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Lords Chamber

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022

House of Lords

Tuesday 21 June 2022

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.

Water Companies: Sewage Discharge Monitoring

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to require water companies to monitor the volume of sewage discharged into water courses and not just the frequency of such discharges.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. The volume of storm overflow discharge is not directly proportional to its harm as the concentration of sewage in discharges depends on the volume of rainwater it is mixed with. Therefore, we have taken a more effective approach to place a duty on water companies in the Environment Act to directly monitor the impact of discharges on water quality upstream and downstream of overflows. This monitoring system will identify harm from storm overflows and ensure that water companies are held to account through enforcement action.

I thank the Minister for that response, but the Environment Agency has already said that there has

“been widespread and serious non-compliance with the … regulations.”

How can it be expected to act if water companies do not have to measure the intensity of polluting sewage being discharged. Of course there is a cost, but we have always known that more investment is essential to tackle this problem. The Commons Environmental Audit Committee has already recommended installing these monitors, so why are the Government siding with the water companies against the interests of the public, who are rightly outraged at this ongoing scandal?

The Government are very much not siding with the water companies. The level of storm overflows into our rivers is totally unacceptable. That is why we are publishing on 1 September this year our storm overflows plan, which will give details of how we will monitor this. We have measures within the Environment Act which give new legally binding targets and measures which we will bring into force. We have the 25-year plan commitment and our strategic policy statement for Ofwat, which gives a very clear direction. We also have our requirements to the Environment Agency on enforcement, which will hold water companies that break the law to account.

My Lords, as the Minister has just said, the Government recently published a draft of what they describe as the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. That draft was published and consultation was invited. In that plan there is a target of reducing discharges of sewage over the next 18 years by only 40%. Does the Minister agree that the public expect a much more ambitious target than that?

The public are right to feel very strongly about this and we try to reflect that in the priority we give to this. The target will be to concentrate on bathing waters and special environmental waterways, such as chalk streams. They will be the Government’s absolute priority and by 2035, under our plans, we will have eliminated nearly all outflows into those waterways.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that if he introduced Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, the amount of discharge would be immediately reduced? What plans have the Government got to do so?

From memory, I think that Schedule 3 refers to water companies being statutory consultees. I am very happy to follow that up with my noble friend in the near future.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that last year South West Water discharged raw sewage into rivers and beachfronts 43,000 times over a period of 350,000 hours, including for 3,709 hours into the River Otter in Honiton, for 1,872 hours into the River Exe in Tiverton, and for 1,482 hours into the River Axe in Axminster? Will the Government end this scandal by imposing a sewage tax on water company profits to fund necessary upgrades, and will they ban water company bosses claiming bonuses until that is done?

I think that was a very good choice of geography. The noble Lord will accept that this is an absolute priority for this Government. People who live in that part of the world, in places such as Tiverton and Honiton, are right to want a Government who will clean this up, but who have a plan to do it without raising their bills to unaffordable levels. That Government are this one.

We have better policies than Labour, do not worry.

I am really sorry to hear that these volume monitors are so expensive, but let us remember that the water companies are not short of a penny or two. For example, Liv Garfield, the CEO of Severn Trent, has just been paid £4 million a year; Anglian Water has just today paid shareholders a £92 million dividend; and of course £72 billion was paid out in dividends by water companies, while also raising bills by 31% and cutting investment in infrastructure by, in some cases, almost 40%. These are all facts and figures from Feargal Sharkey, and I thank him very much. Can the Minister tell me how much these volume monitors cost?

I cannot tell the noble Baroness precisely. I can tell her that, 11 years ago, the then Water Minister was quite stunned to discover that we knew of only 10% of sewage outflows into rivers. He required all water companies to identify them and, by the end of next year, we will have identified 100% of them, with real-time monitors, so that the public will know. I know who that Minister was, because it was me.

My Lords, the Minister has just said that he found out about this 11 years ago. What have government and the regulator been doing since then? Quite frankly, I think the regulator needs sacking and the Minister needs sacking. Perhaps if he brought my good friend Feargal Sharkey in as a regulator, things would happen.

The noble Lord is not the only person who refers to Feargal Sharkey as his friend. He is someone I know and worked with when I sat on the board of River Action, which was set up to clean up rivers such as the Wye, part of which is ecologically nearly dead. That is why there is an absolute priority in my department and in this Government to make sure we are making these changes and restoring our rivers.

My Lords, have my noble friend or his department seen any assessment of the impact on rivers or consumers if, as some in this House want, the water companies were nationalised?

I have. An independent piece of research said that water bills would be considerably higher if we had not privatised all those years ago. We know that if water companies were in public ownership, the heads of those utilities would have to sit in the queue behind the health service, education, the police and all the other priorities of public spending, and our environment and water customers would get the crumbs at the end of the queue.

My Lords, as somebody who drinks water from Scottish Water, I am pleased to tell noble Lords that it is of excellent quality, our water bills are very reasonable, and the water is owned by the people who use it. I would like to follow up the question from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, because I do not think the Minister gave him an adequate answer. It is not good enough to say that the Government are prioritising one type of water over another when by the time most of us here will be long gone, we will still have only a 40% reduction in sewage in our water.

I very much hope that I and the noble Baroness are spared until 2035, so that we can see that priority waters—those for public bathing and those which we mind desperately about, such as chalk streams and other very special environmental ecosystems —are prioritised. That is what we are intending to do. Our ambitions are both high and achievable.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the River Wye, yet the rivers in the west of England are largely polluted through industrial chicken farms. Can the Minister enlighten the House on what regulation the Government might take to stop this form of pollution?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that the problem does not just exist with water companies. Agricultural activities in certain parts, particularly the Wye and Usk catchment, are detrimental to water quality. We have to make sure that, for the phosphates that are run off from the chicken and poultry farms in that area, there is more join-up to protect waters. This is not just an agricultural issue; it is also a planning issue. There is an added problem, in that that river catchment runs across Welsh and English boundaries, and so we have to work with the devolved Government as well.

New Homes Commitment

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they remain committed to building 300,000 new homes a year.

Delivering new homes and regenerating left-behind communities are central to our levelling-up mission and we remain committed to our ambition of delivering 300,000 homes a year. We have made progress, with more than 2 million additional homes being delivered since April 2010. Over 242,000 homes were delivered from April 2019 to March 2020, which is the highest level for over 30 years.

I am grateful to my noble friend. The Construction Industry Training Board has forecast that we will need an additional 266,000 construction workers over the next three years if demand is to be met—and that is in an industry already facing shortages. What action can my noble friend take to see that those numbers are met? If there is to be a shortfall in output, can he ensure that that does not fall on the affordable sector of the market?

My noble friend is right that there has been a recent report by the CITB, but I point out that that shortfall is for the whole of the construction industry, not just housing. We have significant cross-government intervention and investment in skills, and the CITB made £110 million available in training grants to support 14,000 businesses. However, we continue to recognise—this was picked up by the Federation of Master Builders—that there are stresses and strains in terms of labour and materials. The Government are working hard to overcome these.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, which estimates that we need 90,000 social homes a year in England. Can the Minister tell us how the Government will ensure that their reforms in the planning system contained in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will help deliver that much-needed social housing?

My Lords, there is a real commitment to build more social housing, including more affordable housing. As the noble Baroness knows, the programme is for some £11.5 billion, with a target of double the number of social rented homes in this particular grant period than the previous one. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill recognises that, in order to get the housing, we need the infrastructure in place and must ensure that neighbourhoods have mixed communities at their heart. That is what the Bill is planning to do.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us that all the new houses will be built with a high level of insulation, the quality of which is properly inspected, and will not be fitted with gas boilers but will be heated by renewable energy?

My Lords, we recognise that in order to meet our net-zero commitment we need to implement the future homes standard, which comes in, I believe, in 2025. Building regulations will reflect that ambition to ensure that we build not only more homes but more sustainable homes that use heat pumps and other devices to meet that target.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation board. Does my noble friend agree that many public bodies would be willing to get on with delivering homes if they had access to the brownfield infrastructure land fund? Nearly three months into the financial year, can my noble friend say when the allocations from that fund will be announced?

My Lords, £550 million has been allocated to seven mayoral combined authorities. However, we recognise that we need to announce the availability of funding for smaller brownfield sites, which will happen very shortly.

My Lords, the Minister will know that half of all the affordable housing that is produced annually within the 300,000 target comes from the planning obligations on housebuilders. Can he reassure the House that the planning reforms in the levelling-up Bill will not diminish the amount of affordable housing that housebuilders have to produce, since we need to double the output of affordable housing and not halve it?

I can give an assurance that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill recognises the role of building more housing, including more affordable housing. We are trying to ensure that there is a more transparent approach to the levy. There is reform around the current community infrastructure levy to get that right and to make sure we get a proper contribution to affordable housing in the coming years.

My Lords, has there been a detailed assessment of the decision by Mrs Thatcher to sell off council houses 40 years ago in the light of chronic shortages of houses for sale and rent at affordable prices? Are the Government positively encouraging local authorities to increase their public housing stock?

My Lords, we can prima facie assess that 2 million people chose to buy their own council home and are now homeowners as a result. We make no apology for that. We want to make sure that, in spreading the ability for housing association tenants to buy their own homes, we design the scheme in a way that enables the homes sold to be replaced on a one-for-one basis, which I think everyone can get behind.

Can my noble friend confirm that an unbelievable 1 million people were given the right to come and settle in this country last year? Even if we assume that 300,000 return or emigrate, can he confirm that the remainder—even if they occupy houses at twice the density of the indigenous population—will use up half of the houses we build every year?

My Lords, I recognise that this has been a very welcoming country. We have welcomed refugees from Afghanistan and there has been the very successful programme of welcoming British Hong Kongers to this country. We make no apologies for that. We recognise that there is a need to hit our new-build housing targets and that those will be homes for people who have come to this country for a better life, but we need homes for the younger generations as well.

My Lords, the housebuilding index produced by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply found that, last month, residential construction slowed to levels last seen during the first Covid lockdown. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact this will have on house prices and private rents?

I do not recognise the cataclysmic drop since the pandemic. We hit a record number, as I pointed out, in 2020-21; there was a slight falling back, but all our internal assessments are that we will see a rebound and that the dip this year will not be pronounced or continue into the mid-decade. Hitting 300,000 is a stretching target, but we will see increasing numbers in the years to come.

My Lords, is it possible for a developer to pay the local authority a certain sum of money to be relieved of its responsibility, and for that local authority then to use the money elsewhere? I hear that is happening in other parts of the country.

My Lords, I do not recognise that you can discharge your responsibility. That is almost describing a bung—I do not think that happens. If there is an affordable housing requirement, you can choose to discharge that off-site, but you still have the requirement to deliver it. We see that in some areas where there is very high-value housing; it is simply more economic to build it elsewhere. I do not recognise that, but if the right reverend Prelate has specific examples, I am happy to look into them.

My Lords, it is said that pressure on housing supply is often at the expense of regional and national economic development, and that government departments work on their own strategies in silos to the detriment of the broader strategy. Can the Minister give assurance that this is not the case and that he will take up the cause if evidence is presented to the contrary?

I recognise that we cannot look at housing in isolation; we need to get investment in the infrastructure and other factors to allow for growth. It is a good start to have had a £10 billion investment in housing supply since the start of this Parliament, but there is also investment to enable brownfield sites to be built out rather than the—sometimes easier—greenfield sites. We want to see brownfield development and that requires infrastructure, and the money is in place to do precisely that.

My Lords, is it not time that we had a meaningful new towns project which would benefit both owner-occupation and social housing throughout the United Kingdom?

I think we need to find ways of coming up with new town projects but to do that we need the infrastructure, the transport, the roads and the rail, and that is why we recognise that a programme just to build homes is not enough. We need to get that in the round, and we are taking it forward as part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill in this Session.

My Lords, I was very pleased to hear the Minister say enthusiastically last night that we need more affordable housing and social housing, and that the Government were happy to look at ideas. There are currently 500 projects for community land trust homes, creating 7,000 new homes around the country. Will the Government look at how they can encourage further this model of providing homes in perpetuity, of a structure and type decided by local communities for local communities?

I think there is quite a degree of interest in how community land trusts can operate; Coin Street is an example, and I believe there are other examples in Watford. We are happy to take all ideas, including how we can use community land trusts as a vehicle to deliver more affordable housing.

Spousal Visas: Processing Times

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the processing times for spousal visas for the spouses of British citizens from in excess of 24 weeks.

My Lords, the Home Office is currently prioritising Ukraine visa scheme applications in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Staff from other government departments, including the DWP and HMRC, are being surged into the department to help with Ukraine work and to enable normal visa routes to return to normal service levels in due course.

My Lords, it is very commendable that the Government are pouring additional resources into processing Ukrainian visas, but can I ask that they do not lose sight of the over 18,000 families, split apart and waiting for spousal visas, who have no certainty that the recently increased 24-week timeframe will even be the maximum time that they will have to wait? What measurable steps are the Government taking to reduce this backlog, and when does the Minister expect the fast-track system to be reinstated?

I concur with the noble Baroness that we will not lose sight of that, but what we will also not lose sight of is that in many instances it is life or death for the Ukrainian people. I totally appreciate that other people are having to wait, and we are going to return to normal processing as soon as we can in due course.

My Lords, we agree with the prioritisation with respect to Ukraine, but the fact of the matter is that, whether it is passports, asylum applications or, now, spousal visas, the story at the Home Office is backlog after backlog after backlog. The Government’s response is to say that over the next few months they will come forward with plans for reductions of 10% in staff. What does the Home Office say to those people waiting for spousal visas, separated from their partners for six months at a time? What does it say to those people waiting for spousal visas who have given up their jobs on the basis that they expect to get them? It is not good enough. Prioritise Ukraine, but not at the expense of everything else.

The noble Lord has neatly gone on to passports. Across March, April and May, HMPO processed approximately 3 million passport applications, with 98.5% of those processed within the published processing time of up to 10 weeks, and 91% processed within six weeks. It was not a backlog; it was the sheer volume of processing that needed to be done. In terms of workforce reductions, I have made the point before that every organisation should look at becoming leaner and more efficient. That certainly will not be to the detriment of any of the HMPO or processing surges that we see at the moment, where we expect to have the appropriate number of staff for processing.

My Lords, are the Government aware that the Russian Government are using the delays as a form of propaganda by saying that it is the fault of the Ukrainians that other countries cannot get their visas, and that this propaganda is being specifically targeted at South Africa, India and other countries? That information came to me at a meeting I had with five Ukrainian MPs recently.

The noble Baroness underlines that to have the Ukrainian visa scheme as a priority is absolutely the right thing to do.

My Lords, my noble friend has answered a question on the length of time for inquiries to be made and for decisions to be taken. This appears to be the case throughout administration in relation to passports, as well as in relation to these matters. If we are now going to totally rely on the number of weeks in which we have to deal with matters, surely we are at risk of cutting corners. Is it not really rather important that we be more concerned with the thoroughness and fairness of the examination that takes place before a decision is taken?

My noble friend is absolutely right. Of course, those thorough processes were some of the things that noble Lords were asking us to cut corners on right at the beginning of this process. We have not, and we are proud of the thoroughness of our processes.

My Lords, the Minister of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office told the House on 7 June that there were 19,000 outstanding applications under the Ukrainian visa scheme. Can the Minister update the House on that number? Can she tell the House what the knock-on effect has been in terms of the number of outstanding applications for other visas?

On the Ukrainian visas, I think there have been 188,000 applications, and I know that 130,000 have now been issued.

My Lords, before the Minister returns to the Home Office this afternoon, will she encourage colleagues to go and see the exhibition that opened yesterday, sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Rehman Chishti MP, in the Upper Waiting Room between both Houses of Parliament? It highlights those who have been caught up in violence in Afghanistan, and the Rohingya, Yazidis, Nigerians and many others, so that we understand the plight that many women especially face when they become refugees, contrary to the caricature that is often made of those seeking asylum.

The noble Lord points to the vulnerability of women. We have seen that very much during the flight from Ukraine; they are our most vulnerable. Again, that is why we have prioritised the visas and why we do not want women to take journeys across Europe to perhaps be at the behest of people who would not wish them any good.

My Lords, notwithstanding everything that has already been said today, is the Minister aware that a drift back to Ukraine from countries such as Poland is starting, and that a direct train service from Warsaw to Kyiv—with a change of undercarriage at the border—has started to be reinstated, and that even the economic development agency based in Kyiv, on behalf of the Ukrainians, is now starting to get back into business to work out how it is going to advance the economic development of that country?

The noble Viscount brings both good news and bad news. The good news is that the Ukrainians are desperate to get back to normal, but I say that with a note of caution, because I hope they are not going back to face further danger.

My Lords, if a private company could produce its product only with a six-month wait, competition would move in to take over its market. Has my noble friend any plans to ensure that this happens with the delivery of these important services?

I say to my noble friend, as I have said to other noble Lords, that I hope that normal visa services, in terms of delivery times, will return in due course, but we are prioritising the Ukrainians at the moment.

In answer to my noble friend Lord Paddick, the Minister answered the first part of his question. The second part was: as a result of Ukraine, what is the detriment in the number of outstanding applications from other people waiting for visas? Could the Minister please answer that part of the question?

The noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, are absolutely right that it is to the detriment of other visa schemes— student and spousal visas, for example—and, as I said, we hope to get them back on to a more normal footing in due course.

My Lords, what preparations are in process to counteract the effects of climate change and the greatly increased number of people who will have to leave their homes and their areas because of the new weather conditions?

That is a very interesting follow-up on spousal visas. But the noble Lord does have a point there, in the sense that we will see a lot more global migration, which needs to be tackled globally.

British Baccalaureate

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the main recommendation of The Times Education Commission, published on 15 June, which calls for the introduction of a British Baccalaureate.

My Lords, I thank the Times Education Commission and the Members of this House who have contributed to it for their insight and ideas. Over the last 10 years, the Government have transformed the quality of academic and technical qualifications, ensuring that they support all young people to achieve their full potential. That is why, with the further reforms currently in train, we have no plans to introduce a new British baccalaureate at age 18.

My Lords, have the Government noted the chorus of praise that greeted this report and, in particular, its recommendation for a British baccalaureate uniting academic and vocational study? Do the Government agree with the president of the Royal Society, who has said that:

“Given the breadth of support for the commission’s report, it is surely time for a cross-party approach to implementing a genuine reset of education”?

Will the Government now rise to this challenge, surely one of the most urgent of our time, which the current Schools Bill, to which my noble friend referred, seems to rather evade?

We think we have led, since 2010, a major reset of education in this country, with relentless focus on quality, clarity of purpose and good progression outcomes, and I commend to my noble friend the schools White Paper, which covers both our legislative and non-legislative actions.

My Lords, the Minister’s reply was extraordinarily complacent and very disappointing. I cannot understand how the Government can have such a closed mind to a sensible suggestion of the kind that the Times Education Commission has made. Is she not aware that no other OECD country has such a specialised curriculum for their able 16 to 18 year-olds? Surely it is now high time to look at this again and try to come up with a more sensible solution where young people have the opportunity to study a wider range of subjects, rather than being confined to just three as is the case with A-levels at the moment.

I thoroughly hope that I did not give the noble Baroness the sense that the Government are complacent. We are not complacent. She need only look at the measures we are taking in relation to technical education, I hope, to demonstrate that. Obviously, every country has a different education system. We have worked to build the best system for our children. We believe that it plays to our strengths and recognises the structure of the school system we have, rather than one that other countries have.

My Lords, will the Government accept the Times education commission’s recommendation that bursaries for trainee language teachers be restored to the same level as for science and maths, given the current shortfall of well in excess of 50% for the recruitment of language teachers?

The noble Baroness has highlighted the issue of the shortage of modern languages teachers. She will be aware that we have taken a number of actions in this regard, including putting them on the shortage occupation list.

Another great point in the education commission’s recommendations—forgive me if I read it out—is this:

“An ‘electives premium’ for all schools to be spent on activities including drama, music, dance and sport”,

which are so sadly missing in state schools these days,

“and a National Citizen Service experience for every pupil, with volunteering and outdoor pursuits expeditions to ensure that the co-curricular activities enjoyed by the most advantaged become available to all.”

What a brilliant idea. How will the Government take this forward?

The Government are already taking it forward. The department is investing around £115 million a year in cultural education over three years, on top of schools funding. We are also publishing a national plan for music education, thanks to the great leadership of my noble friend Lady Fleet, and will publish a cultural education plan in 2023. We are supporting the national youth guarantee in relation to citizenship opportunities.

My Lords, does my noble friend not accept those famous words that, without vision, the people perish? We have vision in this report from the Times. Will my noble friend at the very least —because many do think that the Government are complacent—talk to the Leader of the House about having a full day’s debate on that commission?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the main problem is that people have to specialise too early in this country? When many of us were doing O-levels, the standards were closer to today’s A-levels, so we have the problem that you cannot specialise when the quality of the teaching you are relying on is not high enough.

I can say to my noble friend that we have worked incredibly hard to reform both academic and, more recently, technical qualifications. I proudly wear my T-level badge, although it is slightly upside down. More importantly, there is a perception that one can do either academic or technical qualifications. In our response to the consultation on level 3 qualifications, published in July last year, we set out the groups of technical and academic qualifications that we will fund and how they can be combined.

My Lords, although the Times education commission’s report is an extremely good piece of work with very good recommendations, other bodies were looking at the shape of our education system, particularly assessment, at the same time. So, although I wholeheartedly endorse the notion of having a day to look at this commission, it would pay dividends if the Government met all the commissions that have reported on the shape of our curriculum and assessment, and we thereafter debated all of them. I hope that the Minister agrees.

The Government engage with all the key stakeholder groups in this sector. We value enormously the expertise that they hold. However, I remind the House that attempts were made to deliver a broader 14-to-19 diploma but were not successful.

My Lords, the commission’s report comments on the importance of bringing out the best in teaching. Teach First has transformed the quality of teaching in some areas by attracting top-quality graduates into our schools. Would the Government consider a programme of Teach Last, to use the skills of those who retire early or want to give back to their communities after another career?

My noble friend will be pleased to know that there is such a programme, Now Teach, and that the Government have been active in supporting it.

Last week, the Minister said at the Dispatch Box that it is not government policy to open further grammar schools, yet we read in the papers that new selective schools are on the cards as a way of soothing Tory Back-Benchers. Can the Minister confirm whether what she said last week was correct or whether the department is looking into new grammar schools?

I think the noble Baroness has seen from the Schools Bill and from the schools White Paper what our policy is in this matter.

I make a plea to all those also asking the Government to take the baccalaureate more seriously. I declare an interest in that my eldest son took the baccalaureate because he was really distressed by the narrowness of A-levels. One advantage which has not been mentioned is that it can be internationally reciprocally recognised, so that children who emigrate or whose parents move for a job will not have to retake extremely alien examinations. Does the Minister not think that this is an advantage worth having for our children?

On the international recognition of our qualifications, the noble Baroness is right. We want an outward-looking and confident group of young people who seize opportunities all around the world, but certainly A-levels are extremely well regarded internationally, and we believe that T-levels will follow.

My Lords, the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report drew heavily on the work of anthropologists and sociologists. One aspect of the IB is that there is a theory of knowledge course, which looks not just at individual subjects but at how they intersect and divide between each other, and the challenge of acquiring reliable knowledge in an information age—referring to the media literacy question that we had yesterday. Therefore, is this cross-sectional, cross-disciplinary, systems-thinking approach not something that we urgently need across our education system?

The noble Baroness makes an interesting point. We agree that there is very much of value in the panel’s report, but one of its points is that there is an artificial dichotomy between knowledge and skills. All the evidence supports this. A knowledge-based curriculum stimulates critical thinking and inquiry skills, and those can be taught only in the context of solid subject content.

Public Procurement (International Trade Agreements) (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 25 April be approved.

Considered in Grand Committee on 15 June.

Motion agreed.

Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Regulations laid before the House on 19 May be approved.

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

My Lords, in opening this debate I first acknowledge and express my respect for the deeply held views that many noble Lords hold and will continue to hold on this subject. For my part, since becoming a Member of your Lordships’ House in 2016, I have never taken a position on the moral rights or wrongs of abortion; indeed, I have not previously voted on the issue. Therefore, rather than reopening the ethical debate about abortion, which has been discussed on previous occasions including during the passage of the 2020 framework regulations, I wish to focus on the legal obligations on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Government and how these regulations will address them.

The origins of these regulations were the decision taken by both Houses of Parliament in 2019 to support an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill brought forward by the honourable Member for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, in the other place, in respect of access to abortion services in Northern Ireland. Noble Lords will recall that this took place during the period of nearly three years from 2017 to 2020 when Northern Ireland was without a functioning Executive or Assembly. The effect of her amendment, which subsequently became Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, was to place a clear statutory duty on the Government to ensure access to services that are compliant with the report in 2018 of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women—or CEDAW for short.

I remind noble Lords that the amendment was passed by a majority of 332 to 99 in the other place, and a vote to amend that amendment in this House was rejected by 138 votes to 39. The size of these majorities indicated the clear will of Parliament to address these issues and ensure access to services in Northern Ireland in line with those available in the rest of the United Kingdom. As a result, since April 2020, access to a limited range of abortion services has been available in Northern Ireland; the latest figures I have show that between 31 March 2020 and 31 January 2022, 2,794 such abortions took place.

I take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the medical professionals who have ensured that women and girls have had some local access to abortion services in Northern Ireland up to this point, and the organisations that have supported this work. I do not underestimate the huge efforts that have been made, and I have deeply been impressed when meeting, as I have on a number of occasions, clinicians and organisations who have helped to sustain the limited services currently in place.

Despite their best efforts, however, these services still fall far short of what is required by law, with women and girls still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care locally in Northern Ireland in the same way as women in the rest of the UK. The reasons for this are very clear. Following New Decade, New Approach and the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland in January 2020, it was always the Government’s expectation and preference that the Executive, with the relevant legal powers, policy and operational expertise, would take forward the commissioning of abortion services and ensure that they were embedded in the health and social care system in Northern Ireland. Yet, despite having had every opportunity to do so, and extensive engagement by the UK Government to see how best we could support delivery, the Executive have failed to act.

As a result, women and girls in Northern Ireland continue to be placed in vulnerable situations, which we cannot allow to continue. Many of them are still forced to travel to Great Britain to access services, with 371 making the journey in 2020 despite the difficulties attached to travelling during that period. Figures released just today show that 161 made the journey in 2021. I know from my discussions with clinicians in Northern Ireland that the limited services on offer are stretched to breaking point. This is clearly an unacceptable state of affairs. Despite being given the time, space and encouragement by the Government to do so, the Executive have not ensured the provision of services required by Parliament in 2019.

In the spring of 2020, the Government introduced, and Parliament approved, a framework for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to deliver services, yet services were not commissioned. In March 2021, the Government introduced, and Parliament approved, the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations. These provided the Northern Ireland Secretary with a power to direct that action be taken where it is required to implement the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report. In July 2021, the Northern Ireland Secretary did indeed direct the Department of Health to commission and ensure the full provision of abortion services by no later than 31 March 2022, yet services were still not commissioned.

It is approaching nearly three years since the executive formation Act was passed. Section 9 continues to place the Government under a duty to implement the CEDAW recommendations and ensure that women and girls have access to services. We now have no alternative but to take all necessary actions to ensure that this happens.

In his Statement, therefore, on 24 March this year, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland committed to return to Parliament and make regulations after the Northern Ireland Assembly election which took place on 5 May, if no progress was made towards the delivery of services. He has now made the regulations that are before your Lordships today and they were agreed in the other place last week, in order to make sure that the will of Parliament is respected and his legal duties upheld.

In response to arguments made that these regulations ignore the devolution settlement and make constitutional changes via secondary legislation, I would remind noble Lords that the devolution settlement does not absolve us of our statutory duty to uphold the rights of women and girls in this context. I therefore hope that noble Lords will support these regulations without amendment to the approval Motion.

The Government have not taken these decisions lightly. We remain fully committed to protecting the Belfast agreement in all its dimensions and to the institutions it establishes, including devolved government. In this instance, however, as I have just said, the devolution settlement does not absolve the Government of the clear statutory duties placed upon them by Parliament. This Government’s actions up to this point reinforce that position and our desire to work with the devolved institutions. Indeed, it was only once it became clear that this deadline would not be met that on 24 March, my right honourable friend made a commitment to return to Parliament and make regulations on abortion should they be necessary. As a result, these regulations were laid before this House on 19 May.

Turning briefly to what they contain, they remove the need for the Northern Ireland Executive Committee to approve services before they can be commissioned and funded by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. The regulations do this by providing that directions under the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021, which require action to be taken to implement the recommendations of the CEDAW report, must be complied with irrespective of whether the matter has been discussed or agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive Committee. Further, they confer on the Secretary of State the power to do anything that a Northern Ireland Minister or department could do for the purpose of ensuring CEDAW compliance. For the purpose of determining what a Northern Ireland Minister or department could do, any need for Executive Committee approval will be disregarded.

The effect of this is to ensure that the Department of Health will have no further barriers to commission and fund services. Even at this stage, it is our clear preference that the Department of Health should drive forward the commissioning of abortion services without further delay and that, as a devolved matter, funding remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive. To that end, we continue to engage with the Minister of Health and his department, but this requires an absolute commitment by the department to provide services, or the Northern Ireland Secretary will use his powers in these regulations to commission services himself. To ensure that we have all the information required in those circumstances, a small team has been established in the Northern Ireland Office to work alongside the Department of Health to take this forward.

I recognise that this is a sensitive and personal issue for many people, and we have heard many differing views in this House on previous occasions, as well as from Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in relation to abortion services. Yet this sovereign United Kingdom Parliament has also made its views crystal clear and placed a binding statutory duty on the Secretary of State to ensure access to properly commissioned services. In their absence, caused by a refusal on the part of the Executive to take this forward, women are currently forced to choose to travel or to resort to unsafe and unregulated measures.

A number of the clinicians I have met over recent months, who are struggling to provide these services without proper support, tell me of the very difficult situations into which women are being forced by a lack of safe, local, high-quality healthcare services. This is despite the fact that the law is in place to ensure that safe, properly regulated services are provided. We have a statutory duty in Section 9 of the executive formation Act to change this situation and ensure that CEDAW-compliant services are available. That is what these regulations will finally provide in Northern Ireland, and I commend them to the House.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

At end insert “but that this House regrets that the Regulations (1) disregard the statutory role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and ignore the devolution settlement, and (2) make substantial constitutional changes via secondary legislation”.

My Lords, as the Minister said, there has been and continues to be very significant opposition to the imposition of the extreme abortion regime in Northern Ireland by this Government. It was done in July 2019, in circumstances that beggared belief. It left Northern Ireland with abortion law that goes further than that which applies elsewhere in the UK and that has been, and continues to be, rejected by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding that opposition, the Northern Ireland Government have been acting in compliance with the 2019 Act and the 2020 regulations—I will deal with this in a minute.

The process by which we in Northern Ireland are governed is provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In its third report, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House stated that these regulations

“allow the Northern Ireland Assembly Executive Committee to be bypassed”.

The Executive Committee is provided for in Section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Section 20(3) and (4) provide:

“The Committee shall … have the function of discussing and agreeing upon … significant or controversial matters”

and those that cut across the responsibility of more than one Northern Ireland Minister. Accordingly, the Ministerial Code requires Northern Ireland Ministers to bring such matters to the attention of the Executive Committee. Abortion is a significant, controversial matter.

On each occasion when draft regulations have been presented to Parliament following the passing of the executive formation Act, they have extended abortion provision in Northern Ireland; it happened in 2020, in 2021 and now, in 2022. Despite the fact that a duly elected and appointed Northern Ireland Minister of Health is in office and working, we see an attempt to bypass him and give the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland powers that are not available to Northern Ireland Ministers or their government departments. All of this is inconsistent with the existing statutory provisions for government in Northern Ireland and with the international obligations of the British Government under the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast agreement.

Ignoring the expressed views of the people prior to the passing of the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, Northern Ireland now has an abortion law that goes far beyond what was legally required by the formation Act 2019. Regulations provide that abortions can be carried out up to 12 weeks, permitting abortion of any baby, for any reason, including on the grounds of its sex. This provision is not consistent with the UN CEDAW report, on which the 2019 legislation was based. CEDAW has said that sex-selective abortion should not happen because it perpetuates negative stereotypes and prejudices towards women. I believe that it is not permitted in the rest of the UK.

Abortion can be carried out up to 24 weeks if one nurse or doctor certifies that

“the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the … woman which is greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”,

taking into account her “actual or … foreseeable circumstances”, such as poverty. Again, this is much wider than in the rest of the UK.

Abortion can be carried out in Northern Ireland up to birth, if it is

“immediately necessary … to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health, of the pregnant woman”,

if two doctors or two nurses certify that the termination is necessary to prevent such injury and if there is a

“substantial risk that … the child … would suffer from such physical or mental impairment as to be seriously disabled.”

This would include babies with Down syndrome or cleft palates. Again, this is much wider than in the rest of the UK.

As the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, said in 2020, speaking of babies with disabilities, this

“promotes and perpetuates disability discrimination.”—[Official Report, 15/6/20; col. 1981.]

So in Northern Ireland we have babies’ lives being terminated because of their sex or their disabilities, among other reasons.

In 2021, the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations gave expansive powers to the Secretary of State, allowing him, for the purposes of implementing the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report, to direct that action must be taken by Northern Ireland Ministers, departments, the Regional Health and Social Care Board and the Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-being. However, it is a discretion, not a duty. It says he “may” act. He does not have to act, and if he does not act, there will be no successful challenge.

Now we have the 2022 regulations. First, they disregard the statutory role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and ignore the devolution settlement. Secondly, they make substantial constitutional changes by way of secondary legislation. It is not the case that the Northern Ireland Assembly is in breach of its legal obligations to implement CEDAW. It is work in progress. Many changes have occurred. Abortion has been decriminalised in most situations, as required. Abortion is now available in Northern Ireland. The Minister has access to figures, which I could not find when I checked again this morning, and he has told us that there were 2,794 abortions in Northern Ireland in the last year and that in the previous year there were 1,345. These figures represent a 60% increase on the number of those who went to England and Wales for abortions in 2019.

The exclusion zones mentioned in the CEDAW report have now been provided for in law, in a Bill that was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly and is currently, I believe, subject to legal challenge. As I have said previously, the Secretary of State is not in breach of his obligation. He has a discretion, not a duty, and this is work in progress.

I now address the first issue: that the regulations disregard the statutory role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and ignore the devolution settlement. The democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly, acting in accordance with its constitutional processes, did not choose to legislate further or to commission directly abortion services that are otherwise provided. Abortion is available; 2,794 abortions in our small area is evidence of that. The Northern Ireland Assembly could have done so but it chose not to.

Your Lordships know that the history of Northern Ireland is tragic. After decades of war, the Good Friday/Belfast agreement of 1998 provided for the process of government within Northern Ireland. The arrangements that we have protect the rights of citizens by providing for the Assembly and the Executive, comprised of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, who are joint chairs, and eight other Ministers. Their job, as the Government’s website says, is to exercise executive authority on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly and to take decisions on significant matters and issues. Health is, as I have said, one of the matters that have been devolved to Northern Ireland. The Government’s website says:

“This means that local politicians, instead of MPs in Westminster, make key decisions on how Northern Ireland is governed.”

It is most regrettable that after our last election in May, there is as yet no sitting Assembly and no Executive. However, in the absence of the Assembly, Ministers in office before the election continue to hold office and have decision-making powers. There is a working Minister of Health, Mr Robin Swann MLA of the Ulster Unionist Party. He has massive responsibilities. Our health service has been described as “broken” by the director of the Royal College of Nursing and as “extremely broken” by a leading ED consultant and many others. We are short of some 7,000 medical and nursing staff.

There were 2,794 abortions last year. In April 2021, more than 300,000 people, almost 20% of our population, were waiting for a first consultant appointment. On 31 March 2022, 156,270 patients were waiting, having seen a consultant, for a diagnostic test and 50.7% of patients were waiting more than nine weeks for a diagnostic test to find out whether they have conditions which may be very serious or even life threatening. Some 29.6% of patients have been waiting more than 26 weeks for a diagnostic test. Only 43% of all cancer patients start treatment within 16 days of an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer.

We have amazing cataract waiting times. I declare an interest because I have cataracts and am awaiting surgery, but the waiting time is four to five years. However, you are not allowed to go on the waiting list until your eyesight is so bad that you cannot drive. You wait, with deteriorating sight, until you cannot drive, and then you wait another five years.

Just yesterday, Minister Swann published an action plan setting out a programme of reform for the delivery of stroke and orthopaedic services. Northern Ireland has 25,526 people waiting for orthopaedic treatment. I declare an interest as I am on the list. They can expect to wait four or five years for surgery that will give them mobility, without which their physical and mental health will in all probability decline further.

Abortion has been made available within the law. As Minister Swann has stated:

“My Department does not dispute that women in Northern Ireland are legally entitled to abortion services. The legal advice that was received by my Department states that the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 do not require my Department to commission the relevant services. Registered medical professionals can now terminate pregnancies lawfully.”

There is, as the Minister said, nothing in the legislation thus far that requires the independent commissioning of abortion services. Rather, they are made available through normal procedures.

Abortion is a costly business and profitable for those who provide the services. UK health reports that it costs £500 for the abortion pills you can take up to nine weeks of gestation, rising to about £800 for an abortion up to 18 weeks and about £2,000 after that. The Minister and his department are working hard to try to resolve the massive problems faced by our health system across the board.

If passed, these regulations would fundamentally alter the principles of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, which created a sophisticated process for decision-making. As I state in this amendment, they

“make substantial constitutional changes via secondary legislation”.

They would allow the Secretary of State to bypass the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive Committee entirely. They are not in any way limited. However, the Northern Ireland Ministerial Code makes clear that the Northern Ireland Act ensures that significant and controversial issues are for the Executive to decide.

The regulations give broad, sweeping powers to the Secretary of State effectively to act as a Northern Ireland Minister without having been appointed as a Minister in accordance with the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and without any accountability to the people of Northern Ireland. Effectively, they would allow the Secretary of State to take command away from the duly elected and appointed Minister of Health in the areas of abortion services and all the other areas mentioned in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report, from the Minister for Justice and, in education, the Minister of Education. The regulations would give the Secretary of State all the powers of those Ministers to allocate resources and do anything a Minister or department could do, and to provide financial assistance for the purposes of ensuring that the CEDAW recommendations, which we brought into domestic law, are implemented.

If these regulations were passed, the Secretary of State would be able to take these decisions in isolation, having no regard to the impact of his decisions on the allocation of resources for neurology patients, cancer patients, orthopaedic patients, patients with cataracts and other eye problems, and patients in all other areas of medicine. The Minister of Health is in office and working to try to manage the impact of Covid on our broken health service. Undoubtedly, brave decisions need to be made to secure greater efficiencies and allow more people to be treated more quickly; however, there is no need for the drastic, unaccountable powers over elements of government that would be given to the Secretary of State were these regulations to be approved.

The 2020 regulations, which allowed Westminster to introduce a completely new abortion framework to Northern Ireland after the Executive have returned in a devolved area of policy, overruled the devolution settlement. All subsequent attempts to expand this abortion regime are but a further bypassing of—indeed, an ignoring of—our constitutional arrangements, which are fundamentally vital to our peace. When both the 2020 and 2021 regulations were passed, the overwhelming majority of MPs representing Northern Ireland who take their seats in Westminster voted against them. In June 2020, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, 75 of the 90 MLAs from across the community voted to oppose the imposition of abortion legislation that discriminated against those with non-fatal disabilities, including Down syndrome, and an absolute majority specifically voted against the imposition of abortion regulations that would allow disability discrimination, yet this is what Westminster did in the 2021 regulations.

I have referred to the third report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Regulation 2 of these regulations enables the Secretary of State to act in a way inconsistent with the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Is it right for your Lordships to pass regulations that do this—that drive a coach and horses through the delicate, finely balanced, democratic processes established by statute and by an international agreement? Surely not. As noted in the other place, this raises troubling questions about the delineation of power between, for example, the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State. For example, from whom do civil servants take instruction? Specifically, when can the Secretary of State countermand a direction of the Minister? Were the Secretary of State to overrule a decision made by the Northern Ireland Health Minister, what are the funding implications of such an act for the Northern Ireland budget?

Under these regulations, the Secretary of State will not be accountable for the public funds committed to implement any decision he makes. The regulations thus create ambiguity at the heart of the machinery of government and could thus lead to a serious lack of clarity and conflict between the departments of health and other ministries and departments. As I have said and as the Minister acknowledged, abortion is now available in Northern Ireland. There were 2,794 abortions up to March 2022. The claim, therefore, that these regulations are needed and wanted is not sustainable. Under our constitutional arrangements, it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to decide how to give effect to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 and the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020.

Any fundamental constitutional changes, such as the bypassing of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and other relevant legislation, and the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, should be made only in primary legislation, where they can be scrutinised and debated fully, not via a regulation such as this. Your Lordships’ House should not approve these regulations. I beg to move.

My Lords, I give my whole-hearted support to the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and thank her for tabling it. This is a free-vote issue, of course, and the proceedings here today are of huge interest to the people in Northern Ireland. There are not many controversial issues in Northern Ireland that can be defined as neither orange nor green and cannot be interpreted by anyone as sectarian. This is one such issue. On a lot of Northern Ireland political issues, I am sure I probably would not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, but this issue unites people across faiths and communities with different identities in Northern Ireland.

Up until 2019, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, has said, Northern Ireland had the right to decide its own laws on abortion. Then, some politicians here in Westminster decided that they could overrule the hard-won devolution settlement, and their campaigning was pretty tireless. But for me, this goes to the heart of whether devolution is to be meaningful. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is meant to be the basis of all political decisions in Northern Ireland, and these regulations—and indeed the whole way the abortion debate has been handled by the Secretary of State—are, I believe, driving a coach and horses through that agreement.

I hope that Members of your Lordships’ House will actually take away the word “abortion” and not talk about abortion itself and their own personal views on the rights and wrongs of abortion, because this is much more fundamental. This is a fundamental constitutional change being proposed by regulation. The Secretary of State presented the regulations in the other place as changing the Northern Ireland Act in a limited and specific way, but that is simply not the case. These regulations set a precedent. They go right against the constitutional guarantee and give the Secretary of State power to make any decisions he sees fit, ignoring the will of the people of Northern Ireland.

Back in 2018, the Secretary of State said:

“it would not be appropriate for Westminster to seek to impose its will, or to be the arbiter of an issue that has long been devolved to the people of Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/6/18; col. 220.]

What happened? Why has he changed his mind? He has done a complete U-turn, and perhaps the reason is that he was being held prisoner by so many women actively campaigning on this issue. Now he wants to be the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland, or perhaps the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health.

I genuinely think that the way this whole issue has been handled is shameful, and even more shameful when there are so many other crucial issues in Northern Ireland that the Government have chosen not to push forward. When it suits Her Majesty’s Government, they want devolution and they believe in devolution. When it does not suit them, they take away devolution, and that is what this is about today. Forget the issue of abortion: this is about the constitutional sabotage of devolution and the 1998 Act.

My Lords, I speak in favour of the regulations before us this afternoon. As others have said, abortion is always a complex and highly emotive issue that is ultimately a matter of conscience for noble Lords. But in the debate this afternoon I think it is important to try to hold on to the facts and acknowledge why we are once again having to debate these issues. As the Minister set out in his opening remarks, we are debating these regulations because the Northern Ireland Department of Health has failed to make progress on implementing the 2020 regulations.

The 2020 regulations sought to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom on reproductive rights for women and to ensure that the whole of the United Kingdom met its international requirements through CEDAW. I am very pleased that the Minister acknowledges the importance of adhering to our international legal obligations. In essence, we are debating two issues: the United Kingdom’s adherence to international treaty obligations, and the provision of equality of access for women in Northern Ireland to the same levels of reproductive healthcare as women can access in the rest of the United Kingdom.

For those colleagues who are concerned about the potential impact of these regulations on the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland, as a very firm believer in devolution, I believe that these are an exceptional set of circumstances that should not create a wider precedent. It would of course have been hugely preferable for the Northern Ireland Executive to have fulfilled their responsibilities directly following the adoption of the regulations in April last year. In that respect, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. However, once again, Northern Ireland finds itself without a functioning Executive, so it is currently not possible to make progress in this regard.

The international treaty obligations in CEDAW were signed by the United Kingdom as a whole, so the Government in Westminster have a duty to ensure that the whole of the United Kingdom implements them in full. This debate is really about implementing a law that has now been in place for over two years. It should not be about reopening or unpicking what should be a settled matter. A woman’s right to choose in Northern Ireland remains in a precarious position. The reality is that women continue to be forced to travel to England for abortion services; some women, in certain parts of Northern Ireland, continue to purchase unsafe abortion pills.

Whatever one’s personal view on abortion, surely this is an unacceptable position. There is an urgent need to see consistency of services and rights to reproductive health across Northern Ireland. For this to be possible, it is important that the commissioning process be concluded as soon as possible, to ensure that services are fully accessible to all who need them. Can the Minister reassure us that the necessary funding will be made available, and give an indicative timetable for this to be concluded?

In summary, these regulations are about ensuring that every part of the United Kingdom adheres to our international treaty obligations, so that every woman in Northern Ireland will finally be entitled to the same level of reproductive healthcare as women in the rest of the United Kingdom. I therefore urge noble Lords to support these regulations and to reject the amendment to the Motion from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan.

My Lords, I am conscious that it is not commonplace for Prelates to comment on matters that extend to Northern Ireland only. However, what made me reluctant to speak on this matter is the same driving force that has brought me to speak—the fact that this was, and should be again, a devolved matter. My desire and aim today is not to speak around the rights and wrongs of the matter but to state my discomfort that this debate is happening in this place at all.

I believe the mandate for decision-making on this matter lies in Northern Ireland, with the newly elected Executive. I would much rather see increased efforts towards their establishment than our making decisions on their behalf. Much was said in this place, and in print and online media, about the fact that the regulations we seek to amend today came through this House and the other place when there was no sitting Executive in Northern Ireland. I was one of those frustrated at the timing, and I feel that it happened when there was no sitting Executive precisely because they would never pass such legislation. It was imposed, and these regulations continue to impose on Northern Irish people in what I believe is an unacceptable way.

The point could not be made more clearly than in the first proposed amendment in the regulations before us:

“The fact that a matter has not been brought to the attention of, or discussed and agreed by, the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly is to be disregarded”.

I am no stranger to legal language, but this does not make good reading. On top of this, we are also asked to support amendments which place financial demands on the devolved health service to fund decisions thrust upon it.

For these reasons, I am happy to see the amendment expressing regret from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I fully support it, because no word can better describe how I feel about these regulations coming to this place than “regret”. I am happy for those in Northern Ireland to disregard my comments if they are considered unhelpful or unsolicited, but for this House to put into statute that the views of the Northern Ireland Executive should be disregarded in this way seems to me wholly wrong.

My Lords, it is my firm belief that arguments about devolution are being used to disguise the fact that we are actually talking about human rights. The European Court of Human Rights has held repeatedly that access to abortion law is a human right. We do not always like it—only a week ago, some people were up in arms because the European Court of Human Rights put a spoke in the attempt to send people to Rwanda—but we have accepted it. Whether one likes it or not, there is a human right to abortion which women have been denied for a very long time in Northern Ireland. One would be more sympathetic had Northern Ireland not apparently made a mess of its health system—and of course, one recalls that not so long ago, illegitimate newborn babies were put in baby homes and taken away from their mothers. I cannot accept this excess care for the embryo when the actual live baby is then taken away from its mother.

Northern Ireland is clinging to us through the Northern Ireland protocol. It is only right that it should not have its cake and eat it. Northern Ireland must accept abortion; it is a human right. I strongly support the Motion before us, and I hope that we will not amend it.

My Lords, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, on bringing this amendment to the Motion before your Lordships’ House today. In the event that she presses it, I assure her that my colleagues and I will support her.

I have set out my views on the 2020 abortion regulations and 2021 regulations before your Lordships’ House on earlier occasions. My opposition to the 2020 regulations is well known. The Secretary of State himself said in the other place last week that they

“go beyond what is in Great Britain”.—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 16/6/22; col. 3.]

In April 2021, I said:

“The union has worked hitherto because Parliament has recognised that it cannot be used to impose a uniformity that undermines the key distinctiveness of the component parts.”

I said then that I thought that the 2020 and 2021 regulations

“do not provide grounds for overruling devolution or, more fundamentally, the understandings that make it possible to argue for the relationship that exists between the UK’s four component parts.”—[Official Report, 28/4/21; cols. 2269-70.]

I feel that even more strongly today.

It is extremely regrettable that we find ourselves talking about implementing the 2020 regulations, which were opposed by 79% of those who responded to the Government’s consultation in 2019 and which were not made with any involvement of the devolved Assembly and, as a result, any accountability to the people of Northern Ireland—citizens who have not been granted the right to decide their own abortion law through the representative process. My firm belief that this should be a matter dealt with by the Executive and the Assembly remains true.

Today we are discussing the 2022 regulations, which are already in place and give zero accountability to the people of Northern Ireland and fundamentally alter the Belfast agreement. Whether you agree with the 2020 regulations or not, the methods being used by the Government should make us all stop, pause and ask, “Is this the way we want our democracy operating?” For instance, would this be acceptable in a Scottish or Welsh context? I suspect not.

There is recognition by all three devolved Administrations that there are some matters that need to be dealt with centrally in a united manner; for instance, defence spending. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 recognised that there are times when it is appropriate for the Minister to direct the Executive, but these are narrowly defined in Section 26 as situations of national security or public safety, or where an action is needed under international law. We know that the Northern Ireland Office believes that the 2021 regulations do not fit any of these Section 26 criteria. It said that very explicitly last year in the Explanatory Memorandum, and it was for that reason that the Secretary of State gave himself new powers of direction.

The 1998 Act also acknowledged that matters that are significant to the Northern Ireland community are for the Northern Ireland Executive to decide. The law and policy on abortion fit this criteria, so, rightly, decisions in this area are for the Executive and not for the Minister of Health to make alone. Last year, the Minister took powers to make directions; this year, he has gone further in two respects: first, by saying he can make directions without any reference to the Executive, and secondly, by acting as if he were the Minister for Health and/or the Department of Health. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said that these regulations give “extensive powers” to the Secretary of State, powers that have no accountability to the Northern Ireland electorate. This is a fundamental constitutional change proposed by regulation powers that the Minister confirmed last week he intends to exercise “relatively soon”.

These regulations set a precedent that we need to consider very carefully. They override the constitutional agreement that certain matters should be for the Executive and override the narrow criteria when the Secretary of State can act.

There are political questions to ask about why the Secretary of State is deciding to act now on this issue, when there was no action from the Government to make important decisions for Northern Ireland when the Assembly was suspended for three years. There are very practical questions to be asked and answered. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he intends to take these powers relatively soon, but when he does so how will his powers work alongside those of the Northern Ireland Minister of Health? Who will officials be responsible to and how will they take instructions from Westminster? What if there are conflicting instructions? How will the decisions the Minister says he is going to take affect the budget in the Northern Ireland Executive, and particularly other services that come under the Department of Health? What consequential budget decisions will need to be made by the Minister of Health because of the decisions made by the Secretary of State? How long will the powers last? Will these decisions be ongoing? Will the Minister of Health be constantly looking over his or her shoulder, wondering what decisions the Secretary of State may make in future years that could impact spending on policy?

In the other place, the Minister argued that questions about the budget were irrelevant because there had been a generous 2021 spending review settlement with more funds allocated to Northern Ireland than at any time since devolution. Really? I wish to draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that over the period 2019-20 to 2024-25, the settlement will have been a real-terms increase of only 0.8%. I quote these figures from the 2021 spending review document. Since then, inflation has significantly increased, so it is right that the Northern Ireland Executive are cautious about spending, especially when that increase is compared to the 2.3% real-terms increase for Scotland and a 2.8% increase for Wales. Given this low increase, the Secretary of State may indeed find himself needing to use Regulation 5 to give grants or loans, and it is not clear how the Northern Ireland Executive will be able to fund any repayments. Nor is it clear how there will be transparency, or whether these decisions are good for the rest of the block grant or represent good value for money—a key Treasury principle. These are not theatrical questions. The Department of Health will be facing them very soon.

In summary, these regulations are counter to the devolution settlement. They set a precedent that should be a concern to the other devolved Administrations and will allow actions by the Secretary of State without any democratic accountability. Finally, this decision by government to push ahead with this issue further destabilises the devolution settlement.

My Lords, the moral dilemma of abortion is a fraught and complex one in which I do not intend to get too involved. In this country, it raises great passions; in the United States of America, it brings about conflict and leads to shootings, which I think we all regret. But it is the termination of life.

Personally, I believe that abortion is often necessary; it may be necessary for a great many reasons. However, I hope we would all regret that last year in the United Kingdom there were more than 200,000 abortions—I think that is right—which means that abortion has just become an extension of contraception, with all the dangers to mothers’ lives, apart from anything else, that go with it.

Although I may regret that, this debate is nothing to do with the morality of abortion. As we have just heard from several speakers, this is to do with the devolution of power to Northern Ireland. Some eight years ago, I worked in the Northern Ireland Office for a year. Devolution is very important. We know there are issues with it, but either we have devolved health to Northern Ireland or we have not. It seems to me that this is a matter of great principle. Notwithstanding any crusades in the House of Commons by one or two people, such as Stella Creasy, this is a matter that must be decided by the people of Northern Ireland. We should not be going there.

My Lords, I fully support the amendment to the Motion introduced by my noble friend Lady O’Loan. I strongly endorse the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and the noble Lords, Lord Robathan and Lord Morrow.

I say gently to my noble friend—for she is my noble friend—Lady Deech that, among the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is no right to abortion. Article 3, on the other hand, guarantees the right to life itself. All the other rights are worthless without that paramount right to life.

It is fitting that this debate is taking place around an amendment that regrets this Motion because there is so much to regret in what Parliament is being asked to agree. We should register our profound regret for every life that will be lost because of this decision, at suborning the devolution settlement, and for measures that set aside ethical proprieties and are deeply flawed and frankly questionable, not least on the grounds of workability. These regulations are about more than just how abortion services are commissioned in Northern Ireland. They raise serious questions about devolution and highlight key constitutional challenges that go beyond abortion and should be of grave concern to your Lordships’ House, as we have heard. That is where I want to begin.

Today, the key question for your Lordships is this: should the constitution of this country be set aside on the basis of regulations alone, particularly when the regulations in question are vague and fail to set out how and when the power that they confer will be exercised?

I care about this deeply for a number of reasons. I led a delegation to see John Major when he was Prime Minister and urged him to make abortion a devolved matter—an argument that he accepted, as did Tony Blair. That delegation included leading figures from each of the constitutional parties then in the House of Commons, drawn from across the political divide. Indeed, for many years, I have been a parliamentary spokesman on Northern Ireland; I have come to respect and admire the people of Northern Ireland. I passionately believe that their voices deserve to be listened to, and that power-sharing through devolution holds the key to its future.

Each constituent part of the United Kingdom is permitted by virtue of devolution to take decisions that best meet the needs and political outlook of that part of this nation. The people of Northern Ireland have consistently elected to their Assembly people who take a different view concerning abortion than that expressed in other parts of the UK. Although attitudes and voting patterns in Northern Ireland may well change, the new Assembly has been elected only recently and this question is yet to be put to it. The clear constitutional imperative remains: devolved issues should be decided only by the devolved Administrations, who have been given the power to set policy and law for their area. It is arrogant in the extreme to overturn that principle, especially on an issue that is, for millions of people, not a marginal question but, as I have said, about the very right to life itself.

Regulation 2 permits the Secretary of State simply to bypass the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly. The Explanatory Memorandum states that

“a direction given under those Regulations must be complied with irrespective of whether any matter has been brought to the attention of, or discussed and agreed by, the Executive Committee of the Assembly.”

Even if a way forwards is agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive, or indeed the recently elected Assembly, the Secretary of State can simply make any direction he sees fit, even if it is in direct contravention of the decision made by the Executive or Assembly. Even if a majority of elected representatives in Northern Ireland disagree, they will be duty-bound to follow the decision of the Secretary of State. That cannot be right, and as a parliamentarian committed to the principle of devolution, I contest, as I have done in previous debates, this high-handed decision. Surely it would not be tolerated if it was in Scotland or Wales, and it should not be tolerated in Northern Ireland either. To set aside devolution and all it entails by statute would be bad enough, but to do so through regulation, regardless of whether it is technically legally permissible, is troubling indeed.

Constitutional questions aside, let me turn to the question of workability and efficacy. I urge the House to scrutinise these regulations with care to see how vague and perhaps unworkable they are. By virtue of Regulation 3, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland could sit outside Executive control for decisions on abortion. This is clearly a concern for accountability and control, as we have heard, of that department itself. Whatever decisions are directed by the Secretary of State must be funded and commissioned. Both decisions must be implemented by the Department of Health, and that is regardless of whether the decision has been brought to the attention of the Executive and, more importantly, the Department of Finance. How can a Government function if the commitment to spend large sums of money no longer requires the input of the Finance Minister or their department? Clearly, the regulations create an accountability and transparency deficit. More than that, Regulation 4 allows the Secretary of State to function as the Minister of Health, and that creates a clear democratic deficit.

It also gives rise to serious questions as to how a department with two masters is to function. Where does the power of the Minister end and that of the Secretary of State start? From whom do civil servants take their instructions? How does the Secretary of State take the power to act as the Minister, and how is that power brought to an end? This seems to me an area where considerable further consideration is required. Regulation 5 allows the Secretary of State to make any financial arrangements that are needed to implement decisions. This allows for loans and grants, but will also require the commitment to enter into contracts and significant ongoing expenditure. If the Minister of Finance is not involved in these decisions, as Regulations 2 and 3 envisage, who is accountable for the decisions made? If loans are taken out that cannot be repaid, who answers for that maladministration? If contracts do not represent good value for money, who attends the Public Accounts Committee to defend that decision?

The statement of funding for a devolved Administration is clear: if the UK Government make decisions that financially bind a devolved Administration, the United Kingdom department that makes those decisions pays. These regulations go against the Government’s own policy. They not only bind the Northern Ireland Executive to funding decisions made without consent but refuse to pay or be accountable for those decisions they have made. Put simply, abortion is an issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to agree and implement. Irrespective of one’s views about the substantive issue of how the Executive and Assembly deal with it, taking the decision out of the hands of the people of Northern Ireland and giving it to the Secretary of State is dangerously cavalier and intrusive governance. It should remain for the people of Northern Ireland to determine the issue for themselves.

This brings me to my final point, about the substantive and sensitive nature of the issue itself. Opinion polling undertaken in 2019, after Westminster made changes to the law, showed that a majority of people in Northern Ireland opposed those changes and how extensive they were. A LucidTalk poll conducted at that time found that 52% of the public opposed the far-reaching legislation on abortion, and only 39% supported it. The people of Northern Ireland do not support laws that go much further, as my noble friend explained, than those in the rest of the United Kingdom. To be clear, the effect of these regulations would be to allow the Secretary of State to implement something that is not supported in Northern Ireland and is even worse than the law in the rest of the United Kingdom; a law which—the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, was right— leads to about 200,000 abortions in this country every year.

Put another way, since the law was introduced in 1967 there have been 10 million abortions in the UK, which is 600 every day, one every three minutes, including 91,000 repeat abortions last year alone. On abortion right up to birth, as my noble friend reminded us, in the case of a child with a disability, including cleft lip and palate, 90% of babies with Down syndrome— 859 babies—were aborted last year alone, an increase of 24% on 2020. That is eugenics.

It is worth noting that 100,000 people born in Northern Ireland during the years that our laws did not apply there would not have been born if this law had been in place. It is absurd to suggest that those who assert that both lives matter, that of the mother and the child, should be overruled because Westminster knows best. This is not, as some have suggested, a settled matter. Historians considering this defining question in the future will puzzle over the intolerance which no-platforms or closes down alternative points of view.

I am old-fashioned enough to believe in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that autonomy and choice do not trump that right. I am with the scientists when they tell me, without equivocation, that life begins at conception. We are equal from day one and should be protected, loved and cherished. For me, it is about that supreme right and our duties to protect the vulnerable. The noble Lord, Lord Caine, introducing the debate, talked about unsafe abortions. One thing is clear: every abortion is unsafe for an unborn child.

My views on abortion are well known. Beyond that substantive question, and regardless of whatever position we hold personally, we must be respectful of one another’s views, whatever those views may be. It is clear that these regulations create a democratic deficit. Quite simply, the people of Northern Ireland have not been allowed to determine these issues for themselves, as they have the right to do. Without democratic legitimacy, and with a failure to ensure reasonable accountability and scrutiny for decisions which will result in significant financial commitments, this will breed even more contempt and mistrust in our institutions. There is so much to regret in these regulations, and, like my noble friend Lady O’Loan, I cannot support them. I will vote with her if she decides to divide your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, it is impossible to have a pick-and-mix constitution. I approach this entirely from a constitutional point of view. My views on abortion are similar to those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his very thoughtful and thorough speech, but I do not want to follow him along that road.

As a democrat and a constitutionalist, I accept that abortion is entirely legal within England. I accept that it is entirely legal within Wales and Scotland. I accept, although I deeply regret it, some of the legislative moves on the gender issue that are being made in Scotland. All those years ago in Parliament I opposed devolution for Scotland, but that is over and done with. We are where we are. Therefore, we accept that the United Kingdom is united with the United Kingdom Government on the great issues—foreign policy, defence, et cetera. However, if we accept that we have devolution, it cannot be pick-and-mix devolution. Therefore, it is wrong for us to dictate to the people of Northern Ireland, whose views, so far as we can assess them, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, a moment or two ago, indicate that they do not want this. We may think that is benighted. Many of your Lordships may think that it is wrong and would be entirely justified in taking that view.

But we have devolution. It is very important indeed that Northern Ireland gets its act together. We would not be debating this today had there not been three years without a proper Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, and we are now in another period where we do not have a functioning Executive. As one who loves Northern Ireland and got to know it fairly well when I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place, I deeply regret this. I would say to my many friends in Northern Ireland that they should, please, get their act together—but we in this United Kingdom Parliament should not take back powers that we have devolved. That is what we would be doing; indeed, it is what we have done already.

Let us not forget that Northern Ireland has a much longer history of devolution than any other part of the United Kingdom, going back 100 years. We have decided that Northern Ireland should have autonomy in certain areas; for example, it should be responsible for its education and its health. I greatly admire my noble friend the Minister; he has done a great deal for Northern Ireland and relations within the United Kingdom, and he is a man with whom I do not disagree lightly. However, in all conscience—fundamentally this is both a constitutional issue and an issue of conscience—I cannot accept what the Government are asking us to do today.

I suspect a significant number of your Lordships will take a different view—that, of course, again, I respect —but I come back to where I started. If you have devolution, and devolve certain things to the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, you cannot mix and match. You have to be consistent with your principles. I believe that the only way of being consistent with our principles in this is not to support what my noble friend advanced but to support the line taken by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, in her amendment.

My Lords, I did not think I would sit and listen to more than about 10 minutes of this debate, as I expected to hear a very familiar argument about the morality and legality of abortion, on which my views were long ago established. I have always been in favour of legalising abortion. Indeed, I am quite liberal and tend to go the liberal end of a woman’s right to choose. However, I have found myself listening to a very challenging debate that is not on that subject at all; it is on the question of what should be within the scope of the powers that we have devolved to the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

The speeches have been extremely eloquent, if I may say so humbly and without being patronising; there have been some very moving speeches. However, I am not sure that they altogether satisfy the case for opposing these regulations. We are debating what the exact scope should be of what we have devolved to the different nations of the United Kingdom.

There is absolutely no doubt, and it is quite right that it was done, that we devolved the day-to-day administration and delivery of the National Health Service to the four constituent Governments. They enjoy considerable autonomy in that and, if I may say so, some have been more successful than others in tackling what are always, in any case, immense and challenging problems that something like the National Health Service is always going to face. The question here, however, is: when we devolved responsibility for the management and delivery of the National Health Service, did we devolve the extent—the range—of services that were going to be available to those who, for the time being, lived in that particular nation?

The present position is that if an English family moves to Northern Ireland for work or other reasons—there are English, Welsh and Scottish families in Northern Ireland—they find that abortion is not available in the part of the United Kingdom to which they have now moved, when it is available in the rest of the country. Presumably nobody thought the problem would arise at the time, although it was fairly predictable and I not sure that it is a very logical situation.

I am struck by the parallel with the debate going on in the United States of America at the moment, with the imminent decision that everybody expects from the Supreme Court. There seems every probability that America will move even more firmly in the direction of the availability of abortion depending on which state you live in and which political party is the governing party, for the time being, of the state to which you have moved. If the politics of state in which you happen to live is currently very restrictive, large numbers of women will move to have abortions in those states that still permit it. We regard this, from outside, as one of many grave threats at the moment to the political stability of the United States of America, but we have it. We have four devolved nations, three of which have abortion on fairly liberal grounds. One does not, and women in large numbers therefore leave Northern Ireland if they are in need of an abortion and move to get the operation they require in a part of the United Kingdom where it is available.

I really do not think that is desirable. I do not think anybody anticipated it when the devolution settlement was made. It is a very important ethical and constitutional question, but I think there are certain things that are intrinsic to the fact that I am a citizen of the United Kingdom. One thing that one should be absolutely guaranteed, if one is thinking of moving about in the United Kingdom—it is not relevant to me, but it is relevant to people who get themselves into sad circumstances—is that the availability of abortion should not depend on the politics of the particular part of the United Kingdom in which one lives. I think the British Government—the UK Government—are entitled to intervene to make sure that the scope and availability of the services that people need are universal across the United Kingdom.

I suspect that no one foresaw it and it is a very difficult problem to solve now, but although there are huge practical problems to be faced, I hope we are facing up to the question of what we will do about the financial consequences of making the Northern Ireland Government pay for a new service in the health service that they do not actually want. It will be difficult in practice, but in principle, as a matter of constitution, thinking of the kind of United Kingdom that I trust we all want, it is proper for the Government to take this step and I have risen only to try to rebalance the debate. There is a serious issue, but I trust that the Government will get the majority they seek.

I commend the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, on her amendment. I can assure her that if it is pushed to a vote, I will be very happy to support it. I would like, however, to correct the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, who has shown a somewhat inaccurate knowledge of what is happening in Northern Ireland. He said that there is one region within the United Kingdom where there is no abortion law. In actual fact, the very opposite is the truth: we have the most liberal abortion law of any region of the United Kingdom. If the noble and learned Lord wants to speak on the issue, it is best that he reads up on the reality of the situation, because his speech a few moments ago showed a total lack of knowledge of the reality on the ground in Northern Ireland in respect of abortion.

The availability of the service is much more restricted in Northern Ireland. If I said that the issue was the legality in Northern Ireland, that was a slip. There is no doubt that access to abortion is much more restricted in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom—that is the whole point of this debate.

But what he said was somewhat different—however, I want to move forward. I acknowledge that this is a very sensitive matter and different sides have deeply held views on it throughout the Northern Ireland community. The Secretary of State acknowledged that to the Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee in the other place last Thursday, but he then deliberately and defiantly—given the views held by many hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland—sought to push through his regulation.

The Secretary of State also acknowledged that these regulations “go beyond” what is in Northern Ireland, in spite of the Government never having asked the people of Northern Ireland to give their express democratic opinion on this matter through the ballot box. Over the years, Northern Ireland has taken an approach to the protection of the unborn that is different from any other region of the United Kingdom—but that was regarded to be part of the beauty of devolution. This difference reflected the views of the people of Northern Ireland, which is what democracy is supposed to do: reflect the views of the people whom politicians serve.

The Secretary of State reminded the committee that “emphatic votes” on this ethical issue in 2019, 2020 and 2021 showed the will of the House of Commons to “implement abortion services” in Northern Ireland. That is factually correct, but this matter was devolved to Stormont—yet, in 2019, a group of MPs, none of whom were or are accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, decided to cast aside the devolution settlement and take it into their own hands. Sadly, their decision was aided and abetted by Members of your Lordships’ House. This happened in spite of the fact that we are daily told that the Belfast agreement must be upheld at all costs—yet, at the whim of the Secretary of State, to placate Sinn Féin and its fellow travellers, the fundamental principles of this international agreement have been altered. The protection of the unborn, which was cherished by the people of Northern Ireland, has been swept aside.

Earlier I noted that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said that this is being done because of “exceptional” circumstances. That is interesting, because in Grand Committee tomorrow we will debate another devolved issue, in the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, so where does this all stop? Is there any real reason for a devolved Government? Is this House really saying, “If you don’t do what we want, we will take the power from you. We will override your decision and make it for you”? So much for those who profess to believe in the Belfast agreement and devolution.

Would the noble Lord agree that it would perhaps be better if HMG waited until the devolved Assembly and Executive got going again before a final decision is made?

I accept that we long for the devolved Administration to be set up in Northern Ireland, but we all know the reason why that is not happening at the moment. It is because of the forcing of the protocol upon the people of Northern Ireland, yet the heart of the Belfast agreement is that there has to be an acceptance and a willingness from all within the community of Northern Ireland, both the unionists and the nationalists, but the will of the unionist population has been totally swept aside. Therefore, we are ensuring that the will of the people—

It would appear that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland do not wish to see the protocol swept away—amended yes, but swept away most certainly not—and that is not a devolved issue. The noble Lord reprimanded my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke, and I must gently reprimand him to get his facts right.

Not one unionist representative within Northern Ireland supports the protocol. If the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, knows one, perhaps he wants to tell us who they are, and I will accept his—

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has missed the point of the Belfast agreement. There must be a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists. I am pointing out to the noble Lord—and I am not going to be deflected from the real issue that is before us we are talking about abortion—but I have to say to him, that as far as the protocol is concerned, and I emphasise it again, not one unionist representative returned to the Northern Ireland Assembly is there to support, or give support, or give credence to the Northern Ireland protocol.

Indeed, the damage to the Belfast agreement is clearly seen because Regulation 2 spells it out for us:

“the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly is to be disregarded when determining what a relevant person could do for the purposes of paragraph (1).”

I trust that everyone understands that under this regulation the opinion of the Northern Ireland Executive is to be totally ignored, totally disregarded. Such is the arrogance of those who bring forth these regulations. Indeed, the present difficulties in establishing a new Executive in Northern Ireland are due to many law-abiding people in Northern Ireland feeling that their concerns have been disregarded, undermined and ignored.

This statutory instrument simply adds to such alienation and does grave damage to the restoration of devolution. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 makes it clear that on matters that are significant and cross-cutting, the Executive must take the decision and it cannot be left to an individual Minister to decide. I know that the powers granted to the Northern Ireland Executive are not limitless and that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does have power to intervene and directly administer. However, that power is also limited and is there to ensure that decisions taken are compatible with international law, having regard to the protection of public order or the vital issue of national security.

These regulations change the very substance of the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland Act. These regulations permit the Secretary of State to have absolute power without scrutiny or accountability. When the Minister replies perhaps he can tell us where the power of the Minister of Health stops and the power of the Secretary of State begins. If the Secretary of State commands a civil servant in the Department of Health to do something and the Minister of Health gives a contrary command, whose decision does the civil servant obey? Does this not put civil servants in direct conflict with their Minister?

Regulation 4 states:

“The Secretary of State may do anything that a Northern Ireland Minister or Northern Ireland department could do for the purpose of ensuring”

that CEDAW recommendations are implemented. However, when the Secretary of State makes his decision, does he do so without any specific reference to the cost incurred? We all know how stretched the health budget is, especially with growing demands coming out of Covid, and the appalling waiting lists for hospital appointments and operations the noble Baroness mentioned. Can the Minister tell us how the Secretary of State is held to account for the public funds spent on the implementation of his decisions? Surely this flies in the face of democratic accountability. The Secretary of State, like every other government Minister, must be held accountable for his decision.

In this debate much has been made of the right of the mother carrying the child, but we must not underestimate the stress many mothers feel during their pregnancy nor dismiss their genuine concerns and fears. However, there are competing rights in this issue, and I want in the closing moments of my address to speak about the rights of the unborn child, many thousands of whose voices will never be heard because these regulations ensure that they will never have the opportunity to speak. Some may find that amusing, so let it be. Some will claim that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights conveys a right to abortion, but that is false. The court explicitly stated:

“The woman’s right to respect for her private life must be weighed against other competing rights and freedoms invoked including those of the unborn child”.

In recent days, a number of bishops wrote to the Prime Minister on the vexed issue of Rwanda and the government policy concerning the treatment of illegal immigrants. In their letters the bishops wrote about the shame of such a policy and how

“our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice”.

I do not wish to comment on that issue today. However, our Christian heritage should inspire us to respect the most helpless and vulnerable in society: the precious little child in a mother’s womb. The shame is on our country that without compassion, fairness or justice, we do not give such little babies the right to life. Even those with non-fatal disabilities, including Down syndrome, cleft lip and club foot, can be aborted through to birth. This is in spite of the fact that the other place voted on and approved the Down Syndrome Act 2022. Can the Minister tell us whether these regulations are at variance with the Act in terms of rights and the abortion of a child with Down syndrome? The bishop’s letter goes on to remind us that many of these illegal immigrants

“are desperate people fleeing unspeakable horrors.”

These little babies of whom I speak, even up to childbirth, because of non-fatal abnormalities, can be aborted, but they cannot flee although they struggle and cry against the unspeakable horrors that they are made to go through.

We are not allowed to see this happening, of course, for all this will happen behind closed doors. In fact, under the government legislation for abortion in Northern Ireland, there is no requirement for a doctor to be present or to be involved in the abortion, but now midwives and nurses can provide terminations. In England and Wales, abortions can take place only in hospitals or places approved by the Secretary of State, but not in Northern Ireland.

I have no doubt that, if the public were permitted to see the reality of what happens, there would be a public outcry. These regulations care not about the infants’ cries, nor will we ever hear their plea: “Why must I die like this?” To me, every life is precious. We must not bear the shame of letting these regulations pass. I trust that we can have the courage to reject this statutory instrument.

My Lords, this has been a very wide-ranging debate, and I think it is important that we focus on the decisions that we are being asked to make today. I begin by commending the Minister for the clear, factual exposition of how we came to be in the position that we are in today. We are here debating these regulations because of a catalogue of failure of elected politicians in Northern Ireland and of officials to do something very basic: to ensure that any woman who needs or wishes to have an abortion can access it in Northern Ireland—for the avoidance of doubt, to coerce anybody to have an abortion in any part of the United Kingdom is against the law—and there has been a failure to do that.

I recommend that people read in Hansard the clear and factual way in which the Minister put forward the history of where we are and contrast that with some of the allegations made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. In her wide-ranging speech she made some very serious allegations. She said that in Northern Ireland there is abortion to term. She did not give any evidence that that has happened. She said that there is abortion on the grounds of sex. She knows that any healthcare worker who did so would be in contravention of their professional ethics. Again, she did not give us any examples. Noble Lords can contrast the evidence behind the two cases that have been made.

On what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said about picking and choosing, we do not, as a united kingdom, pick and choose the parts of international agreements that we uphold. It is important that having signed up to an international agreement to protect women and girls we throughout the United Kingdom stick to that.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, characterised providers of abortion services as people seeking to profit from other people’s misery. That is a world away from the work being done by organisations on a charitable basis to make sure that the current, wholly inadequate provision is, so far as they can possibly make it, accessible to all women in Northern Ireland. They know, because they meet them on a daily basis, that women who do not have money cannot get themselves to Great Britain, as 161 did last year, to get the care that they need; and 40 of those women were of under ten weeks’ gestation. It is quite clear that the provision of service is utterly inadequate. That is why it is important that the commissioning of services happens—the commissioning that we have been told the Northern Ireland Health Minister wishes to wash his hands of.

I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn—who I do not think has been involved in our discussions before—that I would take greater notice of the great constitutional outrage were it not for the fact that people such as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have opposed every attempt to ensure that women anywhere have access to safe abortion. The views of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, are extremely well known. I can now almost write his speeches for him. I know that they will always include a reference to some poll that somebody has paid somebody to do to come up with the answer that he hopes they will find.

The important thing that nobody has said in all this is that the political failure in Northern Ireland has been particularly hard on women and girls, perhaps because of the non-sectarian consensus that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, alluded to. It is right that today we take this measure, which the Government have drafted in as narrow a way as they can, to make sure that the women and young people who have always been weighed down by the politics of the past in Northern Ireland have some hope for the future.

I hope that we will reject the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and that we will put this measure on the statute book as it deserves to be.

My Lords, a lot has been said in this debate already and I do not intend to prolong proceedings unnecessarily, but I want to add a few comments about this set of regulations, because the most important aspect of it is the constitutional implications. This is a highly sensitive and emotive issue, and we have seen that on display in your Lordships’ House this afternoon. People have very strong feelings on both sides—I certainly know which side I am on. I believe that both lives matter.

That being said, I think that the issues that have come to the fore in relation to the breach of the devolution settlement of Northern Ireland—the precedent that that sets, the breach of the Belfast agreement—raise very serious issues. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, was absolutely right. On whatever side you come down on any particular issue, if it is a matter that has been devolved, then the devolution settlement should be respected.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, referenced that it was perhaps not foreseen that this type of situation could arise, but I have to say that these matters were foreseen at the time of the Belfast agreement in 1998 and indeed at the time of the restoration of devolution in 2007, because on those occasions the issue of abortion was deliberately referenced and discussed and made a devolved matter. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to leading a delegation to a previous Prime Minister in which there was a cross-party, cross-community consensus that it should be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Therefore, it was entirely foreseen and foreseeable that Northern Ireland could legitimately have a different position from the rest of the United Kingdom. The argument that this needs to be a position which is the same across all four countries of the United Kingdom does not stand up to scrutiny or to the history of this matter and the very delicate balance of the Belfast agreement.

There is an alarming tendency—without discussing the merits of particular issues—to be very selective about the Belfast agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement in 2007 whereby it now appears to be the view that majoritarianism is a good idea in Northern Ireland, but somehow for 99 years majority rule in Northern Ireland was unacceptable. We have not had majority rule in Northern Ireland since 1972 with the collapse of the old Stormont Parliament. For half of Northern Ireland’s existence, it has not been there.

Since 1998, we have been governed under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act, which reflects the outcome of the Belfast agreement. That was an agreement primarily between the parties in Northern Ireland and not—again, as is increasingly misrepresented and misportrayed —an agreement between the Irish Government and the British Government. Yes, there is an element of that, and it is part of the agreement, but the most substantive part of that agreement is between the parties in Northern Ireland.

There now seems to be a view that representation in the Assembly is to be considered in the manner of who has the most votes. If that had been the case for the last 25 years, we would have had a very different set of legislation in Northern Ireland. We would have had to have had cross-community support, requiring a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists, and an overall majority is required to pass legislation. There is only one area for which the Northern Ireland Assembly has responsibility that does operate under majority rule, and guess what? It was changed by this Government, again as part of the selective approach to the Belfast agreement, in order to deprive unionists of the opportunity to say no to the protocol. I am afraid that that is at the root of some of the problems we have in Northern Ireland today.

There needs to be a recognition that on this issue of abortion—it was recognised in 1998, and again in the extensive negotiations that led to the restoration of the Assembly in 2007—that this should be a matter for the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case; there has been legislation put forward. We have been told by some noble Lords that this is a matter of international law and obligations, and that this therefore overrides matters such as devolution, but that is not the ground on which the Minister has relied today. He has relied entirely on the ground that he has a statutory obligation. That is a dangerous ground, because, of course, it could be used at any time in the future to say, “Well, there’s a majority in Parliament that has passed an Act to override this particular aspect of devolution, and therefore we’re obliged now to carry forward all sorts of statutory instruments, delegated legislation and secondary legislation.” I think that is a very dangerous precedent indeed.

I have just a few points of detail. I would like the Minister to address the issue of this “team of experts” that have now been brought into the Northern Ireland Office, apparently to give advice to the Secretary of State on the commissioning of abortion services and what they will be. He referred to a “team”; the Secretary of State in the other place the other day referred to a “team of experts”. Could he tell us who these “experts” are? Are they paid out of public funds? To whom are they accountable? How can we interrogate them—I am sure in the gentlest way—as to what their policies and proposals may be? How much scrutiny will we be allowed to have before things are set in place definitively and finally?

Can the Minister explain the important issue of funding in more detail? The committee in the other place the other day did go through some of these issues, but I have to say, from reading Hansard, that the answers were rather general, if I may put it that way. Could the Minister tell us how the Secretary of State will come to a decision on funding if he does not have access to all the other competing priorities of a department in relation to funding—or, indeed, across a number of departments, because, as we have heard from other noble Lords, this affects also the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education?

I have been a Minister of Finance and know how these things operate in Northern Ireland. To exclude the Minister of Finance, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, is almost incredible. To suggest that the Minister of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive would have no input whatever—on a matter which is devolved, at the end of the day—beggars belief. I do not think the Government have really thought this one through.

From my recollection of the legislation—it certainly has not changed as a result of any negotiations, as far as I am aware—a Minister in a Northern Ireland department has full executive authority over that department. That is one of the reasons why, if I may digress a bit, issues have arisen in relation to the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive—because Ministers can run their departments as fiefdoms, in effect. They have full executive authority.

What of the Minister? The Minister of Health is not a member of my party; in introducing these regulations today, on a number of occasions the noble Lord talked about the Executive not having moved on the issue, but my understanding—he can correct me if I am wrong—is that no proposal has been brought to the Executive in Northern Ireland. This is not a matter of the Executive not having acted. This is a matter for the Department of Health, because the Minister has full executive authority in that matter.

I would be grateful if the Minister could answer those more detailed questions, given the importance of these issues and their constitutional implications. I share the very great concern that we are making this significant alteration to the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive by way of delegated legislation and statutory instrument. Never mind that this entire issue on abortion was introduced by the back door through a restoration of executive functions Bill without any proper, normal legislative process and consultation with people in Northern Ireland, which has led—as has been said by other noble Lords—to the most extreme form of abortion being imposed in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that there is no evidence that the Assembly would vote on a cross-community basis for such legislation.

We should think very carefully about waving this legislation through today. If the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, presses her amendment to a vote, I will certainly support her.

My Lords, it is on days such as today, as the Minister may agree, that there is a feeling of déjà vu. I think he is the third Minister I have faced at the Dispatch Box on this issue, and the debate has been very similar to previous ones. I thank him for his very measured tone and the detail in his speech introducing this matter. I will not repeat the legislative background; noble Lords who have spoken both for and against will have heard what he said.

I suspect that there is a great deal of regret from the Minister in bringing this forward, because it is quite clear from the beginning of this debate—I looked up my previous speeches over three or four years—that Ministers were doing everything they could to encourage and support Northern Ireland to provide the services itself. There has certainly been no indication at all from the Government, as far as I am aware, that they wanted to be in this position. They wanted Northern Ireland to ensure that there was provision of services in the way the law requires.

I also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has not been mentioned so far, which looked at the detail in its very helpful report. I hope the Minister’s department and other departments will take note of the comments made about the inadequacy of the Explanatory Memorandum. I have raised this kind of issue previously in the House. However, I commend the responses; once it was prompted by the committee, the department provided better, fuller and more detailed answers to the points raised. I hope it will become the norm that Explanatory Memoranda will provide more detail than we saw in this one, as the information was provided only later when the committee asked for it.

As we have heard, this is an issue where feelings run deep, as is any issue regarding abortion. It is significant that a number of the speeches made about the constitutional position of devolution came from Members who have already expressed a deep-rooted opposition to the principle of abortion taking place. In some ways, I commend the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, because there was an honesty in his speech, which, as he saw it, was about the rights of the unborn child, not the constitutional issues. For him, this is a matter of principle; he thinks that abortion should not take place and was quite honest about it. He did not deal with the wider issue, which the Minister dealt with in his speech and will no doubt deal with again at the end.

We heard noble Lords refer to the debate on Roe v Wade taking place in America; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, made a wise intervention on this point. There is always a danger that you end up in a ridiculous situation whereby, because of the actions of politics, women living in one state move to another or travel elsewhere to access services they were previously able to access in their home state.

That is what is happening in Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said that abortion is available in Northern Ireland. Nobody is suggesting that no abortions have taken place. The Minister never made that point. The point is that, as previously agreed by your Lordships’ House, the provision of services is inconsistent, sporadic and not available to everybody who requires them. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but if that were not the case we would not need to be here today. As I said, time and again, the Government have provided opportunities for the Department of Health to bring forward proposals for the provisions required, as we have debated previously, but that has not happened.

I welcome the fact that the Government are still engaging with the Department of Health to ensure that there is still opportunity for services to be provided. However, I am conscious that, from what he and the Secretary of State in the other place have said, there is no intention to delay this matter further. I think the Government recognise this; as the Secretary of State said, “I fully suspect that we will have to provide these services.” Can the Minister say anything about the timescale? That would be helpful because this debate has been rather long and drawn out; there is an appetite for change.

A lot has been made of opinion polls and the views of people in Northern Ireland. I think the Minister will rely on them in his response, but I would point out that the 2019 internet poll, referred to several times, showed the majority of people not supporting the question about the imposition of changed abortion legislation by the Westminster Government. However, a 2020 poll showed that only 16% of people in Northern Ireland thought that no change to current abortion legislation was needed. A lot can depend on how the question is asked, but the idea that there is no appetite for change is wrong. Indeed, in the other place, Stephen Farry spoke about a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly—he thought it was at the beginning of March—when a Private Member’s Bill that sought to adjust some of the existing legal provisions around access to abortion was defeated by a majority of MLAs. There is movement in Northern Ireland now and there are different views; we should take account of all of them.

We will support the regulations because it is the right thing to do. I welcome that the Minister has recognised the deep-seated views on this issue. However, in addition to my question on timescales, I have a second question about the extraneous services around abortion services. They are not a stand-alone provision. The provision of sexual health services and the whole wider landscape of reproductive sexual health is really important. I want to be assured by the Minister that, alongside the provision of abortion services, advice on contraception and sexual health will be provided. These things come as a package; they are not something to be seen in a vacuum. I hope the Minister can say something about that and about education on these issues, because that will be extremely important going forward. As I say, we should not see these services in a vacuum.

I thank the Minister for the way in which he presented his case. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, will decide whether she wishes to put her amendment to a vote. If she does so, we will not support her; we will support the Minister.

My Lords, I thank everybody who has participated in the debate on these regulations, and I am grateful to the number of noble Lords who expressed support for what the Government are bringing forward. We have heard a wide range of strongly held personal views, and varied contributions on all aspects of the regulations. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, referred to a sense of déjà vu; I think it was the late Viscount Whitelaw, when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who referred after one meeting to “déjà vu all over again”. I take on board the comments of the noble Baroness regarding the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and I can assure her that my officials have returned to the committee with a number of additional pieces of information, which I am assured have been included in the Third Report, so I do take that very seriously indeed.

I shall take the opportunity to address a number of the points raised by noble Lords in quite a lengthy debate, although I fear that if I respond to every single point raised, the Chief Whip might come to the House tomorrow to cancel the Summer Recess, but I will do my best.

A number of noble Lords, not least the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, whom I know has very deeply held views on these subjects, have made heartfelt contributions on the provision of abortion services and the framework established in 2020, and the framework regulations introduced then. I appreciate and understand the views that have been expressed but, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, pointed out, Parliament has already decided on a number of occasions that abortion services must be provided in Northern Ireland, and by large majorities. Noble Lords referred to the 2020 framework regulations. I would just remind noble Lords that those regulations were passed in your Lordships’ House by 332 votes to 29, which is some indication of the will of the House on those issues. The focus of the Government, and of these regulations, is to ensure that Parliament’s decision, expressed on a number of occasions, to give women and girls access to abortion services in Northern Ireland, is properly and fully implemented. Although abortion is an extremely emotive subject, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech, Lady Suttie, Lady Smith and Lady Barker, made very clear, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is women and girls in Northern Ireland who are at the heart of these issues, and it is unacceptable that there are women and girls in any part of our United Kingdom who cannot access basic healthcare and whose access to services has been delayed for far too long. I agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke of Nottingham, whose very wise speech I strongly commend.

Parliament has decided that women and girls in Northern Ireland should be able to make individual, informed decisions, with proper patient care and the provision of information and support from medical professionals, based on their own health and wider circumstances, similar to women and girls living everywhere else in the United Kingdom. I think that is very much the right decision.

I should like to reiterate that, as was made clear by a number of noble Lords, so many women in Northern Ireland are placed in a difficult situation by the lack of regulated commissioned abortion services. I referred in my opening speech to the very large numbers who still have to travel to Great Britain to access care, or have to access unregulated services in Northern Ireland. With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, the position cannot simply be dismissed as work in progress; it cannot continue in this way, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Smith of Basildon, made absolutely clear.

A major theme of a number of noble Lords this afternoon has been the constitutional position and the importance of respecting the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland. I agree entirely with that, although I cannot avoid sharing the suspicion of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, that some—not all, I hasten to add—seek to use the constitutional argument as a screen for the fact that they oppose abortion in all circumstances. It is interesting listening to people invoking the Belfast agreement, some of whom have never supported it at all and others who have recently pronounced it dead. I assure noble Lords that I, for one, am a strong supporter of the Belfast agreement and have been since 10 April 1998 when that historic agreement was made. I have repeatedly said in this House and elsewhere that I regard it as the bedrock of all the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland over the past 24 years. I do not wish to see anything that puts the agreement and its success in jeopardy.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn suggested, I think, that we are only making these regulations now because the Assembly is not sitting, and we can. I think I explained in my opening remarks the circumstances in which these regulations originated. The Assembly was not sitting, we had an amendment to the Executive formation Bill and since then, we have been working alongside the Executive, the Department of Health and the Minister of Health for a number of years, but we have simply made no progress. Therefore, it is not a question of doing this because we think we can do it at this stage; we have really run out of road on this issue.

A number of noble Lords referred to the pick-and-mix nature of devolution. I certainly do not wish to pick and mix when it comes to the devolution settlement— I think my noble friend Lord Cormack used that phrase. The fact is that Government and the Secretary of State remain under a statutory duty to provide access to abortion services. It is wrong to suggest that he is not under a statutory duty—indeed, he is found to be in breach of his statutory duties in court. He is in no way absolved from the duties imposed upon him by the executive formation Act 2019 by the restoration of devolved government in 2020, as I said in my opening remarks. Lord Justice Colton, in his decision in the judicial review brought by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the following:

“The clear will of Parliament was that if there was no Executive Committee established by 21 October 2019 then the relevant duties and powers come into existence without extinguishment consequent on events thereafter.”

It is clear that the Secretary of State remains under the obligation and duties that Parliament imposed upon him nearly three years ago.

Notwithstanding this, we have been repeatedly clear about our desire—as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, reminded us—to continue to work with the Executive, the Department of Health and the Assembly to ensure that these regulations are implemented effectively and in a way that works for Northern Ireland, consistent with the obligations on the Secretary of State that I have outlined.

The noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, asked about the accountability of the Secretary of State. Of course, as a Minister of the Crown, the Secretary of State will continue to be accountable to this sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, as will I in your Lordships’ House.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn—I normally refer to him as my noble friend, because he is—asked about the team of experts that has been set up in the Northern Ireland Office. They are civil servants from the Department of Health and Social Care who are experts in these matters and have been seconded to the Northern Ireland Office for these purposes.

Returning to the Northern Ireland Executive, more than two years after the framework regulations were put in place, it became abundantly clear that the Department of Health was not progressing this issue and that even if it did, it would be blocked once it reached the Executive Committee. Our clear preference is that the Executive should drive forward these services. To that end, the Secretary of State has formally requested confirmation from the Northern Ireland Minister of Health that they will do so. Therefore, even at this late stage and with these regulations, there is still an opportunity for the Minister and the Department of Health to take forward the commissioning of services without the intervention of the Secretary of State. We are not, however, prepared to allow the provision of services to be delayed indefinitely.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, asked about a timeframe, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I cannot give an exact timeframe, as I am sure they will appreciate, but we are not prepared to let this run for much longer. The Secretary of State would not be taking on these powers if he was not prepared to intervene fairly quickly, but at this late stage there is still an opportunity for the Department of Health to take this forward. We hope that will be the case but if not, the Government are prepared to act very quickly.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, asked about funding. The regulations enable the Secretary of State to make provisions about funding, but I reiterate what has been said and in doing so disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. The funding settlement in last autumn’s spending review was the most generous in the history of devolution in Northern Ireland—indeed, across the whole United Kingdom. It would be a devolved matter, and it would be for the Northern Ireland Executive and the Department of Health to provide funding.

Parliament made a clear decision in 2019, passed by large majorities, to place a duty on the Government to provide access to CEDAW-compliant abortion services in Northern Ireland. In 2020, the Government delivered a set of regulations to enable that to happen. I reiterate that the regulations were passed by a very large majority in your Lordships’ House. That was over two years ago. At every stage we have sought to ensure that services were delivered through the proper devolved channels, but we have been unsuccessful in so doing. The powers these regulations grant provide a mechanism to unblock the political obstacles which have been placed in the way of their delivery, in order that the Government can satisfy obligations placed upon them in 2019 and uphold the will of this sovereign United Kingdom Parliament. I therefore urge noble Lords to reject the amendment in the name of the noble—

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. On a point of factual accuracy, he and others have referred to 2,793 abortions in Northern Ireland, but the latest figure given by the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland is, as of 13 June, 3,459. Can the Minister undertake that, once he has set up this team of experts, it will give up-to-date advice to the NIO on the factual position? There is quite a big difference between the figure cited today on the record and the actual figure as given by the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland, who is the Minister responsible.

Of course—I am very happy to give my noble friend that assurance.

In conclusion, I urge noble Lords to reject the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, should she seek to test the opinion of the House, and I urge your Lordships to support these regulations.

My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in the debate today, particularly those who have spoken with me on my amendment to the Motion. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I should like to provide a clear exposition of some of the facts raised today. I cannot answer all the points made without keeping your Lordships for too long.

The regulations are loosely and badly drafted. They give rise to a large number of questions, which the Minister has not answered. The devolved Government have acted in accordance with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act and the 2020 regulations. People do not have to buy unsafe abortion pills; they get them from their doctor now. Abortion is now available. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said that there have been over 3,500 abortions. If there had been no specific commissioning of health services, these women could not have obtained abortions in Northern Ireland without paying for them. However, the fact that they were able to obtain their abortions under the health service means that they have been commissioned by the health services. Northern Ireland abortion services are provided and paid for by Northern Ireland.

Women do not now have to leave Northern Ireland to get abortions. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke about the need to combine abortion services with services such as sexual health, education, contraceptive advice and so on, and that is actually what happens in Northern Ireland. These services are provided holistically by the Department of Health. There is abortion, there is access to abortion and there is abortion to term in Northern Ireland in the circumstances I described in my earlier comments. There is no requirement to provide a reason for an abortion after 12 weeks.

Evidence shows that, as CEDAW itself has said, there are abortions of girls, because in some cultures they are not wanted. Abortion on the grounds of sex selection is not unlawful in Northern Ireland. In response to a question I previously put to the Northern Ireland Minister in the Lords, I was told that abortion on the grounds of sex selection is illegal in England and Wales. Nevertheless, we know that it happens. The Northern Ireland Minister for Health has provided the resources to facilitate these abortions. I said previously that there were profits to be made from the private supply of abortion services. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, challenged me on this, yet I can tell your Lordships that in 2015 the chief executive officer of Marie Stopes International—a charity—earned £420,000.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, set out very lucidly the complexities of government that will result from these regulations, which will affect several departments, not just the Department of Health. They will also affect the budgetary arrangements for the whole of Northern Ireland, because although the Secretary of State is empowered to provide funding, he does not have to do so. If the regulations pass, there will be a Westminster Secretary of State who has power to do what he likes, regardless of how the Ministers of Health, Justice and Education are acting.

Most importantly, these regulations deprive existing Northern Ireland Ministers of the right to exercise their functions under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Good Friday agreement. They disregard the statutory role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. They ignore the devolution settlement. We are not debating whether there should be abortion services. That issue, as many noble Lords have said, has been decided. We are discussing whether, in contravention of the 1998 Act and the Good Friday agreement, the Secretary of State should have the option to do as he would without any accountability to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive or the people of Northern Ireland.

Mention was made of the concern of some Members of this House for the unborn child, and it has been suggested that the constitutional issue is being used in this debate. I have given much of my professional life to the promotion of peace, justice and constitutional process in Northern Ireland. My family has suffered. I have known significant risk, as have so many others who were engaged in those processes. Things have been very difficult for those of us who sought to work towards constitutional life in Northern Ireland. The constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland are very dear to my heart and the hearts of many others in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere. I have moved this amendment. I wish now to test the opinion of the House.

Motion agreed.

Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill

Committee (1st Day)

Relevant document: 4th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“General principles relating to product security

(1) The provisions in Part 1 of this Act should be read alongside the general principles relating to product security as outlined in subsection (2).(2) The principles are—(a) in regard to the security of internet-connectable products and products capable of connecting to such products, manufacturers, importers and distributors have a duty of care towards their customers to secure their privacy and safety;(b) customers are entitled to have a reasonable expectation that manufacturers, importers, and distributors make sure their consumer connectable products meet minimum cyber security requirements before they are placed on the UK market;(c) manufacturers, importers, and distributors should be able to demonstrate an understanding of emerging security threats and a proactive, ongoing support programme to mitigate these risks and ensure that their products are safe by design.(3) In making regulations under Part 1 of this Act the Secretary of State must have regard to the principles outlined in subsection (2).”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment would introduce a set of principles relating to product security into the bill.

My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 1 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, who is sadly unable to be here today. Should your Lordships feel at times that I am going on a bit long, just think of the alternative: it could have been both of us.

I should first say in the spirit of co-operation that the aim of this amendment is wholly positive; it is designed to firmly support the intentions of the first half of this Bill—support which we heard right across your Lordships’ House at Second Reading. While introducing this part of the Bill, the Minister set out a clear need for improved security. He told us:

“The average UK household now has nine internet-connected devices, and over 50% of all UK households purchased an additional consumer connectable product during the pandemic.”

The danger to individuals is getting worse. As the Minister also said:

“In the first half of last year alone, we saw 1.5 billion attacks on connectable products—double the figure of the year before.”

With this rise in connectable devices, the Minister said:

“Thousands of people in the UK have been victims of cyberattacks.”—[Official Report, 6/6/22; col. 1033.]

I suggest that this is understating the situation—it must be tens if not hundreds of thousands—but frankly, we just do not know.

This is an international business, which preys on poor security and badly configured devices. Further, our household devices can be co-opted by sophisticated criminal or political hackers to present significant threats to our national infrastructure. That is why this part of the Bill is important; I think we all agree on that. For a connectable device to be secure, it needs to be set up right but then supported throughout its active life to meet the changing environment of security threats. We are all used to updating our laptop security regularly, but how many times have we updated other household-connectable devices? A baby alarm, for example, is never updated.

At Second Reading, I described my fruitless search within the Bill for a definition of the security support that a consumer might reasonably expect for consumer-connectable products in the house. This Bill takes the secondary-legislative route. Rather than set out what consumers should legally expect in terms of through-life product security support, we were promised some SIs, and we heard what the focus would be.

In a letter sent last week, the Minister gave the Government’s reasons for choosing those three areas; I will come back to them briefly. He wrote:

“we are starting with a focus on the three security requirements that will make the most substantial change to consumer device security at a proportionate cost to business”.

But why just these three? The Bill is heavily based on the Code of Practice for Consumer IoT Security, in which 13 security issues were highlighted. To be clear, the first two—“No default passwords” and

“Implement a vulnerability disclosure policy”—

match those of the Minister. Interestingly, on the third one, there is a big difference in language between the Bill—which mentions providing transparency on how long, at a minimum, the product will receive security updates—and the code, which says, “Keep software updated”.

But there are 10 other major areas. I will not list them, but the fourth is:

“Securely store credentials and security-sensitive data”.

The eighth is

“Ensure that personal data is protected”.

Why are those two not as important as the other three? I cannot fathom why those have been left out and the previous three selected. So, given the choice of 13—the Minister can look them up—what was the logic in choosing just those three and dropping the fourth and eighth in particular?

There is also the issue of changing technology. Without a set of principles, the Government’s aim is to chase technological development with a string of statutory instruments, simultaneously keeping up with the world’s most innovative companies and pitting their ingenuity against the world’s top criminals. Life is moving fast—for example, a recent issue of Wired announced the beginning of the end for passwords:

“At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference yesterday, the company announced it will launch passwordless logins across Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Apple TVs around September of this year. Instead of using passwords, you will be able to log in to websites and apps using ‘Passkeys’ with iOS 16 and macOS Ventura. It’s the first major real-world shift to password elimination.”

On that basis, this legislation will be partially obsolete before it is enacted.

I have one further technical problem for the Minister to explain. Once again, different bits of government are moving in parallel. A seemingly entirely different exercise—a consultation on app security and privacy interventions—was published in May this year. The suggested interventions include

“a voluntary Code of Practice for App Store Operators and Developers that is intended as a first step.”

Other possible future options set out in the document include

“certification for app store operators and regulating aspects of the Code to help protect users.”

The document then says:

“These proposals link into the National Cyber Strategy through requiring providers of digital services to meet appropriate standards of cyber security and developing frameworks to secure future technologies.”

No mention of this legislation is made.

So where does a connected device end and an app start? Where does the Bill stop and this new code of practice start? If I install my temperature control system, it will involve connected hardware and an app; which of these two pieces of government activity will cover my system, and how are they connected? The Government have not joined this up, and, once again, two things are going on with no connection to each other.

So, I borrowed some of the Code of Practice for Consumer IoT Security for this amendment, which sets out some of the principles. Proposed subsection 2(a) sets a simple obligation for “manufacturers, importers and distributors” to demonstrate a “duty of care”. Proposed subsection 2(b) sets out that

“customers are entitled to have a reasonable expectation that manufacturers, importers, and distributors make sure their consumer connectable products meet minimum cyber security requirements before they are placed on the UK market”.

Proposed subsection 2(c) calls for

“manufacturers, importers, and distributors … to demonstrate an understanding of emerging security threats and a proactive, ongoing support programme to mitigate these risks and ensure that their products are safe by design.”

The Minister would be hard-pressed to argue against these—and his planned SI on accessibility vulnerability is close to proposed subsection 2(c) anyway.

I would like to hear that the Government recognise the benefits that having clear principles in the Bill can deliver. I am sure that the Minister can see these benefits. Secondly, I am not proprietorial over the exact wording. We can use the time between Committee and Report to fine-tune and wordsmith those principles, but I hope that this is a constructive and helpful start.

My Lords, I restate these Benches’ support for Part 1, which introduces a range of important powers and processes relating to the security of consumer-connectable products, including smart TVs, smartphones, connected baby monitors and connected alarm systems, all of which we use in our day-to-day lives. For me, the legislation that we seek to improve today is much needed and needs to move with the times and the way we live. For example, in 2006 there were just 13 million of these devices but in 2024, there is likely to be more than 150 million in the UK alone—a huge projected rise.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for introducing this sensible amendment, and to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, whose name is also on it. It seeks to introduce or suggest some guiding principles relating to product security. For me, the key principles are that manufactures, importers and distributors have a responsibility and a duty of care to meet minimum cybersecurity requirements and look forward to emerging security threats. It seems wise and sensible to include these, so I hope the Minister will take them into account. As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, the exact wording of the amendment does not have to be used; it is about the principles. Indeed, it is about not just principles but practice: the message given to consumers as well as to manufacturers, importers and distributors.

I know that in other legislation the Government are often nervous about using the phrase “duty of care”, but, as the Minister knows, there are very real concerns about data collection and privacy. I suggest that this is the very least that consumers should be able to expect. While it may be said that the other principles are not necessary to include, there have been several cases of manufacturers knowing about, yet failing to act on, significant security flaws. I feel this is something we need to guard against.

One further reason the amendment is appealing, and I hope the Minister will find it so, is that it will focus minds when forthcoming regulations are drawn up, not just because of the reassurance to consumers, which I have already spoken of, but for the reasons that will be discussed in the next group of amendments—they will be dealt with by my noble friend Lord Bassam. It is clear that the department needs to do more to show that there is a proper grip on these issues.

Before I close my brief comments, I want to say that I am grateful to the National Cyber Security Centre for its work in this area and I also express my thanks to the various tech and retail stakeholders, consumer groups, academics and many others who are also keen to ensure that this legislation is as workable and practicable as it can be. With that, I look forward to hearing from the Minister and hope that he will be able to reflect on this debate and think about the next steps that need to be taken between Committee and Report.

My Lords, I want to say just a couple of words because, having read this and listened, I think the amendment has a very good point. I like the concept of a duty of care, because if we do not have that, who are we worrying about? In fact, Clause 7, on “Relevant persons”, is all about the manufacturers, importers, distributors, et cetera, with nothing about the customer, the poor person who is going to get hit by it. It is a very good idea to put that in at the beginning, setting down some principles and duties, because the other trouble is that by the time that we have done all these bits and pieces, made the regulations and the provisions, we are always acting after the event. What we need is a bit of proactivity, and we get that in this suggested new clause, because manufacturers, importers and distributors would have to make sure that products met certain minimum requirements. They would need to understand what “emerging security threats” there were; in other words, thinking ahead to the next stage and not just saying, “Oh, well, it complied with those things last year”, by which time the horse has bolted and we are far too late. So, I like it.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and, in his absence, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for their Amendment 1 and for the wholly positive intention with which it has been tabled. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to talk to them about it before Second Reading as well. As the noble Lord set out today, he has argued that customers deserve some high-level principles setting out the security protections they should expect when purchasing consumer-connectable technology. In fact, Amendment 1 goes further, as noble Lords have noted, and would require manufacturers to owe their customers a “duty of care” to protect them. We are not as keen as the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, on that.

The first problem we have with a duty of care is that it could give consumers a false sense of security. If consumers buy well-designed technology products which meet the best standards, it considerably lowers risk, but with cybersecurity there is no such thing as zero risk: the most aggressive and well-resourced hacker will find a way. Somebody may have a quality product, but have they secured their wi-fi router? Do they have some legacy technology on their network? Manufacturers of a single device do not control the whole range of apparatus which constitutes the attack surface so cannot always provide an absolute security warranty, and they cannot always predict the next attack vector.

The second problem we have is that we have learned that the security of devices is best served by standards rather than principles. If one sets standards, one can send a device to a laboratory and assure oneself that those standards have been met. If one sets principles, that does not apply. That is why the Bill is designed to give force to standards. Those standards, developed here in the UK and now adopted by Governments and jurisdictions across the globe as well as by international standards bodies, are widely recognised significantly to lower risk for consumers.

Of course, we believe that the responsibility for the security of connectable products most effectively lies with the manufacturer. We expect manufacturers to take security seriously, to implement measures to develop and maintain an awareness of the security of their products, and to be up front with customers about the security support they can expect. We have tried voluntary compliance, with our code of practice which was published in 2018. We now need mandatory requirements, and that needs specific security requirements that can be independently assessed. The legislation must enable the Government to keep pace with market dynamics and the changing technological landscape—as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said, it is important that we move with the times. The flexibility to be able to set different security requirements for manufacturers, for importers and for distributors is key to this.

Amendment 1 in the form drafted would place an equal weight on the duties of each of these three groups to secure products. Compelling the Secretary of State to have regard to this general duty could constrain the Government’s ability to set specific security requirements in the future. Crucially, these principles could restrict the use of powers in this part of the Bill, working against the Government’s ability to bring this regime into force and impeding our ability to keep that regime future-proof. I should also say to noble Lords that industry and consumer groups have not raised the need for general principles such as this. Our efforts to engage and communicate our intentions have been clear, and the requirements we have set out for the relevant persons have been widely understood and are in line with international standards.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked why the Government have chosen these three specific security requirements rather than others. During the consultation in 2019, we explored a number of options including mandating that all consumer-connectable products meet all 13 guide- lines in the code of practice. They are all important, but the majority of respondents supported the option that the top three security requirements represented the most appropriate baseline, by balancing the important requirements that are testable, being applicable across a range of devices and creating the right incentives to improve security in these products. That is why the Government are initially mandating the implementation of security requirements that will make the most fundamental impact on the risks posed by insecure consumer-connectable products for consumers, businesses and the wider economy.

The noble Lord also asked about where products end and apps begin. The powers in Part 1 allow Ministers to set out requirements that include products and software. The proposals in the consultation he mentioned relate to those who operate app stores. So, while I acknowledge the good intentions behind it, I hope I have been able to set out why the Government feel that this amendment—

I thank the Minister for giving way. That does not answer the question of where an app starts. If I am downloading Nest for my heating system, I am getting it from an app store, so where is the regulation coming? Is it the app that is coming from the app store, or is it the connectable device law that is coming through here? In which case, I think some explicit connectivity between the apps that run the connected devices needs to be written into the Bill.

Perhaps, if the noble Lord is happy, we can explore this. The example he gives, as he knows, includes software and technology. Perhaps we can have a detailed discussion where we can work through some of those examples. I would be very happy to talk to him about them because on the question he poses the line is drawn in a different place depending on the product and its nature.

The Minister talked about standards a moment ago. If we are going to rely on standards, who is writing them? I presume that he is talking about British standards; to write a standard will take a year or two. I hope that the Government are going to fund it. We got no help from them in trying to fund stuff around age verification, even though that was core to the Digital Economy Act. If we are going to elevate it to an international standard, that will take another year or two, so we will not see any action for a long time if we are going to rely on externally written standards. I have chaired two BSI standards so far, and it does not happen just like that.

Some of the standards in this area have been set in the UK and have already been adopted by other jurisdictions, so I hope that we can give the noble Earl some reassurances. While I acknowledge his point about the time it takes for these to be adopted internationally, in some areas the UK is setting the way, and these are being picked up across the globe.

As I said, while I note the good intentions behind Amendment 1, these are the reasons why the Government are unable to support it. However, I am very happy to pick up the questions about apps and products with the noble Lord and others who wish to join that conversation. I hope that, for now, the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, while that was a relatively disappointing response, I am pleased that we can have the discussion about apps. I thank noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll. I think he put his finger on it. If we are to keep pace with the speed of change only through a standards regime without making the companies delivering these products in some way responsible—whether through a code of practice or a duty of care, I am not quibbling—there is no way that a standards regime can keep pace with the innovative speed that international crime is running at on cybercrime.

The idea that we can chase this down the road is wholly wrong. I ask the Minister to sit down with the department and perhaps we can come up with a different way of doing it. I am totally agnostic about how we go about it, but some sense that we are not just chasing this needs to be in this Bill, otherwise it is going to be after the fact. That said, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw Amendment 1.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2

Moved by

2: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “may” and insert “must”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment strengthens the duty on the Secretary of State to publish regulations introducing security requirements.

My Lords, I am happy to move Amendment 2 in this group and will speak also to Amendment 4. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for signing up to our Amendment 2. Part 1, as we have said, represents a step in the right direction on product security. The Bill is, as is increasingly the case with this Administration, a general framework Bill which will have much of the detail filled in later by regulations—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Fox, among others, has persistently made, and we have made from our Benches.

Noble Lords might say that Amendment 2 is a rather crude way of discussing the processes and timescales attached to the regulation-making powers in this part of the Bill but, as was mentioned in the previous group, we need much more information about when these regulations are going to be brought forward. Have some already been drafted? If so, can we see them in advance of Report and certainly before Third Reading? If not, why not? Do any of them need to be consulted on, and if so, what implications will this have on the implementation of new rules and systems? This is, as we have heard before, a time-critical Bill so the regulations are time critical as well and, we argue, need an early airing.

Colleagues in the Commons expressed concern that it has taken too long to get to this stage. We, too, regret that the Government have not worked to introduce some of these measures at greater speed and that more of the detail is not in the legislation, a point which the noble Lord, Lord Fox, eloquently made earlier. Surely it would have been possible to do this, given that the Bill was carried over from the previous Session.

Turning to Amendment 4, it

“seeks to place certain product security minimum standards, including the prohibition of so-called ‘default” passwords, on the face of the Bill.”

We think this is an important amendment. I credit Which? as where it draws its inspiration from. It is right that we have some core security principles in the Bill. We know that the Government have form on overpromising and underdelivering. Surely these important security matters should not be left to the whim of the Secretary of State at an undetermined point in the future. This process provides a perfectly good opportunity for us to enshrine the requirements in primary legislation, whether in the form of Amendment 4 or Amendment 5 or something else. We believe that there is a strong case for action

One of the core concerns of consumer organisations —we are very grateful to them for their briefings and support—and, in the current economic context, of shoppers across the country, is whether security updates will be provided across the product’s lifespan. Many devices stop receiving security updates long before any reasonable person would expect to replace them. This leaves people facing the option of shelling out more money again for a secure replacement or retaining a device which is at higher risk of some form of attack or has a fundamental security flaw. Amendment 4 would at least require manufacturers to provide clear information on the availability of security updates, while Amendment 5, tabled in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Clement-Jones, would go further and require mandatory minimums to be specified in regulations.

I will not go into detail about Amendment 3 but welcome its focus on children. I am sure that we will have many debates about child safety on the forthcoming Online Safety Bill, but Amendment 3 asks a legitimate question of the Minister, and we look forward to his response. I beg to move.

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 3 and 5 and in support of the other two amendments in this group. All these amendments refer to Clause 1 and seek to add some specificity to its general nature. The first amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones is Amendment 3. This inserts a new paragraph (c) into Clause 1(1), adding the text

“children where they are not primary users of products but are subjects of product use”.

Why is this necessary? Here I am indebted to a report on cybersecurity, the UK Code of Practice for Consumer IoT Security produced by the PETRAS National Centre of Excellence for IoT Systems Cybersecurity. Noble Lords may be aware of this group; it has a very strong record in this area. It is a consortium of leading UK universities dedicated to understanding the critical issues of the privacy, ethics, trust, reliability, acceptability and security of IoT. I commend this organisation to the small number of noble Lords in this Chamber interested in this area.

This report highlighted, among other things, the importance of children’s connected toys receiving the necessary scrutiny, due to the implications of embedded cameras and microphones, with the aim of ensuring the child’s and the parents’ protection and right to privacy. Such devices include a wide range of everyday artefacts with internet connectivity intended for use by children or in caring for them, such as interactive toys, learning development devices and baby or child monitors.

These connected toys and tools have the potential for misuse and unauthorised contact with vulnerable minors. The British Toy & Hobby Association has responded by offering a range of guidance notes and by interpreting the code of practice, but with SMEs manufacturing most of these devices, there is much more to be done to ensure that those organisations are sufficiently informed and equipped to produce and market toys that are secure.

Security is not straightforward, as the Minister has already pointed out. While these devices offer a range of advantages through their connectivity, they also potentially expose children and their families to risks that have not yet been fully articulated to many of the consumers who are buying these toys.

A real-life example is that the toy giant Mattel launched Hello Barbie. The Minister may be familiar with it—I do not know. This was as far back as 2015. It was a very innovative toy which it launched with a start-up business called ToyTalk. The principle of this toy was that it could converse using internet connectivity with speech recognition, so as well as talking it could listen. Hello Barbie also allowed parents to log in later and eavesdrop on their children’s conversations with their toys. I will leave your Lordships to decide the ethics of that.

But this connectivity raised some concerns, primarily around who could listen in and record these devices and store conversations and behavioural and location data, and for what purpose this data could be used. Toys like these are now prevalent and they raise significant questions about the appropriate support and guidance for the toy manufacturers, which understand an awful lot about conventional safety—they know how to make physically safe toys—but do not have a track record on developing informationally and data-safe toys because they have never been asked to do that before. This is a new venture for them, and it requires a totally new set of skills and standards, as the Minister might say.

As technology evolves hacking is increasing in sophistication, so it is necessary to keep moving forward. The challenge for cybersecurity in remaining ahead of the risks is inevitably a technological one, and the Minister may remember that the Hello Barbie toy, having been launched and lauded for its security, was ultimately found at some point to have serious security issues. Even that toy, from a very large manufacturer, fell foul of the progress of information crime.

Nevertheless, it is clear that today some toy manufacturers are releasing connected toys without adequate safety and security features. This is a competitive and dynamic marketplace—a lot of it is to do with price—and first movers are rewarded. In addition, the skillset and knowledge base, as I have just said, for conventional toy safety is mismatched with these new toys and we need to find a way of addressing that divergence. This is going to require investment and new learning and will not happen unless the toy manufacturers are required to do it.

Secure software development and cybersecurity are novel demands on this sector. However, the fact remains that these toy manufacturers are potentially placing consumer safety and privacy at risk. It does not matter whether this occurs due to the immaturity of the sector, market pressures or the lack of sectoral attention to the problem.

In the view of the Petras report,

“there are no indications that this will be addressed through market forces. Instead, the certainty of legislation to maintain standards would level the playing field and make clear for SMEs where they need to invest to make their toys market ready.”

Thus, more than the technological challenge of staying ahead of hackers, what is salient here are the challenges to the implementation of basic security features in manufacturing such as basic authentication and encryption, without which children’s safety and security is at risk.

This amendment explicitly places child security front and centre in this Bill. In other legislation involving the internet and digital issues, such as the Online Safety Bill, the Government have imposed more onerous duties on those delivering services to children than to adults. This amendment would be entirely consistent with that approach—very much in the spirit of understanding that our children and young people are more vulnerable and therefore need more protection from harms.

I turn next to Amendment 5. The eagle-eyed among your Lordships will spot that it is very similar to Amendment 4, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and set out very elegantly by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. In fact, I would suggest that, largely, its construction is better than ours because they managed to do the same thing in fewer words. I will speak to Amendment 5 but my comments apply to Amendment 4 as well.

Amendment 5 seeks to ensure that:

“Regulations under this section must include provision that all security requirements specified in accordance with this Act are included as essential requirements in statutory conformity assessments and marking procedures under the Radio Equipment Regulations 2017 … and in any other such assessments and procedures applicable to relevant connectable products.”

I am speaking to the spirit of both these amendments. Amendment 5—similar to that of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam—follows on from the advice and help of Which? I thank that organisation, which has really been at the forefront of the consumer issues involved. In essence, the amendment picks up on three of the issues that the Minister tells us will be dealt with in SIs as soon as the Bill becomes an Act, but it takes the rather stronger approach of placing them in the Bill.

Paragraph (a) of proposed new subsection (2A) goes further than the general principle in specifying that passwords are not to be weak. As Which? explains, many smart products push the user to create a password themselves, rather than use a default password. However, they then allow weak and easily guessable passwords to be created, meaning that the risk of compromise stays high.

One of the outcomes of this amendment would be the introduction of a requirement for responsible password policy guidance to be adopted by the industry to ensure that security liability is not simply passed from the device manufacturer to the consumer. The Bill and associated guidance should be amended to clarify that every individual device must have a unique or user-set password that meets effective complexity requirements.

Paragraph (b) of proposed new subsection (2A) seeks to avoid the risk of disclosures going into a black hole or taking many years to fix. The Bill and associated guidance should be amended to make clear what is required of manufacturers, importers and distributors on provision of disclosure policy information, particularly around vulnerabilities. The appointed regulator should also clearly define and distribute a risk assessment framework for vulnerabilities that removes any sense of subjectivity and ensures that the response is effectively mandated.

Paragraphs (c) and (d) of our proposed new subsection concern the length of time a product is supported. The Government should introduce mandatory minimum support periods for smart products and consider whether these periods should reflect how long consumers, on average, continue to use such products. There is a precedent here. New ecodesign and energy labelling requirements came into force in England, Scotland and Wales in 2021. They include a requirement for electronic display items, including televisions, to be provided with firmware and security update support for a minimum of eight years after the last unit of a model has been placed on the market. A consistent approach to support periods for a range of products therefore needs to be considered, and it has already been considered in this other legislation.

Customers need absolute clarity on the support period manufacturers will offer, so that they are able to make more informed purchasing decisions. There must be a clear definition of what the “point of sale” means and how this relates to the definitions of “supply” in Clause 55. Without clearer specifications on what form the transparency requirements will take, there is a risk that this information could be hidden, obfuscated or even mislead. This amendment is designed to probe the Government’s thinking on these very important issues.

Finally, and very briefly, as a signatory to Amendment 2, I give it my full support.

I am very grateful to noble Lords for setting out the cases for Amendments 2, 4 and 5. Since January 2020 the Government have been clear on introducing security requirements based on the three guidelines to which I referred in the previous group.

The commitment to set requirements has been made in response to consultations, published strategies and indeed to the Explanatory Notes to this Bill. Our notification to the World Trade Organization also contained reference to some of these documents. We have put manufacturers, trade bodies and industry representatives on notice. Supply chains are long and surprises unwelcome, so the Government have been very clear on whither we are heading.

Amendment 2 would remove any discretion the Secretary of State has to make regulations. I appreciate that the intention behind tabling it is to explore this issue, and I hope I can assure noble Lords that it is not needed. The regulations will be made, and swiftly. Indeed, we have already consulted on them, in 2020, which I hope gives noble Lords some reassurance that we intend to move swiftly in this area.

Amendments 4 and 5 would insert specific security requirements into the Bill. As several noble Lords mentioned at Second Reading, it is important that technology regulation enables the Government to respond to changes in threat and technology, and to the regulatory landscape. That is precisely why the Bill does not contain details of the requirements that the Government have assured industry they will set out.

We are committed to providing businesses with the detailed technical information they require to comply with this regime in the security requirements that we set out in regulations, and to keeping that information up to date as technology evolves, but the rate of technological change is swift in connectable products and cybersecurity, as noble Lords have noted. Our requirements need to be able to respond and adapt to those changes. Obliging the Government to set out requirements framed using terminology that may seem appropriate today could limit the security benefits of such a requirement in future, impose impractical obligations on businesses, create new security threats or introduce barriers to innovation. Further, if we put some security requirements in the Bill now and additional requirements in secondary legislation in future, we would risk confusion.

Amendment 5 goes further still and would oblige the Government to mandate minimum security update periods for connectable products. There is, however, no consensus among industry experts on how long security updates ought to last. We have been clear with industry that we see timely security updates as an important mechanism for protecting consumers. That is why we will use this legislation to require manufacturers to make information clearly available on how long their products will receive these updates.

Perhaps the Minister should consult whoever drew up the legislation that managed to mandate that televisions should be updated for firmware and software for up to eight years after they have stopped being manufactured. Clearly, those people managed to find consensus among the industry—or decided to ignore consensus—and deliver something. If it can be done for electrical display devices, such as televisions, I do not see why it cannot be done here if there is a will to do it. However, I think the Minister is telling us that there is no will to do it.

The noble Lord referred to mandatory minimum support periods for electronic display items and the Ecodesign for Energy-Related Products and Energy Information Regulations 2021. It is not quite correct to say that those requirements are applicable. They ensure that the last available security update continues to be available for at least eight years after the last unit of a product has been placed on the market but the requirement does not ensure that manufacturers continue to provide new security updates over that period to ensure that the product remains secure in response to changing threats.

I did not say that those requirements are applicable; I implied that they are analogous. Frankly, the fact that there is some mandating of security support after the product has stopped being manufactured is a heck of a lot better than the situation for all the connectable devices we are currently talking about, where there is no requirement at the moment.

I do not think that they are quite analogous. As I say, it is about the requirement to keep the last available updates available to consumers for eight years rather than evolving them. We do not yet consider that there is sufficient evidence to justify minimum security update periods for connectable products, including display equipment—certainly not before the impact of the initial security requirements is known.

It is important to stress that, as consumers learn more, they will expect more. This will drive industry to respond to market pressure. If the market does not respond to this effectively, the Government have been clear that they will consider the case for further action at that point, but we think that consumer expectation will drive the action we want to see in this area.

Amendment 3, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, refers to children. All noble Lords will agree, I am sure, that protecting children from the risks associated with connectable products is vital. I assure noble Lords that the security requirements we will introduce are designed with consideration for the security of all users, including children, alongside businesses and infrastructure. The Bill already gives the Government the flexibility to introduce further measures to protect children, whether they are the users of the products or subject to other people’s use of a product. We therefore do not think that this amendment is necessary as this issue is already covered in the Bill.

The Bill, and forthcoming secondary legislation, will cover products specifically designed to be used by or around children, such as baby monitors and connectable toys; they include Hello Barbie, which I was not familiar with but on which I will certainly brief myself further. However, we recognise that the cyber risks to children are not limited to the connectable products in the scope of this Bill; indeed, a lot of the issues referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, were about the data captured by some of the technology, rather than the security of the products themselves. That is precisely why the Government have implemented a broader strategy to offer more comprehensive protection to children—including through the Online Safety Bill, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred.

I hope noble Lords will agree that Amendment 3 is not needed to make a difference to the Bill’s ability to protect children from the risks associated with insecure connectable products—this is already provided for—and will be willing either to withdraw their amendments or not move them.

My Lords, this has been a useful and interesting exchange.

In my lordly world, “may” and “must” are sort of interchangeable; they were a useful peg on which to hang our discussion about the statutory instrument nature of this piece of legislation. I am somewhat reassured by what the Minister had to say about that, and acknowledge that some of the regulations were brought forward and consulted on at an earlier stage. However, we on this side of the House—I am sure that I speak for the noble Lord, Lord Fox, as well—want to see increased transparency throughout this process. So much of what is in front of us will be in secondary legislation; it is essential that we, the industry and the sector are properly consulted so that we understand exactly what we are dealing with. I make that plea at the outset.

I was pleased to hear what the Minister said about children as the primary users of particular products. I am glad that we have got beyond the “Peppa Pig” world that the Prime Minister occasionally occupies and are giving this issue proper, serious consideration. It certainly needs to be that way.

I am not entirely convinced by what the Minister said on Amendment 4. I look at our amendment; it is pretty basic, actually. It is hard to argue against setting out a particular prohibition in legislation. The ones that we have picked out for prohibition and restriction are quite important and essential. Of course, the Minister is right that those subjects will change and technology will overtake the words we use. We understand that point but we are trying to secure some basic minimum standards and protections here. Clearly, we will retreat with our amendment and give it some further thought before Report, but we may need some further persuasion on this. That said, I am quite happy to withdraw Amendment 2 and not move Amendment 4.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

Amendments 3 to 5 not moved.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

Clause 3: Power to deem compliance with security requirements

Amendment 6

Moved by

6: Clause 3, page 3, line 12, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment would mean regulations with the power to deem compliance with security requirements were subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, as recommended by the DPRRC.

My Lords, in his response to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, talked about transparency. The Minister said that he hoped we were reassured by the presence, and indeed the draft, of particular regulations. More specifically on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, we would be reassured if the Minister were prepared to share those drafts with Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and those of us on this Bench, but the Minister has set his face against pre-publishing draft regulations so that we can have a chance. That trust will come if we are trusted in this process, but it does not come for nothing.

I rise to speak to these—whatever the collective noun for amendments is; perhaps a raft or a shedload—amendments, all of which are around delegated powers and secondary legislation, and to move Amendment 6. As we have discussed, in Part 1,

“The core provision is clause 1, which allows the Secretary of State to make regulations specifying the requirements that are to apply for the purpose of protecting or enhancing the security of internet-connectable products made available to consumers in the UK. The security requirements can be applied to … relevant persons.

Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations providing that a relevant person is to be treated as complying with the security standard if specified conditions are met. No limits are imposed on the circumstances in which this power would be capable of being used. Subsection (2) provides that the specified conditions may include, “among other things”, compliance with specified standards. But this does not limit the circumstances in which this power may be exercised.

The explanation for the power is given in paragraphs 20 to 22 of the memorandum. The point is made that improving the security of connectable products is a critical global issue”—

which we have discussed,

“and therefore it is likely that many other countries and international standards bodies will introduce standards similar to or aligned with the security requirements imposed under this Bill. The purpose of the power is to allow products which meet these alternative standards to be excepted from the regime under this Bill, provided that those standards achieve equivalent security outcomes and do not weaken the regime established by the Bill.”

Are noble Lords still with me? The Bill’s

“powers will also facilitate mutual recognition agreements and therefore help the UK to avoid placing an undue burden on industry by restricting the free flow of international trade.”

I think we all can see this. I agree with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee,

“that this provides a reasonable explanation for the power contained in Clause 3, it does not explain why it is considered necessary or appropriate for the power to be at large and not limited so that it can only be used where a product is subject to an alternative security regime imposed outside the UK”

and that the Minister needs

“to explain whether the failure to limit the powers in this way is inadvertent; and, if not, why (whether by reference to technological change or otherwise) it is considered necessary to draw the powers more widely than indicated in the memorandum.

Regulations under Clause 3 are subject to the negative resolution procedure. That is based in part on the fact that the regulations will not reduce the effect of the legal framework. But that assumes that other international standards will apply instead.”

This amendment puts forward the DPRRC’s recommendation that

“the affirmative resolution procedure is more appropriate if the width of the regulation-making power is to be retained.”

The alternative is for the Government to narrow that regulation power.

Amendment 9 focuses on regulations under Clause 9(7), which are subject to the negative resolution procedure. This amendment implements the DPRRC recommendation that

“the affirmative resolution procedure is more appropriate if there are to be no limits on the circumstances in which the duty under clause 9 to provide a statement of compliance may be waived.”

Then we have tabled an amendment that removes Clause 9 altogether. Clause 9 is designed to take power to except manufacturers from the duty to provide a statement of compliance. The clause

“requires manufacturers to provide a statement of compliance when a product that is subject to security requirements is made available to the UK. Subsection (7) of clause 9 confers a power by regulations to provide that a manufacturer is to be treated as complying with this requirement if specified conditions are met.

The explanation in the memorandum links this power to the power in Clause 3 to treat a relevant person as complying with a security requirement.

‘Where the government has recognised another standard as being equivalent to compliance with a security requirement using the provisions of clause 3(1), it may be appropriate under certain conditions, for instance where the government has entered into a mutual recognition arrangement with another regime, for the duty to ensure that a product is accompanied by a statement of compliance to be waived for relevant persons in relation to products that meet that standard.’

However, this limitation on the circumstances in which the power will be used is not reflected in clause 9(7) itself, which simply confers a power to treat the manufacturer as complying with the duty to provide the statement of compliance ‘if specified conditions are met’, without any indication of or limit on what those conditions might be.”

As such, the purpose of giving notice of our intention to oppose the question that Clause 9 stand part of the Bill amendment is designed to get to the bottom of the issue and to get the Minister to explain whether the failure to limit the power, as described in the memorandum, is inadvertent; and, if not, why it is necessary to draw the power more widely than indicated in the memorandum.

Amendment 10 would place a duty on the Secretary of State to make regulations about the conditions under which manufacturers must notify customers when they are placed at risk, as recommended by the DPRRC. As on Clause 9, we also propose to remove Clause 11 from the Bill.

“Clause 11 requires a manufacturer to take action where it becomes aware of a compliance failure.”

This is good. This is a probing amendment, not something that we expect to happen.

“This includes notifying persons listed in clause 11(4). These persons are the enforcement authority, other manufacturers of the product, importers, distributors, and:

‘in a case where specified conditions are met, any customer in the United Kingdom to whom the manufacturer supplied the product.’

The reference in the provision quoted above to ‘specified conditions’ is to conditions specified in regulations subject to the negative resolution procedure.

The explanation for this regulation-making power is contained in paragraph 55 of the memorandum:

‘Where the nature of a compliance failure in relation to consumer connectable products supplied to customers exposes those customers to risk, it is important that they are informed and can respond accordingly. The Government will use this power to set out practical conditions, the effect of which will be that customers will need to be notified of compliance failures where that failure has exposed the customer to significant risk. These conditions will be defined in regulations, and will be based on an assessment of the additional risk of cyber-attack presented by different kinds of compliance failure, for instance, in relation to specific security requirements.’

However, despite the stated intention to use the power to ensure that customers are informed where they are put at risk as a result of the compliance failure, there is no duty on the Secretary of State on the face of the legislation to act in that way. Instead, the provision simply gives the Secretary of State an unfettered discretion to determine the circumstances in which customers should be notified.”

Once again, we on these Benches agree that, as the committee states,

“it is important that customers are notified where they are put at risk as a result of a compliance failure.”

The problem here is that

“the power is drafted in a way that gives the Secretary of State a discretion to decide whether or not to make regulations requiring notification in those circumstances.”

The DPRRC recommends that

“legislation should be framed so that the Secretary of State is under a duty to make regulations requiring manufacturers to notify customers … at a significant risk, and we recommend accordingly.”

So, once again, this is a probing amendment to get the Minister to explain to your Lordships’ House why there should be discretion, and perhaps to explain how that discretion might be used in future so that we better understand the Government’s thinking on this, or whether it was merely inadvertence.

Amendments 11, 12 and 13 all raise similar issues with powers in Clauses 18, 19, 24 and 25. The DPRRC says:

“Each of those clauses is also concerned with notification of compliance failures with the notification of customers only being required where conditions specified in regulations are met. We therefore make the same recommendation with respect to those powers as we do in paragraph 15 … in relation to the powers conferred by clause 11”.

The amendments would implement that recommendation.

I turn Amendment 15. The DPRRC says:

“Chapter 3 of Part 1 (clauses 26 to 52) makes provision for the enforcement of the duties imposed on manufacturers, importers and distributors in relation to the security requirements which apply to internet-connectable products. The enforcement functions conferred by Chapter 3 include: … the power to give a compliance notice requiring a person who is failing to comply with a relevant duty to comply with that duty within a specified period; … the power to give a stop notice to prevent a continuing breach of a relevant duty; … the power to give a recall notice to manufacturers for the purpose of securing the return of products; … the power to impose monetary penalties for a failure to comply with a relevant duty; … the power to apply to the court for the forfeiture of products where there is a compliance failure; … the power to require a person to provide information and the power to enter premises. The functions are conferred on the Secretary of State.”

Clause 27 essentially potentially confers the power of the Secretary of State to an enforcer. As the committee states, it

“provides that the Secretary of State may enter into an agreement with any person authorising the person to exercise any enforcement function of the Secretary of State. Clause 27(6) provides that, where a person is authorised under clause 27 to exercise an enforcement function, any reference in Chapter 3 to the Secretary of State in connection with that function is to be read as a reference to that person.”

In a sense, the enforcer is a proxy for the Secretary of State. The report continues:

“The memorandum makes no reference to the power to delegate the exercise of enforcement functions conferred by clause 27.”

The DPRRC assumed that

“this is because the Department do not view it as a legislative power on the basis that in some sense the Secretary of State remains the owner of the function where a delegation occurs.”

Perhaps the Minister might comment on that. The DPRRC continues:

“In this regard, clause 27(3) provides that an agreement under clause 27 may be cancelled by the Secretary of State at any time, and that the existence of such an agreement does not prevent the Secretary of State from performing a function to which the agreement relates.”

So, in other words, there could be two enforcers involved in this. First is the delegated enforcer, and then the Secretary of State could step in too. Again, the Minister might explain how that will work in future.

The committee goes on to say:

“In the Explanatory Notes for the Bill, the delegation power contained in clause 27 is described as ‘a routine power that replicates other legislation such as section 125 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990’ … The maximum penalty is the greater of £10 million and 4% of the person’s qualifying worldwide revenue for the person’s most recent complete accounting period.”

It finds that:

“There is a notable difference between section 125 and clause 27”

of this Bill,

“in that the delegation of enforcement powers in the former case is limited to delegation by the Secretary of State to any public authority”,

and not any person, as in the case of this Bill. Again, the Minister might speak to the issue of public authority versus person.

Despite the department’s approach and what it says in the Explanatory Notes, the DPRRC considers that

“giving the Secretary of State the power to delegate enforcement functions as proposed in this case is in substance the delegation of a legislative power.”

In other words, it disagrees with the idea that the Secretary of State is retaining some of that power. It continues:

“Thus, it allows the Secretary of State to determine who is to have the legal authority to exercise functions under the Bill, where the exercise of those functions can include having the sole responsibility to decide how, against whom and in what circumstances enforcement powers under the Bill are exercised. There is nothing on the face of the Bill which requires the Secretary of State to have any involvement in or oversight of the exercise of the functions once a person has been authorised by an agreement under clause 27 … The enforcement functions which may be delegated by an agreement under clause 27 are very significant”—

I think we all agree that that is true—

“and how they are exercised will no doubt have an important impact on the effectiveness of the regulatory regime”

that comes from this Bill. It goes on to say:

“Also, there are no limitations on the persons to whom the functions may be delegated. As things stand, there is no requirement for parliamentary scrutiny of the delegation by the Secretary of State of the power to exercise enforcement functions under clause 27, and there are no limitations on the persons to whom the functions may be delegated. There is not even any requirement on the Secretary of State to publish information about delegations made under clause 27.”

The Minister will not be surprised that members of the DPRRC

“strongly take the view that the determination of who is to exercise enforcement functions under Chapter 3 of Part 1 should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny”—

we should all agree that the sovereign nature of Parliament means that this important job should be scrutinised by your Lordships and the other place—

“and therefore that the power to delegate functions under clause 27 should be done by way of regulations rather than by agreement. Given the significance of the functions and the width of the power (which extends to conferring the functions on private as well as public bodies), we consider the regulations should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.”

In conclusion—noble Lords will be pleased to hear—I note the Minister’s letter of 14 June and respond that it is not good enough not to tell us which enforcement body it will be, because the various processes have to be gone through. This is particularly wrong as we believe that the Minister already knows who the enforcement body is going to be and has decided not to disclose it to your Lordships’ House. Either way, it should be specified in the Bill or subject to parliamentary oversight. The Government cannot have it both ways. I beg to move Amendment 6.

My Lords, I am grateful, as ever, to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for its very helpful report on this Bill. It would be fair to say that, in general, this Bill has fared better than most Bills, so that gives some comfort. Nevertheless, it is also true to say that the committee has raised a number of concerns and has put forward a very helpful range of recommendations, which are encapsulated in this suite of amendments. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for his detailed canter through what might be called a veritable feast of amendments.

As I say, this group of amendments very much reflects the concerns of the committee. I should also put on record that as the amendments were tabled at a relatively late stage, these Benches have not signed them. I say to the Minister that there is nothing to deduce from that, because I can confirm that we hope that he will take the concerns that are seriously and sensibly set out in this group and will look at revising the scope of procedures relating to certain powers when it comes to Report stage.

The feast of amendments in this group aim to implement the recommendations of your Lordships’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. We welcome the committee’s report and are considering its recommendations, as we always do. It will infuriate the noble Lords who have asked detailed questions when I say that, ahead of setting out our response to the committee, I will not be able to cover all the issues they have pressed the Government on today. I am happy to say that we will set out our response in writing ahead of Report. Perhaps once we have done that, and noble Lords have seen the Government’s full thinking in their response to the committee, it might be helpful for us to speak in detail.

The legislation has been designed to protect people, networks and infrastructure from the harms of insecure consumer connectable products, while minimising the unnecessary regulatory burden on businesses. It does so in the context of rapid technological and regulatory change, evolving cybercriminal activities and a growing impact on people in businesses, all of which require us to ensure that the legislation can evolve quickly and effectively. The UK, as I have noted, is leading the world with its approach to regulating connectable products. As other jurisdictions increasingly turn their attention to this important issue, we will use this flexibility to achieve alignment with equivalent regulatory regimes, avoiding unnecessary duplication. These powers, and the others conferred by the Bill to make delegated legislation, are crucial for it to remain effective. We have carefully considered the number, scope and necessity of these powers, and believe we have struck the right balance between the need for that flexibility and the importance of Parliamentary scrutiny, which noble Lords rightly stressed again today.

We welcome the report of your Lordships’ committee and are considering its recommendations. I am afraid I cannot, at this stage, pre-empt our response, which has to be made while considering the recommendations’ impact on the broader framework. We will return to these matters on Report, and I am very happy to have a detailed conversation with the noble Lords about our response after we have responded to the DPRRC.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, focused on Clauses 9 and 11. I am happy to confirm that nothing about how the powers are drawn in Clause 9 is inadvertent; this was our intent. Clause 9 contains four delegated powers; they will be used predominantly to provide administrative detail deemed too technical for primary legislation. For example, they will explain what must be included as a minimum in a statement of compliance, what steps must be taken to determine compliance, where appropriate, and for how long a manufacturer should keep a statement of compliance. They will also provide flexibility to respond swiftly to changes in the market. In addition, the delegated powers in this clause may be used in the future to provide that the statement of compliance is equivalent to certain product markings, or external conformity assessments, such that a manufacturer may be deemed to have provided a statement of compliance where such markings or assessments have been made or completed. This is dependent on regulatory changes to product markings and on the development of the assurance sector for product security.

At this stage, and awaiting our response to your Lordships’ committee, I hope noble Lords will agree that it goes without saying that the Government feel these clauses should stand part of the Bill.

I sort of thank the Minister for his response, which is really no response at all. He did say that it would infuriate me and he is fairly accurate about that.

As correctly noted, I am merely a cipher for the DPRRC, a very serious committee that does not produce these reports lightly. The point it is making, particularly on Clause 27, is front and centre to this Bill. Who is going to enforce it? Who decides who will enforce the Bill, and how will Parliament know if the Secretary of State decides not to tell it, under the current regulations? These are very serious matters and not ones that your Lordships’ House should step back from. I am sure that the Minister will, on reflection, understand that the DPRRC has a very important point to make. The others are important points, particularly around Clause 3, but the Clause 27 piece is absolutely central to the future of this Bill. That said, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 6.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed.

Clauses 4 to 6 agreed.

Clause 7: Relevant persons

Amendment 7

Moved by

7: Clause 7, page 5, line 24, at end insert—

“(5A) For the purposes of subsection (5), a person who provides an online facility through which a distributor makes a product available in the United Kingdom is also a distributor.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment brings online marketplaces which allow relevant products to be listed for sale within scope of the security requirements outlined in the Bill.

My Lords, Amendment 7 is also in the name of my noble friend Lady Merron. This amendment, as the notes to the Bill’s amendments set out, brings online marketplaces which allow relevant products to be listed for sale within the scope of the security requirements outlined in the Bill. We wish to express again our gratitude to Which? and others for their work in relation to online marketplaces, including, but not limited to, Amazon and eBay, which facilitate the sale of many of these products.

Research suggests that a significant number of products listed on online marketplaces could have security and privacy risks. This is prior to the introduction of the new rules for producers, importers and distributors, but it does highlight the importance of ensuring that marketplaces are subject to at least some of the new measures. Following Second Reading, the Minister kindly wrote to noble Lords, as he promised he would, and suggested that in many cases these websites will fall under “at least one” of the categories and, even if they do not, earlier parts of the supply chain will be subject to the new duties. On that basis, the Government say they will not explicitly bring marketplaces within scope of these measures but will keep the matter under review. It is disappointing that the Minister decided to rule out this change without even having this Committee debate. I hope the Minister’s response will go into more detail than the letter, and he will outline exactly what this review process will look like. Importantly, if it becomes apparent that obligations need to be imposed on these businesses, can he outline the process for achieving this? Can it be done under existing powers, or would it require an additional, albeit simple, piece of primary legislation?

This may not be a gaping hole in the Bill, but it does feel like a gap that needs to be addressed. We hope the Government will be persuaded of that in the run-up to Report stage. It is important because we do not often get legislation on this subject and we do not often get the opportunity to deal with issues such as this. I say to the Minister that we need considerable reassurance on this point because of that very fact. The Minister may say that it is all going to be down to regulations. That is not really a complete answer but we look forward to hearing his response.

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 8 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones. These are two ways of doing the same thing so I support the spirit of Amendment 7, about which we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam.

This amendment adds the following wording to Clause 7:

“Any person who is a provider of an internet service that allows or facilitates the making by consumers of distance contracts with traders or other consumers for the sale or supply of a relevant connectable product is to be regarded as a distributor for the purposes of this Act, if not a manufacturer or an importer of the product.”

This amends the language that defines a distributor in the scope of the Bill. Online marketplaces are a mainstream form of today’s retail. Which? research in 2019 found that more than 90% of the UK population had shopped through an online marketplace within the month it was polling. That has increased during the pandemic. However, its research also consistently highlighted how online marketplaces are flooded with insecure products. It has previously demonstrated issues with the lack of legal responsibility of online marketplaces for the security and safety of products sold through their platforms.

The Government have recognised the problem, in their response to the call for evidence on product safety, that current safety rules were designed to fit supply chains as they operated before the world of internet shopping. In the realm of product safety, the Government have acknowledged that this can result in the peculiar situation where no actor is responsible for ensuring product safety. This has resulted in organisations such as Electrical Safety First repeatedly finding unsafe and non-compliant products listed on online marketplaces. Therefore, the traditional conception of actors in the supply chain is now outdated.

The Bill defines “distributor” as

“any person who … makes the product available in the United Kingdom, and … is not a manufacturer or an importer of the product.”

At present, it seems unlikely that certain online marketplaces, including eBay, Amazon Marketplace and Wish.com, will be included within the scope of that definition of distributors in the Bill. This will leave, without overstating it, a sizeable gap in the regulatory scope of this market.

Given the amount of insecure tech readily available on online marketplaces, it is paramount that these platforms are given obligations in the Bill to ensure the safety and security of the products sold on their sites, regardless of whether the seller is a third party. However, the Clause 7(5) definition of “distributor” in terms of making products available on the market is in line with existing product safety law, so we know that certain marketplaces are not classed as distributors and hence not obligated to take action. Amazon Marketplace, Wish.com and eBay are marketplaces where other people are selling; this is the issue.

This amendment seeks to expand the definition of distributors in Clause 7 to include appropriate online retailers, such as listings platforms and auction sites, including eBay, Amazon Marketplace and AliExpress. I feel sure that the Minister did not intend for the legislation to miss these marketplaces out; rather than risk this loophole going any further, we will work with the Minister and Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition to come up with some wording that absolutely iron-clads the Bill to ensure that these sorts of marketplaces are also included.

I am grateful to noble Lords for speaking to their amendments in this group, both of which seek to make online marketplaces a “distributor”. It is vital that all products offered to consumers are secure, including those listed through online marketplaces, and we want to ensure that this is achieved in the most efficient way.

The explanatory statement for Amendment 7 suggests that products listed on online marketplaces might not be protected by the security requirements set out in the Bill. I reassure noble Lords, particularly those who tabled Amendment 7, that the security requirements will need to be met for all new connectable products offered to consumers in the UK, including those offered through online marketplaces. These marketplaces often act as a manufacturer, importer or distributor and, in those cases, they are subject to the same duties and security requirements as those three types of economic actor. If, however, the online marketplace does not fall into one of these three categories, the manufacturers, importers and distributors of those products are all still fully responsible for complying with security requirements.

The Government recognise that no law is perfect and that malicious actors may try to exploit the difficulties of enforcement against overseas businesses. For this reason, the Bill provides the Secretary of State with robust enforcement powers to address cases of non-compliance. The powers enable the enforcer to monitor the market, warn consumers of risks and, where appropriate, seize and recall products.

I agree with noble Lords that consumers need assurance that the products they buy and use are secure. For the supply chain to provide that reassurance requires alignment across a range of policy areas, including product security and safety. The Bill’s new security framework will sit alongside the existing legislation for product safety. We have designed this legislation to work in a similar way. That makes it easier for both businesses and consumers to know their rights and responsibilities.

The Government are conducting a review of the product safety framework and intend to publish a consultation later this year which will include proposals to tackle the sale of unsafe products online. Officials will continue to liaise with colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that the product safety and cybersecurity regimes are coherent and offer similar levels of protection for consumers.

This has piqued my interest; how does this exercise relate to the Bill? This process of dealing with the online acquisition of unsafe products would seem to be what the Bill is doing front and centre, so what is that process? How do the two connect?

They are complementary; the new product security framework sits alongside existing legislation on product safety, which is why we want to conduct a review of the safety framework and publish the consultation. I am certainly happy to write and endeavour to explain.

The noble Lord asked whether products sold through online marketplaces fall into a gap in the Bill. The Bill requires in-scope products offered for sale through online marketplaces to customers in the UK to be as secure as in-scope products sold, for example, in physical stores. We are mindful of the variety of services offered by different online marketplaces. Some act only as advertising platforms, while others facilitate transactions and store and ship products on behalf of the seller. As noble Lords have noted, this changes all the time. This must be carefully considered to ensure that businesses can comply with their legal obligations and that any regulation is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to provide the best protection to consumers.

I am sorry to keep popping up; being a practical person, I will try to give the Minister a scenario and, if he cannot answer straightaway, he can write. I have bought a product through an online auction that turns out to be unsafe; I go back to the auction site, which tells me, “Not my problem. You have to return to the international manufacturer which made this product”, which turns out to be a brick wall and nothing comes back. First, is that online auction site correct in handing me over to the international manufacturer, which turns out to be a dead end? Secondly, if that site is correct, to whom do I go? Do I go to my local council trading officer or to the person who, under Clause 27, has been mysteriously made the enforcer for the Bill? I may or may not know who they are. How do I seek redress, and from whom?

I will try answer the noble Lord’s question, and I am happy to write with further detail. Products sold on online marketplaces are covered by the Bill. All products sold to customers in the UK will have to comply with the security requirements set out under this framework. Where a product is sold on a third-party online marketplace, the seller will be responsible for ensuring that it is compliant. Third-party sellers who sell new products directly to customers on those platforms will also be covered under the “distributor” definition. I will happily write to the noble Lord with further detail ahead of Report but I hope that, for now, that goes some way towards addressing his question.

My Lords, I would be grateful if my noble friend included me in his replies and letters. Is he aware of the lamentable performance of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs when it comes to trying to enforce VAT in similar circumstances, and the enormous difficulty it has had with third-party sellers operating out of the Far East in particular? It is extremely difficult, and the volume of VAT lost runs into the billions. This is a large-scale enterprise and it will easily channel a large volume of unsatisfactory products into the UK if we do not take effective action.

I hope that the Government, in their new consultation, which I look forward to learning about, will be taking a robust attitude towards the platforms. For instance, it is entirely unsatisfactory that there should be a way in which unsafe toys can get into the hands of children at Christmas, and for which there is no effective means of prevention or redress. In other jurisdictions, these online marketplaces have proved amenable to a forceful approach by government. I very much hope that we will be joining in with that.

I am happy to include my noble friend in the replies and the letter I send. This touches on work which falls under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the points he raised, of course, fall to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We will make sure that, having consulted officials there, we provide some details of the work those departments are doing as well.

My Lords, I am looking forward to the correspondence on this; I fancy that the noble Lord’s civil servants will have a tricky job on their hands. I do not think I quite got a response to what the nature of “being kept under review” really meant, but I await word in the future.

I have been reading the Explanatory Notes, as the Minister will probably be unhappy to hear, and I can see the difficulties. In trying to ensure that the legislation is focused, rightly, on the producers, manufacturers, importers and distributors, it is hard to work round that and not capture people who are simply installers of a product. On the other hand, there are circumstances where installers are primarily responsible for the effectiveness and working of the product, and if it was not for the way they install it, it would not be effective. The terms of the contract are such that it makes that difficult.

I can see the difficulty here, but for now I am happy to withdraw our amendment. In doing so, we are equally supportive of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, because the two are contiguous in their formulation.

Amendment 7 withdrawn.

Amendment 8 not moved.

Clause 7 agreed.

Clause 8 agreed.

Clause 9: Statements of compliance

Amendment 9 not moved.

Clause 9 agreed.

Clause 10 agreed.

Clause 11: Duties to take action in relation to compliance failure

Amendment 10 not moved.

Clause 11 agreed.

Clauses 12 to 18 agreed.

Clause 19: Duties to take action in relation to manufacturer’s compliance failure

Amendment 11 not moved.

Clause 19 agreed.

Clauses 20 to 23 agreed.

Clause 24: Duties to take action in relation to distributor’s compliance failures

Amendment 12 not moved.

Clause 24 agreed.

Clause 25: Duties to take action in relation to manufacturer’s compliance failure

Amendment 13 not moved.

Clause 25 agreed.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 7.47 pm.

Ukraine: UK and NATO Military Commitment

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 20 June.

“Russia’s assault on Ukraine is an unprovoked, premeditated attack against a sovereign democratic state that threatens global security. As set out to the House previously, the United Kingdom and NATO stand with Ukraine. We are providing political and practical support to support its self-defence, and will further strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture. Individual NATO allies, led by the UK, are also supporting Ukraine with lethal aid to ensure that Ukraine wins.

The United Kingdom was the first country to provide lethal aid, and we have increased our military and aid support, bringing the total budget to £1.3 billion. To date, we have sent over 6,900 anti-tank missiles; five air defence systems, including Starstreak anti-air missiles; 120 armoured fighting vehicles, including a small number of Stormers; 1,360 anti-structure munitions; 4.5 tonnes of plastic explosives; and 400,000 rounds of small-arms munitions. In addition, we have supplied over 200,000 items of non-lethal aid, including more than 82,000 helmets; more than 8,000 body armour kits; range finders; and medical equipment. As announced on 6 June 2022, we are providing cutting edge multiple-launch rocket systems, which can strike targets up to 80 kilometres away with pinpoint accuracy, offering a significant boost in capability to the Ukrainian armed forces. On 17 June, the Prime Minister offered to launch a major training operation for Ukrainian forces, with the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every three months—120 days.

We are currently supplying significant air power to NATO, including increased air patrols, with both Typhoons and F35s for NATO air policing. We have also deployed four additional Typhoons to Cyprus to patrol NATO’s eastern border. That means that we now have a full squadron of Royal Air Force fighter jets in southern Europe, ready to support NATO tasking. The United Kingdom has contributed more troops than any other ally to NATO’s enhanced forward presence. UK troops will also be deploying a company-sized sub-unit to Bulgaria to work bilaterally alongside our Bulgarian counterparts for up to six months, enhancing interoperability. The PM will meet NATO leaders again for next week’s Madrid summit, where NATO will agree the new strategic concept to set the direction of the alliance for the next decade and will agree long-term improvements to our deterrence and defence posture in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United Kingdom’s commitment to the alliance and European security is unconditional and enduring. Our commitment to Article 5 of the Washington treaty is ironclad. We stand ready to defend our allies.”

It is the start of Armed Forces Week, so I begin by thanking them for all they do. We also reiterate our full support for the Government’s actions in Ukraine.

In continuing this support, the Prime Minister said last Friday that we would offer to train 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers every three months. Can the Minister say when this will start and give more detail of the plan? For example, where will they be trained—in the UK or another NATO country?

We also know that the Ukrainians have asked for more weapons. Can the Minister explain the Defence Minister’s remarks in the other place? He said that the Prime Minister and Defence Procurement Minister met yesterday morning to discuss

“escalating the supply of NATO standard equipment”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/6/22; col. 558.]

New contracts are also under discussion. Can the Minister say more about that and explain what it means?

The new head of the Army is also reported to have said that we need an Army capable of fighting Russia in battle. Can the Minister clarify those remarks? Were they actually said and if so, what was meant? Is that accurate? Whatever he meant, a reduction in our Army of a further 10,000 soldiers is not in our interest or that of our allies, is it? The Government need to rethink this.

First, I echo the noble Lord’s sentiments of gratitude to our Armed Forces. I have already participated in one of the services, up in Scotland, and I did so with a great sense of pride. I also thank him for his constructive approach, as ever, to matters in Ukraine.

On training, on which the Prime Minister’s announcement was very welcome, the UK is considering several options outside Ukraine to roll out the training programme, and that could include locations in the UK and other locations in Europe. The UK plans to provide basic infantry training to new or entry-level conventional recruits of the armed forces of Ukraine. The noble Lord will be aware that the Treasury has made £1.3 billion in operational support and capability available for Ukraine. This fund is expected to contribute to the first stage of the training initiative.

The noble Lord asked about the placement of contracts. His colleague the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, raised this last week and I shall write to him, but I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that there is of course constant engagement. The department is fully engaged with industry, allies and partners to ensure that all equipment and munitions granted in kind are replaced as expeditiously as possible. But I am afraid that, for operational, commercial and security reasons, I cannot provide any further information at this stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, raised the question of the size of the Army. It is important not to impute to the Chief of Defence Staff anything he did not say. My understanding is that he did not make some simple, binary arithmetical comparison—big is good, smaller is bad. In fact, I think in his remarks he reflected exactly what we established and identified in the integrated review, reflected in the Command Paper and then fleshed out with Future Soldier. Some very interesting comments have been made in the House about this issue, but I was particularly impressed by two contributions in the debate on the humble Address, one by the noble Lord, Browne of Ladyton, and the other by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond. They were incisive and analytical and I commend these speeches to your Lordships.

My Lords, may I begin by associating myself with the expressions of gratitude to our Armed Forces? May I also say that, sooner or later, the Government will have to grasp the nettle and admit that the tasks before land forces in particular will not be carried out effectively by the numbers contained in the integrated review? It will happen sooner or later, but the sooner it does the quicker it will be possible to see how additional land forces can be properly deployed. I wonder whether the Minister sees what I see. I see a war of attrition, with Russia now temporarily outgunning Ukraine and doing so by grinding out painful and bloodletting progress at a terrible cost to forces on both sides. Does she accept that Ukraine can survive only if the supply of weapons from the United Kingdom and others in NATO matches that of Russia in quality, quantity and capability? Will she tell the Prime Minister to tell that to the meeting of NATO Heads of Government next week?

With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, who, as he knows, I admire hugely, I disagree with his analysis. With the biggest investment since the end of the Cold War, the Army will reorganise; it will re-equip to become more integrated, active and lethal as a high-tech force fit for the threats of the future, not the battles of the past. As people increasingly recognise, what we do with the Army and how we do it in the future is not based simply on boots on the ground, but on a much wider understanding of how we are smarter and cleverer—finding better equipment and using technology. In that respect, we can operate in a much more agile and resilient fashion.

I say to the noble Lord that the nature of the conflict in Ukraine is certainly arduous and worrying; I think everyone accepts that it will be of long duration. But I would also say to him that the UK has been a singular contributor in leading the charge to help Ukraine defend itself, and we welcome those within and outwith NATO supporting that endeavour. The NATO summit on 28 June will be an important occasion because NATO will agree the new strategic concept and set the direction of the alliance for the next decade. Much of that will be informed by what has happened with this barbarous and illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

My Lords, I shall use three quotes from yesterday’s debate. First, Tobias Ellwood, who put down the Question, said:

“But Russia is not losing and Ukraine is not winning”. ––[Official Report, Commons, 20/6/22; col. 556.]

Secondly, the new head of the Armed Forces said that we must be

“fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle”.

Thirdly, the Secretary-General of NATO said that this could take years. I should like to ask the Minister: where are we actually going? Last week in the Duma, there was discussion about the Suwałki Gap, the strip of land running between Lithuania and Poland that links Kaliningrad to Belarus. What happens if the Russians decide to force the Suwałki Gap? They would not be fighting Ukraine, but the Lithuanians are very anxious to implement all the sanctions and Kaliningrad is becoming more or less isolated. I should like to think that our forward planning stretches beyond Boris Johnson and the end of next week, and that we are looking seriously at ways in which this conflict could be gradually edged-up in a way that it would be very difficult for NATO to respond to with unity.

I do not agree with my noble friend’s somewhat dismissive commentary on how the UK has responded to this. I think, by universal assent, the UK has played a pivotal role in coming to the aid of and supporting Ukraine, which knows that it has in us a solid and reliable friend. I say to my noble friend that within the whole Baltic area there has been a bolstering of the enhanced forward presence, to which the UK has been an important contributor. That has been a necessary response. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, what we are witnessing is quite simply an illegal and barbarous invasion by President Putin of an innocent sovereign state.

It is interesting that, within the Baltic area, Sweden and Finland now seek to join NATO. I assume they are motivated by the sense of comfort and reassurance that the alliance will bring them if they are able to become members. That is a matter for hope and optimism.

My Lords, I wish to associate myself with the expressions of gratitude to our Armed Forces and our veterans. Yesterday in the other place, Leo Docherty, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence People and Veterans, in answering this Question spoke about the Government’s

“absolute resolve to meet our NATO commitments”

and said that they are doing that by delivering

“at pace the technological and military revolution necessary to make ourselves more lethal, agile and deployable around the world than ever before.”

He went on:

“For too long, the measurement of our military capability has been about men and vehicles in garrisons, rather than our ability to project power”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/6/22; col. 558.]

The Minister knows that I think that is the right approach. Why then, on 15 June, did the MoD slip out, under cover of a Written Ministerial Statement, the Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy and its accompanying document on the ethics of military AI? When will the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister come to Parliament to explain how this strategy will, in the words of that Statement,

“transform the culture of defence”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/22; col. 13WS.]

and to answer questions about it?