Monday 23 May 2022
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, I start with the usual, albeit academic, notice that if there is a Division in the Chamber—which is singularly unlikely—the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 9) Regulations 2022
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, a copy of these regulations were laid before this House on 27 April. They were laid under the powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, and they came into effect under the “made affirmative” procedure. I say from the outset that this instrument has been considered and not reported by both the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
In lock-step with our allies, we continue to develop the largest and most severe package of economic sanctions that Russia has ever faced. These measures are already helping to cripple Mr Putin’s war machine through restricting finance access, targeting his corrupt cronies and cutting them off from the international community, and indeed paralysing the Russian military-industrial complex for years to come.
This new legislation introduces trade sanctions relating to internet services and online media services. Put simply, this allows us to cut off propagandists and organisations spreading the Russian regime’s vicious lies and disinformation online. The Russian Government are conducting an aggressive set of online information operations against Ukraine at times in a transparent but clearly shameful attempt to justify their illegal war on Ukraine. This must be stopped.
Ofcom has already removed the broadcast licence of “Russia Today” on the basis that it is not fit and proper to hold it. However, until the regulations now being debated in your Lordships’ House entered into force, no powers existed in the UK to block access to the same disinformation being spread by way of the website, social media accounts and applications of “Russia Today”. This instrument will ensure that social media services, internet services and app stores will have to take reasonable steps to prevent UK users encountering content produced or uploaded by a person designated for this purpose. Indeed, it will be for Ofcom to enforce this new legislation, and it has been given the power to impose fines on those who fail to comply.
ANO TV-Novosti, the parent organisation for RT, and Rossiya Segodnya, the parent organisation for Sputnik, were designated for the purpose of these measures by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on 4 May 2022. These puppet organisations are demonstrably part of Russia’s global disinformation campaign, as RT’s own editor-in-chief has made clear in the past when she called the network an “information weapon” of the Russian state. These organisations are propaganda arms of the Russian state—as a consequence of both their ownership and of Russian law, which prevents the war being reported objectively and truthfully. Now that third parties are required to restrict access to content pumped out by these designated organisations, this will limit their audience and blunt the effect of their Russian state message of aggression against Ukraine.
To conclude, we will not cease in delivering further sanctions while Mr Putin’s illegal and egregious invasion continues. The ultimate objective is to ensure that Ukraine succeeds. The whole of the UK Government—I also fully acknowledge the support in your Lordships’ House and across all parties—together with our international allies are working to ensure that this happens. Our fight against disinformation and harmful propaganda forms a key component of this. Mr Putin’s war on Ukraine is based on lies. Britain has helped to lead the way in tackling disinformation, and this new legislation enables us to blunt Mr Putin’s weapons of war and hit the shameless propagandists who push out his fake news and narratives. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Liberal Democrats support this instrument, having consistently maintained views the Minister has indicated. This is the ninth sets of such regulations that we have scrutinised and supported. The Minister is absolutely right that, as this illegal aggression continues, depressingly, we continue to see horrors inflicted on the people of Ukraine. Therefore, the Government’s response, supported by the Opposition—to use every mechanism to seek to impact on the decision-making of the Putin regime—is to be supported.
There are early signs that the collective imposition of the sanctions from the United Kingdom and our allies is impacting on the Russian economy. We are mindful that many people in Russia are in receipt of the lies and misinformation of the Putin regime, in addition to those around the world, and they are likely to be victims of this. That is why, as President Zelensky has indicated, it adds to the pressure on the Putin regime to come to a diplomatic solution and to cease the violence.
I want to probe just a couple of areas, and then ask the Minister a couple of questions on aspects related to these sanctions, rather than the sanctions themselves. First, we have been aware of the European Union sanctions on social media on 2 March, and then the reciprocal decisions by Russia on Instagram determining Meta as an extremist organisation on 11 March and blocking Euronews on 21 March. On 14 April, it registered as foreign agents under its laws 79 NGOs and 131 media outlets. The Putin regime is not only waging war on the people of Ukraine, but it is waging war on free media around the world. It is right, therefore, that the European Union, the United States, Canada and the UK, as the Minister said, work in lock-step.
Will the Minister demonstrate how robust these measures will be, given that there has been a gap between the EU operating its sanctions and the measures before us, and that there is some indication that RT and Sputnik have been successful in working around some of the EU regulations? The Minister has highlighted the designated persons measure, which I support, but we have already seen in respect of the equivalent for those indicated by the European Union the use of proxy sites and other social media platforms to disseminate information. The use of visual content bearing RT logos but not originating from RT, uploaded by users, has been co-ordinated and has an absolute purpose to work around the sanctions. How robust does the Minister consider these measures will be, in the light of what we have seen of RT-hosted material on other platforms around the world? How easy is it for those to be used in the United Kingdom?
Will the Minister confirm that these measures will cover virtual private networks? Use of VPNs and RT content through other countries has increased by 50%. If someone is seeking to access RT, Sputnik or other material from designated persons via a VPN, is that an offence under UK law?
My second question regards the extraterritorial jurisdiction nature. It is right that the designated persons are overseas entities, but can the designated persons be operating across all groups seeking to use the disinformation tactics of the Putin regime? I mention specifically Wagner Group, one of the arms of which has been sanctioned by the UK as named individuals. That is correct, and the Minister knows I am on record as wanting the Government to go beyond that and have it proscribed as a terrorist organisation. It is active, as are other mercenary groups, as the disseminator of disinformation and misinformation.
Can mercenary groups be designated persons under these matters? I know that the Minister will say that they keep the list of designated persons under review, but I should like him to go beyond that and say that there are no limits under the terms of the legislation on who designated persons could be. It would be regrettable if there were those seeking actively, with resource from the Putin regime working in many countries, to work around sanctions such as these, but they were not included. Can Ofcom police them if they are designated persons who are groups outside the UK? What legislative powers does Ofcom have to work with international partners on policing?
Finally, I ask the Prime Minister—the Minister, although I see I had a Freudian slip into a dream world I have, even if the Conservatives are in power, that someone might be doing a better job than the Prime Minister. Now that I have emphasised that point, Hansard will not be able to correct me.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman is now on record as indicating why we are not in lock-step with one of our allies, Canada, on the sanctioning of Alexander Lebedev. As the Minister will well know, the Canadians have been working extremely closely with the UK and others and the Minister said that we are working in lock-step, but when it comes to the judgment of the Canadians that Alexander Lebedev should be sanctioned, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said,
“it’s not for me to comment on the judgment of a different country”.
What do we believe the Canadian judgment to be and why do we not share it? Alexander Lebedev has been singled out by the Canadians as worthy of being sanctioned. What mechanisms do we have in the United Kingdom to ensure that this individual, sanctioned by one of our closest allies, or any of his family members will not be able to use the United Kingdom to circumvent Canadian sanctions? With those questions, I support the regulations overall.
My Lords, briefly, I support what was just asked about Canada. Canada is not just some other country; it is part of Five Eyes. If Putin sees Five Eyes as split, it is just as bad as the EU being split—even worse, in some ways. There has to be a better argument than Ministers have so far given as to why we have not joined Canada.
It is a long time ago since I spoke on the first sanctions. I praise the Government, because what they have done on sanctions overall has been very good. I have sometimes been surprised about the extent to which they have gone and I want to give praise where praise is due. We can always do more, but it has been a good job so far.
I note that this has been raised before, but I cannot remember the answer. The regulations talk about the UK. Where is the Isle of Man in this? People are using the Isle of Man to get around all kinds of financial things—we have had this with Brexit. For that matter, there are the Channel Islands, but the Isle of Man is in a different geographical situation. Can the Isle of Man be used to subvert sanctions such as these?
My final point is a question that I suspect the Minister cannot answer. I assume Ofcom is being fully supported by GCHQ. To have such a facility as that and not be able to use it would be a complete and utter waste. He does not have to confirm it or not, but I assume it goes without saying that Ofcom has the ability to call on GCHQ for issues relating to the edge of the sanctions.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has just raised an interesting point. Adding to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, it is conceivable that maybe the overseas territories ought to be in someone’s sights as well. That may be a point for consideration by the Minister.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, made a very good point about VPNs. In Russia they use them as a means to get information about what is going on around and about, so that is also helpful. For the record, I have ensured that the global website I have, covering every country in the world, has no content in relation to Russia.
My Lords, I start by saying once again that we are absolutely at one with the Government on their sanctions in relation to holding Putin and his Government to account for their outrageous violation of international law. It breaks multiple treaties and commitments, including the fundamental principles of the UN charter, and it is rightly condemned by all nations. I do not think there can be any space for equivocation when we are faced with this evil that Putin has unleashed.
In relation to these specific sanctions, at lunchtime I had the opportunity to hear from Dame Barbara Woodward, the UK’s representative in New York, in the UN APPG. She highlighted a number of things, and of course the briefing somewhat followed Chatham House rules, but she is absolutely clear on the threat posed by Russia’s campaign of misinformation. It is not only the usual propaganda stuff but things such as this accusation that there are chemical weapons in Ukraine, holding the UN down and deliberately spreading those sorts of stories. That sort of misinformation campaign goes well beyond the propaganda we have seen.
Putin is desperate to silence the truth about his invasion from his own people and the world and is pushing that information out. It is absolutely right that the international community considers how best to curtail this, and therefore the regulations before us are very much a welcome tool. The exact sanctions in relation to online services include blocking certain URLs, ensuring that platforms take precautions over the content they publish and taking steps so that the application stores do not allow certain software to be downloaded. They also allow the Secretary of State to designate persons to whom these online restrictions will apply and give new powers for Ofcom to impose penalties. Each of these provisions is a welcome step in the right direction.
I just want to pick up a couple of points, particularly the point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker on the role of Ofcom. Can the Minister explain whether any further resources have been allocated for it to carry out these new responsibilities? Have any fines yet been issued? Liaising with other departments, such as GCHQ, will be vital to its ability to carry out these responsibilities.
As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, co-ordination with international allies is vital on these issues as well as others. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what engagement there has been with counterparts on these new powers to ensure that such action is replicated everywhere. Also, what steps are the Foreign Office and other departments taking to work with platforms to ensure the closure of any loopholes that may emerge in respect of disinformation campaigns which may seek to work around these new regulations?
A number of noble Lords have asked about Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Every time we have dealt with such statutory instruments, the Minister has assured us that they do and will apply, and that the department is liaising with both the British Overseas Territories and the Crown dependencies to ensure that. However, we need not only that reassurance but to know that there is constant contact with those territories to ensure that, where difficulties emerge, we can respond to them properly.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised an issue that I was going to raise: the Minister’s assertion that we are in lock-step with our allies. Sadly, that does not always seem to be the case. As the noble Lord said, the latest example of that is our failure to follow Ottawa’s lead, which is extremely worrying, particularly when it comes to the individual the noble Lord mentioned. Alexander Lebedev not only is a former KGB agent but has business interests in the media, particularly the UK media. Of course, he bought the UK’s Evening Standard and Independent newspapers. Ottawa announced these sanctions on Friday, and there was no response. I know the Minister will repeat the mantra that he will not comment on future designations, but that is not the issue here. We need to hear from the Government that they will seek to work in lock-step with our allies. The questions that noble Lords have raised concern not only making effective the sanctions that we impose, and therefore want allies to replicate, but allies imposing sanctions and us becoming the loophole or escape route for some of these individuals. Apart from the mantra that he will not comment on future designations, I want to hear from the Minister that we will ensure that, where our allies impose sanctions, they are effective and that we will do nothing to undermine their ability to hold Putin to account.
On loopholes, in June the St Petersburg International Economic Forum will take place, and it will involve many organisations from around the world. I understand that its mantra will be, “New markets, new opportunities”. I also understand that some 60 or 70 organisations can in one part or another be semi-designated as associated with the United Kingdom, and the intention is that that be used to show that the UK is in play in matters relating to internal Russian trading issues.
The noble Viscount is absolutely right. The real issue here, on our policy of ensuring that Putin cannot act with impunity, is that this Government act with one voice and that all departments—be it the FCDO, the Home Office or the Department for International Trade—act in concert. I hope the Minister can respond to that point.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s short but insightful and timely discussion. I will address the important questions that been raised. If there are questions that I do not cover specifically, I will flag them and write to noble Lords in the usual way.
First and foremost, on that final point, the Government work across government but also with key sectors. We also work with British companies so that they fully understand the impact of the sanctions being imposed, because challenges are being felt far and wide because of them.
Equally, I say from the outset to the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Purvis and Lord Rooker, that we absolutely have to work in lock-step. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is fully aware of my view as the FCDO Minister responsible for sanctions that the most effective sanctions are those where we work in absolute lock-step with our key partners—the likes of Canada, the US and the European Union. I assure all noble Lords that we have regular and frequent conversations about the designations we will make, but equally about the designations that other jurisdictions are making, to ensure that any semblance of difference can be addressed quickly and in an expedited form. Indeed, the measures we have had to introduce over the last few months reflect the Government’s desire to ensure that our own regime and framework reflect our ability to act, and quickly. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for recognising that. As all noble Lords will recognise, there is a need for agility to act very quickly.
While I cannot give assurance beyond what I normally state about future designations, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that nothing, or no one, is out of our consideration for any designations of individuals or organisations. It would be speculative to go into any further detail, but we are looking at this in terms of ensuring that our sanctions team is extensively resourced and of working very closely with our allies in this respect. We have directly sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and more than 100 businesses since Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This is constant. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that the number of designations and the information I see, and the fact that we are having our ninth or 10th debate on specific issues in this respect, reflect the Government really focusing on the priorities.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked about the Crown dependencies, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, about the OTs. In all instances, our legislation has direct impact in the Crown dependencies and the OTs. There is an exception in two OTs—Bermuda and Gibraltar—where an Order in Council cannot be issued and they legislate for themselves, but they have been legislating to effect anything introduced in the UK jurisdictions elsewhere. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are working very closely with all our Crown dependency Governments, as well as the OT Administrations and Governments, to ensure they follow the UK Government’s lead. The Order in Council allows us to act decisively when it comes to the OTs.
I thank noble Lords again for their strong support of the Government’s position. As I acknowledged in my opening remarks, I am grateful in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, for their strong support for the Government’s position, both in and outside the Chamber. As I have done previously, I will continue to update them as required and appropriate to ensure that they are fully up to speed with the Government’s position and the future actions that we will take.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised the important issue of VPNs and asked whether this was an offence under UK law. It is not as it applies in the UK and the EU. The issue is cutting off the information at the source of spread—that is, the ISPs and social media companies. The measures we and our partners have been taking act on the providers, not the individual users, of the internet. In our view, it is not appropriate to place the offence on individuals who may be using VPNs. That said, VPNs have been used as a tool to circumvent, as the noble Lord mentioned, but our position is that this is not unique to the UK; we are talking to our partners to see how, as Russia continues with its approach on misinformation, we can work in a more co-ordinated fashion.
A question was asked about how robust the sanctions that are being applied are—that is, whether they are being bypassed or applied. We are confident that our regime is robust. One of the key reasons why we designated parent companies in these regulations is to prevent RT and Russian agencies bypassing the restrictions by changing the name of the company that owns a particular entity. We have acted at the parent level rather than towards any organisation.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked about Ofcom’s resourcing and support. Noble Lords also asked whether there have been any fines. As far as my understanding goes, no fines have been issued as yet but our colleagues in DCMS have engaged extensively with Ofcom in taking on this responsibility and ensuring that it has all the resources it requires and the necessary capability. I am sure that noble Lords recognise that Ofcom is an outstanding independent regulator and will be able to work with other agencies and institutions where necessary. It is also important, when we look at other jurisdictions, that we look at how regulators talk to each other about the various steps they are taking.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about the Wagner Group. As I have said previously in debates in your Lordships’ House, we are fully aware of its activities, particularly its mercenary activities in various parts of the world. I am keen to meet the noble Lord to see how we can work more closely on these issues. As I said, without speculating, it is important that we work in a much more co-ordinated fashion. Where gaps have been identified, because we have moved quicker than our allies or vice versa, we must look to address them.
I assure noble Lords that we also engage with the platforms directly. DCMS and Ofcom have been in regular contact with the organisations and associations to which the regulations apply.
I believe that I have covered the questions that were raised with me directly. I acknowledge and thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins. When we passed similar regulations in the Chamber—last week, I believe—he raised ensuring that designated bodies scrutinise the legislation in advance of regulations being passed or brought forward. I followed up on that specifically, which is why I mentioned it right at the head of my introduction.
I am grateful to the Minister for responding. I question two aspects. One regards VPNs. I understand entirely the point the Minister made, which is sensible, but he will be aware that, as I mentioned, although we do not seek to extend the criminalisation to users, there seems to be evidence, with the increase in traffic, that designated persons under our law will be able legally to upload information to providers in another country where a VPN user would be able to designate and have free access to anything from RT or Sputnik. My question was about the companies that offer VPN services, not the users; I would be happy for the Minister to write to me on that point.
My second point regards working with Canada. The points that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I raised are significant. Alexander Lebedev is now a Schedule 1 person under the Canadian Special Economic Measures Act. This means that, under Canadian law, it is an offence for anybody to provide financial or related services to, or for the benefit of, that designated person. I want to know whether this means that any family member of Alexander Lebedev who provides any financial interactions with him will not be breaking UK law but will be against the spirit of the Canadian law. That is of great significance for our relationship with Canada.
My Lords, I will just take this opportunity briefly to address VPNs. VPNs are a two-way street: a VPN can also enable information from outside Russia to get into Russia to enable those Russians who wish to understand what on earth is going on better to do so. That may be somewhere in the mix, but this is a rhetorical question; the Minister does not need to respond.
The noble Viscount partly answered my point on VPNs. He is quite right that they are used as an important tool and we are working with key organisations on this. What is very different with the BBC World Service, for example, is that it reports independently of government and autonomously. However, the use of VPNs has a benefit. That is why I suggested to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that we could perhaps meet to address some of these issues.
As to the noble Lord’s other question, I have gone as far as I can at this time. Our responsibility is for what applies in the United Kingdom. In the designations we have made we have acted to ensure that, where we identify family members who may be involved—in this case we looked directly at the family members of Mr Putin, for example—they are individuals who we look at very closely and designate as appropriate. As I said, we continue to look at all situations concerning individuals and organisations, and will keep this under review. We are also mindful of the actions our allies are taking. With that, I once again thank noble Lords for their contributions and their continued support of the Government’s position.
Pollution Prevention and Control (Fees) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2022
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the Pollution Prevention and Control (Fees) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2022 were laid before the House on 25 April 2022. I will refer to these regulations as the fees regulations.
As the environmental regulator of the offshore oil and gas sector, which I shall refer to as the offshore hydrocarbons sector, BEIS’s Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning, which I shall refer to as OPRED, recoups the cost of its regulatory functions from the offshore hydrocarbons sector rather than the taxpayer footing the bill. OPRED minimises the impact of the offshore hydrocarbons sector on the environment by, for example, controlling air emissions and discharges to sea and minimising disturbance over the life cycle of operations, from seismic surveys to post-decommissioning monitoring.
Regulatory activities for which OPRED can recover costs are covered in two ways: within a suite of regulations that are covered by the fees regulations, and by five fees schemes which are not, as they do not require legislative change and will be amended administratively. OPRED’s annual fees income is on average £6.2 million, which is recovered from around 120 companies, which are billed quarterly. OPRED recovers its costs via fees based on hourly rates.
The fees regulations will revise the hourly rates used to calculate fees payable by the offshore hydrocarbons sector. The fees relate to the provision of regulatory functions in relation to the environmental management of offshore operations. Currently, the fees that OPRED charges for providing regulatory services are based on hourly rates of £197 for environmental specialists and £108 for non-specialists. Environmental specialists are qualified technical staff who carry out the legislative functions of the Secretary of State, and non-specialists are administrative staff who support them.
The current hourly rates have been in force since June 2021. OPRED reviewed the cost base and concluded that the existing hourly rates need revising to reflect the present costs to OPRED of providing specific regulatory services. The fees regulations will therefore amend the charging provisions by increasing the existing hourly rate for environmental specialists to £201 and decreasing the current hourly rate for non-specialists to £104. As the changes relate to cost recovery, they do not represent monetary changes linked to inflation.
OPRED’s fees are determined by adding together the recorded number of hours worked by environmental specialists and non-specialists on cost-recoverable activities, multiplied by the hourly rates. The new hourly rates were approved by Her Majesty’s Treasury in March 2022 and were calculated in line with the Treasury’s Managing Public Money guidance. They cover the expenditure on all resources used by OPRED to support cost-recoverable activities—for example, staff salaries, accommodation, IT and office services, and corporate services such as human resources, senior management, legal, finance and learning and development.
Guidance on OPRED’s fee-charging regimes is published and clearly explains the scope of the cost-recoverable functions undertaken by OPRED and how the costs are to be calculated and recovered. The cost-recoverable functions undertaken by OPRED include, for example: the evaluation of applications and issuing of consents for seismic surveys, and the conducting of appropriate assessments of the likely significant environmental effects of proposed projects; assessing and approving operators’ oil pollution emergency plans; and compliance monitoring activities, including offshore environmental inspections.
The fees to be paid will be revised by a small amount, sufficient only to allow OPRED to recover its eligible costs. OPRED’s guidance on its fee-charging regime will be revised to reflect the new hourly rates. Those who OPRED charge are aware that the hourly rates are reviewed annually. Although there was no statutory requirement to consult on the fees regulations, in April 2022 OPRED informed the offshore hydrocarbons sector of the planned revisions to the hourly rates, and no representations were received.
Therefore, I conclude by emphasising the importance of the revisions to the hourly rates being introduced by the fees regulations. The revisions will enable OPRED to recover the costs of providing regulatory services from those who benefit from them, instead of these costs being passed on to the taxpayer. The fees regulations will be debated by the House of Commons tomorrow, 24 May. I therefore commend the draft fees regulations to the House.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward these regulations, which seem perfectly reasonable. I thank the environmental specialists and non-specialists for the crucial work they do in this sector.
I have just one small question to ask my noble friend, if I may. If you look at the same regulations from last year, we seem to be reversing the rate that was agreed for the non-specialist workforce. I think the rate was increased from £101 to £108 last year, so I would like to understand why the Government have decided to cut that back to £104.
My noble friend has just told us that there were no responses to the consultation, so one has to accept that no alarm was expressed by the non-specialist sector. For my greater understanding, can he explain what proportion of the workforce are environmental specialists, as opposed to non-specialists? Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that
“the total amount to be recovered by OPRED in FY 2022/2023 will be broadly similar to the average received in previous years”.
On what assumption is that based? Is the increase in environmental specialists being covered by the reduction in the non-specialist sector in order to keep it within that envelope?
With those few remarks, I welcome the regulations before us.
My Lords, I will speak to the regulations very briefly. This is one of the briefest SIs I have ever had to speak to, and it seems utterly bizarre that we are having this discussion about a very minor matter. This is an area I have interest in because I was on the Science and Technology Committee in 1996, looking at the decommissioning of oil and gas rigs. I even went out to one of the rigs at the time.
I want to raise two questions. When we conducted the original committee report and it was debated, it was assumed that metal pipework that was to be laid would be left in the ground and forgotten about. I declare my interest as chairman of the UK Metals Expo. I went to an interesting presentation on the value of the metal in the pipework in the North Sea. Of course, if it has value it is quite likely to be dredged up again, but that will have environmental issues associated with it. Is this being taken into account by OPRED? Is the value of that metalwork being assessed?
The second question concerns the Government’s long-term views on removing large structures. The very large gas rigs still in place are surrounded by drilling offsets, which was a normal aspect, but of course a lot of oil and pollution is then tied up around the base of these structures. If they are to be removed from the seabed, there will be a great deal of localised pollution in that operation. Have the Government looked at a recent report? No report had been carried out on that issue at that point.
I will finish there because it is so brief a report. On that basis I actually read the whole report, and I was quite amused by a slight error in paragraph 8.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum.
I thank the Minister for putting forward these proposals, which are, as we have heard, rather inconsequential and unremarkable. There is nothing I want to add by way of commentary, but I have a few questions.
First, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked, can the Minister explain why the fee for specialists has risen at the same time as the fee for non-specialists has fallen? If it is to do with numbers, can he explain the reason for this change in the balance between specialists and non-specialists?
Secondly, the fees received have remained the same as the previous average, £6.2 million. In the Government’s assessment, is this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future, bearing in mind what the noble Lord has said?
Thirdly, while I understand that no formal representations were made by the industry regarding OPRED’s plans, can the Minister say whether any informal opinions were given and whether the industry as a whole is satisfied by the proposals? I look forward to his response.
I thank noble Lords for their brief contributions to this debate, which reflect the relatively uncontroversial nature of the regulations. As I said in my introduction, the regulations will enable OPRED to recover its costs for the provision of regulatory services under the offshore oil and gas environmental legislative regime, as opposed to the alternative—those costs being borne by the taxpayer.
The annual fees income is, on average, £6.2 million, which represents around 65% of the cost of running OPRED’s environmental operations unit. The total running cost of around £10 million per year includes the cost of the office in Aberdeen and corporate support provided from London.
In terms of chargeable activities, OPRED considers the environmental implications of all offshore oil and gas operations before issuing permits and consents covering areas as diverse as seismic surveys, marine licences, oil pollution emergency plans, chemical permits, oil discharge permits and consents to locate permissions for offshore installations. OPRED reviews around 3,000 applications for permits and consents annually. In addition, there is a regular programme of monitoring and inspections to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
As I said in my introduction, in line with the Treasury’s Managing Public Money guidance, OPRED does not charge for policy work—for example, the enacting of new or revisions to existing offshore environmental legislation—and nor is OPRED able to charge for enforcement activity, such as prosecutions. OPRED is proposing the fees regulations pursuant to a power that requires an affirmative procedure. This is because the changes allowing OPRED to recoup the costs for the provision of regulatory services are not alterations to reflect changes in the value of money.
Questions were asked by both my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, about what proportion of the workforce are specialists, compared with non-specialists. Both also asked for an explanation of the fee rise for specialists and the reasons for the change. The revisions to the hourly rates reflect changes to OPRED’s staffing levels and associated costs, plus corporate costs such as IT, accommodation, human resources and finance, which are allocated on a per-head basis. There are 53 staff who work in the offshore environmental unit, of whom 40 are environmental specialists and 13 are non-specialists. The reduction for non-specialists is largely due to a reduction in London corporate costs; the increase for specialists relates to an increase in the cost for advice from statutory nature conservation bodies.
The question from the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was nothing to do with these regulations, but I am happy to take it back to the department and send the noble Lord a reply in writing. As I said in my introduction, about 45% of the cost of running OPRED is currently recovered from the offshore hydrocarbons sector through these fees.
With the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, to whom I will write, I hope I have answered the questions raised by noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh. Therefore, I commend the draft fees regulations to the Committee.
Pharmacy (Preparation and Dispensing Errors—Hospital and Other Pharmacy Services) Order 2022
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the Pharmacy (Preparation and Dispensing Errors—Hospitals and Other Pharmacy Services) Order 2022 was laid before Parliament on 28 April. This draft order extends to the United Kingdom. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has submitted a Motion to Regret in relation to the draft Pharmacy (Responsible Pharmacists, Superintendent Pharmacists etc.) Order 2022. This will now be subject to a separate debate.
The draft order before your Lordships has been in development for a long time under the auspices of the Rebalancing Medicines Legislation and Pharmacy Regulation Programme Board, whose members include representatives from across the pharmacy sector and professional and regulatory bodies. The draft order is welcomed by pharmacy professionals working in hospitals and relevant pharmacy services, and has the support of the four Chief Pharmaceutical Officers of the UK.
I apologise for the parliamentary time taken to progress this order. The Government had to make some difficult decisions to deprioritise non-urgent legislation following the general election in 2019, EU exit and the Covid-19 pandemic. We are now returning to more business-as-usual matters.
The purpose of the order is to extend the defences already available to pharmacy workers in community pharmacy premises made under the Pharmacy (Preparation and Dispensing Errors—Registered Pharmacies) Order 2018 to ensure that registered pharmacy professionals working in hospitals and other settings, such as prisons and care homes, have access to the same defences. This would provide them with access to the defences to the criminal offences set out in Sections 63 and 64 of the Medicines Act 1968, which concern the adulteration of medicinal products in Section 63 and the sale of any medicinal product which is not of the nature or quality demanded by the purchaser in Section 64. The order makes these defences available in defined circumstances and, importantly, incentivises the reporting of errors where pharmacy professionals make genuine dispensing errors, improving learning to prevent such errors occurring.
In summary, the order will support improved patient safety by encouraging a culture of candid and fulsome contributions from those involved when things go wrong. This is a culture we want to see right across the NHS. Within this culture, pharmacy professionals can increase their learning from dispensing errors and identify mitigating action to make recurrence less likely in the future. I therefore commend the draft order to the Committee.
My Lords, I have always thought that the purpose of highlighting errors in the health service should be to learn and to avoid repeats, rather than to lay blame. That is why I supported the HSSIB, which was made mandatory in the recent Health and Care Act 2022. For that reason, I also support this order, which can contribute to patient safety by extending the removal of the threat of criminal sanctions for inadvertent dispensing errors beyond current community pharmacies and into other places where medicines are legitimately dispensed. These will include hospitals, care homes, prisons and detention centres. Anything which deters people shining a light on errors is a bad thing and should be addressed; anything which enables learning from them is welcome. However, although the order is welcome, I ask the Minister whether there has been evidence that staff have been deterred from exposing or informing patients about a mistake that has been made.
It is vital that the duty of candour that applies to all health professionals is upheld. I welcome the news from the General Pharmaceutical Council that it plans to develop new learning resources to help pharmacists understand how to fulfil this duty and, crucially, why they should do so. Of course, the duty already appears in the Standards for Pharmacy Professionals. This is where actual offences come into the picture. It is right that pharmacists could still be prosecuted if they can be shown to have had deliberate disregard for patient safety, as such a person would not be acting in the course of his profession, so patient protection still applies.
Identifying such a situation would probably rely on whistleblowers, who need protection and confidence that they would not be penalised for revealing information. Will the Minister say who would be responsible for making this judgment? Would it be the General Pharmaceutical Council or a magistrate with professional advice?
May I also ask about the introduction of the statutory term of “chief pharmacist” with professional standards set by the GPhC? As I read the order, a defence for inadvertent dispensing errors cannot be called in aid if the service where it happened did not have a chief pharmacist responsible for the safe running of that service. Does that mean that if a service did not identify a chief pharmacist, or if he or she were not on the spot, the staff would be more exposed to discipline over errors than those working at a site where the work was supervised by a chief pharmacist? Will the Minister please explain?
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s helpful introduction and his acknowledgment of the delay in bringing this statutory instrument before us. These Benches welcomed the initial preparation and dispensing errors instrument when it came before Parliament in 2017. That welcome was in line with that of a number of organisations, including the National Pharmacy Association, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Today, we are very happy again to give that welcome to this statutory instrument, not least because it is entirely focused on patient safety and on improving safety for patients. It also brings parity across the pharmacy profession, something that has been much called for.
There were some 1 billion prescriptions dispensed last year. At this volume, it is, of course, impossible to avoid all errors, and it is certainly a credit to the pharmacy profession that they are statistically very few and far between. Most professional groups in the health service do not face criminal conviction and potential imprisonment for an inadvertent dispensing error, and therefore it would be quite wrong for pharmacists to be the only ones who do. It is therefore very welcome that this SI extends legal protections to pharmacists working in a range of locations, such as prisons, hospitals and care homes.
Those working in these settings are often under increased stress, and this has been exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic. The Pharmaceutical Journal has found an approximate doubling of pharmacists reporting that they feel extremely stressed compared with recent years. In often very pressured circumstances, it is right that we, in the way we are discussing today, protect pharmacists—who are often people’s first point of contact with the healthcare system and too often victims of abuse—from unintended mistakes. Ensuring the right to legal defence against prosecution in cases relating to inadvertent error will undoubtedly remove some of the fear these clinicians feel when it comes to admitting errors. It will help to prevent and reduce patient harm through taking the wrong medication or dosage.
It will also assist in promoting a culture of transparency, as has been referred to already. That will help to inform future learning and improve protocols for the dispensing and preparation of medicines. I agree that this is very much a helpful step towards cultural change and towards a more positive and candid workforce, which, as we have already referred to, can only serve to make patients safer.
Of course, again, it is right that this SI extends only to inadvertent errors. Where they are wilfully negligent or intent on causing deliberate harm, those who are responsible will continue to face criminal prosecution. This is critically important and we certainly support that.
I move on to my outstanding questions on the SI. I am concerned that, of the 523,000 dispensing errors that occur each year, only 5% are reported. Does this not suggest that the 2017 legislation increasing protection for inadvertent errors has been largely unsuccessful in encouraging honesty? What more are the Government doing to increase that number? How will the Government further encourage individual pharmacists to feel safe to come forward if they have dispensed the wrong medication? I should like to understand further how the professionals affected by this legislation, especially those who are more isolated than those who have the benefit of a network of pharmacists easily accessible to them, are informed about these changes.
There is always so much more to do when it comes to patient safety, but this is a very welcome step forward. I look forward to the Minister bringing forward further improvements in due course.
I begin by thanking noble Lords for their questions. I shall try to answer as many as I can and, in the usual way, if I have missed any of them, I will go through Hansard and make sure I respond in more detail. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about deterrence. I have some statistics here. In 2021, a survey of community pharmacists found that 95% of pharmacists said that they report errors to improve practice and 80% to learn from mistakes. In response to her specific question about fear of prosecution as a reason not to report an error, it dropped from 40% in 2016 to 18% in 2021, largely attributed to the 2018 change in law. Therefore, we expect a similar drop in the fear of being prosecuted for the pharmacists covered by this order.
The noble Baroness also asked about the chief pharmacist. This is a statutory role that mirrors the statutory role of the superintendent pharmacist in registered retail pharmacies. This aims to strengthen the governance of pharmacy services by incentivising the creation of this role, if a hospital, prison or care home does not already have one, in order to benefit from these defences. However, to reflect the diverse arrangements in different health settings, organisations do not necessarily need a specific chief pharmacist role, but should ensure that the statutory functions of a chief pharmacist are included in the relevant individual’s job responsibilities if they want to benefit from the defences.
There was a specific question about where there is no chief pharmacist officer. I understand that, at the moment, existing pharmacists can have that duty extended to them, but I shall have to write to the noble Baroness with more detail. What is really important, as she acknowledged, is the duty of candour. We want to encourage an environment where people do not feel afraid to come forward in order to learn. Of course, there is always the right balance between those who have acted maliciously compared to those who have made a mistake. As the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, rightly said, when you are dispensing this number of prescriptions, statistically and probability-wise, there is probably bound to be some error.
To go back to the point about the chief pharmacist officer, given the flexibility, people do not need to adopt the statutory term of chief pharmacist as a job title; they can have the role of chief pharmacist assigned them. I just wanted to clarify that; if I have not been clear, I shall write to the noble Baroness.
I just want quickly to give a bit of a flavour of the errors to show how something might not necessarily be malicious but could be an error. A medicine intended for another patient could be dispensed to the wrong patient. The wrong medicine could be dispensed. An ingredient could have inadvertently been omitted or added when making up a medicine. A medicine could be dispensed at the wrong strength or in the wrong dosage form. These things happen, not intentionally but unintentionally, which is why we want to make sure that we learn from such mistakes.
Given that we have already introduced these offences for the majority of pharmacy professionals in the retail sector, it is right that we extend them to colleagues working in hospitals. By introducing this order, we are not only removing the fear factor for pharmacy professionals but helping to protect the patient under their care. We know from patients that it is important for them to know that, when an error is made, responsibility is taken and the service learns lessons. This legislation supports and incentivises that principle.
I am not clear whether I have answered every question, but I will check and write to the noble Baronesses as appropriate. I thank noble Lords for their interest and the positive debate today. I commend this draft order to the Committee.
Passport (Fees) Regulations 2022
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations set the fees payable for products and services offered by Her Majesty’s Passport Office, as well as providing for fee waivers in a number of circumstances.
The regulations we are discussing today replace the 2018 regulations. They make minor changes that simplify and make the regulations more transparent, and specify that priority service fees include a booking fee that will not be refunded in certain circumstances. I want to make clear at the outset that no fee levels are being changed and the cost of applying for a passport is not increasing through these regulations.
For customers requiring their passport sooner than can be provided under the standard service, HMPO offers optional priority services that are available for an additional fee. These are the fast-track service and the premium service. Between 6 February 2022 and 8 May 2022, there have been on average 9,000 fast-track applications submitted in person and 4,000 digital premium appointments booked online per week. However, since April 2021, around 5% of customers have not attended their priority service appointment.
When a customer does not attend their appointment and fails to notify HMPO, that appointment slot cannot be used. This has a knock-on effect for others seeking to use the priority services. It is for this reason that the priority service fees will include a booking fee, which will not be refunded where a customer cancels their appointment with less than 48 hours’ notice. The fee will be £30 and reflects the costs incurred by HMPO up to the point of the appointment and as a result of not being able to reuse the appointment.
As stated just now, this will not result in an increase to the total fee; it forms part of the existing priority service fee and will not lead to customers being charged more for their appointment. We think that this will incentivise customers to ensure that HMPO is notified when they are not able to attend an appointment and helps to provide a service that is cost-efficient for the taxpayer.
We are also making minor drafting changes to the descriptions of our priority services. These changes will not have an impact on the services provided to customers nor the cost. Any future change to a priority service provision will require an equality impact assessment to be completed.
We have made a number of amendments to the regulations to make them simpler, more concise and transparent for customers. They now clearly set out what actions are taken as part of the administration of an application, when an application is deemed to have been made and when a fee will be retained by HMPO. The schedule of fees has been reduced in length and we have made the cost of priority services clearer by setting the fee separately. Previously, the fee set in the regulations included the cost of administering a passport and the priority service. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend on bringing these regulations forward. I have just one or two points of clarification. The government website states that
“There is no backlog in passport processing as a result of the coronavirus … pandemic. However, we are now seeing unprecedented demand as more than 5 million people delayed applying for passports”.
First, presumably the Home Office would have been aware that, as there were no flights, people were not travelling and a lot of cruises had also been paused, travel would resume at some time and there would be the fluctuation we are seeing. At the end of 2021-22, say, what measures did the Home Office put in place to speed things along?
I have been corresponding on my second point through Written Questions to my noble friend. I will take this moment to explain the problem. My husband and I took our first trip abroad since coronavirus at the end of March to the beginning of April. My husband has one of the new passports—I think this is called the Brexit dividend—which is blue-faced as opposed to beetroot-faced and, sadly, is not made in this country. On our return, he was delayed by half an hour because the e-gate would not accept his passport. A host of others were in the same category, in addition to those who cannot go through if their young children do not have their own passport. The border guard informed my husband that they are aware of the problem; the passport page is simply too glossy and is not being read by the e-gates. I compared it to my passport and I could see why; the former passports have stuff over the photo that prevent it from being glossy.
There are two ways around this: ask whoever is making the passport to put something on it to make it the same as the old passports; or introduce, presumably at some considerable cost, a new machine to read these passports at existing e-gates. If, when our current passports expire, we all have to replace them with the new ones, that would be a good investment, because the existing gates do not work with the new passports. I understand the chip is working perfectly well—that is not the issue. The issue is simply that the photo page is too glossy. It is driving passengers and border guards to distraction, because it is causing queues. This was a quiet day and there was a 30-minute delay.
Is my noble friend is aware of this problem? I do not believe she is, but border guards and passengers are. Could we find a compromise to make sure this is speeded up? With those two points, I support the regulations before us.
My Lords, I echo some of those points. I used the blue passport through an e-gate in Brussels, and it was fine. It depends on the type of technology and the gates they are using at individual places. This is just to clarify that point.
My second point is also for clarification. We were told that a lot of the backlog was due to people who could have applied online but did not—they applied physically and there was an overload—but I am not sure about that and would like some clarification. There clearly has to be a presence. While a certain amount of work can be done online, such as processing, security is a huge element of sending out a passport to somebody, whether a new applicant or somebody who has changed their name, as they will need hard-copy documents. Is my noble friend satisfied that there are enough people working in the Passport Office, not from home, who are present to facilitate all this?
The backlog is now becoming quite appalling. People are missing business trips, losing money on holidays and various other things. Often, that will not be covered by insurance whereas Covid may have been. Something may have been put in the insurance for that, but you will not get travel insurance to cover your passport not being returned to you, particularly when you have put it in for replacement in advance.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations, and I note that the fee amounts are the same as those prescribed by the 2018 regulations. Overall, we welcome these regulations. I start by declaring an interest in so far as my husband lives in Norway, which involves me in frequent foreign travel to the extent that I will—if I can get an appointment—have to use the Passport Office premium service when my passport comes up for renewal next year.
Secondly, in case anyone uses the Official Report as a reliable source of information, in answers on an Urgent Question from the other place on 12 May, a number of noble Lords, including the Minister, stated that EU/Schengen area countries required there to be six months unexpired on a UK passport for entry. This is not the case. There must be three months left on a UK passport from the anticipated date of exit from the EU/Schengen area, in addition to the UK passport being no more than 10 years old. I am very grateful to the BBC’s “Morning Live” for confirming this. I looked online as well, and the passport must be valid for three months from when you intend to leave the EU/Schengen area, rather than three months from when you enter. So, you should be questioned at the border about how long you are going to stay, and they will then check that you still have three months left from when you intend to leave.
If the noble Lord will permit, is he also aware that in any Schengen area country, for example in Denmark, if a British passport is not stamped at the point of entry, you are deemed potentially to have overstayed your welcome and gone above the 90 days that were permitted, purely by the fact that you have not had your passport stamped? This is clearly stated on the Foreign Office website—I commend the Government for that—but I think that many British people are potentially falling foul of this.
I have the converse problem, in that I am running out of pages in my passport, because every time I go to Oslo, I get a stamp when I arrive and a stamp when I leave, even though, because I have applied for a residence permit—which I have yet to receive—I am not bound by the 90 days. However, we digress slightly.
Can the Minister explain what the cost of the Passport Office is overall compared with the amount of money that it generates? How much profit does the Passport Office generate, and how does the last financial year compare with previous years?
Following up on the questions raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Foster of Oxton, again in answers on an Urgent Question from the other place, the Minister was asked whether the 1,200 extra staff at the Passport Office employed to deal with the unprecedented surge in demand for passports following the end of Covid restrictions on travel were agency or permanent staff. Does the Minister have an answer to that question now? Conversely, how many permanent staff were furloughed in 2020 and 2021, when there were 3 million and 2 million fewer applications respectively than predicted?
We need to know whether the Passport Office is providing value for money for both applicants and the taxpayer. What staff cost savings were made in 2020 and 2021 when demand was low? How flexible is the Passport Office workforce in the face of fluctuating demand? Presumably, demand is higher in spring and summer and lower in autumn and winter. Are additional temporary staff employed at peak times or are permanent staff sitting around for six months of the year not doing very much?
How much more than the cost of producing a passport are applicants charged? If applicants pay for a premium service that the Passport Office cannot deliver within the advertised timeframe, is the premium fee refunded?
I very much welcome the introduction of a booking fee for a priority service that is not refundable if the scheduled appointment is not cancelled by the applicant 48 hours or more in advance. Slots are limited—or, at the moment, non-existent—and applicants need to be incentivised to keep their appointments. However, I question whether the whole fee should be forfeited if a prospective passport holder fails to attend an appointment for their application to be administered under the priority services without giving prior notice. I understand that the Passport Office could have made a considerable profit were the applicant to have attended the appointment but surely the cost of producing the passport should be refunded to the applicant—that is, the profit element should be retained but the cost element that is no longer incurred by the Passport Office should not. In other words, if the person does not turn up, they will not be issued with a passport, therefore the cost of producing that passport is not incurred by the Passport Office. The additional fee for a premium service should therefore be forfeited but surely the cost of producing the passport should be returned to the applicant. Can the Minister say what the fixed and marginal costs are in the case of a missed appointment for a priority service?
We acknowledge the various fee waiver and fee reduction aspects of these regulations for specified groups, as well as the discretion to retain deposits and fees dependent on individual circumstances, but, as with all Home Office services in relation to the UK border, the question remains as to why the Home Office uniquely must be self-funding. With so many more people who require a passport other than our Armed Forces, diplomats and government Ministers having to travel abroad, whether on business or to support vulnerable relatives, for example, why is almost everyone charged a much higher price for a passport than it costs to produce it? I look forward to the Minister’s response, either now or subsequently in writing.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. We look forward to her response to the various questions and comments.
I very much agree with the remarks from the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh and Lady Foster, and, frankly, all the remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made. Before I start my remarks in support of them, the regulations raise a number of questions and comments for us all, not least that we are debating passport fees as set out in the schedule while, as we have heard, people are waiting months for their applications to be handled. They are often unable to access help and many are missing holidays, weddings and job opportunities because the passport system simply is not working, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, pointed out. Slowing down the fast track, as these regulations do, is almost an admission of failure. Why do Ministers not believe that the system can get back on track and meet existing targets in the longer term?
We have no concerns over the purely technical changes that set out passport fees more simply. We agree that, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, pointed out, it is fair to look at keeping the booking fee where a person books a priority appointment but fails to turn up. However, we have a few questions to raise on this and other aspects of the regulations. Can the Minister update us on the current backlog? The latest reported figure was half a million but the Home Office has not provided updated figures when asked.
Over the weekend, the Times reported that staff have warned that the systems they are being asked to use are not fit for purpose. How will the existing regulations be made fit for purpose when the existing system is said by staff not to be fit for purpose? The article reported that the existing pressures are only going to get “heavier” and that people are being given “poor, misleading advice” by the advice line provider. As I said, this SI will slow down the fast-track process by one day. Is that a proportionate response to all the problems being faced?
What urgent work are the Government and the Home Office doing ahead of the summer to prevent further millions of families being put through chaos before their summer holidays? Staff are reporting problems with the processing system and the digital rollout. How are those concerns being responded to? Case studies show that people are phoning repeatedly for days without answer or being put on hold for hours only to be disconnected. What urgent action is being taken to address that?
Questions have already been asked about staffing levels. We are told that the Government intend to hire another 700 members of staff. When do we expect those staff to be in place, and how does this square with the Government’s intention to reduce the number of staff serving in the Civil Service? What support is being offered to the hard-working staff dealing with these various problems?
On slowing down the fast track from seven days to eight days, how many applications are currently missing the seven-day deadline? Why is the aim not to improve the situation so as to allow the existing seven-day timeline to be achieved, rather than extending the timeframe? When do Ministers expect that the existing backlog of applications will be cleared?
As I said, we have no concerns over the technical changes made to the schedule of fees. However, on reading them, I do have one detailed question. The new schedule shows that a higher fee is added for children aged under 16 to use priority services—£73 for the fast track and £102 for the premium service—than for adults, who correspondingly pay £66.50 for the fast track and £101.50 for the premium service. Why is there a difference between children and adults?
We are in agreement that it is fair not to refund a booking fee or the priority fees paid where a person books a priority appointment and then fails to turn up without good reason. This wastes time in the system—even when it has not been allowed to reach breaking point—and is disrespectful to staff and other users. It is fairly standard practice for an organisation not to refund a booking fee where an appointment is not used.
However, I have a question on the detail. My understanding is that, if you miss an appointment—sometimes people make an innocent mistake—the regulations provide, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, not only for the booking fee and priority fee to be non-refundable but for the standard application fee also to be kept. Does this mean that if a person misses their appointment they will lose not only the fees for that appointment but their application altogether? Will they have to find the money for the standard fee to start the whole process again?
As I am sure the Minister will understand, that raises a number of important questions during a cost of living crisis—particularly when, for many people, it is the system that is in chaos and failing them. I am interested to know what happens when the failure is the system’s fault rather than the applicant’s. What happens to a person’s priority fees if the system fails to deliver their passport within the appropriate deadline?
The Explanatory Memorandum states that, where a person misses an appointment with good reason:
“The fee will be refunded if the customer meets the compassionate ground policy.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, people read these exchanges so this is important. Can we have more information on that policy? It is not mentioned in the regulations themselves and there is no information about it in the Explanatory Memorandum we have been given. What will count as compassionate grounds and who decides that?
There are a number of important questions about these regulations, which, as I said, we generally support. There is also the more general problem of the passport system, which the Government need to sort out urgently. With that, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. There were quite a few questions, so I may not be able to cover absolutely every single detail, but I will start with the points made by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. She and my noble friend Lady Foster spoke about people delaying—for obvious reasons due to Covid—their applications throughout 2020 and 2021. We did prepare extensively for elevated demand with no restrictions upon international travel, and those preparations have ensured that passport applications can be processed in higher numbers than ever before. In preparation for the demand for international travel returning, we have been advising customers since April 2021 to allow up to 10 weeks when applying for their passport, and this remains the case.
The noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Paddick, asked about our anticipated forecast. It is 9.5 million applications in 2022, and we are on target to deliver those. We have employed 500 staff since last April, and there will be a further 700 this summer. They will be a mixture of agency and permanent staff, because we clearly do not need 1,200 permanent staff for ever to deal with quite a short-term issue. Moreover, 90% of passports in the 10-week timeframe are being processed within six weeks.
Turning to the blue passports, I also have a blue passport and I have not had a problem with it. I have not heard of the glossy-photo issue, but I will certainly take that away and inquire about it. It is possible, as my noble friend Lady Foster said, that the technology might have been faulty, but I shall not make any inference of what the issue was.
I was asked how many passports have been issued so far this calendar year. The answer is 3.3 million, and I understand that in March and April alone 2 million were processed, which is quite a number. I will need to write on the fixed and marginal costs regarding missed priority appointments, but clearly there is a cost for someone making an appointment and not turning up. On the question of staffing, no staff were furloughed during Covid; staff were redeployed to other priority government work in the Home Office—for example, dealing with the EU settlement scheme and asylum—and to DWP, working on universal credit.
Sopra Steria has doubled its workforce in supporting HMPO since the start of 2022, alongside opening up a number of new processing centres. Its efforts have enabled the registration of applications and supporting documents on our system and the return of supporting documents to keep pace with this unprecedented demand. We raised concerns with the provider of the passport advice line, Teleperformance, about its delivery and, in response, it is urgently working to add additional staff, with 500 due to be added by mid-June.
On the argument about three months versus six months, it varies, apparently. Not to recuse myself from the information that I gave on the Floor of the House—and I will look into it more thoroughly—I actually thought a letter might be on its way to the noble Lord by now. Apparently, it is six months for Turkey and three months for Spain, but I will give the noble Lord a proper answer on that, because I, too, looked at the GOV.UK website, but I was not entirely sure whether I was right, or the noble Lord was, at the end of it.
I am not going to disagree with the noble Lord. I would just like to give him a comprehensive picture, including on whether it is different if you are going into or coming out of the EU.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, often goes on about the costs versus the profit that the Home Office makes. We do not make a profit. The cost of the passport goes towards our border system; it is not to make a profit. As I said, I will get back to him on costs. I can confirm that if you have paid a premium, you get your money back if your passport does not arrive in time. I will have to get back to him on children, because I do not know the answer. On what is not refunded on missing an appointment, it is not the costs of the application but the booking fee, which is £30—as I understand it from the officials behind me.
My understanding is that if you cancel within 48 hours, you give up the booking fee. If you do not cancel and do not turn up, you forfeit the whole amount: the standard application fee and the premium. In that case, the Passport Office will not be involved in the cost of producing a passport; should that not be refunded?
I did not think that was the case, but I am not going to contradict the noble Lord; I will check. I thought it was just the booking fee that you did not get back; I will double check.
I think I have answered all the questions. I have just one last point on what we did back last year. We started notifying customers by text—I think I said that on the Floor of the House a couple of weeks ago—that their passport was approaching its expiry date. We have sent some 5 million text messages to customers who hold or are about to hold an expired passport.
I have one further question as a result of what the Minister just said. I renewed my passport early because I had to change details in it, so my passport is valid for 13 years, but it is valid for only 10 years for entry to the European Union—you cannot have a passport valid for more than 10 years. Is the Passport Office sending text messages when a passport is approaching 10 years from date of issue or when it is due to expire?
That is a very good question. I would have thought it would be at the 10-year point, but the noble Lord is absolutely right. If there are 13 years on the passport, would it send it after 13 years, and therefore your passport will be three years out of date? I will find out.
I was waiting for the Minister to inform the Committee of the current figure for the backlog. She gave us the application numbers. The application number now is 3.2 million or something, but that is a different way of answering the question. Can she update us on the current backlog figure? We had half a million, but can she update it?
Our applications forecast is 9.5 million; I said that the current number was 3.2 million. On the current status, we anticipate that we will be on target to deliver those 9.5 million. I do not know the number of people awaiting passports at this point, but I will find out.
Committee adjourned at 5.29 pm.