause 25, thus taking fully into account the concerns of the DPRRC.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I too am a member of the Delegated Powers Committee and I support everything she said about the delegated powers provisions we are considering. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I support the amendments proposed by my noble friends Lord Collins and Lady Hayman.
There are 6.56 million trade union members in this country, which is one in 10 of the population, from babes in arms to our oldest citizens. Trade unions were defined by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in The History of Trade Unionism, in 1894, as
“a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining and improving the condition of their working lives.”
They achieve this in two ways: first, by seeking to regulate relations between workers and employers, a purpose which is captured by Section 1 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, and, secondly, by campaigning for changes in the law. They have a glorious history in that respect, from the “Ten Hours Act”, factory and mines legislation, and, after they had formed the Labour Party, the Trade Disputes Act 1906 and many other pieces of legislation through the 20th century.
That campaigning function is a legitimate activity, protected by Articles 10 and 11 of the European convention. Article 11 protects freedom of association and specifically the right to be a member of a trade union for the protection of one’s interests, and Article 10 protects freedom of expression. Only restrictions which are
“necessary in a democratic society”
are permitted on those two guaranteed rights.
The restrictions proposed in the Bill have never been required, although political expenditure by trade unions has been intensely regulated by statute since the Trade Union Act 1913. It cannot be said that the measures we are considering today are necessary in a democratic society. It is of course true that states have a margin of appreciation, but not to the extent of potentially extinguishing trade unions’ rights to campaign where that campaign coincides with campaigns run by one or more political parties in an election.
As my noble friend Lord Collins pointed out, Clauses 24 and 25 would allow the Secretary of State to add, remove or define permitted participants in election campaigns by statutory instrument and effectively restrict categories of organisations spending more than £700 on election campaigning in the 12 months leading to a general election—which could be a snap election that is not in the minds of unions spending money on campaigning.
Unless the amendments under discussion are accepted, there is a possibility that the trade union right to campaign may be extinguished. How does the Minister justify the statement at the front of the Bill:
“Lord True has made the following statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998: In my view the provisions of the Elections Bill are compatible with the Convention rights”?
It does not appear to me that that is the case.
My Lords, when I first came into this House I got involved with the Trade Union Bill, like a number of other noble Lords. I did so because I was seriously concerned that it was unbalanced and partisan legislation that worked against the interests of one political party in this country. I fear that Part 4 of this Bill has much the same effect. We should be aware that, despite the complexities of this issue, the impact could in effect well be the same. The Committee should be very concerned about that.
Clause 25 adds to the imbalance, with the addition of executive power. It is a pity that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, is not in his place, because he would be very strong and vocal on this issue. Before we could possibly agree this additional power for the Secretary of State, we need to understand the reason for it and why it could not be dealt with in some other way. We should not lightly give additional powers, and I would like to hear from the Minister precisely why this is necessary and why it could not be dealt with in a different fashion; otherwise, we should not agree to it.
My Lords, I wish to follow the themes that the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and other noble Lords have alluded to. I came to this Bill slightly worried but with open ears to hear where it was going. As we have got more into Committee, the more worried I have become about a level playing field for elections. Regardless of the colour of a political party, a level playing field is what is required. With Part 4 and Clause 25 along with other clauses, it is becoming more worrying.
If you were to say to an ordinary person outside this House that the Bill would put the Electoral Commission more in the pocket of the party of government, regardless of its colour; to limit organisations, which at the moment can campaign 12 months out from a general election and spend £20,000 before they have to register, to £700; and that the stroke of the Secretary of State’s pen—that is what we are talking about—decides what type of organisation or individual is deemed to be allowed to campaign, I think most of the British public would say that was not a fair and equal way to carry out an election.
I come back to the central question that a number of noble Lords have asked: what is the problem that this clause is trying to deal with? How big is that problem? As someone who has been involved in elections since the age of 15, I am not clear what the problem is that requires my third question: what is it that requires the speed and the secrecy of the Secretary of State’s pen to deal with it? Those are the three questions that I ask the Minister. I hope that he will give detailed and, as he normally does, reasoned answers to what the clause is trying to solve, how big the problem is and, if he can explain the first two, why the only option is a Henry VIII power for the Secretary of State to decide what type of organisation or individual is deemed legal to campaign in such a way.
My Lords, I too express my deep concerns about the ways in which the Bill contravenes the Human Rights Act and indeed our constitutional commitments. I have canvassed the views of human rights lawyers and constitutional lawyers, and I am afraid I find it very difficult to see where the Government’s advice has come from that this complies with our commitments and obligations under our own legislation and constitutional commitments. When people say, “Let us think twice”, it is a reminder to this House about our role in causing hesitation when something of such significance in our democracy is going to interfere with the fundamentals. I call upon us to hesitate before going down this road, and to question what its purposes really are.
My Lords, I would like to say a word of caution as well. When I look at a piece of legislation, I invariably say, “How would this work if the political parties were changed—if, instead of us implementing it, the party opposite were doing so?” If it passes that test because it is a fair piece of legislation, then I think that is within the Government’s right.
My concern here is that we are unbalancing the structure and that a Secretary of State—from a party, my party, that clearly is not well known for its love of the trade union movement—could exercise these powers, which may need exercising but not in this way by these people. We have to be very careful with the Electoral Commission because it is in all our interests for it to be seen as fair, independent and trustworthy. I am not going to make lots of speeches on this Bill because they would all be essentially the same, but I am afraid I am concerned about the way the Bill is tipping things.
I clearly have no interest in funding Labour Party campaigns, but I have an interest in there being a level playing field and people being able to campaign. My personal view, which I will mention in debate on another clause, is that party financing has got completely out of control and needs fundamental reform. You cannot run a democracy on selling games of tennis. When we say, “We have a great democracy and we’re really proud of it”, we are asked, “Oh yes? How do you fund it?”, and we have to reply, “Well, the Prime Minister plays tennis with Russians, and we get quite a bit of money in from that.”
When I came into politics, which was a long time ago—about 60 years, to be exact—the great joke was that you could not have a party function without a raffle and you could not run an election without at least a couple of jumble sales. When I was eventually disposed of by the Labour Party, which in retrospect was actually not a bad thing, I joined the Conservatives—
I have followed the noble Lord’s career for all those 60 years in great detail; I remember when we worked together in the Co-operative Party. I think his recollection is just a little wrong. My recollection is that he left us; we did not kick him out.
I have a letter signed by none other than the great Mr Blair terminating my membership of the Labour Party for a disciplinary offence, which was running for an office that was not actually reserved for any political party but was supposedly open to all. Mr Blair decided that I was to be forbidden from running for that office. I had won the election fairly easily because it gave people an excuse; they were voting not for Balfe but against the Iraq war, which was a bit odd because the job I was standing for was administrator of the European Parliament pension fund.
Was the noble Lord not running for a well-paid lucrative post within the European Parliament?
I suggest to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that he stops making a fool of himself. This was not a paid post; it was an elected post within the European Parliament, known colloquially as “shop steward”—I see the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, nodding—that attracted no pay but you got some staff, a big office and the ability to actually get things done for the members. By definition, it was a non-political post. It had no politics attached to it, which made what happened even more odd. I will bring the noble Lord the letter; I will get it out of the LSE archives.
Could the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, just help us with something? Having gone down this road, we need to complete the journey. I think I understand why he was removed from the Labour Party, and why he presumably accepted the post, but I would like to know what it was he found particularly attractive about the Conservatives. It is one thing to leave the Labour Party, but to join the Tories, I mean—
From my position in the trade union movement, I knew there were quite a lot of right-wing people in AUEW/TASS. We were not all bleeding-heart liberals; we were actually toughies. I had no difficulty in joining the Conservative Party because I felt that it reflected many of my values.
I am enjoying this exchange, although obviously we need to focus on the clause. In recent times the noble Lord has addressed this House about the discipline that has been imposed on him by the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, so that seems to be a common thread through his career.
I think we should stop our entertainment and get back to the purpose of the Bill.
My concern about the Bill is that it leads to an uneven playing field—it is as simple as that. If we are to have reform, it should be by some form of consensus, although I know that has been incredibly difficult to achieve. I take a rather puritan view as to how much should be spent on elections. We need to get back to a situation where a democracy consists of people asking for votes, not of people going out and attempting to buy them. To my mind, the party funding system has got completely out of kilter.
I see the Bill as unbalanced because it gives an unhealthy level of power to one party. That is my fundamental objection to it, and I ask the Government—although I doubt they will do much about it—to look at strengthening the Electoral Commission and maybe giving it the powers it needs to regulate elections, but not hand them to a political source which, even if it is the most straightforward and honourable politician in the world, will always be suspected of bias. I am afraid that is the way that politics works. If one party has power over another in this respect, it will not be seen as a level playing field, so in my mind this is not good legislation.
My Lords, I rise briefly to contribute to Committee on the Elections Bill, rather than take part in the “Lord Balfe Down Memory Lane Amendment (No. 2) Bill”, which I, like other Members, have enjoyed. We are discussing in this clause the powers of the Secretary of State, yet this is the same Minister who will pilot the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which, as we know, will restore the position where, in effect, a general election might be called at short notice.
Will the Minister explain in responding how the clauses we are discussing—the powers of the Secretary of State to add or remove from a list—would be exercised in the event of a very sudden general election? Would it be possible for the Minister suddenly to say, after an election has been announced, that such and such will or will not be allowed to take part in it, with the expenditure limits that follow? I would be very interested to know the answer to that and how they fit together. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
Will the noble Viscount take that a bit further? It is not just after the general election has been called; the Prime Minister will now have the sole power of calling the general election and knowing the date. It could be that, a few months before the general election, in a couple of marginal seats in which organisations are particularly difficult, the Government could, at the stroke of the Secretary of State’s pen, proscribe those people from campaigning. Does the Minister—I apologise, the noble Viscount—accept that that could take place?
First, I thank the noble Lord for promoting me to a position that I am unlikely ever to hold. I do not disagree with him. As I said, it is the relationship between what is being proposed in the Elections Bill and the fact that we are moving to a situation where, if a Prime Minister so decides, we can have an election at short notice. These areas, including those raised by the noble Lord, deserve a bit of exploration. I would be ever so grateful if the Minister could add that to the list of things he intends to cover in his reply.
My Lords, the noble Viscount should not be so modest and reticent about the possibility of achieving ministerial office. If we have the quick election that we might have when the situation arises that the Prime Minister can call an election, the Labour Government might welcome his presence on the ministerial Benches in the House of Lords. I would certainly do so.
I do not want to go down memory lane again with the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, but I genuinely pay tribute to him. I know that we had a little to and fro earlier in which I seemed to imply that I did not appreciate him; I do appreciate that, on many occasions, he has criticised his own Conservative Government—just as he used to criticise our Government—and we should give him credit for that. It is to his credit that he sees the flaws in this Bill and others and has said so.
We debated earlier the need to have Tuesday morning sittings. This Bill, including this clause, is one of the reasons why we will have these sittings. The Government have tabled this huge omnibus Bill; it includes this provision that has been rightly criticised by my noble friend, but it also includes so many other things. It is an omnibus Bill of grievances and vendettas of the Conservative Government against the Labour Party and the trade union movement. It is an attempt to ensure that there are Conservative Governments for ever. That is what they are up to. They believe it is their right to rule and they are trying to find ways to make it more and more difficult for other parties and more and more difficult for electors to cast their votes and particularly for poorer people to participate in the electoral procedure. This clause is part of that.
I hope that the Minister, in his discussions in his department and government, will express the views of so many people, including some on his own side, as we know, that it is not helpful to keep pressing this Bill. Going back to the debate we had earlier, it would make life a lot easier and make it less likely for us to be sitting into the early hours of the morning and coming in on Tuesday mornings if this Bill were abandoned. This clause is one of the many reasons why it should be. I hope that, at some point in our debates in Committee and on Report—if we ever get there—he will feel able to come to that view.
My Lords, I make it clear at the outset—I will take any intervention noble Lords want to make—that the Government’s view is there is an issue being raised in Clause 25, which I will address.
Before doing so, I thought I had answered the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on spending by unincorporated associations on our previous day in Committee, but I am very happy to arrange for her to have a full explanation from either me or officials. The purpose of lines 25 to 28 on page 33 of the Bill is to carve out from Clause 24 precisely the kinds of bodies that she describes: charities and all those listed there which are allowed to campaign.
If I may complete my remarks, they will not be subject to the new provisions in Clause 24, which, as I explained last time, will restrict foreign campaigning, with which I think the Committee agrees. I am very happy to meet the noble Baroness outside and explain this further.
I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. As a point of clarification, I understood that charities will not be included. That is not the issue. I am concerned about non-charitable bodies from abroad, which are not controlled. If he could make that clear, that would be very helpful.
All those bodies in the current list in Section 88(2) of PPERA are carved out, whatever their description. We will come on to the concerns raised about what is in Clause 25, but I repeat that assurance. In saying that, I understand some of the suspicions and concerns raised by noble Lords.
I do not wish to be adversarial in any way, but the other thing I would say in starting is this. As I have said several times in these discussions, I agree that, one day, ideally, a consolidation Bill would be highly desirable. I fully accept that. There are issues here that are relatively urgent, whether we are agree or not: for example, around foreign money, digital campaigning and so on and so forth. The Government are seeking to make progress on those, but it is not a zero-sum game. In presenting this legislation—by the way, as a Minister who has himself had to try to get his mind round all the various references and cross-references in the Bill—I am not in any way saying that a consolidation Bill, one day, is not a desirable end. Anybody involved in the political world would agree.
Clause 25 is really what this debate is about. The potential problems and suspicions—raised, for example, by the noble Viscount—arise from the perceived view of Clause 25 that has been expressed in this debate. Perhaps I could deal with the first part, which is about potentially adding new categories. We are conscious that, as the world evolves, new legitimate categories of third parties that are not currently on the list might emerge. Because they are not protected by the carve-out in Section 88(2), they might be significantly restricted in their ability to campaign by this provision if they could not be added to the list quickly. That is why Clause 25 makes provision for the amendment of the list of eligible categories of third-party campaigns in PPERA, to add a new category of campaigner that might emerge. That would allow any Government, not just this Government, to amend the list to enable new groups or styles of campaigners to take part. Parliament would have a lock on that, via the affirmative resolution procedure.
I simply wish to congratulate the Minister on following so very clearly the precautionary principle in legislating here for something that has not yet happened and might happen, because it would be useful to have this in place if it did happen. That is what I understand him to be saying.
I am saying that there is a practical possibility that this might arise. I take it that, however expressed, that was assent from those Benches, and I am grateful for that.
These provisions will ensure that we can be responsive to the emergence of new categories of third parties, or changes to the legal description of existing categories of third parties—there is some legal language in Section 88(2) —so that they are not unduly restricted from campaigning and participating in our democracy in the future. That is added with a parliamentary lock.
I am grateful for the engagement on the points we come to next; I have heard the concerns of the Liberal Democrat and other Benches, most notably, as we heard again in the debate today, from the party opposite. I thank all who have spoken to me on this subject, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, for the points he made on Clause 25 regarding the power to remove—the specific subject of his amendment—or vary the list.
I hope that part of making progress on a Bill is making progress, but it is the person at the Dispatch Box who has the responsibility to listen—my job as a Minister. I hope we can go forward with that in mind.
The Government have listened to the concerns raised. I pay great respect to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s recent report on the subject of Ministers having the power to remove entries from the list of eligible categories of third-party campaigners in Section 88(2). That is why I asked my officials to meet, as the noble Lord said, with the TUC and TULO on 7 March to discuss their concerns.
Although powers to update lists in legislation are not unusual—and indeed can be important where, either due to changes in legal definitions or oversight, Governments may need to respond quickly—we acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed. The Government have heard the concerns around whether the power in Clause 25 could be abused by a future Government. I reassure the noble Lord and others who have spoken that before the next stage of the Bill I intend to consider at the very least what further safeguards could be added to the clause, along the lines of, for example, Amendments 42 and 45 from the noble Lord, relating to the role of the Electoral Commission. I have heard the force of opinion in the Committee on these provisions.
I undertake to engage on what I think is an important and significant issue, about which reasonable concerns have been expressed by noble Lords in the course of the debate. I undertake to have further, constructive discussions on that line to come to a solution, because the Government accept that what is in the Bill at the moment arouses concerns that we need to address.
I hope that, in that light, the noble Lord will feel able to not press his amendments. I assure the Committee that I very much conceive it as my duty at the Dispatch Box to listen to the concerns expressed by your Lordships.
My Lords, the Minister is now going to consider safeguards under Clause 25. I invite him to bear in mind that, in order to avert the danger under Clause 25(1)(9)(b) of
“removing a description of third party from that list”,
if the possibility remains of trade unions being excluded or put in that category, it will have to be justified, by reference to the convention, as necessary in a democratic society. That is a high hurdle.
My Lords, I have given a very clear undertaking that I will consider this concern. As it stands, the provision potentially affects not only trade unions. The immediate and direct concern, as has been expressed by noble Lords, is in relation to trade unions, but obviously the power as it stands is, exactly as the Delegated Powers Committee pointed out, far-reaching. I will of course take all issues into account in considering this. I can only repeat my good intent, and, I hope, in my humble state, power to make progress to address the concerns that have been raised by your Lordships on this clause.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s comments and the discussions that will follow. However, I must press him on just one point, so that I can at least have the benefit of his advice. Is it the intention that the powers we are discussing could be exercised by any Secretary of State after a sudden general election has been called?
My Lords, having listened to the debate, the noble Viscount’s contribution was obviously one that I heard. The Bill as drafted—like any other Member, I can only parse a Bill that is put before your Lordships House—has no restriction on what time or in what condition it might be adopted. That is why, I thought, I heard widespread concern from the Committee. When I started, I said I thought that the answer to the noble Viscount may not lie in addressing any particular possible set of circumstances but in trying to address the wider concern that your Lordships have about these provisions. That is the undertaking I am giving between now and Report. I have said that, at the very least, we will look with interest at the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Minister’s response to this debate. I think we are making progress. The fact that the Minister recognises that there are genuine concerns shows the benefit of proper scrutiny of these clauses. I hope that, in his consideration of what might come from the Government on this clause before Report, he will consult both the TUC and TULO to ensure that they understand the rationale behind it. I am sure he will. I welcome the Minister’s comments and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 41 withdrawn.
Amendment 42 not moved.
43: Clause 25, page 35, leave out lines 8 to 10
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment leaves out provision that is not needed because of section 156(5) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Amendment 43 agreed.
Amendments 44 to 45A not moved.
Clause 25, as amended, agreed.
45B: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Disclosure of status as a recognised third party
(1) Section 89 of PPERA (Register of notifications for purposes of section 88) is amended as follows.(2) At end of heading insert “and third party disclosure of registered status”.(3) After subsection (4) insert—“(5) During a period in which a notification under section 88 is in effect and the Commission has entered details of the notification on the register in accordance with this section, a third party shall disclose its status as a recognised third party in a prominent place on the homepage of its website.(6) For the purposes of subsection (5), a reference to a third party's “website” means any part of a website relating to that third party which that third party has caused or authorised to appear.(7) Subsection (5) shall not apply where a third party does not have a website within the meaning of subsection (6).(8) A person commits an offence if, without reasonable excuse, they contravene subsection (5).””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires registered non-party campaigners to disclose their status as such on a prominent place on their websites, so as to increase transparency for the public.
My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is very simple. It is to increase transparency around third-party campaigners—not campaigning—by inserting a new clause entitled:
“Disclosure of status as a recognised third party”.
The amendment is not concerned with imprints on electronic or printed material, the complexities of which we shall wrestle with when we come to Clause 37 in Part 6. It is much simpler than that. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend and the Bill team for agreeing to address this issue now.
This amendment is confined to the contents of the homepage of a website—if it has one—of a registered third-party campaigning organisation. If the amendment were accepted, the homepage of that registered organisation would be required to carry a statement, along the lines of: “XYZ”—the name of the organisation—"is registered as a third-party campaigner under Part 6 of PPERA 2000”, or similar wording. This would alert a reader or viewer that the organisation was an active campaigner in the political sphere. It might mean that the viewer or reader might wish to make further inquiries before becoming more deeply engaged with this organisation.
Would such a provision bring about a sea change? Of course not, but it would serve for the small proportion of interested people as a way of increasing the transparency of what is going on. In these circumstances, it would be the desirable outcome fitting the purposes of this Bill as a whole. In my view, there is broad support for such a proposal. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that, after two minutes and 12 seconds, I beg to move.
My Lords, yet again I support the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. I share his view that it is good for charitable and voluntary organisations and campaign groups to be involved in civic activities. There should be full transparency around their involvement.
I do not disagree in any way with his suggestion. I would make it a condition of registration with the Charity Commission that an organisation should have a website. Certain things would have to be on that website, such as accounts and a copy of the organisation’s governing documents, precisely so that people could find out basic information about who was behind the entity. But why confine this to a website? Why not have it on a Facebook page or a Twitter handle, for example? I think the noble Lord is coming at an issue that is of growing importance and much bigger than this Bill.
I have started to talk to a number of the regulators, including the Fundraising Regulator, about what is an organisation. It is now quite common for campaign entities to be described as an organisation when they are nothing more than a Facebook page. They may be crowdfunded, but they do not have to produce accounts or show who or what their membership is. They do not have to show their governing documents. They are simply a presence. They can exert quite considerable influence in political campaigning—not necessarily as yet in election campaigning, perhaps, though I bow to others who have greater knowledge about this.
It is certainly a growing phenomenon in campaigning on political issue—one that I think regulators will have to start discussing. Indeed, I know that these discussions are beginning. I was talking to a regulator the other day about how they deal with a very prominent campaign, Insulate Britain, its fundraising activities on a platform and whether they were or were not compliant. This issue is starting to emerge. All sorts of people are having to work through it for the first time.
In this spirt, I ask what might seem a bit of an “anoraky” question of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots. He and I are entitled to be the anoraks on this subject in this House. Small and technical though the question may be, I think it is potentially of growing importance in the time to come.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots, for his introduction. As I am sure Members of this House are aware, new digital tools and channels have significantly changed the campaigning landscape in the UK during the last decade. This includes the use of organisational websites.
Unfortunately, concerns about the transparency of some websites that have been set up for political campaigning are starting to have an impact on public trust and confidence in campaigns. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, seeks to address this further. We support his aim in doing so.
Following the 2019 general election, the Electoral Commission said that it had been contacted by people who had been concerned about misleading campaign techniques from across the political spectrum, including on websites. It received a large number of complaints, raising concerns about presentation, tone and content.
Transparency is incredibly important. We are pleased that this is addressed later in the Bill. In the Electoral Commission’s research after the 2019 election, nearly three-quarters of people surveyed agreed that it was important for them to know who produced political information that they saw online. Fewer than one-third agreed that they could find out who produced it. Again, it is important that the amendment talks about having the information on the website in a prominent position, not tucked away and hidden.
The Electoral Commission’s research also confirmed that transparency about who was behind political campaigns was important. Nearly three-quarters of those questioned—72%—agreed that they needed to know who produced the information they were looking at online, including on a website. Unfortunately, fewer than one-third—29%—agreed that they could find out who had produced that information.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, has said, this is a simple amendment, but we also agree this is an important small change. The more transparency we can provide when people are looking online during general or local elections, the better. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said it was a good thing that civic organisations are involved in electoral campaigning. Of course it is. I am sure we all agree with that. But that does bring issues around transparency as part of how campaigning on websites is managed. I do not imagine everyone is going to be deliberately hiding information, but perhaps they do not even think about the importance of providing it.
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on this, because in some ways this is missed out from the discussions we are going to be having later on in Committee around digital imprints and improving the law on digital campaigning, which we will be dealing with further on. I would also be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said about expanding this to include other social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. We know that many of the problems with misinformation during election campaigning come from those social media platforms, but we also appreciate that actually it is very difficult, when they are not registered in this country, to manage that. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that as well.
My Lords, again, this is a significant point that has been raised, and I am grateful to those who have spoken in this short debate. I hope I have come to assure the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Hayman, opposite, that, setting aside the fact that some people’s misinformation is other people’s information, we know what we are talking about and that these are important areas.
I am grateful to my noble friend for proposing the new clause. As he has explained with commendable brevity, his intention is to require third-party campaigners to disclose their registered status in a prominent place on their website, where such a website exists. That was supported strongly by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. Registered third-party campaigners are already publicly listed on the Electoral Commission’s website—I will not venture to comment on the legibility of that website —and this Bill will introduce further requirements to ensure that any UK-based group spending over £10,000 registers with the regulator.
Further to this, I agree with noble Lords that it is worth emphasising that the digital imprints regime in the Bill—and we will come on to discuss that section later—will require campaigners, including recognised third-party campaigners sometimes referred to as “registered”, to declare who they are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked, when promoting relevant online campaigning material to the public. So I can certainly go with the spirit of what was said by all noble Lords who have spoken.
On the specific amendment of my noble friend, while the Government entirely agree with the principle that the public should clearly be able to identify recognised third parties, I can reassure the noble Lord that the current rules, supplemented by new rules in the Bill, will provide for that. It would be good practice for this to happen. For many people, entry into a new organisation is via a website; not everybody is active on Twitter and Facebook, as the noble Baroness acknowledged. So I will want to consider further how we can ensure that this good practice will happen, because the fundamental point that has been made by noble Lords is important. In that light, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his proposed new clause.
My Lords, I am grateful for the support for this amendment. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that I am proud to be an anorak with her, on this and other issues. She of course had a considerably more sophisticated approach to what should appear and how it might be covered. If this were to be developed, I had always thought that, since this is a fast-developing space, the Electoral Commission, having got this bridgehead, would then have some subsidiary code, which would be what it required third-party campaigners to provide somewhere on their website. I saw that as a second stage, having got this initial agreement. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She is essentially right about public trust and confidence and the growing interest in and significance of third-party campaigning. I am grateful for her support.
My noble friend talked about the Electoral Commission website. I do not think it is very informative, and I do not think people should have to go to the Electoral Commission website to find out whether someone is a third-party campaigner or not. They should be able to see from the organisation itself. I am grateful for two-thirds of a loaf from my noble friend—or maybe half a loaf. I hope we are not going to fall back on “it would be good practice if”, because that is a let-out. I notice he used the words “good practice” in his summation, so I hope that he will reflect further; I, and I suspect others in the House, would feel that “good practice” did not go far enough in this small but important area. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 45B withdrawn.
Clause 26: Recognised third parties: changes to existing limits etc
Amendments 46 to 48
46: Clause 26, page 36, line 15, after “period” insert “in relation to which any limit is imposed by paragraph 3, 7, 9, 10 or 11 of Schedule 10 (periods involving parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment restricts the provision made by Clause 26, so that it applies only in relation to periods involving parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
47: Clause 26, page 36, line 24, after “or” insert “, where the regulated period is one in relation to which any limit is imposed by paragraph 3, 7, 9, 10 or 11 of Schedule 10,”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement relating to the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 36, line 15.
48: Clause 26, page 37, line 22, at end insert—
“(13) The amendments made by the preceding provisions of this section have effect only in relation to reserved regulated periods beginning on or after the day on which this section comes fully into force.(14) In subsection (13), “reserved regulated period” means a period in relation to which any limit is imposed by paragraph 3, 7, 9, 10 or 11 of Schedule 10 to PPERA (periods involving parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment inserts transitional provision in connection with the amendments made by Clause 26.
Amendments 46 to 48 agreed.
Debate on whether Clause 26 should stand part of the Bill.
I am sort of moving this on behalf of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock. We have sort of tried to spread out these groups so we can last the day, as it were, and I am doing my best.
I will be brief here, because I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has his amendment in this group. I come back to the fundamental point that some of the clauses in this Bill beg the question of what the problem is and what we are trying to solve. It is absolutely not clear why this clause is here. What is clear is that, once it is introduced, it will add a burden to a lot of small third-sector charity organisations, and those organisations are least able to bear that burden. That is the point I really want to stress. It comes back to the issue that heavier, more stringent regulations placed on such small organisations will result in what we have called so far a chilling effect—basically, self-censorship. It will not be worth the hassle to express an opinion, and it could be quite an important political opinion. We talked about campaigns about local facilities. It could be a small charity running a creche or something that is promoting childcare that wants to impact a particular election campaign. We have seen examples of that in the past.
One of the problems of this Bill is that, instead of the Government having to come up with clear explanations —“We’ve identified the problem, this is the solution, and we can all unite behind it”—we are having to think, “What is the problem that the Government have identified here?” It increases anxiety in me, because it makes me think, “Am I missing something? Is something happening to our democratic society that requires this sort of burden of regulation, this new lower tier?”
I will certainly welcome the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on his amendment, because I can see that he is seeking ways to alleviate that burden, and I am happy to consider that as well. But at the moment I am not at all satisfied that there is any justification for the clause, or for that lower-tier arrangement.
My Amendment 48A has been grouped with the stand part debate. I thought about degrouping it, but having seen the lie of the land and the way that the debate was likely to go, it seemed easier to join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in this group. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for his support.
This is about third-party joint campaigning. It is not unusual for charities and voluntary groups, especially smaller ones, to try to increase their impact by gathering together in a joint campaign. That could be focused on a policy area, such as animal welfare, or it could be attacking a particular event. When I was doing the review—I have referred to this before—HS2 construction was an important issue, and a number of groups and communities affected by it joined together to campaign to try to change public opinion about the desirability of building HS2 at all. Just those two examples show that this is a very complex area, and finding the appropriate degree of freedom and transparency is hard.
The current rules governing joint campaigning are pretty complex, burdensome and hard to understand, especially if the individual participants are quite small organisations. The present rule is that joint campaigning expenditure bites only when total expenditure by third-party campaigners reaches £20,000—the level at which registration under the Electoral Commission rules is required under Part 6 of PPERA. However, under this Bill there will be a new lower threshold of £10,000. It is true that the lower threshold—the £10,000 to £20,000 level—will be subject to a lower level of scrutiny, but joint campaigning expenditure will still need to be recorded and accounted for. This adds yet another complication to an already complicated arena.
My amendment, complex as it is, seeks to remove some of that bureaucratic burden. How would it work? Let us suppose that charity A has spent £7,000 on its own account and £3,500 as part of a joint campaign with a number of other charities or voluntary groups. That will have taken the total spend to £10,500—above the lower limit. If the amendment were to be accepted, the £3,500 would not be included, so the charity would not have to register. However, if it were to spend £10,000 on its own account and still spend only £3,500 on the joint campaign, it would have to register, because it would have hit the lower level on its own account. Finally, if charity A were to spend £5,000 on its own account and £16,000 as part of a joint campaign, thereby spending £21,000, it would have to register, because it would have infringed the higher level at which full registration is required. That is provided for in proposed new subsection (7B), in my amendment.
The purpose of the amendment is to avoid sweeping a range of pretty small organisations into the regulatory net, thus releasing them from the need to undertake ineffective registration, but at the same time to avoid creating loopholes that could be used to undermine the effectiveness of the regime as a whole.
My Lords, I wish to speak in this relatively short debate to say that these Benches start from the same point as the noble Lord, Lord Collins: we do not understand what problem the new £10,000 lower threshold is trying to solve. Again, I genuinely ask the Minister what the problem is. Could we have examples of that problem from previous elections, and be told the size of the problem, the methodology and why the lower limit was chosen? That would give us some assurance that the proposed new lower limit has not been plucked out of thin air, and also some evidence base showing why it is required—if, say, for some reason, in previous elections the £20,000 limit somehow tilted the level playing field.
It is important to understand the problem, the size of the problem, examples of the problem and, in particular, why the £10,000 lower limit will solve that problem. Without that, these Benches will find it difficult to support the clause. If the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, brings her objection to it back at a later stage, we will be minded to support her.
This is all quite worrying because, as other noble Lords have said, civic society is key to a good, functioning democracy. Many civil society organisations are very small. They are not large regional or national organisations; they are community-based organisations with a real passion for what is happening to their local swimming pool, local library or local hospital. Getting involved is a great way not just of campaigning but of bringing people into the political process. If we as a country make the process of campaigning bureaucratic, and lower the limit so much that the bureaucracy puts people off campaigning in a controlled period, that is bad for democracy in itself.
In general, I am sympathetic to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, and support it. However, one issue is this. If an organisation were to set up subsections to keep under the £10,000 limit, how would that be controlled? I believe in the principle of a level playing field, so it would be interesting to see, if joint campaigning amounts were below £10,000, what restrictions would be available to ensure that an organisation did not spend £9,999 and then set up a subsection of the same organisation to spend more. In general, I support the amendment, but I just have that reservation about the level playing field.
I genuinely look forward to hearing answers from the Government Front Bench. It is important for the Minister to explain the problem, why the clause would solve the problem and, particularly, what the methodology is and why a £10,000 limit would deal with that problem.
My Lords, I am grateful to those who have contributed to this short debate. I acknowledge the complexities here—indeed, in the latter part of his remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, illustrated one set of possibilities.
As noble Lords know, the clause introduces a new lower registration threshold for third-party campaigners who spend more than £10,000 during the regulated period. I think that it would be agreed—it is common ground on all sides—that any organisation wishing to influence the electorate should be prepared to be transparent. It is entirely reasonable, in our submission, to expect organisations spending significant amounts of money campaigning in our elections—perhaps I am old-fashioned, but £10,000 seems a lot of money to me—to declare that activity. This is particularly important, given the evolution of campaigning. People ask, “What has changed? What is new?” A significant new factor is that digital campaigning has made election campaigning more cost effective and cheaper, allowing for greater reach for less resource.
This new lower tier of third-party registration has been designed to be proportionate to that smaller spend, and it will ensure a minimal regulatory burden for campaigners who fall within the scope of the new measures, without the same reporting requirements that those spending enough for the upper tier are required to comply with—we acknowledge that there is a burden. This proposal enacts recommendations made by the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee in its report on Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, in which it spoke about the need to respond to new manners of campaigning.
I thank my noble friend for his careful consideration of it—I understand what he seeks to do. His comprehensive and balanced report on the regulation of third-party campaigning is held in significant regard. Indeed, the central premise of his report, “getting the balance right” between providing transparency for the public and administrative burden for campaigners, has been present in the minds of all of those considering the measures in Part 4. But, for that reason, we fear that, as it currently seems, the noble Lord’s proposed amendment might inadvertently add an undesirable layer of complexity to the existing rules, which I know is not what he seeks to do. This amendment will require campaigners to consider joint campaigning in their calculation of spending limits for the purposes of registration in some scenarios and not others, a situation that may create confusion for campaigners, who may be unsure under what circumstances they need to count certain expenditure.
Let me be clear on two points. First, at any level of spend, joint campaigning can have a significant impact on the outcome of an election. Reporting of joint campaigning when determining total spending maintains the integrity of spending limits. Secondly, third parties subject to the new lower-tier expenditure limit—the new £10,000 limit—will be subject to the minimum requirements necessary for them to register. As my noble friend acknowledged, they are not required to provide a spending return, and therefore they do not report the specific details of their joint campaigning.
Under the proposed amendment, the entirety of a joint campaign will only contribute towards the spending of a campaigner subject to the existing registration requirements, or the upper tier. However, it will not count towards the calculation of the spending of a campaigner subject to the new lower-tier registration threshold. This means that, in practice, all campaigners would still need to monitor the costs of joint campaigns that they are involved in, if only to determine whether they need to include them in their calculations to register with the commission. Therefore, for consistency, we believe that it would be easier for all campaigners to consider all of the campaign spending, including joint campaigning, in order to comply with the law.
I am pleased that the noble Lord recognises the need for effective campaigning at UK elections. The Government acknowledge that the contributions of civil society are legitimate. But, for the reasons given, in terms of what we think may be the unintended consequences—I am happy to speak to the noble Lord further—I urge and hope that Clause 26 stands part and that joint campaigning continues to form part of the calculation of all regulated spending by third-party campaigners.
The explanation that the noble Lord has given in relation to the clause is not altogether satisfactory because—if I have a better understanding now—he thinks that costs have somehow gone down with online campaigning and that this is less costly than producing leaflets. As he well knows, £10,000 is not a great deal of money, in terms of campaign expenditure—it is simply not.
But what concerns me about the Minister’s response is that, actually, this new lower tier will especially force all campaigners to monitor their costs and will create a chilling effect, as we have warned throughout the Bill. The result will be that organisations that want to have, and should express, a voice will be reluctant to do so if it impacts in terms of their statutory requirements. I heard what the noble Lord said, but we oppose the clause.
Do you wish to test the opinion of the House?
No, I do not. I withdraw our opposition.
Clause 26 agreed.
Clause 27: Joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties
Amendment 48A not moved.
Amendments 49 to 51
49: Clause 27, page 38, line 37, after “a” insert “reserved”
Member’s explanatory statement
The amendments in Lord True’s name relating to Clause 27 restrict the provision made by that clause, so that it applies only in relation to periods involving parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
50: Clause 27, page 39, line 14, after “a” insert “reserved”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement relating to the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 38, line 37.
51: Clause 27, page 39, line 27, at end insert—
“(7A) In this section, “reserved regulated period” means a period in relation to which any limit is imposed by paragraph 3, 7, 9, 10 or 11 of Schedule 10 (regulated periods for parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly).”Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement relating to the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 38, line 37.
Amendments 49 to 51 agreed.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.30 pm.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation etc.) (Revocation) (England) Regulations 2022
Motion to Approve
That the Regulations laid before the House on 22 February be approved.
My Lords, I understand that there is an amendment to the Motion. Given that, I think it would only be appropriate to allow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to speak first so that I can respond at the end. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is participating remotely.
Amendment to the Motion
As an amendment to the above motion, at the end insert “but that this House regrets that the Regulations are (1) contradictory to guidance provided by the UK Health Security Agency and NHS England on what action to take when you test positive for coronavirus, (2) an example of public health messaging that has caused confusion amongst the public, and (3) financially exclusionary to those on low incomes who cannot afford either the costs of tests or to isolate without financial support.”
My Lords, I want to make it clear that this amendment to the Motion is not a discussion about plunging the UK back into lockdown or imposing mass restrictions on individual liberties. I am talking here about the Government’s decision to scale back sensible public health measures—measures that would help us to continue to manage and monitor this pandemic, which is far from over.
Last week, the WHO reminded nations such as the UK that even when a virus is endemic, it needs managing, including testing, self-isolation and mask wearing. Even if not required by law and regulation, the WHO says that messaging and communications from Governments are vital in ensuring that people can take personal care. I am talking about clear and consistent messaging from our leaders about what they mean by “personal responsibility”. I am talking about support and guidance for those who still want to do the right thing and avoid spreading Covid-19. We still need to protect our NHS and ensure that those who are most likely to get severe disease, even if vaccinated, are also protected. I hope that we can all agree on these principles.
By the way, the Government keep changing the terminology for the group who have variously been called shielders, the clinically extremely vulnerable, immunocompromised and immunosuppressed. I hope the House will forgive me if I just refer to them as the CEV as a shorthand; otherwise, it becomes a real mouthful.
Time and again over the course of this pandemic, we have seen boom and bust policies relating to controlling Covid, stretching our NHS and care systems to the brink of breaking point and then introducing half-baked policies to tackle a fire that is already raging. Now we are seeing the bust again, with the withdrawal of almost all our tools to tackle this pandemic.
While we continue to allow Covid to spread through our hospitals, we cannot possibly hope to tackle the backlog of over 6 million patients waiting for treatment. The weekly average for Covid hospital admissions last week was 1,500 per day—an increase of 18% on the previous week. I am hearing that the NHS in the east of England and in London regions is already at level 4, and cases are still rising extremely quickly. Can the Minister say what plans there are if hospital admissions continue at this pace, and, given that they are a lagging indicator to cases, which have risen over 50% on the government dashboard in the last few days, how will people be protected from infection without access to test and trace from 1 April?
Sickness absences everywhere are also rapidly increasing. What are Ministers doing specifically to help keep infection levels lower among key workers, especially, but not only, in the NHS and social care sectors? Today, the Health Service Journal reports that Covid sickness absence in the NHS is up 20% in one week. What is the contingency plan if that continues to rise?
Those against any precaution say that we have to learn to live with Covid, but many people with omicron BA2 are saying that it is more like a cold at the start, and then it is like flu and worse. The problem is that it is ultra-transmissible when it is asymptomatic and in those early sneezing days. Would Ministers consider a campaign to strongly encourage wearing face masks, and at the very least try to protect key workers and the clinically extremely vulnerable?
The difference between what is being said at the Dispatch Box and in the Government’s living with Covid plan and guidance published at the end of February is most concerning. The UKHSA webpage is very clear: you must self-isolate if you have symptoms and are unwell. But this is not a clear message coming from our leaders, with statements such as “Stay at home if you can” and “Take personal responsibility”. Can people afford to? Can they manage to arrange deliveries? Can they even be bothered? Will the Minister today state in clear terms that, even though the legal requirement to self-isolate has ended, it is still absolutely expected that anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 will self-isolate? Will employers be told that they should not tell staff—as Wilko and Asda have already done—that they must work even if they test positive?
Speaking of testing, the policy document on living with Covid mentions the continued availability of
“limited symptomatic testing available for a small number of at-risk groups”.
As for who is included in these at-risk groups, yet again the public are still in the dark. We are only two weeks away from 1 April and we still do not know. We are told that information on who will have access to tests is coming. Surely this has to have been decided already. Why are we left waiting for this vital information yet again? We know already the groups that should have access to tests: the clinically extremely vulnerable and their close contacts; pregnant women; NHS staff; those working with vulnerable patients; those who attend hospitals regularly; unpaid carers; and, frankly, at the moment, our military as well. These groups will make up a sizeable proportion of the population, and I wonder how the Government are planning to identify those who will qualify for free tests.
Portsmouth City Council is so concerned at the 74% increase of positive Covid cases in just one week—to 630 cases per 100,000—and the 50% increase in cases at the Queen Alexandra Hospital to more than 150 Covid beds that it took the decision yesterday to provide free lateral flow tests to residents for three months if the Government will not. This is really tough, given that local authority public health budgets this year have not even covered inflation, and there is no extra money for any Covid mitigations such as test and trace. By the way, the Minister said on Monday that local resilience forums will now cover test and trace as the central ones are being closed down. But what are they going to do that with? No money at all. But in Portsmouth, a city full of key workers, the council feels that it has to do it.
By not providing tests for asymptomatic contacts of the clinically extremely vulnerable, we are placing them in perpetual lockdown. Not providing asymptomatic testing in hospitals also puts patients at risk. It is interesting that PPE is still going to be provided free of charge for NHS trusts until March 2023. But why has PPE been prioritised over testing? We need to know where the Covid is, and we need to protect our patients and staff. Can the Minister please confirm that this “limited free testing” will be only for people with symptoms and that the plan is to end all asymptomatic testing?
From these Benches, we have talked about the lack of financial support for those who should be self-isolating, and the revocation of that means that many people will have no choice but to go into work unwell. We ask again for this to be reinstated. By taking away the little support that was offered, the Government are clear that people’s self-isolation sacrifices are not worth anything to them—it just does not matter. Ministers talk about personal responsibility but people need to be supported financially to do the right thing, especially with reinfection rates as high as they are.
To conclude, the Government are determined to tell everyone that we have to learn to live with Covid. But by throwing away all surveillance testing and tracing, leaving individuals, employers, our NHS and even the Government completely blind about what is happening, and standing down SAGE at exactly the time that we have the highest level of infection rates, with spiralling cases and hospital admissions and, sadly, a likely increase in deaths in the next couple of weeks, how on earth is the country meant to assess and take their own responsibilities? I hope that the Government will change their mind on these epicentral precautions and mitigations. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have some sympathy with the arguments that the noble Baroness has just made, but I think this is probably not the time to have a general debate about the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
These regulations are fairly narrowly drafted and are designed to repeal the earlier regulations that required vaccination against Covid-19 to be a condition of deployment in the NHS. I support the repeal of these regulations. The Government have made a good case for the repeal in the Explanatory Memorandum, but none the less, it represents quite a significant and dramatic U-turn in government policy.
I do not think it made a lot of sense to require compulsory vaccination; there were other ways of ensuring the protection from harm of NHS patients. Of course, the loss of critical front-line NHS staff which the earlier regulations might well have produced would itself have represented quite a significant risk of harm to NHS patients.
Today, I have only one question I want to ask the Minister. Again, it is something that is contained in the Explanatory Memorandum. Paragraph 7.29 says that the Government will engage with NHS employers to review their policies on the hiring of new staff and the deployment of existing staff to take into account their vaccination status. I ask the Minister what the Government want to see change in NHS hiring and employment practices. Will new employees in the NHS, for example, need to have been vaccinated against Covid-19? What does this paragraph in the Explanatory Memorandum actually mean?
My Lords, I speak in support of the amendment from my noble friend Lady Brinton. One of the main reasons I am doing so is that I think the messaging being put over at the moment is entirely wrong and out of sync with where we are in this pandemic.
I watched a very short World Health Organization video this morning. It was only a minute long and it was called “Moving from Pandemic to Endemic”. The clear message was that endemic does not equal good. During an endemic, you actually require strong health control programmes if you are going to continue to reduce infections, hospitalisations and deaths—something I am sure we all want to do. In my view, there is a pressing need to maintain some of the public health measures that can help us control this virus as it becomes endemic. You can change the label but that does not change the challenges facing us, which, in my view, require sustained protections, particularly for the most vulnerable, and a very strong public health system.
Looking back at the Statement from the Prime Minister when the living with Covid plan was introduced, I was perplexed. He set out the rationale that cases were falling, hospitalisations were falling and the number of excess deaths from omicron was actually in negative territory. Were that still the case, I suspect I would feel quite a lot more relaxed than I do at the moment. This morning, I reviewed the figures and the latest stats from the ZOE study, the ONS and the Government’s own dashboard. Just on the Government’s dashboard we are seeing an increase of 52% in people testing positive over the last seven days and an increase of 18% in patients admitted to hospitals over the last seven days. That is not a virus in retreat.
For that very reason, I have some real concerns and some questions that I would like to put to the Minister. I am perplexed at the statement that people should stay at home if they can and what that means. I think people will find that extremely confusing. I am very concerned that there is going be only limited symptomatic testing available in the population. Can the Minister say what that will mean, for example, for people who are asymptomatic but attending hospital appointments, for unpaid carers who work on a daily basis with people who are extremely clinically vulnerable, and for relatives visiting their loved ones in care homes?
Many relatives visit their loved ones in care homes on a daily basis and, to my knowledge, those care homes—certainly the care home where my mother is—are still insisting, quite rightly, that all visitors do lateral flow tests before they visit. Who is going to fund these tests after April when my understanding is that they stop being free? What funding are the Government going to make available to both the NHS and social care settings to continue with testing where they feel that that is required for patient and staff safety and for relatives? At the start of the pandemic, we found out to our cost what happens when you do not have the right measures in place in very vulnerable settings such as care homes. I do not understand the rationale for why PPE will continue to be provided but not testing. We so clearly need both. Can the Minister explain the rationale for that?
I have two final points. On vaccines, I am worried that the current messaging will mean that people who have not had the vaccine will perhaps be less likely to take it up. What does it mean for a fourth booster? What does it mean for primary-age children? I know from a number of colleagues, and indeed from my own family, that primary-age children are coming home and testing positive. What are the Government’s plans for vaccinating primary-age children?
Finally, on the issue of mental health, I fully understand that the end of restrictions is a welcome moment for many people, but, frankly, for those with mental health problems or underlying health conditions it is going be a time of immense worrying, particularly now people are allowed to leave home, it seems, while Covid-19 positive. What are the Government going to do to make sure that support, particularly mental health support, is in place for those who are very anxious about the Government’s policies?
I conclude by saying that I just do not think it is possible to put across the message that this is now endemic, Covid-19 has gone away and we do not need to worry any more. I do not think that that is a responsible position for the Government or anyone else to take.
My Lords, I would like to ask some questions about data. We are told that the Government’s policy has been data driven. As my noble friend just pointed out, the Prime Minister suggested that the case figures and hospitalisations are going down, when in the last seven days cases have gone up by 52% and hospitalisations by 18.4%. This is a trend: the Prime Minister constantly fiddles the figures. First, we had him misleading Parliament on unemployment figures, then on crime figures, and now on Covid figures. This is very important.
I would like to know why the Government are withdrawing funding from some of the studies that enable us to know what the data is, such as the ZOE study. Without the data, the experts cannot properly advise the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister then cannot, if he chooses to, take the right decisions. Why are we withdrawing funding from these studies? As my noble friend says, if the virus is endemic, we still need to control it and we need the figures to do so.
Lateral flow tests that people can take at home are particularly important, especially in the light of the symptoms of this new subvariant—B2, I think—of omicron because the symptoms start as a bit of a runny nose. If somebody has a runny nose, yes, it could be a cold, but it could be Covid. If we are being asked to be sensible and to protect other people, if it is a Covid runny nose one should stay at home, and if it is a cold one should take precautions, but without the test—and poor people cannot afford £20 a box—people will not know which kind of runny nose it is. Can the Minister say how people on benefits or low incomes, who cannot pay the price that some companies are charging for these lateral flow tests, can afford to have them standing by at home so that when they get symptoms they can check the cause of those symptoms and protect everybody around them?
My Lords, as I said in this House on Monday, I had to stay at home for seven days because I had a very bad chest cough, a bad cold and a lot of catarrh. I tested myself and the test was negative. Those bad symptoms continued for nearly six days and I tested myself every other day. It was very clear that I had a sudden form of flu, but its effects on me were quite strong. I was encouraged because I was able to test myself and the lateral flow tests revealed that I did not have Covid but had an awful cold and flu.
The programme that the Government embarked on in testing and tracking was world class. When we are still in the middle of this very cold weather, why withdraw free testing in April? It is the only assurance we have. I hope the Government will think again about that possibility, although the regulations have gone. To take responsibility for yourself, you need to know whether you have Covid, otherwise you will go out and infect other people, which you should not do.
The messaging still needs to go out. I was quite shocked when “Look North” said that people in our area who are testing positive and sometimes ending up in hospital had stopped washing their hands. That is a shock. It may be said that we have all grown up and know how to wash our hands regularly, but I am afraid that in some places that has gone, so the messaging should still be going out that for the protection of other people we must take responsibility and wear a face covering, not because it is regulated but to be considerate towards others. Sometimes you should keep your distance when you hear people coughing. You are keeping your distance to try to protect people.
When these regulations have all gone and such things are no longer mandatory, will the Government please continue to inform people that there are some places where you still need to keep your distance, some places where you must continue to wash your hands and some places where wearing a face covering is the responsible thing to do? Although it is not going to be policed, we need to create that culture. It happened during lockdown. I used to be shocked when I went to a toilet and people who had not washed their hands came out. We are now going back to our bad habits. Although the regulations have gone, could the messaging still go out to persuade people that the steps we took during lockdown and before these regulations are still worth doing?
My Lords, we, too, do not want to see restrictions in place for a day longer than necessary but, as noble Lords have said, lifting the legal requirement to self-isolate needs to be backed up with a plan and an understanding. While it is one thing to acknowledge that free tests cannot go on for ever, while the number of infections remains so high, it is surely sensible to monitor the situation and guard against any new and potentially more severe variants. Not to do that risks being somewhat blindsided by future mutations of the virus. We know that testing is one of the key ways that the return of the restrictions can be avoided. It makes long-term sense to make tests widely available while the threat of a new wave remains.
Questions remain about the implications of the revocation for people’s lives. For example, if you need to care for a clinically vulnerable relative, will you be left out of pocket for that test? After all, should we not be encouraging people to make sensible decisions rather than making it harder for them to do so? I remain unclear about whether unpaid family carers, in particular, will retain access to free testing to allow them to look after their loved ones safely. Perhaps the Minister will comment on this point in addition to confirming that free tests will remain for NHS staff. We cannot have vulnerable patients going into hospital and being treated by NHS staff who have been unable to get tests.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Hutton that this does not feel like the right time to be having this debate, but we are in the situation we are in. In acknowledging that, I echo the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and immunosuppressed. We should have regard to how they are feeling as well as giving them continued practical support. I am sure the Minister will respond to the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.
I have a question about plans and support for those who live with long Covid. We should not forget that it continues to be a blight on the lives of a number of people. In this regard, it would be helpful if the Minister will tell us about any discussions that have been held with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about working with employers to protect clinically vulnerable employees and to assist, through support and guidance, employers of people still suffering from long Covid.
More than 1.3 million vulnerable people are eligible for Covid-19 treatments, such as antivirals. Can the Minister indicate whether they will be eligible for free tests? What about their families, friends and close contacts? Will there be a limit on how many tests eligible people can receive? It would be helpful to have clarification from the Minister to give people the reassurance they need.
The potential confusion in public health messaging has been referred to. On the one hand, there is guidance telling people to self-isolate if positive, yet on the other there are still pressures—financial from employers, or from elsewhere—that force people to go to work. This suggest that the message that people will take is that Covid-19 is no longer a threat, but we know that the pandemic is not yet over. The British Medical Association has argued that asking individuals to take greater responsibility for their actions while taking away free testing is likely to cause more uncertainty and anxiety.
Finally, I shall raise the matter of sick pay with the Minister. What is the reasoning behind the Government’s decision to scale it back? Those who are sick with coronavirus will now have to wait until the fourth day of their sickness before claiming statutory sick pay. We are highly concerned that when people cannot afford to stay at home they will be forced to bring their infection into work. To put this into some perspective, after April some 7 million workers will have to survive on just £38 per week if they find themselves suffering from Covid. Covid is not going anywhere, and it is right that we learn to live with it, but proper provision needs to be in place to help people make the right choices in what is, I hope, a late stage of this pandemic. I hope the Minister will be able to give assurances to your Lordships’ House today.
I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate today, and in the previous debate on this issue last week. I will try to answer the questions posed, some of which were raised again today.
I think we should be clear about one thing: in every government Statement, we have been quite clear that we are not saying that the pandemic is over. I am surprised when people say that we say it is over. Every government Statement says the pandemic is not over, that we need to be aware, and we need to take precautions. We would not have a living with Covid strategy if we believed it was over. I am slightly puzzled when it is claimed that we are telling people that it is over, and it is “Freedom Day”. We have used the term “Freedom Day”, but we have also said it is not over, you have to live with it. We have repeated that, and we have been clear in every message. I am slightly concerned when every time the Secretary of State or I get to the Dispatch Box, we are told that we are giving the impression that it is over. We have a living with Covid strategy precisely for that reason.
Throughout our management of the virus, our strategy has always been about vaccines, therapeutics and antivirals. The successful rollout of this programme has weakened the link between infection and hospitalisation, and between hospitalisation and death. Evidence suggests that the link between infections and progression to severe disease is substantially weaker than in earlier phases of the pandemic. For instance, the numbers of patients in hospital per 100 infections have remained very low over the last few months. The proportion of patients being admitted to intensive care and requiring mechanical ventilation remains lower, with rates declining even when prevalence has increased.
The Government’s approach has always been informed by a wide range of scientific and medical advice. As I said clearly in the debate last week, when I asked one of the modellers about their data, they said that first they give us scenarios, including a worst-case scenario, not because they want us to work towards a worst-case scenario, but because we need to know what we can do to make sure that we do not reach the worst-case scenario. Then I asked about the other considerations, such as mental health, the backlog, and people’s jobs and livelihoods. The modeller said, “Minister, all we do is give you the data on where we think coronavirus is. It is for you, as a Government, to balance all the other competing issues.” That is what we do: we look at the data and we balance it up with other medical data, such as people who have missed diagnoses or operations, the significant mental health issue and the increase in eating disorders, and we have to consider all that in the round. We have to consider the spread of Covid, but at the same time we have weakened the link—and this is widely acknowledged—between catching Covid and hospitalisation, and between hospitalisation and death.
We are also continuing to monitor a number of variants. We have looked at the BA2 variant, which is more transmissible than omicron, and has become the dominant variant in the UK. It is not driven by increased immune evasion and BA2 does not appear to cause more severe disease at the moment, but we are continually monitoring it.
A number of noble Lords asked about surveillance, and due to the reduction in serious illness and deaths we have begun a new phase of living with the virus. We continue to monitor Covid-19 through our world-leading studies such the ONS Covid infection survey, SIREN and Vivaldi, and there were claims in last week’s debate that we had ended some of these, so let me put it on record: we have not ended them. I wish that any claims made were factual. We will also continue genomic sequencing of cases to provide further insights. We thank all the participants for supporting our surveillance work and the UKHSA will maintain the critical surveillance capabilities, including the population-level COVID-19 Infection Survey, genomic sequencing and additional data. This will be augmented by the SIREN and Vivaldi studies.
Previous debates on the coronavirus have not always pointed to this data, but have pointed to other data produced by global, regional and local academic institutions, so there are many sources of data out there. If I may give an analogy, when I used to look at financial services, there were concerns when the American Fed stopped publishing data on M3 as a measure of money. People said, “Why aren’t you doing this?” but academics and other experts were out there, and they were reconstructing M3, so there was no need for the Fed to do it because those experts were able to look at it. This is what is happening in academia and elsewhere; many people are looking at the data, and will continue to do so, and some of their grants are given on this basis.
We will continue to work with public health partners to make sure that people have the information they need. We are quite clear that the GOV.UK guidance was updated to reflect the legal end of self-isolation on 24 February 2022, and we have always been clear that it is not over, and we have to learn to live with Covid. We also expect it to be managed regionally and locally as part of a wider all-hazards approach, using existing health protection frameworks, and we need a continued focus on protecting the settings at highest risk, through local outbreak investigation and management activities led by UKHSA and the existing local health protection frameworks. Local government has been a vital partner in all this and will continue as such. The Government will continue to provide limited symptomatic testing for a small number of at-risk groups, and free symptomatic testing will remain available to social care staff, and we will look at this in more detail.
We will also look at affordability. This is quite right, as disparities have been a constant theme throughout the Health and Care Bill. We want to encourage a thriving private market, and one of the conversations we are having with private providers is to how to make sure it is more affordable. We are also having conversations across government to make sure that we tackle issues of access for those who are poorer. Noble Lords may have different levels of income, but people do buy tablets, and will buy testing, as part of their personal responsibility. Are noble Lords suggesting that we make it free to everyone, or just the very poor? We have to remember that any money spent on giving free tests to those who can afford to pay for them are resources that could be used elsewhere in the health service. We have to focus on tackling this backlog in particular—it is important that we get more people to diagnostic centres.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about the immunosuppressed, and we recognise the importance of this cohort. The noble Baroness and I had meetings with the Anthony Nolan charity, Blood Cancer UK and Kidney Care UK. I understand that on 22 February there was a meeting of the Disability and Health Charities Communication Forum, at which the Anthony Nolan charity, Blood Cancer UK and Kidney Care UK were present, and there was a follow-up meeting on 8 March. These meetings will continue, and the issue of the immunosuppressed is raised with those charities at the meetings, where we talk about communications measures, as well as what we can do to continue to protect those people. I spoke to one of the officials today about their plans, and he told me that the meetings will continue, and in addition they are looking at the idea of inviting the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, along with the three charities that came to the original meeting, to a further meeting, and after that will discuss whether there should be regular conversations. At government level, the effort is led by Jenny Harries of the UK Health Security Agency. We make sure that there is continued engagement with these vital charities to ensure that those whom the noble Baroness referred to as the clinically extremely vulnerable continue to have the appropriate advice, but also that we are informed about the best way to get that advice out to the many sufferers.
We looked at the data and at the public sector equality duty, and we know that there are issues that we have to look at in further detail, such as health and social care staff getting free testing, and some of the other issues raised today. We are really looking into that to make sure that it is targeted, but I recognise that some people can afford to pay for their testing.
We are having conversations across government on the employment support allowance, statutory sick pay, and where an individual’s income is reduced while they are off work sick. I am not sure of the exact status of those conversations, but we are fully aware of the issues that noble Lords have raised and the provision of further financial support, including universal credit, and hardship funds from local authorities.
Employers are responsible for people who enter their workplace, as has always been the case, but we are quite clear that employers should not ask any workers with Covid-19 to enter the workplace. We must get the right balance between personal responsibility and safety. We have always been clear that it is not over. We must learn to live with Covid. It is not defeated. We are monitoring, with these surveys and outside surveys, the different variants: those which become variants of concern, their severity, and whether we need to scale up some of the measures that we have just scaled down. One of the conversations that I have had was about how quickly we can scale up some of the measures that we are scaling down if there is a significant outbreak or variant of concern. We are aware of it. All this, including the Living with Covid-19 strategy, shows that we are not saying and have never said that this is over. We must simply continue getting the precautions right, getting vaccinated, ventilating shared spaces, wearing a face covering in crowded or enclosed spaces, getting tested if you have Covid-19 symptoms, and staying at home. We are not ignoring the virus.
I end by thanking all the people who have got us to this point: the scientists, the health and social care workers—
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister and I thank him for all that information, but is he in a position to answer the question asked by my noble friend Lady Tyler about vaccination of primary age children? There is an awful lot of Covid in primary schools. Vaccinating children was slow to start and the delivery of the programme has been even slower. Perhaps he could tell us something about that.
Yes, I apologise for my enthusiasm to answer.
We have accepted the JCVI advice to offer the vaccine to all children aged five to 11. The advice follows a thorough review by the MHRA, which approved Pfizer’s paediatric vaccine as safe and effective for children aged five to 11. The NHS is also prepared to extend the offer to all children in April, so parents can ensure good protection against potential future waves of Covid-19. Every parent will have the opportunity to make an informed choice. I remember an email from my younger son’s school saying there was a vaccination clinic at the school. Sometimes vaccinations are done in schools, sometimes in an NHS setting, and sometimes in these pop-up centres that we have debated previously. I hope that answers the question asked by the noble Baroness.
I am sure that all noble Lords will want to join me in thanking all the scientists, the health and social care workers, the volunteers, the life sciences industry, and the postal, courier and transport workers, the Uber Eats people—all those who brought stuff to us while we protected ourselves. We have always sought to get the right balance between the safety of the public and keeping the country open. We were criticised sometimes when we went into lockdown and we were criticised sometimes when we came out of lockdown. We have looked at the scientific debate. Whatever you do, there will be scientists who agree with you and scientists who disagree with you. You just have to do the right thing on balance, with all the economic and social factors, as well as all the health factors.
We will continue to monitor the data, listen to scientific advice, build defences and encourage people to get vaccinated. We are always making it clear that it is not too late to get your first and second vaccine. We have targeted community groups, sometimes through faith organisations and sometimes through local community organisations, to reach people who are distrusting of authority, asking who the right people are whom they will trust. We must understand the motivations and why people are not getting vaccinated, rather than tell them that they are silly or complain about them. We must understand and work with them.
I end by saying that we agree with noble Lords who have said that this is not over. We must learn to live with Covid; we must get vaccinated, ventilate shared spaces, wear a face covering in crowded or enclosed spaces, and get tested. Lifting these restrictions does not mean that we are ignoring the virus. We have this Living with Covid-19 strategy, and I welcome all noble Lords’ scrutiny of it and their helpful suggestions. If I have not answered any questions, I will read Hansard and make sure that I sweep up all the other answers.
I hope that I have offered some assurance and answered most questions. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for whom I have incredible respect for her championing of the clinically extremely vulnerable, to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken.
The Minister said that we were saying that the pandemic is over. Not one person speaking today has said that it was over. We have all said that is has been moving to endemic and that the WHO advice was about making sure that, as formal restrictions lift, there should be continuing precautions. The Minister said that omicron BA2 is substantially weaker. Yes, it is, but the maths is also simple. He said that it is the dominant strain, but, if you have a very high level of case numbers, hospital admissions, ICU admissions and deaths will also rise. The point about testing was well made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu. If local government’s public health is a vital partner, will the Government please fund this extra work?
The Minister asked us whether we only fund the very poor for lateral flow tests. The point is that the virus does not distinguish and it is really important that those on low incomes, who are facing astronomically high cost of living rises, are given some support. I thank him for his comments about the CEV forum, but just talking, without any active support for the clinically extremely vulnerable, is a chocolate teapot. The noble Lord, Lord Hutton, asked a key question on whether this is the right time to change all these mitigations and, while the Minister thanked all the doctors, scientists and other NHS key workers, I think we all agree that most of them are saying that it is too early to lose these mitigations.
I regret that the Minister has not given me reassurance. However, I withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 16 March.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the release of British nationals from detention in Iran—and, in parallel, on the repayment of the International Military Services debt. After years of unfair and unjust detention by the Government of Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori have, this afternoon, finally been allowed to board a plane and leave the country. They are on their way home. They will land in the UK later today and will be reunited with their families. Morad Tahbaz has also been released from prison on furlough. I know that the whole House and the whole country will rejoice at this news and share in the relief that their horrendous ordeal is over.
Nazanin was held in Iran for almost six years, and Anoosheh almost five. Morad has been in prison for four. Their release is the result of years of tenacious British diplomacy. I want to thank our Omani friends and Minister Badr for their help in bringing our nationals home. I pay tribute to the efforts of many in this House, particularly the honourable Members for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), and for Lewisham East (Janet Daby). I pay tribute, as well, to my predecessors, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who have all worked hard to resolve this issue. Most of all, I want to express my admiration for the incredible resolve and determination shown by Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and their families. I have been in contact with them throughout, as have our specialist consular teams. Their suffering has moved us all, and so does the prospect of their being reunited with their loved ones once again, after this long and cruel separation.
We secured the release, and Morad’s furlough, through intense diplomatic and political engagement at every level. We stepped up these efforts over the last six months. On becoming Foreign Secretary in September, I made resolving the issues of the continued detention of British nationals and the IMS debt personal priorities. In my first week, I spoke to the families of the detainees and met my Iranian counterpart, Minister Amir-Abdollahian. This was the first in-person meeting of UK and Iranian Foreign Ministers in three years. We agreed to work together to resolve the two issues in parallel. I dispatched a team of Foreign Office negotiators to hold intensive discussions with senior Iranian officials, in order to secure the release of our detainees. Officials travelled to Tehran for negotiations in October and November. A final round of negotiations took place in Muscat in February, resulting in this agreement.
Our ambassador in Tehran, Simon Shercliff, has also been in constant talks with Iranian Ministers and senior officials. I spoke to Minister Amir-Abdollahian in October to progress the talks. In December, I met Minister Badr and secured Oman’s assistance in this important work. In February, I held discussions with Minister Amir-Abdollahian again, to drive the talks to a final conclusion. We will continue to push, with partners, to secure Morad’s permanent release and return home, which is long overdue. We will continue to support other British nationals in Iran who have asked for our help. We will work closely with our international partners to urge Iran to end its practice of unfair detention. It remains, and always has been, within Iran’s gift to release any British national who has been unfairly detained. The agonies endured by Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and their families must never happen again.
Our efforts to settle the IMS debt have also reached their conclusion. After highly complex and exhaustive negotiations, the more than 40 year-old debt between International Military Services and the ministry of defence of Iran has now been settled. As the House is aware, this debt relates to contracts signed with the Iranian ministry of defence in the 1970s. Following the revolution of 1979, those contracts could not be fulfilled. I pushed officials to be as creative as possible in finding a way to resolve the situation, and they have worked round the clock to find a viable payment route. We have considered and exhausted many options in the process. I can tell the House that we have found a way to make the payment in full compliance with UK and international sanctions and with global counterterrorism financing and anti-money laundering regulations. A sum of £393.8 million has now been paid, which will be available only for humanitarian purposes. The terms remain confidential to both parties. We have long said that we would find a solution to the IMS debt. Now, thanks to the tireless work of our officials, we have found a way to do so.
The repayment of the debt, in parallel with the release of our nationals, reflects steps taken by both the UK and Iran to resolve issues of serious disagreement between our two countries. We will continue to stand up for our interests, for the freedom and security of our nationals wherever they are, and for an end to arbitrary detention. But for now, to Nazanin and Anoosheh, I am pleased that in just a few hours’ time we will be able to say: welcome home. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, everyone in this House will be incredibly relieved about the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori. It is incredibly heartening news, and I pay tribute to all Members of this House who have campaigned tirelessly on their behalf, and on behalf of their families. I also pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe, who worked so hard, including on hunger strike outside the FCO. I also pay tribute to their local MPs. It just shows how important constituency MPs can be. Tulip Siddiq and Janet Daby both worked tirelessly on behalf of their constituents.
Sadly, however, their release is long overdue and the Iranian Government’s use of their freedom as a political bargaining chip has been shameful. The years that Nazanin and Anoosheh have lost can never be recovered, and of course it is not only their years that have been lost. I think of Gabriella, Nazanin’s daughter, who has lost an incredibly important period of her childhood without her mother.
We should also use this moment to reflect on how we can avoid this situation being repeated. That must include looking inwards at the world of the Foreign Office and perhaps even at the real possibility that the Prime Minister’s incorrect comments may have worsened Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention. There is no doubt that mistakes were made which may have prevented her earlier release, but there are also positive lessons which can be learned from how her return was eventually secured. Ultimately, we must recognise that this release would not have been possible without the dedication and expertise of the FCDO’s staff. I hope that the Government will fully understand that and make a commitment to ensure that there are no further cuts to their number. I hope the Minister will make that commitment today.
To prevent a tragedy like this taking place again, the Government should also look outwards and ask how they can work with our international allies to strengthen international measures to combat the use of arbitrary detention and hostage diplomacy. The unfortunate truth is that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori are not the only British nationals to have been arbitrarily detained by the Iranian regime, and Ministers should now seek the release of all other British nationals who have been unlawfully or arbitrarily detained. I hope that the Minister can update the House on work with our international allies to secure the release of other nationals in Iran.
I want to focus particularly on the detention of Morad Tahbaz, whose sister was on the radio this morning with Liz Truss. She made a moving comment that their family had been unable to take the public road in terms of media attention. I hope that, with the release of Nazanin and Anoosheh, we do not forget those who remain detained. I hope that the Minister can tell us more about the steps that the Government are taking, with the United States in particular, to support and ensure Mr Tahbaz’s release?
Today’s Statement represents the conclusion of a horrific experience for both Nazanin and Anoosheh, but for the many others who remain in Iran, it is also a glimmer of hope. The Government must use this moment to go further and help others to return home, but also to learn from the mistakes which meant that Nazanin and Anoosheh were not reunited with their families sooner.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for bringing us this extraordinarily welcome Statement and echo what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has just said. I also thank the Minister personally for his care in keeping me informed. I really appreciate his responsiveness on this, as on other matters.
I hope that noble Lords will excuse me leaving me after the opening statements. As the Minister knows, the time for this Statement changed, and I am responding for the Lib Dems in the International Women’s Day debate in the Moses Room and so should return to hear those speeches.
I am so delighted to join others in welcoming both Nazanin and Anoosheh back home. They and their families should never have been put in this terrible position, as political hostages. I first raised the case of Nazanin’s detention in February 2017 in your Lordships’ House. So much time has passed since then. I too pay tribute to Richard for his remarkable, quiet, determined, loving and constant pressure to seek his wife’s release and the reunion of his family. He was endlessly told, as was I, that work was going on behind the scenes and that he should stay silent. He did not—the world got to know about Nazanin, and the world welcomes her release.
I pay tribute too to Amnesty International and Redress, which have worked tirelessly to secure this result and continue to support others who have not received such prominence around the world. They do a remarkable job. I also think that Jeremy Hunt deserves credit for trying to take forward the hostages’ release and in particular for recognising that there was a debt that the courts had determined we owed to Iran. Of course, there is not the slightest justification for the holding of hostages by the Iranian state and we condemn that. I agree that we should not be seen as paying ransom, but we need to adhere to international law and I am glad that this has been resolved and will go towards humanitarian relief in Iran. I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is also pleased, given her family ties there. I would like to know more about how this aid will be structured.
In this unstable world, it becomes ever more important that we adhere to a rules-based order. We see that with the terrible consequences in Ukraine right now. That is why it is urgent that we tackle Iran’s nuclear position. Although critics said that the JCPOA did not address all that everyone wished, it was a major milestone—a boulder in the door, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who helped to negotiate it, has said. It was appalling when President Trump pulled out, and it is vital that we put this back in place. Can the Minister update us? The best should not be the enemy of the good.
I have felt strongly for Nazanin over these last years as her daughter was growing up—mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins—and as the years passed, with all the implications for her and her family. I am so impressed by Richard Ratcliffe’s statements about how there is no solace to be gained from looking back at those losses. Those losses are very real, but, as he puts it, “We live in the future”, and we must indeed. That is important for them. They will need time to recover, and I hope that they are given it.
What progress is being made on the case of Morad Tahbaz and the others held in Iran? Richard made sure that we never forget Nazanin. What of the others? Amnesty has been working publicly on Mehran Raoof’s case. Can the Minister clarify why the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that he does not want to be identified? I am informed otherwise. If he cannot answer now, please will he write to me. What advice do we give to other dual nationals seeking to visit their families in Iran? I met one recently who seemed unconcerned. Is he right?
What are we doing to ensure that there is concerted international action should future political hostages be taken in this way by states? In February 2021, the UK backed a Canada-led initiative against states’ practice of arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for diplomatic leverage, along with 55 like-minded allies. What proposals are coming out of this initiative, and will the Government review the cases of the British nationals held in this way so that we can learn from it and do our best to ensure that it does not happen again? In that context, the Government are now sanctioning many more people in relation to Russia. Are they looking at this in relation to the taking of political hostages?
What support are we giving to these two families who were caught up in a political storm unrelated to their own actions and who now need gently to be assisted and protected and led back into as normal an existence as is possible?
This result has probably come about partly because of the political tectonic plates shifting following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it is wonderful to have such positive and happy news this week against the background of atrocities elsewhere. Perhaps it was not chance that Nazanin was wearing yellow and blue, the colours of the oppressed in Ukraine.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in thanking everyone who has been involved in the many and several consular cases around the world, but particularly those in Iran.
I was in the other place when my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made her Statement, and it was a particularly poignant moment to see both Richard and Gabriella in the Gallery. I was glad I and other colleagues from both Houses were there to contemplate it; it was very much their moment, and it was necessary that they heard one Member of Parliament after another pay tribute to their tenacity and consistency and, as Tulip Siddiq summed it up, the really high threshold that Richard has set for all husbands—I am sure that I and others will be reminded of that in the months and years ahead.
I join in paying particular tribute to both Tulip Siddiq and Janet Daby. MPs, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, play an incredible role in being what they truly are: representatives of the people. Both honourable Members have shown exactly that in serving their constituents. The poignancy of the exchanges yesterday was very apparent and real emotion could be felt in the House of Commons Chamber.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. As Human Rights Minister at the Foreign Office, although not directly involved in Iran, I have followed this issue. Many initiatives were undertaken, and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her efforts in this regard and to other noble Lords in the Chamber. I am delighted that we are joined by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has been a vociferous campaigner and, through his own insights and experiences, has brought great focus to the cases of those detainees in Iran, and I pay tribute to his efforts. In exchanges both within your Lordships’ House and outside it, as I have always said, all the Front Benches here enjoy strong relationships, and I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in that respect.
I have served now under four Foreign Secretaries. I join others in recognising the role of my right honourable friend the current Foreign Secretary in making this issue a priority on her appointment but also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, recognised, the important role played by my right honourable friend Jeremy Hunt during his tenure as Foreign Secretary— I remember him visiting Iran and visiting Gabriella directly when she was still in Tehran—and of course the continued role of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.
Equally, I pay tribute to the British diplomats who have been looking at the many issues that one can talk about, and to our ambassador in Tehran, Simon Shercliff, who was consistently in touch, particularly in the last few moments. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover; even in those last few minutes when certain news was breaking, I was giving evidence to a committee at the time but was conscious that, once we had wheels up and airspace had been cleared, we could truly recognise that both Nazanin and Anoosheh were coming home. We saw the emotional reunion this morning, and I think the massive effort that has gone into that has been recognised.
I shall pick up on some of the specific questions—first, regarding other cases that I think are equally important. We were of course pleased to learn of the release from custody of Morad Tahbaz, who I think is now under house arrest after being detained in prison for four years. He was arrested in 2018 and I know my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been particularly seized of his case. Both noble Lords asked about other cases too. There is a point to be made here: it remains in Iran’s gift to release any British nationals who have been detained. I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said about a particular case, and I will take that back and write to her as appropriate. However, I assure all noble Lords that we continue to work on these cases.
The change of Administration in Iran brought a new opportunity. Again, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary very much seized the moment through her direct interventions and diplomacy with key members. I add Her Majesty’s Government’s thanks for the important role played in this respect by Oman. My right honourable friend met Oman’s Foreign Minister Badr, and Oman provided the plane that landed in Muscat from Tehran.
This has been a big effort, but equally it should be very much seen as only the beginning. On Richard’s resolute determination, as I have said in answer to previous questions, when he had his vigil outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office I specifically went over and said to him that, while the answers from the Foreign Office might not have been what he expected or wanted, there were people in that building who were very much focused on his priority, which was getting the release and reunification with his family, and we all recognise and celebrate that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked about the JCPOA nuclear talks. The issues are not linked, but we are very much at the end of the talks to restore the JCPOA. We are urging all parties to focus now on rapidly concluding the deal. On the table is a fair and comprehensive deal that has been achieved, which would reverse Iran’s nuclear programme, return it to its strict JCPOA limits and restore extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. We are very much focused on hoping that all parties will ensure that that happens.
On the IMS debt, which has come up repeatedly, the Government accepted that it was a legal debt that was owed and committed to paying it, and that has now been done; the sum of £393.8 million has been paid. As the Foreign Secretary said, the specifics of the deal remain confidential to both parties, but I assure noble Lords that the payment was made in full compliance with UK and international sanctions as well as global counterterrorist financing and anti-money laundering regulations. The debt is very much focused, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, recognised, on humanitarian support and priorities.
I hope that, as we recognise this important step forward in Iran’s ability to return detainees, it will act, as I have said, as the important first step in the return of all people currently detained in Iran and, in doing so, strengthen and build our relationship. As the noble Baroness and the noble Lord recognised, events gripping us today reflect the importance of working together and ensuring that we can pursue the ultimate goal that we all desire: the peaceful settlement of conflicts and the return and reunification of families of detainees, wherever they may be held in the world.
My Lords, at a time when the world news is almost always bleak, it is good to have good news today. I think we all felt very cheered when we saw on our television screens yesterday and this morning the release of Nazanin and the other person. This marks an important point. I do not want to be churlish, but in future we may still learn the significance of the part the Prime Minister played when he was Foreign Secretary; some of us felt that some of his comments were a bit unfortunate.
The Statement says that the Foreign Secretary dispatched an elite team of Foreign Office negotiators. I assume that they are always elite; if they are not then you are sending your second team, so that is a slightly odd phrase.
I pay tribute to the Members of Parliament who have worked so hard and with such determination, and above all to Richard Ratcliffe. I have met him several times, including when he was on hunger strike outside the Foreign Office. He did everything possible to show determination, resolution, insight and a very balanced and sensible approach. Goodness me, the Foreign Office could use more people like him; he has played such an important part.
I am puzzled by something. As I say, I do not want to break up the sense of harmony, but the Statement says that the money, nearly £400 million, will be,
“available only for humanitarian purposes.”
It was always clear that that was the only basis on which the money could be returned. However, the Statement also says:
“The terms remain confidential to both parties.”
I am a bit puzzled by that because all along many of us were saying that, when that money is repaid, it would be the key to the release of Nazanin and the others. We were always told by the Government that we should not make any connection between the two. I am rather puzzled by that and particularly as to why we should not know the terms. I can think of only one reason, which is that there may be other people whose release might be prejudiced by releasing those terms. Otherwise, I do not see why we should not know. All along, we felt that the delay in getting these people released was because we had not paid up the money that we promised to pay many years ago. Why can we not know the details? By the way, I am thankful for the nice comments that the Minister made about me.
My Lords, I reiterate the points that I have made. I am grateful to the noble Lord and recognise his important role in relation to these consular cases and the detainees issue in Iran. He mentioned in relation to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe the role of Richard Ratcliffe, as I have acknowledged, in ensuring that her issue very much seized the minds of those in Parliament here in the UK. It was also an issue that was kept on the front burner. I remember my meetings with Richard, including during his hunger week at the United Nations in New York—his efforts were not just here in London; he was also active internationally. I have already alluded to some of the other detainees.
I have already said that we acknowledged the existence of the IMS debt. This was a complex negotiation. As regards the point made about elite diplomats, the noble Lord is quite right. We want the best of the best in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Their efforts and professionalism are testimony to the two parallel issues—the release of the detainees and the vehicle that allowed for the payment of the IMS debt.
The noble Lord asked specifically about the reasoning behind the terms. The terms remain confidential to both parties and that was part of the agreement. However, I have sought to reassure your Lordships’ House that the payment has been made in full compliance with our international obligations and regulations—those concerning international sanctions, counterterrorism financing and anti-money laundering regulations.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that the phrase “elite British diplomats” is a tautology. Today’s good news is the product of many years’ work by many people. I congratulate the Government, the team led by the Foreign Secretary in London and Simon Shercliff in the field, as well as their predecessors. As the Minister has done, I single out Jeremy Hunt in London and Rob Macaire in Tehran.
As the world celebrates the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori the Foreign Office will be turning to lessons learnt. Can I seek reassurance from the Minister on two points? First, although Richard Ratcliffe’s campaign was brilliantly successful, maximum publicity will not always be the most effective way in which to help people in trouble. Secondly, the Foreign Office should help those who choose not to publicise their case just as much as those who are in the light of the media.
My Lords, these negotiations were carried out over many years and there were high points and low points. I also recognise the important role that the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, played in several years of exemplary leadership at the former FCO in ensuring that diplomatic engagement on this issue was sustained and maintained at the highest level. The noble Lord’s comments as regards the publicity were correct in some instances, as we saw in Richard’s campaign. He felt that that was right and one cannot imagine for a moment until one is in that situation what steps one would take. He certainly was determined. Tulip described him as an accountant who did not really seek the limelight but suddenly found himself thrust in front of the world’s cameras. He showed that he was determined to do what was necessary.
I also totally acknowledge what the noble Lord said about the many consular cases that we deal with involving detainees around the world in which the families specifically ask that the details of the case and the name of the detainee is kept confidential but, at the same time, request discreet and quiet diplomacy. I can assure noble Lords that the issue of quiet and discreet diplomacy is a very effective British tool in unlocking difficult cases.
My Lords, it is easy to be joyful on this occasion because it is the outcome for which so many people have been working for so long. It is obviously the outcome to be desired. We should also realise and recollect that there are those who do not share the same joyful outcome, and I hope that their detention will not be longer delayed.
I should like to pay particular acceptance and recognition of the efforts of Richard Ratcliffe. I know that, on occasion, they have not been consistent with the attitude of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but they reflect the kind of commitment and loyalty that is necessary in circumstances of the kind that we are discussing. It is also right to pay compliments to the two Members of Parliament because, for them, there was a particular responsibility and perhaps they found themselves operating in an area with which they were not always familiar.
It has been said that lessons must be learnt. It took a long time for this joyful outcome to happen. It was not helped by the clumsy intervention of the Prime Minister, and I very much hope that in taking account of the way in which this matter has turned out the Foreign Office will have regard to the fact that perhaps other approaches might have been more successful earlier. I suspect that we will never really know what caused this outcome to be achieved. Parts of it are not to be publicised, as we have been told. We will never know precisely what the thinking was in the upper echelons of the Iranian Government, but it is certainly the case that it took longer than we might have expected and that is an issue upon which the Foreign Office would be well advised to give consideration.
My Lords, regarding the remarks that the noble Lord made about both Members of Parliament, I have already recognised in my responses to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, the incredible roles played by the MPs. I know one of them but perhaps not the other. However, I speak for every Member of Parliament when I say that I am sure they would say that they were doing their job.
As regards the lessons learnt and so on, in every experience and area of work in whichever department and government—indeed, throughout society—there are always things that experience teaches one and provide insight into how one can deal with a situation more effectively. There are always ways in which to improve the response of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office.
In terms of focus, as the noble Lord acknowledged, others are still detained. Morad Tahbaz has been specifically mentioned. Let me assure the noble Lord that we are working to secure Morad’s return to the United Kingdom. He has three nationalities—Iranian, British and American, as the noble Lord will be aware. There are also others and we are supporting all British nationals in Iran who have requested our help. We, alongside our allies, are urging Iran to end its practice of unfair detention. In our diplomatic push to ensure that all parties are very much on board, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been very much at the forefront of this release.
After this splendid news today, I ask the Minister about his mention of our getting very close, together with the United States and other countries, to being able to sign an agreement with Iran. I think every country in the Middle East is strongly concerned about the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, in any form whatever. Can my noble friend reassure us that, in practice, he thinks the controls that will be in this agreement, when it comes, will unquestionably make certain that Iran will not get its hands on nuclear weapons?
My Lords, as my noble friend acknowledged, I have already mentioned the discussions going on with regard to the JCPOA. As many noble Lords have acknowledged, and as I have acknowledged myself, it is not an ideal agreement, but it has been sustained and retained, and it is important that all parties work for its restoration according to the criteria laid out, particularly about reversing Iran’s nuclear programme and allowing for effective and regular international monitoring for the very reasons my noble friend articulates—to prevent Iran developing or owning a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s nuclear programme should be for the purpose that it seeks, as many do, peaceful means of securing alternative sources of energy. The issue of Iran’s nuclear programme is very important. We are, of course, aware of the concerns, but I say to my noble friend that it is for those very reasons that it is important that we seek to restore the JCPOA, with the measures and conditionality it brings. At this juncture, it is important that all parties take a long, hard look at the agreement on the table. One hopes we can return to this agreement, with all necessary checks and balances in place, at the earliest opportunity.
Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)
52: Clause 27, leave out Clause 27 and insert the following new Clause—
“Joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties
(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations require registered parties to identify targeted expenditure incurred by a recognised third party that is subject to authorisation under section 94G of PPERA by the relevant registered party, and which exceeds the limits in section 94D(4) of PPERA. (2) Regulations under subsection (1) must include, for relevant returns submitted pursuant to section 80 of PPERA, provision for the introduction of a specific reporting category for targeted expenditure incurred by a recognised third party that is subject to authorisation under section 94G of PPERA by the relevant registered party, and which exceeds the limits in section 94D(4) of PPERA.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would replace provisions on joint campaigning with the recommendation made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in their 2021 report Regulating Election Finance (see recommendation 21).
It’s that man again, as they say.
Despite the urgings of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on this clause I shall take a little time, because it is a fundamental issue of principle, whether intended or not. I have tried to stress to the Minister that sometimes, though consequences may be unintended, they are serious in their effect. I want to go through why I believe it is unclear what the purpose of Clause 27 is. There does not appear to be a problem to solve. Spending by non-party campaigners in support of a political party is already highly regulated under the targeted spending rules and counts against the party’s spending limits. I do not believe this clause has been really thought through and it risks substantial unintended consequences that could include silencing independent trade unions and interfering with the right of the Labour Party to set its own rules and order its own business.
Of course, we have had previous debates about tying up small, largely voluntary organisations with close associations with particular parties in red tape and scaring off civil society organisations working with politicians and parties. I urge the Government to think again on this clause and to replace it with recommendation 21 from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to shine a light on non-party spending authorised by political parties. They should be looking to lift the red tape burden on civil society organisations, not add to them, so that we can get the balance right when it comes to election campaigning.
What is this clause for? We have targeted spending rules already; parties already have to account. The clause brings big changes and risks substantial unintended consequences. My noble friend Lord Kennedy and I have had meetings with the Minister. My noble friend and I worked together in the Labour Party, I as general secretary and he as finance director, and we had a statutory responsibility for reporting and accounting properly for all our expenditure, including third-party expenditure. We are both very keen to know what misbehaviour this clause is attempting to stop. Some may have concerns that non-party campaigners give political parties two bites of the cherry, but this is not really the case with the targeted spending rules brought in in the lobbying Act.
Third-party expenditure in support of a party already has to count towards the party’s election expenses. The third party cannot spend more than £31,980 in England, £3,540 in Scotland and £2,400 in Wales in support of a political party without clear written authorisation, which must be lodged with the Electoral Commission. This expenditure must then be declared by the third party in its return and, crucially, must also be included in the return of the relevant political party and count towards its expenditure. A trade union campaign for the Labour Party therefore already counts against Labour’s limits. Parties cannot artificially inflate their limits by seeking support from a third party. So there is not really any evidence of the need for this clause. What is it intended to stop? Has anyone provided examples of this behaviour?
Certainly, my noble friend Lord Kennedy and I have sought this information. Tell us what it is, because we may actually share the concern and want to seek ways of putting an end to it. As I say, we think the better way is to have greater transparency. Of course, there is a theoretical possibility that a political party could work with a third-party organisation and ask it to co-ordinate campaigns against its political opponents. This would not be covered by the targeted spending rules, but there is no evidence that this is taking place and, were it to take place, it is highly unlikely that the party would enter into a formal joint campaigning relationship with such an organisation. I suspect it would be very much an arm’s-length relationship, possibly deniable, and therefore not caught by this clause. I think it is worth bearing that in mind.
This clause disadvantages transparency, basically. It disadvantages long-standing, open relationships, particularly the ones Labour Party has, and will do nothing to stop fly-by-night wheezes—people who are operating on the edges of a campaign, who we know are there but are very difficult to pin down. It will not address those issues and will have unintended consequences, particularly for those organisations with long-standing, formal, transparent links to a political party. I am talking, as I have referenced in a number of debates, about the Labour Party, which was established at the beginning of the last century as a federal party. It had no individual members; it was made up of members of trade unions. It was not until 1921 that individual membership was brought in, but it did not exclude those individual members of affiliated unions. It was a federal party and remains so to this day. The party has a formal link, which could be caught by this clause.
If we knew what this clause was attempting to stop, we might not be so suspicious about its intentions. However, as it stands—to come back to the test that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, mentioned—in the hands of a very hostile Government it could be used in a way that would completely undermine the structure and organisation of a major political party: the Labour Party.
What should replace this clause? There should be transparency, instead of unnecessary, unfair regulation that has not been thought through. As I say, the targeted spending rules are already there, expanding their limits by working with third-party organisations, but they could be much more transparent. Parties currently have to declare the spend of third parties incurring expenditure in support of them, but while it must be included in their return and account against their limits, there is no requirement for it to be labelled as targeted spend. This makes identifying where parties have entered into such arrangements with non-party campaigners difficult.
In its 2021 report Regulating Election Finance, the Committee on Standards in Public Life made a clear recommendation to increase transparency in the reporting of targeted spend. Recommendation 21 states:
“Parties should be required to identify what is spent by third parties as targeted spending on their behalf. The government should introduce a specific reporting category for targeted expenditure that non-party campaigners have spent in relation to an authorisation given by a political party.”
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, made the same recommendation in his review of the lobbying Act in 2016, in which he said in recommendation 16:
“There should be no change to the targeted spending provisions. However, political parties should have to distinguish what was spent by third parties as targeted spending on their behalf.”
I completely concur. Let us have more transparency, as the Minister has repeatedly said throughout this Bill, that puts the bureaucratic burden on the parties and not on civil society organisations.
I do not think we want to tie up non-party organisations with any more red tape than is already there. This amendment to delete Clause 27 and implement recommendation 21 from the Committee on Standards in Public Life puts an additional reporting burden on political parties, not on other organisations. Parties would have to ensure that their return accurately accounts for authorised targeted spend and by whom it was incurred. This is about getting the balance right on regulation.
It is important to be mindful of the role of non-party campaigning in the broader ecosystem of our democracy and pre-election spend. As the committee made clear when it first concluded that spending limits for non-party campaigners would be necessary, there is nothing wrong with individuals and organisations sending out explicitly political messaging in advance of and during an election campaign. Picking up on another theme that has run through our debates on this Bill, the Committee on Standards in Public Life said on page 95 of its report:
“On the contrary, a free society demands that they should be able to do so … The right to campaign is also protected by law through the right to freedom of expression. This should act as a check on ensuring that regulation strikes the right balance.”
One of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson—I hope that I will continue to reflect some of the positive things he has said and recommended throughout this Bill—is that we should make sure that the third-party rules are fit for purpose, not make them more complex and chilling and put off the very thing the Committee on Standards in Public Life said we should promote: the role of civil society and democracies in other countries, as I have repeatedly said in this Chamber. This country spends a substantial amount of money trying to ensure that civil society can exist in other countries, to promote that principle, yet in our domestic legislation we seem to be putting up more and more barriers. This chilling effect around third-party campaigning and this self-censoring element are the most frightening parts of this legislation. That fear of breaking the rules will have the consequences we have described.
The rules are complicated and hard to understand. The definitions are vague and require detailed guidance from the Electoral Commission. The vast majority of organisations we are talking about do not have politics as their primary purpose, as I said in our discussion on the previous clause. They have volunteers. Many are run by volunteers, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, spoke about at Second Reading. He also said:
“First, the regulatory period before elections take place, which is set at 12 months, is arguably too long. The rules governing joint campaigning are arguably too complex.”—[Official Report, 23/2/22; col. 281.]
Again, I agree with him. We should be able to facilitate participation in our democracy, not put up more barriers that present a huge regulatory burden to our civil society organisations. We should look to reduce red tape.
I stress specifically what Clause 27 could mean for affiliated unions. It could be an attack on their freedom of expression. Trade unions are independent organisations in their own right. Being affiliated to the Labour Party does not change that. They are entitled—and they do so—to campaign in their own name and on their own priorities, in the same way as any other civil society organisation. If unions affiliated to the party are deemed liable for Labour Party campaign expenditure because of the party’s governance structure, they risk losing their right to campaign in their own right. This clause risks denying those unions with formal organisational links to the Labour Party that freedom of expression. Unions are entitled to take a public view on politics in their own right as independent organisations. Their affiliation to the Labour Party cannot be allowed to silence their voice.
That silence is caused by the fact that trade unions are extremely regulated in their ability to campaign politically, independent of the Labour Party. Their political funds are extremely regulated. They are required to report every year on how that money is spent, and those records are published every year. If this clause unintentionally means that they can be caught up by this “joint campaigning”, they risk losing all of those funds being allocated as spend to the Labour Party.
One issue is that there is no legal definition of what constitutes joint campaigning. There is a risk that the interpretation of “joint campaigning” by the Electoral Commission could be broadened in the future, particularly if its independence is in question—another element of the Bill that we have spent some time on. Nothing in law prevents affiliated unions, many of which have representatives elected to the Labour Party’s national executive and who are involved in the process of agreeing the manifesto, potentially being held accountable for substantial amounts of the campaign expenditure of the Labour Party—that is what we are talking about in this clause. Given that unions are entitled to spend £390,000 in their regulated period and the party can spend £20 million, it is theoretically possible that unions could breach their own spending limits due to their form of affiliation to the Labour Party. Clause 27 puts at risk the right of the Labour Party to set its own rules and order its own business. There are extremely serious potential consequences that I do not believe the Government have given any consideration to. They have not thought through the consequences of this clause.
So what are we talking about? One of the things that this can impact on is affiliated unions’ ability to campaign against the far right. One of the many campaigns that unions have conducted has precisely been in the workplace, attacking racist and fascist parties and ensuring that working people are not sucked into that particular ideology. If unions’ expenditure is soaked up or used up by the Labour Party expenditure, they will not be able to campaign on their own terms in campaigns that are politically important to their members. Unions have a proud history of anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigning, including at election time.
An important theme in the Bill is the disproportionate effect or impact on Labour and organisations that advocate for a vote for it. No other political party has close constitutional ties with separate independent organisations in the way that the Labour Party is formally linked to the trade union movement. This risks silencing organisations that advocate a vote for Labour. It is disproportionate and it has a partisan impact that changes our democratic principles. More importantly, it is a further break in the consensus that we have had for many years on fundamental changes being subject to consultation across all political parties. It has not been thought through, and it is extremely dangerous.
Although we may be the only political party with those formal links with trade unions, other organisations may also be disproportionately hit by this clause. It would have unintended consequences for all political parties. The majority of the groups are volunteer-run and could suddenly find themselves tied up in red tape, having to account for expenditure by their political party if they are deemed to be in joint campaigning arrangements. I give the examples of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, Women2Win—an important organisation that funds constituency parties and candidates—the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and LGBT+ Conservatives, which I know campaigns for particular candidates. Other examples are the Tory Reform Group and even the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, the Liberal Democrat Disability Association, Christians on the Left and the Fabian Society—I could go on.
The faith groups will be particularly affected, particularly the Quakers, because of the nature of their organisation, which is quite devolved. It presents difficult challenges for them in campaigning, as well as for some other groups—but the Quakers in particular were brought to my attention.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for saying that. Over the last few weeks, I trawled through all of the types of organisations that could be formally linked with a political party, where they might have some sort of agreement to jointly campaign.
I have tried to grapple with and generally understand what this clause is really attempting to stop. It has been described as closing a loophole, but I do not see that. The biggest loophole in election spending is around the negative campaigning that occurs. This is often associated not with any political party or particular candidates but more with causes that want to disrupt the political process. Again, this comes back to the Russia report. Who is going to do the sort of elicit negative campaigning that we have seen? It is more likely to be organisations under the regulatory framework that will not be captured by this clause. It will be the legitimate civil society and trade union organisations that will be captured by it. It has got nothing to do with transparency or trying to ensure that there is proper reporting; it will have a very negative effect.
I said to the Minister that I would give him examples of how some affiliated unions are quite fearful. I mentioned the Musicians’ Union, a long-established affiliate of the Labour Party. It has a political fund, 32,000 members and a member on the national executive council—so there is a formal organisational link and a formal management link, if you like. Because the definition of “joint campaigning” is not set out in law, there is a real risk that the MU could be deemed to be in joint campaigning arrangements. It will play a part in agreeing our manifesto, through that Clause 5 process that I mentioned. So I can see a scenario where the Musicians’ Union, which spends negligible amounts in campaign expenditure in general elections—it puts out social media and website content about voting Labour but does have anywhere near enough expenditure to even require it to register with the Electoral Commission, as the notional cost of staff time has been all too low—will be captured here, undermining a long-established principle.
I have spoken for a long time, but it is really important that I set out a very clear description of the Labour Party’s structure and relationship with affiliated unions, and how that could be damaged by this clause. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to explain what it is designed to stop. Tell us, and perhaps we can co-operate in coming up with something better.
My Lords, I support Amendment 52 in the name of my noble friend Lord Collins. He eloquently explained the pernicious threat posed by this legislation to our democracy. As a former leader of Unite the Union, I do not need anyone to tell me how dangerous this Bill, and Clause 27 in particular, will be to trade unions and their ability to campaign on the issues that matter to their members.
My noble friend Lord Collins said that it has not been thought through. Far from it: it has been well and truly thought through. This is yet another ideological assault on the trade union movement by this Government. It is nothing less than an attempt to gag the trade union voice once and for all, coming so soon after we debated the tax on trade unions to fund their own regulator, and a police and crime Bill which, as my noble friend Lord Hendy warned on Report, could see the end of the right to picket during lawful industrial action. It is clear that the Government’s agenda is nothing more than trying to stop us getting involved in talking with our members. It is certainly not “levelling up”, or “building back better”.
It is a shame, because there is no doubt that, as my noble friend said, trade unions are a working-class group of people who look after their members and those who struggle to look after themselves. They balance the bad bosses and a system that is sometimes rigged against them. We should always remember that union members earn higher wages than non-members. They have more paid holiday, better sick pay and safer workplaces. This is crucial, particularly at a time such as this when there is rampant inflation.
It is quite simple. Trade unions demand the right to campaign on any issue that matters to trade unionists, regardless, as has been said, of the Labour Party’s own priorities. For example, if I want to ask for more doctors for the NHS or to campaign against the far right in this country or on other serious industrial issues such as the shameful practice of fire and rehire, as a trade unionist, I must surely have the right to do so through the democratic structures of my union. Just because a trade union is affiliated to the Labour Party, it does not mean that we always share the same political priorities: far from it. Why should money be spent by Labour on an election campaign count against the limit allowed by, for example, my union, Unite? With the greatest respect, it makes absolutely no sense, unless the objective is to silence the trade unions.
Another clear danger with Clause 27 is the chilling effect it will have on unions because they will be afraid to break the rules. The rules themselves are unclear and could change at the whim of Ministers. It will also actively discourage unions and other groups from campaigning together as a coalition—a totally legitimate activity that should be welcomed in any democratic society.
Clause 27 could even lead to Labour-affiliated unions being held accountable for the entire election campaign expenditure of the Labour Party. This would be a completely crazy state of affairs. Because “joint campaigning” is not properly defined in the Bill, affiliated unions could discover that they had exceeded their own expenditure limits many times over. They could even be breaking the law before they had had a chance to begin to campaign on their own priorities. Surely this is absurd. It is almost surreal. This situation must not be allowed to happen.
Let us not kid ourselves: this is an unprecedented and unconstitutional attack on the Labour Party and on the affiliated trade unions that founded it. It completely undermines the most basic principles of democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of association. Again, as has been said, this Bill breaches the long-standing convention on cross-party support for any fundamental changes to the democratic process. Unfortunately, the Government are riding roughshod over this convention. They are attempting a power grab of epic proportions. For the sake of our democracy and for the freedoms we all take for granted, this draconian legislation—and this clause in particular—must be defeated before it ever reaches the statute book. Amendment 52 is a critical step in this fightback. I urge all those who wish to defend our democracy and freedoms to support it.
My Lords, when dealing with election law, it is always worth looking at unintended consequences. I could speak at length about trade unions, the Labour Party and funding arrangements. During the 1997 election, I was described by the Sunday Times as the “bag man”.
That has been covered. I shall restrict myself to two unintended consequences which the Government would not have expected and which I think will emerge. The first is the so-called dining clubs. Some years ago, I did quite a lot of work on stopping them meeting in here. The dining clubs are primarily a Conservative Party-supporting concept and institution. Occasionally, there are some in other parties. This is a long-standing way in which the Conservative Party has raised money— in my view, perfectly legitimately. The unintended consequence that I read in the legislation as framed is that, at the moment, electoral law requires only the net income to be considered. If £30,000 is spent on a dinner and £10,000 or £20,000 is raised, there is a specific legal requirement as to how this is accounted for. It is well and adequately covered in the law. However, this clause seems to say that the entire expenditure will have to be accounted for. This is not a problem for national parties, but it is a problem for individual candidates.
Until the last five years it was possible to know when a general election would be. I am in a minority in thinking that it is not a good idea to move away from fixed-term Parliaments. If an election is called at the whim of the Prime Minister of the day, the candidate will not know where this expenditure will fit with candidate expenses. I predict the unintended consequence of the possibility of a legal case which could lead to a duly elected Member of Parliament no longer being a Member of Parliament. I urge caution on this.
A second unintended consequence could be much more widespread. It concerns the use of Labour, Liberal and Conservative clubs for political campaigning—otherwise known as elections. I understand the law and, as I have worked in this area for a long time, I am pretty sure that I am right. At the moment, the law is fairly loose in that a Conservative Party campaign can be based in a Conservative club. Many are. This seems reasonable. There is probably a slight advantage in that there are more Conservative clubs these days than Labour or Liberal clubs. This does not seem to impact on our democracy in any undue way. However, this clause would make it necessary to account for this as joint campaigning and therefore election expenditure. It would become a nightmare of defining what is expenditure, when it is clearly joint campaigning for the officers of an independent Conservative, Labour or Liberal club, to agree to have a campaign base inside their club. As everyone knows, this is common across all three parties. One could easily cite scores of examples—sometimes there is more than one in the same election in one constituency.
That does not seem very clever. Again, people will have a field day with picking holes in it. When one looks at what I think are the appropriate, minimal amounts of spending in any one constituency, this is pretty major for our democracy. It is obviously not the Government’s intent. As ever, with electoral law, unintended consequences are the problem. There is a big problem with this clause.
My Lords, I will keep my remarks on this group to a minimum, because I have a similar amendment coming up on which I will say more. But I did not want to let this debate pass without saying how problematic this clause is. It is a serious issue that must be addressed. I think the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has set it out very comprehensively and clearly.
Put simply, the clause is unnecessary. Nobody has defined a problem that needs solving by this clause. Secondly, it is unquestionably partisan in its impact; it is absolutely clear that it will affect one party more than the others. That should be a guiding test for this House; we do not do that. We do not introduce legislation that is purportedly even-handed but is anything but. That should not be what we are about in this House. We need to recognise that. I worry a bit that the debate becomes one between the political parties when I think that this side of the House should be as concerned about the constitutional impacts of this legislation as anyone else.
The third issue has just been brilliantly set out by the noble Lord, Lord Mann: there will be a whole series of unintended consequences from the proposal in this clause. But, for me, the worst and most unintended consequence is the chilling effect. It is what will not happen because this is in legislation. People will err on the side of caution; they will not want to get caught up in major legal battles, so they will not campaign on issues that they feel strongly they should campaign on. Effectively, that is a silencing of their voice. All of us, whatever side of the House we are on, should be very concerned about that.
My Lords, for the reasons explained by my noble friends Lord Collins and Lord Woodley, Clause 27 poses an unjustified, unnecessary but serious threat to trade unions. I say so for three legal reasons: the threat is to three particular rights. The first is the trade union right to autonomy—that is, the right of a union to determine its own constitution and how it will spend its own money. That is a right protected by Article 11 of the European convention, as vouchsafed in the case ASLEF v United Kingdom in 2002. Secondly, it interferes with the right of a trade union to campaign. That, too, is an aspect of freedom of association and the right to be a trade union member protected by Article 11 of the convention. Thirdly, it interferes with the right of trade unions to express themselves—freedom of expression—protected by Article 10. As I said earlier today, to justify such incursions on to those convention rights requires a demonstration that the restrictions are necessary in a democratic society.
As my noble friend Lord Woodley pointed out, this and other provisions in the Bill form part of a long line of legislative restrictions on the capacity of trade unions to improve and maintain the condition of the lives of working people, to coin the web’s phrase. I will not go back to the restrictions on political expenditure first imposed on unions in the Trade Union Act 1913 and preserved today, but I will refer to the legislation of the 1980s, which Tony Blair, as he then was, described in an article in the Times—which I am afraid is for ever embedded in my memory—on 31 March 1997. He described the legislative situation then to be inherited by the incoming Labour Government as
“the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world”.
Of course, Tony Blair’s Governments chose not to repeal that legislation, and unsurprisingly, the Governments formed from the Benches opposite have not repealed it either. Indeed, they have extended it. In place of the promised employment Bill, which it was said would extend the rights of workers, we have had further restrictions on trade unions. I refer to the Trade Union Act 2016 and, as my noble friend Lord Woodley has mentioned, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which further restricts the right to picket in many specified industrial sectors. Last week we had the statutory instrument on the trade union levy in respect of the certification officer, which imposes a tax on trade unions and gives further powers to the CO—and now we have the Elections Bill.
When all these things are seen together, it is clear that Clause 27 is part of a pattern. I accept that, as my noble friend Lord Collins said—and as the Minister said this morning—these clauses have implications for other democratic bodies too. But Clause 27 is unjustified. To cite the test of the convention, it is not necessary in a democratic society.
My Lords, when I first came into this place, I found it surprising that noble Lords from the other side of the House would often stand up and argue that it was inappropriate to introduce clauses in Bills unless the purpose was clear, and they clearly met a required need. So I now find it strange that, as my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury said, this seems to be an example of precisely that. I appreciate that the Minister was not in the House at that time, but I am sure he was a close observer, and that he will recall those speeches and those comments.
I also find it strange that, when we have a highly respected Committee on Standards in Public Life and it has put forward a series of recommendations in precisely this field, the Government have chosen to ignore them. I hope that when the Minister responds he will explain precisely why those recommendations have been ignored. What is the rationale? Why have the Government said, “We substitute our judgment”, which might, just might, be partisan, “for the judgment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life”—which is clearly non-partisan?
I rather wonder whether the Government misunderstand the nature of the relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour Party. I hope that they will no longer do so after the speeches by my noble friends Lord Collins, Lord Woodley and Lord Hendy. But I have sat in too many meetings with the leadership of my party, who, in the privacy of those four walls, were almost tearing their hair out at some of the campaigning and other activities of trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party. As I am sure my noble friend Lord Woodley would agree, it is a fallacy to say that trade unions and the Labour Party are always marching in lockstep on every issue. Frankly, that is not the case.
The general principles and general philosophy may be the same, but the details are clearly not always to each other’s tastes. The idea that all this activity can be conflated without producing some very unfortunate consequences seems to me extraordinary. I hope that when the Minister responds he will, first, give us a clear explanation of the purpose of the measure and why it has been brought forward at this time. Secondly, I hope that he will tell us why the Government have chosen to ignore the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Finally, he might just give us his understanding of the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party.
My Lords, I think that it might be my turn now. First, I apologise for not being in the House for the session before lunch. I was attending the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I am a member. That committee, as I have reminded the House before, has on it a representative of the Labour Party, Margaret Beckett, a representative of the Conservative Party, Jeremy Wright, and a representative of the Liberal Democrats. It is under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, who is of course a Cross-Bench Member of this House, and it has a majority of independent members.
As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, just reminded the House, the committee produced a report, Regulating Election Finance, which is quite thick and I would like to say quite substantial. It makes the case eloquently and clearly, based on evidence, about the things that need to be improved in our electoral regime, the things that need to be protected and the things that need to be prevented. It does not contain a recommendation that coincides with Clause 27.
I have asked the Minister before whether he would be prepared to give us some kind of ministerial or departmental list in which the 47 recommendations that appear in the report cross-reference with the Elections Bill. His answer last time was that the Government gave their reply to this report last October. I took advantage of the committee meeting this morning just to make sure that I was not mistaken and took another careful look at what the Minister said about the report, specifically what his response said about recommendation 21. The answer that he gave in his letter was that, broadly speaking, the Government were thinking about it.
A slightly more detailed annexe brings together five or six of the recommendations in the report, including recommendation 21. I will not reproduce exactly the reasons given for not proceeding with any of them because I assume that that will be part of the Minister’s wind-up speech in a few minutes’ time. Broadly speaking, it says, “It is all complex, it could easily make it much more difficult for people, it is not proportionate and really we were taking into account a lot of other views and consideration and it needs detail”, et cetera. Noble Lords will obviously be able to hear it in a more refined form when the Minister winds up.
What the response does not do at all is to answer why recommendation 21 should not form part of this Bill. Paragraph 8.29 of the report says:
“The Electoral Commission explained in their 2015 General Election spending report that it is difficult to identify in the spending returns how much targeted spending has been incurred and if it has been correctly attributed to the relevant limits.”
So the Electoral Commission identified a specific problem of third-party spending targeted but not properly attributed to the relevant limits. The same paragraph goes on to say:
“The Hodgson report later made a similar recommendation. We agree that this change should be made to increase the transparency around campaigning that is carried out on behalf of political parties.”
Recommendation 21 is very similar to the explanatory note attached to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Collins:
“Parties should be required to identify what is spent by third parties as targeted spending on their behalf. The government should introduce a specific reporting category for targeted expenditure that non-party campaigners have spent in relation to an authorisation given by a political party.”
That recommendation seemed to the committee at the time to be soundly based on the intelligence and evidence available, first, from the Electoral Commission in its 2015 general election report and, secondly, from what we referred to, rather offhandedly. as the Hodgson report—the noble Lord is in his place—which made a similar recommendation, as well as from other evidence that we took both verbally and in writing and which is published and available on the committee’s website. In paragraph 8.30, we went on to say:
“We also agree with Lord Hodgson’s proposal that non-party campaigners should have to disclose more information about themselves.”
Amendments to that effect have come before this House as part of this process.
Even if the Minister does not change his winding-up speech, what I hope he will hear is that the people who have looked at this with an objective and serious eye—I put the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, and the Electoral Commission in that category and I am brave enough to put the Committee on Standards in Public Life in that category—have seen that there is a weakness that needs to be fixed. The issue is not whether there are no weaknesses; it is what on earth Clause 27 is supposed to fix, because it does not fix that issue. What it does, as we have heard eloquently expressed by a number of noble Lords who take the Labour Whip, is have a potentially severe and adverse effect on them and on the trade union movement.
I put in parentheses that I think that it is extremely unlikely that the Liberal Democrat Christian fellowship, which I happen to be a member of, would be in a position to put any money into anything. However, I recognise the point made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that maybe those of us who have Liberal clubs in our constituencies should be looking at this. In the constituency in which I live and which I represented for 18 years at the other end of the building, I think that we have three Conservative clubs and, sadly, only one Liberal club, so it could be that my Conservative colleagues are at even more risk than we might be as a result of the unintended consequences of this clause.
The clause fails to address the issue that was identified, but it does address some other issue that nobody can quite put their finger on—at least, it does not seem to be a reputable thing that it puts its finger on. Perhaps there is some solution or purpose that all of us other than the Minister have completely overlooked, but we shall find that out in a moment or two. Not only does the clause fail to answer a question but it has unintended consequences that are quite likely to finish up backfiring, much to the detriment of the Conservative supporters of the clause as it stands.
I make the point as strongly as I can that when we legislate in this House, that legislation is supposed to improve things and not make them worse. It is supposed to improve things in the eyes of those of us who make the legislation and in terms of the people who are the subjects or the victims, as the case may be, of our legislative efforts. One thing that we ought to improve by way of this Bill is the overall fairness of our electoral process. We ought to continue to make it something to which ordinary folk have access. In so far as we inhibit third parties contributing to our democratic process, whether they are recognised components of civic society such as trade unions, informal components such as Liberal clubs and Conservative clubs or special interest groups, all those people ought to be able to play an active part.
The problem that has emerged, which this clause does not tackle, is how targeted spending by one or other or more of those bodies should be accounted for in local and national campaigning. In national campaigning it is an irrelevant consideration, but in local campaigning it is highly relevant and surely it must be the case that ordinary folk ought to be able to contribute to those campaigns and that the candidates and agents of those campaigns ought to have a duty to say how much help they received. Some of the regulations we have at the moment succeed in doing that, but there was a specific gap, which was appreciated and notified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in recommendation 21. I very much hope, not with a tremendous amount of expectation, that the Minister may be able to adapt his pro-forma wind-up speech to take some account of the concerns that have been raised in the debate so far.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I venture to say that I am unable to alter every word of what I might be advised to say, but I repeat what I said this morning when we had the first group on Clause 25. I hope that those who were present this morning will understand what I said in earnest when I responded to that. I listen to what is said in your Lordships’ House. Sometimes it is not the wisest thing to give a full response on the hoof but to give a commitment to further consideration and discussion with noble Lords in all parts of the House, which I undertake to do.
I will respond in general terms on this clause and will follow up in writing specific points that have been made in the debate. I am advised that it is unlikely that clubs will be affected, but this is why I think it is not wise to give a response on the hoof. I think we need a collective understanding of where it might go and, ultimately, it is for the Electoral Commission to give guidance and advice on these matters.
I enjoyed that part of the debate where the Government’s position was likened to that of Mr Tony Blair. I am not sure whether that was meant as a compliment or otherwise, but I hope that we can move forward in a spirit of understanding. One of those understanding points is that spending limits are an integral part of the political finance framework— I think we all agree on that—and that they ensure a level of fairness between parties and campaigners. The issue that some noble Lords have put is that they do not believe that the clause before the Committee meets those criteria, and I will reflect on what has been said.
Clause 27, which the amendment is designed to take out, is designed to prevent unfair circumvention of spending limits. It is fundamentally unfair that the current rules allow for a party potentially to use another group’s spending limit or resources in order to increase its own spending power. Under the existing legislation, campaigners could game the system by establishing distinct groups that together, working with a political party, have an enhanced spending capacity via multiple limits. Indeed, the noble Lord opposite acknowledged that in his speech. It is right that, where groups work together on a campaign, the spending should be accounted for by anyone involved in that campaign, otherwise spending limits are meaningless, and I think that, again, that is broadly common ground.
The effect of the Bill—noble Lords have questioned this—is to extend the principle of joint campaigning, which applies where third-party campaigners are working together, to cover scenarios where political parties and third-party campaigners are actively working together on a campaign. This is not altering the definition of joint campaigning as it is commonly understood; the measures only apply to qualifying election expenditure, not wider, non-electoral campaigning that groups may undertake. I will come specifically to the point on affiliated trade unions later. Political parties and third-party campaigners will be aware if they are working together on a campaign that involves spending money on regulated election expenditure.
The proposition that the Government are putting forward will simply mean that, where a political party and third-party campaigner are incurring spending together, actively campaigning together, the relative spending for that joint campaign should be accounted for by all groups involved in the spending. This will help to ensure that all campaigners are playing by the rules and make it easier for the public to know who is involved in such campaigns.
The measures are intended to strengthen the principle of spending limits already in law that protect the level playing field by ensuring that political parties cannot use campaign groups to enable them to expand their spending limit potential—what could be seen as a political party outsourcing its regulated spending to a third party. As we discussed in relation to Clause 22 —and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has done some research on the matter—during the 2019 general election, the group Advance Together registered as a political party and a third-party campaign group and proceeded to run negative attack campaigns in five constituencies. What can be done in five places can be done in others.
Just on that point—before the Lib Dems jump up in shock and horror—in that case the one organisation registered both as a political party and as a third party. Those are not the circumstances of separate organisations coming together. That particular problem could have been identified by the Electoral Commission and could be subject to provisions to stop a single entity trying to expand its spending limits by becoming more than one type of organisation. This is not what we are talking about in Clause 27.
My Lords, I was coming on to say that. While Clause 22 will ban the same organisation from appearing on both registers at the same time, the effect, as noble Lords have said, of existing joint campaigning rules and this proposed extension is to reinforce that by stopping other ways that spending limits could be avoided and so it maintains the level playing field.
Of course, that will not affect groups spending on campaigns, even on the same issues or with the same objective, separately outside a joint plan, in their capacity as an individual recognised third party or political party. Any regulated spending undertaken by an individual group not as part of a joint campaign will only need to be reported by the group incurring the spend. No political party or third-party campaigner should be allowed to use the facade of multiple groups working together to expand its spending limits on campaigns where the various groups are for all intents and purposes operating as a single group.
The noble Lord has proposed an alternative approach, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, rightly said, refers to the CPSL recommendations. By the way, the CPSL recommendations came out after the Elections Bill was introduced. When I refer to some of the things we were doing in the spirit of CPSL, it is in that context. But I did make very clear that we took that committee seriously. The noble Lord’s amendments would require the Secretary of State to introduce regulations for the purpose of requiring political parties to distinguish targeted spending from other expenditure in their spending returns.
I appreciate that the noble Lord’s intention, and that of CPSL, is to increase transparency on this important topic. However, this replacement does not match the extent of transparency that Clause 27 creates. There, we get into a point of difference. Targeted spending is more limited in its definition than joint campaigning. It focuses only on the promotion of a single political party and its candidates exclusively, not campaigning in relation to policies or issues that may relate to the electoral prospects of a number of political parties. Furthermore, targeted spending also does not cover negative campaigning intended to, for example, reduce support for other candidates or parties. I know that Members of the other place are particularly concerned by this issue, and it is right that such activity, which is highly prevalent in modern campaigning, is transparent.
Targeted spending therefore does not include all scenarios where third parties and political parties might actively work together. That is not to dismiss the importance of the amendments that the noble Lord has put forward. But focusing only on targeted spending and failing to tighten the rules on joint campaigning, as the noble Lord suggests, would not, in our submission, deliver full transparency for the public and might allow campaigners for parties to—
May I ask a question? The Minister refers to concern down the other end. I also wish to express concern about some of the negative campaigning that can occur in general elections, and I am keen to hear from the Government how they intend to deal with that. The fact is that this clause requires there to be a common joint effort, formally recognised, between a party and another organisation. The fact is that most negative campaigning that takes place does not fall into that category, so this clause can have an impact only on those organisations that have a formal relationship—in other words, the Labour Party.
I accept the point made by the noble Lord about the wider ambit of negative campaigning, and I hope that is where we will find—whenever we finally get there—a measure of agreement across the House, in the context of, for example, digital campaigning. I agree with the noble Lord and the Committee on Standards in Public Life that third-party campaigning should be transparent, and campaigners should participate on equal terms and be accountable. These principles are already represented in current law.
I have heard what so many noble Lords, and people who have a proud record of commitment to the trade union movement, have said in this debate, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, was kind enough to say at the outset, my officials have met with the TUC and the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, and we remain open to continuing those discussions. I have met with the noble Lord and his colleagues, and I am ready to do so again. We have listened closely, and I have listened again today to their concerns that Clause 27 will unduly limit the close relationship between the Labour Party and some trade unions. Much of the expressed concern has centred around the definition of “joint campaigning” and whether it would capture, for example, trade unions agreeing policy or manifesto commitments as part of the Labour Party’s governance structure. Clause 27 does not alter the definition of joint campaigning as it is commonly understood, and the Electoral Commission already provides guidance on what is and is not likely to constitute joint campaigning under the current rules, and we would expect them to update their guidance were new rules to come forward in the Elections Bill to reflect the extended circumstances. We will come onto statutory guidance later.
The Elections Bill also does not change the definition of “controlled expenditure”, meaning that only spending which may be reasonably regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success in the lead-up to an election is regulated, whether that is undertaken by a political party or a third-party campaigner. In practice, such activity as formulating policy for inclusion in a manifesto is unlikely to meet the Electoral Commission’s “purpose” or “public” tests, which will remain used to determine whether spending is regulated. It also would not include campaigning or advocacy on issues such as poverty or climate change that are not linked to the electoral success of parties or candidates.
Finally, I want to be clear that under the current rules or under the rules proposed in the Elections Bill, a party being affiliated or having a formal relationship with another campaigner does not in itself automatically constitute joint campaigning. Being an affiliated trade union does not mean that all activity of any other member of the affiliation would immediately count as joint campaigning, unless that activity met the Commission’s existing tests for joint campaigning. Affiliated groups running related or complementary election campaigns would not necessarily constitute joint campaigning, as the campaigns may be being run independently of each other. Only if the campaigns were being conducted in pursuance of a common campaign plan would both groups need to account for the spending.
I hope my response has gone some way towards at least assuring noble Lords that the Government are listening and have listened to the debate on this subject. I hear the concerns that have been expressed, but this clause is not intended to target trade unions. I have heard the submissions made about unintended consequences, but, as I fulfil my duty to sit here, listen to and respond with great respect to your Lordships—