House of Lords
Monday 27 June 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.
Introduction: Baroness Gohir
Shaista Gohir, OBE, having been created Baroness Gohir, of Hall Green in the City of Birmingham, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Judge and Baroness Watkins of Tavistock, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Roma Community: Levelling Up
The Government have set out 12 national levelling-up missions which are already beginning to drive real change across the United Kingdom, including for our Roma communities. They include investing £1.4 million in targeted educational support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. We will continue to work across government to tackle inequalities.
I am aware of the Government’s plans to deal with the Roma community, but two weeks ago the submissions from local government closed. What guarantee is there that the funding going via local authorities will be ring-fenced for the Roma community and that it will not bring them into conflict with the new extended police power to move people on?
It is for local authorities to work on their own local housing need. While tackling unauthorised encampments, we have recognised the need also to provide more opportunities for stopping sites. That is why we have invested £10 million in enabling both more permanent and temporary provision for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
My Lords, an investigation by the Education Select Committee into the achievement of Gypsy and Roma children is under way. Only 8.1% of those children achieve a grade 5 or higher pass at GSCE English and Maths, compared to 49.9% of other pupils. What percentage of Gypsy and Roma children currently attract pupil premium funding? Is there a case that the level of funding should be higher, akin to that which looked-after children attract?
More than 14,000 Gypsy, Roma, Traveller or Irish heritage pupils are eligible for free school meals, representing over 40% of GRT pupils. GRT pupils do not attract the pupil premium per se, but the Government have increased the amount of money to £2.6 billion in 2022-23. I will look at and discuss with my noble friend in the Department for Education the level set for GRT pupils.
My Lords, mission 7 of the Government’s White Paper on levelling up in the UK aims to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy by 2030. However, there is no mention in it at all of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Given that the life expectancy of GRT people is 10 to 25 years less than that of the general population, can the Minister say what the Government are doing to target this disparity?
The levelling-up White Paper does not mention specific communities; it sets the overall ambition. However, it is fair to say that the Government, through the Health and Wellbeing Alliance, have commissioned health guidance for Roma communities. The guidance has been developed by the Roma Support Group, which is part of the Health and Wellbeing Alliance and NHS England, and this will be published as part of the migrant health guide.
My Lords, in 2019 the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, the Minister’s very effective predecessor, announced a cross-departmental strategy to level out the horrendous inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. I know the Minister is sympathetic to the strategy, but nothing has been announced—no plan, no strategy, no aims, no actions, no lines of accountability—since 2019. Indeed, since then the Education Select Committee, the House of the Lords Public Services Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights have all commented on the severe disparities in all the outcomes. What are the Government going to do about the cross-departmental strategy? Does it still exist?
My Lords, I recognise that we have not yet published the strategy but I take issue with the idea that we have not moved forward. We have made progress: we have launched the £10 million Traveller site fund for 2022-23; we have invested £1.4 million in targeted programmes, with various pilot projects to improve educational outcomes; and, as I said in response to a previous question, we are developing specific guidance to improve health outcomes in the Roma community. So, while we do not have a strategy, the Government have taken tangible steps to level up and benefit the GRT community.
My Lords, Roma used to be able to travel the land finding work as casual agricultural workers and stopping in traditional, unofficial places. The police and crime Bill will now prevent this, but local authorities are not required to provide legally serviced sites for them. The Roma are the last group in society to whom equalities do not appear to apply. Is the Minister not ashamed of the appalling inequalities that these citizens suffer constantly?
The Government made a manifesto commitment to tackle unauthorised encampments, but we recognise that not all of them cause harm or disruption. We recognise the financial costs to communities, businesses and landowners of clearing up sites and repairing damages. That is why we have announced the £10 million fund, which has been well oversubscribed. There are opportunities for local authorities to access that fund as well as the £10.5 billion affordable homes fund, but it is the local planning authorities’ duty to work out what they should be providing.
My Lords, can the Minister set out in specific terms what steps he is taking, working with the Department of Health and Social Care, to improve health outcomes for the Roma community, especially as the health disparities White Paper is being prepared and the ICBs are being established?
We set out a clear mission in the levelling-up White Paper to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy by five years. We are creating clear guidance for the community, as I have already mentioned, and I am sure that more of the plan will be revealed in the health disparities White Paper in due course.
My Lords, my noble friend asked about the national strategy and progress, but surely one of the problems is the Government’s ongoing resistance to cross-departmental strategies on race equality issues. How will the levelling-up Bill address this? How will it get that resistance sorted and get departments to genuinely work together to improve outcomes for the Roma community?
My Lords, we have a lead Minister who is responsible for equalities matters and has taken on the brief as Communities Minister. My honourable friend Kemi Badenoch is charged with those duties and I am sure will bring forward plans in due course.
My Lords, will my noble friend explain what happens to the funding awarded to a Gypsy, Traveller or Roma child if that child fails to complete the academic year, which is disruptive not just for that child but for all the children in that class?
For a great period of time when I held the brief before my colleague Kemi Badenoch, we were working on a clear set of plans, some of which have already been announced. Irrespective of whether or not there is a document, we have a plan around improving temporary and permanent site provision, which is why we have announced the fund. We have plans around improving educational opportunities for GRT children by leading with five pilots with local authorities. I am sure that more will be announced in due course.
My Lords, in a recent conversation with Billy Welch, who organises the Appleby Horse Fair and lives in Darlington, he asked—while recognising the deep problems that have been highlighted in all these questions—that we please start talking about the positive contributions that GRT communities make. Would the Minister like to comment on his view?
Yes, we recognise that GRT communities make a positive contribution. There is a clear commitment to support them in carrying on their way of life and nomadic traditions. That is why we have announced the fund to give them more opportunities for stopping sites and make it easier for them to live the way that they want to live.
Suicide: Online Products
Her Majesty’s Government recognise the gravity of this issue and are investing in suicide prevention through the NHS long-term plan. The Advertising Standards Authority already regulates adverts containing references to suicide. The Government are considering how to tackle illegal and legal consumer harms associated with the contents, targeting and placement of online advertising through the online advertising programme. The consultation closed on 8 June and will help us determine how to tackle such harms.
As my noble friend knows, I am a great supporter of the forthcoming Online Safety Bill but, as we have discussed, it will not regulate all harmful content online. When a particular well-known suicide manual is searched for on Amazon, the site’s algorithmic recommendations then specifically suggest material that can be used, or easily assembled, into a device intended to take one’s own life. If this is not to be regulated as harmful content under the Online Safety Bill, how can this sort of harm be regulated? It is broader than just advertising. Has my noble friend discussed this with Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care?
Yes, we have discussed this matter with our colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and continue to do so. I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this issue. It is important in the context of the forthcoming Bill, which she knows so well, and through our work on the online advertising programme that is designed to look at the full range of harms that exist in online advertising. The Online Safety Bill will empower users to know what a company’s policies are and how to assert their rights to make sure they can be safe online.
My Lords, there is a general welcome for the structure that has been set up by Ofcom and the CMA’s Digital Markets Unit to cover the area raised by the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. A lot will depend on the remit of the regulators. In a recent Ofcom consultation, there was a push-back by the industry, with regulators having a responsibility not for citizens’ interests but for consumers’ interests. In the words of the great political philosopher Mandy Rice-Davies, they would, wouldn’t they? Will the Government resist this push-back?
The CMA, the FCA, the ICO and Ofcom all play a critical role through the Digital Regulation Co-operation Forum, which has an important role to play in delivering the regulatory landscape that protects users from harm. We will continue to work with that forum to explore the role that it and the regulators can have. Of course, these days almost all citizens are consumers online, but the noble Lord makes an important point. We want to make sure that everybody who uses the internet is safe.
My Lords, I am really grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for raising this important matter. What work is under way to ensure that the Online Safety Bill is being taken seriously by the major platforms on which these systems lie? What are the Government intending to do to ensure that parents are educated in, and made aware of, the danger of these kind of platforms?
The strongest protections in the Online Safety Bill will be for children. The noble Baroness is right that there is an important part for parents and guardians to play in making sure that their children are safe online. We are working through Ofcom and the education system to make sure that children and their guardians are aware of the risks of using the internet and the safeguards available. The Online Safety Bill will make sure that people’s recourse to Ofcom, if the terms and conditions or duties that are placed on companies are not being enforced, is upheld.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the people drawn to these platforms, particularly young people, are on the whole extremely vulnerable? What discussions is his department having, if any, with the Department for Health and Social Care to ensure support for young people who perhaps are drawn to these things but lack the kind of support that would turn them away?
Under the self-regulatory system, the Advertising Standards Authority already advises that marketers must take particular care over adverts which contain references to suicide. There is careful guidance for advertisers in this area but we are discussing this with colleagues at the Department of Health, as I say. Through the long-term plan for the NHS, we are also investing to the tune of many millions to try to prevent as many suicides as we can.
My Lords, the Online Safety Bill is an important piece of legislation, but some are querying it in relation to freedom of speech. Can my noble friend say that this will not be used as a reason not to ensure that there is a strong regulatory framework in place, so that those platforms are legislated for and accountable for what they put on those platforms?
My noble friend makes an important point. There are important protections for freedom of expression in the Online Safety Bill. The Bill works by setting out expectations for internet companies to have clear terms and conditions, which users will know of when they sign up to them and which give them recourse to speak to Ofcom if they feel that those terms and conditions are not being upheld. This will empower users, keeping them safe while protecting freedom of expression.
My Lords, there are disturbing reports of TikTok users adopting the term “unalive” as a means of promoting suicide content, while others use shorthand hashtags, such as #ED for eating disorders, as a means of getting round censorship. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Online Safety Bill will do anything to tackle this dangerous creativity of social media users? How will social media platforms be directed to take steps to deal with this as part of their duty of care?
The Online Safety Bill will protect users by putting in place systems and processes to mitigate risks. We know that algorithms play an important part in how companies operate their services. Companies will need to consider how these could cause harm and take steps to mitigate them, but the noble Baroness makes an important point about how people use social media. We are setting out a list of priority harms, such as those she mentions, to make sure that people—particularly vulnerable and young people—are kept safe online.
My Lords, my noble friend has mentioned various statutory agencies, but is this not a particular category of legal but harmful content? Assisting suicide is a criminal offence, as is potentially conspiring to assist suicide. Will he ensure that all those statutory bodies involved really relate to the boundaries of the criminal law that exists today? These companies should be ensuring that they are not assisting or conspiring to assist suicide.
My noble friend is right: there are existing criminal sanctions here and content which encourages or assists suicide, and therefore breaks the existing law, will be covered as well by the safety duties providing for illegal content under the Online Safety Bill. We want to ensure that the Bill adds to the armoury that we have to prevent as many suicides as we can.
My Lords, I think the Minister may have misunderstood the question from my noble friend Lady McIntosh about working with the health services in England and Wales, and in Scotland. It is very important that much more is done to train professional people—health visitors, district nurses, social workers and a whole range of others—about the signs indicating that people might be contemplating suicide. It is also very important that something is done about the waiting lists for access—[Interruption.] I thought someone had committed suicide there. But to be serious about the access to counselling and other services in the National Health Service, there are huge waiting lists for psychological and psychiatric counselling in Scotland, and in England and Wales. Can the Minister take this up with his colleagues in all the departments of health?
If I misunderstood the noble Baroness’s question, I apologise. I will consult the official record and make sure I got it right. The noble Lord is right to reinforce the important role of the National Health Service. The Government are investing an additional £57 million in suicide prevention by 2023 through our NHS long-term plan. That will see investment in every part of the country. In addition, the Department of Health and Social Care provided more than £500,000 to the Local Government Association in the last financial year to bolster the work done by local authorities, which, as he said, play an important role as well.
British Army: Troop Size
My Lords, the integrated review and defence Command Paper made clear that we must focus on defence capability rather than troop numbers in response to changing threats and priorities. Through Future Soldier, the Army will have a whole force of over 100,000, comprised of 73,000 regular service personnel and 30,100 Army Reserve. It is reorganising and re-equipping to face future threats. This will deliver a modern force that is more integrated, agile, lethal and fit for the threats of the future, not the battles of the past. It will be better connected and faster, integrated across domains with allies in NATO and beyond.
My Lords, of course it is right that investment is going into new equipment for a modernised Army to fight the battles of now and the future. At the same time, however, dozens of battle tanks have been scrapped, the numbers of Chinook and Puma helicopters have been reduced, all C-130 transport planes have been taken out of service and the Army is to be cut to its smallest size for 300 years. The former head of the Army, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, has said that an Army of just 73,000 is “too small”. The new head of the Army meanwhile says that we need to be prepared
“to fight in Europe once again”.
With Russian aggression, increasing threats elsewhere and the risk of terrorism, along with greater use of soldiers domestically, why on earth do the Government think this is the right time to cut 10,000 soldiers?
My Lords, let me emphasise that the Government recognise the need for the rapid modernisation of our Armed Forces. As part of that, we have committed to the biggest investment in the Army since the end of the Cold War: £41.3 billion. This process will entail a radical modernisation, supported by major investments in ground-based air defence, cyber and electronic warfare. As I said, we have to get away from the idea that capability can be defined only in terms of numbers of people; it is much more than that.
My Lords, does the Minister agree, as he has just suggested, that it is not about numbers but capability? Does he agree that the capability of the British Army is well below what it should be for a nation of our standing and a permanent member of the UN Security Council? In the Cold War, not that long ago, we fielded four armoured divisions in Germany. We cannot field a single armoured division at present and there is a land war in Europe at the moment. Will the Minister tell us when we intend to increase the number of main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, field-to-rocket artillery and the logistics to go with them? Frankly, the situation is untenable, and the Government must do something about it very soon.
My Lords, I always listen with care to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, who has immense experience in this area. I assure him that under current plans the Army will be balanced to deliver right across the defence spectrum, to protect the homeland, engage with allies and partners overseas, constrain the aggressive activities of our adversaries and—if necessary—to fight wars. It is an Army that has been designed to fight but also organised to operate more productively and effectively.
My Lords, from these Benches, I reiterate the concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Dannatt, about the size of the Army. In his first Answer, the noble Earl referred to the integrated review and the increased defence expenditure. The latter was welcome but what assessment have the Government made of the current exchange rate against the dollar and inflation? It is all very well to bandy headline figures around, but what will that mean in terms of capabilities? Should we not be concerned about not only the size of the Army, which is too small, but defence expenditure more widely?
The noble Baroness will remember that, as part of the spending review of 2020, MoD secured a generous £24 billon uplift to its budget. This will enable the Armed Forces generally to invest in things that they would not otherwise have been able to, including spending £6.6 billion on R&D, establishing a new space command, developing the next generation of naval vessels, developing a new combat air system for the RAF and enhancing our cyber capabilities. So a multitude of work is going on to improve the capability and capacity of all of our Armed Forces.
My Lords, given that, in 1946, Churchill in particular said that our allies the Russians—they were our allies—particularly despise military weakness, does the Minister genuinely think that today is a good time to reduce the Army, as we are doing as we speak?
My Lords, through history, the same effects have been delivered by fewer and fewer people due to the smart employment of new technology. In our own day, robotics and artificial intelligence play into exactly the same trend: in reconnaissance, one drone can do a job done by scores of people in the past. So this emphasis on the integration of emerging technology will make an enormous difference to the capability of the Army and indeed across the Armed Forces.
My Lords, the noble Earl made reference to Future Soldier. Can he tell the House by what date this country will be able to field a full fighting division, with all of the necessary attendant capabilities, including combat and logistics support and adequate weapon stocks?
The noble and gallant Lord is well aware that we are not in a place that we would wish to be in, which is exactly why Future Soldier has defined the path over the next few years. The Army is designed to fight; it will remain that way, and we will ensure that it is equipped to do so.
My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that our Armed Forces are essential to our national resilience as well as to national defence. Prior to the pandemic, requests to bring them in to assist civic authorities were already rising steadily, and they more than doubled during the pandemic: about 34,000 service personnel were deployed to support the pandemic response and, this year, the pre-pandemic increased tempo has been sustained. There is no mention of this trend in the integrated review, but surely, taking account of this increased demand and the increased national defence demand, this justifies a review of the size of the Army, if we are to become the most resilient nation in the world, which is the Government’s ambition.
My Lords, I emphasise that the programme that we have called Future Soldier is the most significant transformation of the British Army in more than 20 years. As I say, it will create an Army that is more integrated with itself and with the other branches of the Armed Forces, and one that is more agile. This means an Army that can turn its hand not simply to combat in the field, which we hope that it will not have to engage in, but also to the tasks at home that the noble Lord so rightly drew attention to.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving member of the Army—I choose that word carefully, because of course the “Army” is not only the regular Army but also the Army Reserve, and I get frustrated sometimes that we seem to misunderstand that. There needs to be an acceptance that the Army Reserve of today is not the Territorial Army of yesterday; a large proportion of Army Reserve members actually serve on a daily basis, bringing unique skills from civilian life and delivering against a defence demand signal. So, although quantity has a quality all of its own, is it not about making sure that we can access the right skills through the right medium to deliver to defence tasks?
My noble friend is absolutely right: our reserves are intrinsically important to the future Army and our Future Soldier transformation programme. Integrating the reserves with regular units to support the delivery of tasks is a major feature of Future Soldier. Each reserve unit will have a clearly defined role and task, particularly—to answer the noble Lord, Lord Browne, incidentally—in relation to homeland resilience, where we expect reserves to take on greater responsibility.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the cuts to the Army are to result in the reduction of only one unit—namely, the 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment—but the cuts are to be effected by reducing the numbers in battalions from 550 to 420, with a possible consequence that the support company, which is vital to the effectiveness of the overall battalion, may lack snipers, mortars and machine guns? Is technology going to deal with all this?
My Lords, it is quite correct that the Army will be smaller and, therefore, will require fewer units in the infantry. This means that there is a requirement for one less battalion, as the noble Lord indicated; 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment will be merged, as the Defence Secretary announced last year. I hope that the noble Lord will have gained the sense, from what I have said already, that the reduction in manpower in that area will be more than made up for in the capability that the Army will gain as a whole.
Gender Pensions Gap
My Lords, this Government recognise the challenge of the gender pensions gap, primarily resulting from labour market participation differences. We are working with employers and partners on ways to address this, including by promoting women’s progression in workplaces and introducing shared parental leave and mandatory gender pay gap reporting. Automatic enrolment and the new state pension are enabling more women to build up pension provision in their own right, reducing historic inequalities in the pension system.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and the Government’s recognition of the seriousness of the pensions gap. However, she must also know that her reply was insufficient in tackling this problem. The problem of the pensions gap is multifaceted: it is double the gap in pay—so, clearly, there are many issues involved here. Will the Minister agree that, to a significant extent, it is a carers’ pensions gap, and that any solution must involve better pensions for unpaid carers? The only solution to that will involve action by the Government directly to provide pensions for carers.
I can respond to the noble Lord: where carers are working, they will be automatically enrolled, if eligible, into a workplace pension. If they earn below £6,240, they can still ask to be enrolled into the scheme, even though they are not automatically put into it. We have committed to remove the lower earnings limit; that benefits lower earners, including carers, working part-time. In addition to carer’s credit, there is a wide range of national insurance credits available to help people maximise their state pension.
My Lords, the Minister said that she wanted women to progress in the workplace, but she must know that one of the biggest inhibitors to women progressing in the workplace is taking time out—as has been mentioned—to care for children, families and, in later life, elderly relations. Can she more specifically say what policies the Government are introducing to address this gap: the disadvantage of women who are having to take time out? Will the Government look at recommendations from experts, such as an additional state pension credit for those who are not working because they are looking after children under 12, and measures for affordable childcare to be more widely available so that women who are trying to work can do so? Currently, the cost of childcare is prohibitive for so many women returning to work.
I think that the whole House will agree with the noble Baroness about childcare. There is work going on, first, to ensure that people are claiming what they are due and are receiving the help they should for childcare. However, that does not deal with the problem as it stands. So I can tell the noble Baroness that the Government are looking really carefully at childcare and are working with employers to see what they can do on flexible working to ensure that women can take their rightful place in the workforce.
My Lords, the Minister’s reply reveals a disappointing tolerance of carers’ inequality. Caring is an economic activity, resulting in millions of women having to take periods out of the workforce, work fewer hours and receive lower pay. They are excluded from auto-enrolment into a workplace pension. They pay the penalty of lower pensioner income on a lifetime. When will the Government restore the principle that existed prior to 2016 so that carers are credited with benefits into the second-tier pension? The Government can do that tomorrow if they wish and restore the principle that existed prior to 2016.
Carer’s credit is a national insurance credit available to people who provide care for one or more individuals for at least 20 hours a week. It can help individuals gain qualifying years that count towards the new state pension. Under new state pension reforms, carer’s credit has equal value to that of someone who pays national insurance contributions. In addition to carer’s credit, as I have already said, there is a wide range of other national insurance credits available to help people maximise their state pension entitlement.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a particular problem in this area with the situation for women on divorce? Although the Government have introduced pension sharing orders for divorce, do they have a figure for how many or what proportion of divorcing couples actually share the pension? Many men will say to their partner, “Oh, my pension is not worth terribly much”; it is then ignored and solicitors do not always get involved or advise women. Will my noble friend join me in commending the MoneyHelper service, Pension Wise, which has just established a helpline for women on divorce and encourage take-up?
Pension sharing on divorce is an option that can help women when their marriage or civil partnership breaks down. It enables part or all of a person’s pension to be transferred from the former spouse as part of a settlement. This can help couples divide what might be one of their largest assets. I fully take on board my noble friend’s point about the extra effort to make sure that women—and, indeed, men—know about the helpline. To ensure that divorcing couples are aware of that option, the Government are looking to improve signposting to information about pension sharing on divorce when implementing the reforms to divorce law.
My Lords, to get a sense of scale, I wonder whether the Minister has read the 2019 report from the Pension Policy Institute. It found that, by the time they got to their early 60s, women’s median private pension worth was a third of what it was for men. Given that women tend to live longer than men, that is a massive problem. It means that they are going to be poor in retirement. There have been lots of different reasons but the report found that key drivers were women taking time out of the labour market, as has been mentioned, caring for older relatives and children. If the things that the Minister describes were working, we would not have this problem, would we? What is the Government’s plan to put it right?
In relation to the point that many noble Lords have made about the time women have out of the workplace, I have outlined national insurance credits. In terms of the specifics that the Government are doing, I will need to write to the noble Baroness because I am not fully up to date on them.
My Lords, would my noble friend like to remind the House that pensions are not provided for by any fund and come out of taxation? The fact that the Government have been able to increase the pension by the rate of inflation as from September is to their enormous credit. It is an enormous bill and the Government cannot do everything.
I completely agree that the Government cannot do everything. It just is not possible. The triple lock is being restored for the rest of the Parliament and I think that, in the circumstances we are in, the Government have done a fine job on that.
My Lords, under the pretence of equality, the state pension age for women has increased from 60 to 66 but women continue to receive a lower state pension than men. Can the Minister explain why women continue to be treated as second-class citizens? When will the Government give them pension equality?
Warm Home Discount (England and Wales) Regulations 2022
Motion to Approve
Animal Welfare (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2022
Motion to Approve
National Health Service (Integrated Care Boards: Exceptions to Core Responsibility) Regulations 2022
Motion to Approve
Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL]
My Lords, I am proud to be here today to open this Second Reading debate of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. This Bill will transform the lives of social housing tenants up and down the country. Once it is implemented, more tenants will live in decent, well looked-after homes, enjoying the quality of accommodation that they deserve.
However, it is right that we also reflect on the events that have led us to this point. Just over five years ago, 72 people—18 of them children—died as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire. The horrifying scenes that night ought never to have occurred. The situation in which the residents of Grenfell Tower were placed was unforgivable. The fire at Grenfell Tower exposed failures and decades of malpractice. It is vital that we bring about reform and lasting change so that a tragedy such as Grenfell never happens again.
Noble Lords have debated the Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Act. The Social Housing (Regulation) Bill represents the next step in this programme of change. Social housing tenants, whether in Grenfell Tower or elsewhere up and down this country, have not been treated with the respect that they deserve. They do not always feel safe in their homes. Everyone should be treated with respect. Everyone has the right to feel safe in their home. In 2022, it is a disgrace that there are social housing tenants who are forced to live in damp, cold, unsafe homes. Some tenants wait months for repairs and are ignored by their landlords. We should be ashamed that this takes place. There are many good landlords in the sector. Many provide high-quality, well-managed, well-maintained accommodation. Many listen and care for their tenants, and many run a fiscally sound organisation. However, that cannot be said for every organisation. The Social Housing (Regulation) Bill will change this.
This Bill is short but radical. The Regulator of Social Housing is responsible for landlords who register with it throughout England. The regulator will be taking a new, proactive approach to regulating social housing landlords on the issues that matter most to tenants: safety, so that tenants feel protected in their homes; transparency, so that tenants know what their landlord is doing to resolve their issues and can hold their landlord to account; quality accommodation and services, which we would expect landlords to provide; and complaint handling, so that tenants are listened to and their concerns are effectively addressed. The Bill will drive significant change in how social landlords behave, forcing them to focus on the needs of their tenants. Where they do not do this, they will be held robustly to account.
The Bill has three key parts. The first is a brand-new proactive consumer regime. This is the core of this legislation. The regulator will be empowered to hold landlords to account and to proactively ensure landlords are meeting the consumer standards we expect them to deliver. We are changing the regulator’s objectives. This will put tenant safety and transparency at the heart of everything the regulator does. We are removing the “serious detriment” test so that this is no longer a barrier to the regulator enforcing breaches of consumer standards. We are setting out the powers for the Housing Ombudsman to issue a complaint handling code to its members and to make orders to prevent problems recurring in future following complaints.
The Government are also taking a power to bring forward electrical safety regulations for social housing. We are consulting on mandatory electrical safety checks in the social rented sector, and this will align standards with the private rented sector. The new regime will also mean that the regulator will regularly inspect the largest landlords to ensure they are delivering quality homes and services to their tenants. Landlords will need to appoint a person with specific responsibility for health and safety. There will be a new access to information scheme. This will work similarly to the Freedom of Information Act for landlords not currently captured by that Act. Tenants of these landlords will, under the access to information scheme, have the right to request information from their landlord so they can effectively hold their landlord to account.
The second part of the Bill tweaks the current economic regulatory regime. The existing regime has been highly successful. The regulator has been effective at ensuring social housing landlords are fiscally well managed, and that tenants’ homes are not lost. However, we cannot rest on our laurels. The make-up of the sector is changing. New models for how landlords structure their organisations are popping up. We need to future-proof the current regime. We are tightening the definition of “non-profit” so that malign actors cannot play the system. We are forcing landlords to notify the regulator when they change their corporate form. We are introducing a look-through power so the regulator can follow money paid outside of the regulated sector, to ensure probity.
The third part of the Bill will give new powers for the regulator to take enforcement action when things go wrong. These powers will ensure the regulator can take robust action where landlords are failing to meet standards. There will be no limit on the amount the regulator can fine a landlord. Where a survey uncovers a serious issue with a property that a landlord has failed to fix, the regulator will be able to intervene and carry out repairs to fix the problem.
Noble Lords will wish to note that there will be a few targeted government amendments to this legislation in Committee. Among these, we are adding a provision that companies will be required to notify the regulator when there is a change in control of a housing association, as set out in the social housing White Paper. We are also adding a duty on the Housing Ombudsman to monitor compliance with its complaint handling code and a power for the ombudsman to recover any associated costs from its members.
The introduction of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill to this House represents a decisive moment for tenants of social housing up and down this country. I beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, and look forward to hearing his maiden speech shortly.
Before that, Labour welcomes the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, which introduces long-overdue changes to the social housing regulation regime, five years on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. However, we regret that what is essentially narrow and largely uncontroversial legislation has taken so long to materialise. Fire safety concerns raised by Grenfell residents had been ignored by their landlord. Residents complained of not being heard and of being treated with indifference. Therefore, we call from this side of the Chamber for higher standards for social tenants. We are extremely disappointed that the Bill does not go far enough in putting tenants at the heart of regulation and governance. The Grenfell tragedy shows that tenants can never again have so little power over their homes.
However, we must set the context in arriving at a judgment on the Bill. There are many social landlords who routinely fall well short on repairs and maintenance and could do far better. However, social landlords do not operate in a vacuum. Years of funding cuts to local authority budgets, as well as the four years during which a Conservative Government imposed a 1% social rent cut on them, have inevitably taken their toll, with the pandemic adding to the problems of housing revenue accounts.
Another major factor is the lack of affordable social housing, which has been exacerbated during 12 years of Tory rule. Successive Governments have not only singularly failed to build the social homes we need over that period but have overseen their loss on an unprecedented scale; 134,483 social homes for rent were either sold or demolished without direct replacement between 2010 and 2021. That is an average net loss of over 12,000 desperately needed, genuinely affordable homes a year.
Unfortunately, the Government’s headline proposals of rating your landlord and allowing a 250-person panel to meet three times a year with Ministers are not the powers residents need. The panel will exist only to scrutinise the measures being proposed in the legislation and will not be able to consider other pertinent issues, such as waiting lists, stigma, rent increases, allocation and housing supply. We need the Government instead to bring forward proper proposals to give tenants more power to take action in both social and private rented sectors. They should look towards the work of the last Labour Government, who introduced the decent homes standard, making available £22 billion of public investment in decent homes and improving the housing conditions of over 1.4 million council homes. By 2009, 86% of all council and housing association homes were brought up to a decent standard.
I reiterate that we support many of the measures in the Bill. However, given the scale of the problem that we know exists in regulating social housing, we want the Government to go further in key respects so that standards in social housing can markedly and rapidly improve and tenants’ complaints can be dealt with quickly and efficiently.
We have concerns about the ability of the Regulator of Social Housing to respond in practice to the volume of individual tenant complaints it is likely to receive and whether it will be inadequately resourced to perform its new role vis-à-vis inspections. We will therefore seek to amend the Bill to allow the regulator to retain the proceeds of any fines levied to help fund its work. We want to see the regulator given more teeth than the Bill currently proposes. We will seek to give it a range of wider powers, including the ability to order compensation for tenants.
Even with an enhanced role, armed with greater powers to regulate consumer standards in social housing, the regulator cannot be the sole redress for tenants. We will seek to have the Bill do more for tenants to enforce repairs themselves. We believe it does not go far enough on a national voice for tenants. At a minimum, the work of the residents’ panel could be shaped more directly by tenants themselves. We will seek to ensure that it can be—for example, by enabling its agenda and terms to be developed via tenant input.
An advisory panel with tenants represented on it will be established by the Bill, but to consider only
“information and advice to the regulator about, or on matters connected with, the regulator’s functions”.
This is not a new idea. In the aftermath of Grenfell, the Government and tenants drew up plans to set up A Voice for Tenants, a national tenant group to work with government on issues affecting those in social housing. To the frustration of tenant bodies involved, it never progressed.
Another possible issue is that the Regulator of Social Housing relies on registered providers to let their tenants know of ways to complain, which means that the worst providers are likely to be the ones to inform their tenants of their rights, and therefore potentially reduce complaints. The White Paper committed to routine inspections only for the largest registered providers—those of more than 1,000 homes—every four years.
Beyond this, there is nothing in the Bill on how tenant voice and engagement will work in practice at the local level. It would allow, but not force, the regulator to set standards relating to the information landlords provide to tenants. Examples are mentioned in the draft regulations.
Safety is the greatest of concerns. The Bill would add generic safety to the regulator’s fundamental objectives. This means that the regulator can now set a standard on safety and enforce against it. The Bill further introduces a new requirement for social landlords to appoint a named individual responsible for health and safety. A separate regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, will also regulate all buildings’ safety when the new regime comes into force.
Currently, fines for non-compliance are capped at £5,000. The Bill proposes giving the regulator the power to issue unlimited fines. Larger fines could be a crucial deterrent to bad practice, enforcing the law against poorly performing landlords and disincentivising the poor treatment of tenants, but questions remain about what the fines would mean in practice, particularly in terms of housing associations passing the cost back to tenants.
The Bill also proposes enabling the regulator to enter and inspect properties with only 48 hours’ notice, down from 28 days, which is a significant change. However, short notice inspections need to be carefully thought through. Finally, the Bill proposes enabling the regulator to make emergency repairs where there is a serious risk. The White Paper stated that the Government were
“determined to increase the supply of new and beautiful social homes”,
yet the Bill is silent on the issues of supply.
I leave my final comments to echo those of David Renard, the Conservative leader of Swindon Borough Council and housing spokesperson for the Local Government Association:
“As well as improving existing homes, the social housing supply is not sufficient to meeting the current housing demand, which is why we want to see long-term plans to give councils powers to build 100,000 high-quality, climate-friendly social homes a year, including reform of the Right to Buy scheme, which has made it difficult for councils to build replacement homes at the rate at which they are sold.”
My Lords, it is a great honour to make my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House today. I start with deep and sincere thanks to the many people who have helped me in the daunting journey of taking up my membership: Black Rod, the Clerk of the Parliaments and their offices; staff at the door of the Chamber and elsewhere; the Whips’ and the spads’ offices; and the many noble Lords on all sides of the House whose warmth, friendliness, encouragement and advice have made joining such a pleasure.
The first Viscount Camrose was my great-grandfather, who started as a journalist on the Merthyr Times—only 40 miles from Newport, I think. He built and grew a remarkable stable of newspapers, both regional and national, including, among many others, the Manchester Evening Chronicle, the Sunday Times, the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph, which remained in family ownership until 1986. He became a baron in 1929 and a viscount in 1941.
Growing up surrounded by journalists, I concluded very early in life that I never wanted to become one but chose instead to go into management and consulting. As a result, I have had the great good fortune to live and work, as well as in London, in Redcar, in Birmingham, all over Europe, in a number of the great sprawling cities of west Africa, and in the United States. I have worked in international development, shipping, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, financial services and manufacturing. Through these experiences, I have developed a strong interest in what makes people and the organisations they work for productive. Few of life’s experiences offer more satisfaction than a productive working day, and it has been and remains my purpose to provide as many of those to as many people as possible.
It is through that lens that I would like to comment on this Bill. Looking at it, as I would, as a management consultant, I suggest that we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, are the residents of social housing going to be made substantially safer and better accommodated by its provisions? Secondly, does it effectively balance the needs of providers of social housing and residents? As for the first point, I welcome the requirement on providers to appoint health and safety leads with the authority, capacity and resources to take responsibility for building safety. Few things get more in the way of risk management and incident preparedness than ambiguity—ambiguity over who is supposed to make decisions and who holds the budget to pay for the changes that those decisions require.
I am sure that we all recall with horror many different details of the Grenfell disaster, but one that sticks in my mind is the fire extinguishers that had been marked down for decommissioning by one team but were never actually decommissioned because it was not clear who was supposed to be doing so. That is why it is so valuable to make a single properly resourced person accountable for all safety decisions.
As to my second question on balancing the needs of social housing providers and residents, I am encouraged by the primacy of the tenant in these new regulatory arrangements. Although, of course, the priority is to offer safe homes of good quality to residents, we have to make sure that providers are willing to enter the market and compete. On this basis, I welcome the primacy of the tenant in the Bill, because it aligns the interests of all three parties: the tenant, provider and regulator. To satisfy the tenant is to satisfy the regulator, and I welcome the clarity of this direction.
If the Bill has been a long time in coming, that time has clearly been spent in taking considerable pains to design, through the Green Paper, call for evidence and White Paper, what we can all hope will have a transformational effect on the social housing sector.
Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves of the context for benefit-dependent tenants: the tightening public purse; a continuing dearth of affordable housing, worsened by the rise of Generation Rent; and, of course, the uncertainties of inflation. In these highly pressured circumstances, we need more homes and more providers to enter the market. I suggest that a stable, balanced regulatory environment for social housing will go some way to encouraging them to do so.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to be the first to compliment my noble friend on his maiden speech. He has entered the Benches on this side of the House the hard way. He had to compete against a substantial number of well-qualified candidates who applied for the vacancy, whereas the rest of us, such as me, simply had to catch the eye of the Prime Minister of the day. I see with him in the House some of his recent fellow successful candidates, all regular attenders, in collective defiance of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.
My noble friend has built his career independently of the publishing tradition with which his family is associated, and, as we have heard, brings to your Lordships’ House a range of highly relevant abilities and interests, ranging from the oil and pharmaceutical industries to issues of governance and corporate management, and he has developed them in all parts of the globe. One of his particular concerns is that people and organisations cannot fulfil their full potential because they are not productive, particularly those who are out of work. The biggest problem facing this country today is poor productivity, and I look forward to his contributions to that debate. I also particularly welcome him to the ranks of those on this side of the House who take an interest in housing, and agree with what he said about the need to invest more in housing and social housing. I know the whole House will join me in welcoming my noble friend, and we look forward to his future contributions.
Turning to the Bill, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for the meeting he arranged to discuss it, which was attended by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and me. The noble Lord’s travel arrangements have precluded him attending due to disruption on LNER. I can tell my noble friend that, as a result of that meeting with him, I will not be causing him the distress that I know I did during the passage of the then Building Safety Bill.
I have three issues that I want to raise with my noble friend. The first concerns Clause 2 and the advisory panel. The Bill provides for a statutory advisory panel. I welcome the idea, but why does it have to be statutory if its role is simply to give advice? The Housing Ombudsman also has a panel of advisers created in 2018, but that is not statutory and seems to work perfectly well. There are many other instances of panels and advisory boards dotted around Whitehall which are informal. Making this one statutory could raise costs, make it subject to judicial review, make it less flexible and will require primary legislation if it were to be abolished. Is this a bit of gold-plating that we do not really need?
How does this panel relate to the one that was set up a year ago? In August last year, Minister Eddie Hughes announced a new expert panel to advise the Government on the delivery of the social housing White Paper. That was non-statutory, with 14 members to deliver on the reforms. Are these the same people who will form the panel in Clause 2, whose objectives seem to be exactly the same as the expert panel, or are we to have two panels with similar objectives, one statutory and one non-statutory? Perhaps my noble friend can shed some light on this.
My second issue concerns the relationship between the two bodies to whom social tenants can now complain. A social housing tenant can complain to the Housing Ombudsman, and now to the Regulator of Social Housing. I am all in favour of avenues through which tenants can seek redress, but there must be some risk of duplication here. It is clear from the Bill that the Regulator of Social Housing can have a direct line of communication with tenants. The social housing White Paper expects:
“The Regulator of Social Housing to undertake specific, reactive investigations and/or inspections where appropriate. This could be when a serious potential compliance breach has been brought to its attention by tenants”.
The briefing notes that accompanied the Queen’s Speech also referred to the powers of the regulator to arrange emergency repairs to tenants’ homes following a survey, and to a guarantee that the regulator will be able to act more quickly where it has concerns about the decency of a home. Therefore, the regulator also has the means to rectify complaints itself, as contained in Clause 24.
These are not powers that the Housing Ombudsman has—his role is to resolve disputes. He can make awards and recommendations, but he cannot, for instance, enter premises to remedy specific failures. If I was a tenant, and particularly if there is a backlog of complaints to the Housing Ombudsman, I would head for the Regulator of Social Housing, since he has more powers. However, there is a further overlap where there is scope for confusion. The Housing Ombudsman does not just resolve complaints: he has broader objectives that seem to trespass on the territory of the regulator. For example, the Housing Ombudsman uses insight and data to identify trends in complaint types and carries out thematic investigations into issues affecting the sector, producing regular “spotlight reports”. He investigates systemic issues relating to individual landlords. He can share expertise, insight, experience and learning to influence the sector to drive a positive complaint-handling structure. These objectives are emphasised in the corporate plan for 2022-25.
However, those powers of the Housing Ombudsman are very similar to the powers given to the regulator in Clauses 17 and 21, and to the objectives set out by the Minister. Paragraph 1 of the Explanatory Notes tells us that:
“The intent of this Bill is to reform the regulatory regime to drive significant change in landlord behaviour to focus on the needs of their tenants and ensure landlords are held to account for their performance.”
However, that is just a shortened version of what I have just read out about the ombudsman.
This brings us to Clause 4. The Explanatory Notes refer in more diplomatic terms to the potential conflict I have just referred to:
“The regulator and the housing ombudsman both have a role in overseeing the performance of social housing landlords”.
But that is the problem. They then refer to the memorandum of understanding between the two. Officials kindly sent it to me, but it does not deal adequately with this overlap. It should be rewritten, with greater clarity about who does what, and to avoid duplication. It is not enough to say, as it does at the moment, that they should
“seek to promote understanding about their respective roles.”
I hope my noble friend can reassure me that this overlap will be addressed.
Finally, I turn to issues which will be raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She is commander-in-chief of Peers for the Planet and I am a humble spear-carrier, but there is a need to increase energy efficiency in the social housing stock if we are to achieve our climate change objectives. Although the Government set the objective of improving the efficiency of homes, no commitment has yet been made on social housing. Their Heat and Buildings Strategy states:
“We will also consider setting a long-term regulatory standard to improve social housing to EPC band C, with levers required to decarbonise the stock in line with Net Zero”,
but no consultation has yet been launched. The Committee on Climate Change recommended that all properties should reach EPC C by 2028.
Related to this, I refer the Minister to Clause 18, which enables the regulator to issue a code of practice on consumer standards. Will energy efficiency be included in this code, against the background of what I just said?
With those remarks, I end by assuring my noble friend that I welcome the Bill and hope it reaches the statute book soon.
My Lords, I also begin by congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, on his excellent maiden speech. Clearly, he has a whole set of skills and experiences that will ensure that his contributions in this House will be highly valuable, as was apparent in his incisive and to the point speech, much of which I agree with and endorse.
Before I go any further, I declare my specific interest as the Church of England’s lead bishop for housing. Noble Lords will know that the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community has been actively working to envision how the Church, government and the nation might tackle the current housing crisis. Last year, the commission released its Coming Home report, which sets out in detail a reimagining of housing policy and practice centred on five core values, which are that housing should be
“sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.”
Recently, the Church announced its intention to create a whole new national housing association, which will enable it to become a major provider of social housing. We are committed to doing our part to tackle the social housing shortage, and likewise to working with others to bring about this vision of truly good-quality housing across the nation.
Therefore, I welcome the Government’s introduction of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. Many of its measures begin to address issues of transparency and accountability. The removal of the serious detriment test is much needed. As things stand, it is a major barrier to ensuring proactive engagement with tenants’ concerns. It is right to remove it in order to ensure that good living standards are upheld and maintained. The setting up of an advisory panel to amplify tenants’ voices is also very welcome. Too often the concerns of social housing tenants have been ignored or silenced. This must end.
The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrates the urgent need for safety to be a central objective. We must all do everything we can to ensure this dreadful tragedy is not repeated. As the Bishop of Kensington, the right reverend Dr Graham Tomlin, said at the recent five-year memorial service,
“what happened at Grenfell was wrong. It was not an unfortunate accident—it was the result of careless decisions taken, regulations ignored, an industry that seemed at times more interested in making profits and selling products than in the precious value of human life and keeping people safe in their own homes.”
I am sure noble Lords will join me in strong praise of the work done by the Bishop of Kensington and the incredible Grenfell community to bring about a safer future for social housing in their community and across the nation.
Therefore, it is only right and appropriate that the Government have now made safety one of the regulator’s fundamental objectives in the Bill. I urge the Government to also consider adding as fundamental objectives the other core values of sustainability, stability, sociability and satisfaction. These can work in complementarity to ensure truly good housing for all.
What plans do the Government have to increase the amount of good-quality social housing stock in the nation that meets these objectives? Recent decades have seen a drastic drop in available social housing. According to Shelter, since 1991 there has been an average annual net loss of 21,000 social homes and more than 1.2 million households are currently waiting for social homes. Millions have been pushed into the private rented sector, often resulting in unstable and unacceptable circumstances of overcrowding or temporary accommodation. We must work together to address this shortage of supply. In doing so, it is essential that we ensure that this is truly affordable housing. Current definitions of affordability fall short. What is classed as affordable should reflect residents’ ability to pay rather than local market rates. Simply building more homes without consideration of their affordability will not solve the housing crisis.
I understand the impetus to fine social housing landlords, but I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify how this will work effectively, given that such fines are likely to take resources from the housing association, thereby potentially reducing its ability to provide services, improvements, tenancy and neighbourhood support, a point touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox.
Finally, in addressing the housing crisis, I urge the Government to consider one more essential element set out in the Coming Home report: sacrifice. At present, the cost of the housing crisis falls largely on those who are financially poorest and resident in unaffordable or substandard housing. This is starkly evident at the moment as the cost of living crisis bites as well. The housing crisis will not be solved unless there is a willingness among others in the housing market to share this burden: that means landlords, developers, landowners, homeowners and government. These sacrifices will help ensure a lasting housing legacy that works for us all. A long-term, cross-party housing strategy that brings those at every level of government, together with landowners, developers, landlords, homeowners and faith organisations, is the only way that sustainable and meaningful transformation will happen.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in strong support of the Second Reading of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. I declare my interest as set out in the register. I, too, congratulate my noble friend on a maiden speech of great distinction. It was truly excellent.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate and to agree with much of what has been said. So far this has been a debate of almost universal consensus, but I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, with whom I am normally totally in agreement, and point out to her that many of these problems are of long standing and did not suddenly arise in 2010. Nevertheless, she made a great stump speech and I know the noble Baroness is very capable of that.
Any fair-minded person would say that it is high time that we responded to the Grenfell fire with this legislation. We do that here and I congratulate my noble friend on the legislation, which is totally appropriate. The proactive regulation regime being introduced and the refining of the regulatory position are desirable, as are the strengthening of enforcement powers and the toughening up of enforcement rules. That said, when my noble friend responds to the Second Reading, will he deal with some of the costs on the social housing regulator that may be increasing and seal off that issue? I am not sure whether the costs are considerable or not.
These regulations will govern 4 million households; that is significant. They will help give some closure to the people involved in the Grenfell fire. I was Minister in the department at the time and I remember the lasting horror of that as if it were yesterday—it has been quite a long while now. I think this will help give some sort of closure, as will decisions on prosecutions, although I recognise that this is well outside my noble friend’s control as a Minister. Not all government Ministers recognise that there is a division of powers but I know my noble friend does. I am conscious that, while no doubt progress is being made, it is somewhat slow.
I am very pleased that there is something specific on electrical safety checks in the legislation that we will be considering. Members will recall that, although the cladding obviously made a massive contribution to the spread of the fire, in legal terms it was caused by an electrical fault. I pay tribute here to the work of Electrical Safety First, an excellent organisation led by Lesley Rudd, Ron Bailey and others, which does first-class work in this area and has been focusing attention on the need to extend electrical safety checks from the private sector to include the social sector. The Bill will do just that. I hope that the consultation going on in parallel with this will be comprehensive and will look at all checks of installations of appliances so that we can deal with an all too common cause of housing fires in our country. Again, that will be a welcome development if, again, somewhat late.
I join my noble friend Lord Young in asking about the relationship between the housing ombudsman and the regulator; I am not clear in my own mind how that would work and would be grateful for any clarity. I also join him as another spear carrier behind the chariot of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, as it proceeds in the fight on climate change and related issues, in this case particularly including energy efficiency. We will be looking at that keenly as the legislation progresses. Nevertheless, we should all give a warm welcome to this legislation; no doubt we will seek to improve it as it goes through Committee and Report.
My Lords, I add to the compliments to the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, on a most thoughtful and interesting speech. It was something to ponder on and I am sure that, in further contributions to the housing debates, it will be possible to expand on some of his thoughts and ideas. I am also delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, with whom I share a number of interests.
I am pleased today to welcome unreservedly the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, as others have. It is vital legislation, which will give residents a much more powerful voice when it comes to the homes in which they live. It is an important part of the response to the horrific events at Grenfell Tower five years ago. The Bill goes a long way to address constructively some of the key issues that matter most to residents and social housing providers, including quality of services, safety and performance.
I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, the trade body for England’s housing associations, a position I have held since 2015. During my tenure in this role, which draws to a close in September, I have been privileged to see first-hand the ways housing associations work tirelessly to deliver good-quality, secure housing for millions of people across the country. The important role that housing associations and social housing can play in every community was highlighted to me during the pandemic, when the sector galvanised at speed to keep residents safe, keep vital services operating and protect residents’ financial security by committing to a no-evictions pledge, which is still in place today.
Most strikingly, however, I have seen from what I regard as a brilliant sector a continued and unfailing commitment to learn and improve where services are not meeting residents’ expectations and needs—and that is exactly why the sector stands behind this legislation. Since the very start of the process of developing the social housing White Paper, from those early conversations with the then Housing Minister and tenants across the country following the Grenfell fire, the NHF and its members have been engaged and proactive in seeking change. There was a clear message from tenants that social housing providers were not always living up to the high standards that we rightly expect from that sector, with its long and proud history of housing people in need. We were not always listening to tenants’ views as closely as we could and should, or responding quickly enough to their concerns.
While it may not always have been easy to listen to such criticisms, the sector is now unflinching in recognising where improvements could be made and is always committed to getting things right. In fact, the sector stepped forward without legislation or government policy decisions to develop, along with residents, Together with Tenants, a sector-wide initiative focused on strengthening the relationship between residents and housing association landlords. Based on a four-point plan and charter, the programme has been delivering tangible changes in accountability, transparency and governance across housing associations since its launch in 2019. To date, 207 housing associations are signed up to the programme, covering 83% of all housing association homes. The NHF was pleased to see Together with Tenants referenced in the White Paper. I am confident that the programme has laid excellent foundations on which the regulations brought forward by the Bill can stand securely.
Furthermore, in the last three weeks the sector has taken a huge step forward in tackling issues of poor-quality housing. Earlier this month it was announced that the National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing have worked together to set up an independent panel to make swift recommendations to tackle issues of poor-quality housing in the sector. We have seen from reports on ITV News and campaigns on social media that some residents have been badly let down by unacceptable problems with housing quality and poor customer service. The work of the new panel, chaired by Helen Baker, the chair of Shelter and an expert in housing, social care, health and education, will guide housing associations to tackle these problems head-on.
I am proud to say that the NHF and its members embrace a culture of transparency and openness when it comes to performance in dealing with issues that matter to residents, and we want that to be clear, meaningful and inclusive. We are at a critical point for improving many residents’ experience of social housing, and housing associations stand ready to deliver this change.
As I welcome the Bill, I hope the Minister will join me in welcoming the work that housing associations are already doing to drive up standards. Will he commit to continuing to engage closely with housing associations on what I believe to be vital reforms?
My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of Peers for the Planet, although I have to say I rather like the “commander-in-chief” designation given to me by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. I am grateful to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne—very distinguished spear-carriers—for their anticipatory support.
As others have said, the Bill aims to offer renters of social housing a range of new regulatory standards and expectations, the need for which the tragedy of Grenfell and the inquiries that followed so clearly demonstrated. However, on one area of the regulator’s existing remit, that social housing should be of “appropriate quality”—that is, energy efficiency—the Bill is silent, yet the warmth and the heating costs of their homes is of crucial importance to tenants, particularly those who live in what the Minister described as damp, cold and unsafe homes. I shall therefore focus my brief comments on the importance of energy efficiency.
Back in November, even ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the International Energy Agency reported that it considered energy efficiency to be the “first fuel”, as it still represents the cleanest and, in most cases, cheapest way to meet our energy needs. It also highlighted that there was no plausible pathway to net-zero emissions without using our energy resources much more efficiently. The strength of these arguments has been redoubled following the 54% increase in the energy price cap in April, with an expected further 65% increase in October and analysts saying say that this is going to go on until at least 2030.
However, progress appears to have stalled on energy efficiency, and this Bill does nothing to remedy that. In the Clean Growth Strategy in 2017, we heard of a planned consultation on how social housing can be upgraded to energy performance certificate, or EPC, band C by 2030 where practical, cost-effective and affordable. Four years later, in October 2021, in the heat and buildings strategy, a long-term regulatory standard to improve social housing was still being considered.
This Bill is intended to facilitate a new, proactive approach to regulating social housing on consumer issues such as safety, transparency and tenant engagement, about which we have heard in this debate. The cost of keeping warm is a key consumer issue, and yet tenants of social housing are still waiting for that regulatory standard. Welcome as the drip-feed of funding for selected improvements has been, along with the Government’s promises to learn from schemes that have failed in the past, 35% of social housing remains rated EPC D or below. Increased support for energy efficiency measures would address all three points of what has been called the “energy trilemma”.
On the first issue, affordability, the Building Back Britain Commission, made up of chief executives from some of the UK’s biggest housing groups, has argued that £200 a year could be saved just by improving a home’s energy performance certificate rating of D to C. That sum is equivalent to the originally announced energy bill discount—but every year, rather than a one-off. The CBI has made similar points, with Tony Danker asking whether we want a new normal of energy efficiency, or of billion-pound bailouts every quarter. The Committee on Climate Change has also shown how the capital investment needed to get to net-zero building will more than pay for itself through savings on fuel, healthcare and other costs.
On sustainability, domestic heating accounts for 21% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. The vast majority of homes still rely on natural gas for heating, meaning that every kilowatt hour of energy saved will help us to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement and our domestic legally binding net-zero target. Regarding homes heated by electricity, it will help by lowering demand in the coldest months of the year, when our museum-piece coal-fired power stations are most often brought out of retirement for additional capacity.
On security of supply and cost, the same considerations apply. Every unit of energy saved will help us to reduce our dependence on imported gas and, indeed, on North Sea oil and gas, which is in any case traded on the global market and priced accordingly.
There is in fact a fourth point: the impact on employment opportunities and levelling up. The Construction Industry Training Board has estimated that net-zero homes will create more than 200,000 new jobs, and energy efficiency retrofits in particular are expected to provide new jobs as an important part of the green recovery. The building back greener commission has also shown that the homes which stand to gain most from government intervention are in areas designated as needing levelling up.
When will the long-term regulatory standard for social housing be brought forward? Will the Government commit to the same trajectory for social housing as they set out for private renters in the heat and buildings strategy? Of course, addressing energy efficiency in social housing is only one part of a necessary wider national strategy to reduce energy demand, but the Government are even further behind on their commitments on social housing compared to other housing types. This Bill provides a perfect opportunity for the Government to put their outstanding public commitments on a statutory footing, setting out a detailed trajectory for meeting them. I look forward to hearing from the Minister a clear plan and timetable for doing so.
My Lords, as others have said, the Bill is in part a response to the Grenfell Tower fire. I reiterate my condolences to the family and friends of those who died in that tragedy.
On these Benches, we welcome the Bill, although we wish it had been brought before us much earlier. After all, it stems from the Green Paper, A New Deal for Social Housing, which was published almost four years ago. Personally, I particularly welcome the removal of the serious detriment test. I also hope that the regulator and the ombudsman will have sufficient resources to carry out their enhanced responsibilities once the conflicts between their respective roles, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, have been resolved.
I want to raise just three issues. The first two relate to electrical safety, which I raised during the passage of the then Building Safety Bill when I drew attention to the large number of property fires caused by faulty electrical installations or appliances, some with devastating consequences. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, in the privately rented sector, it is already a mandatory requirement to have safety checks on electrical installations every five years but there is currently no similar requirement in the social rented sector despite the social housing charter specifically stating this:
“Safety measures in the social sector should be in line with the legal protections afforded to private sector tenants.”
I moved an amendment to the Building Safety Bill to try to rectify this. Sadly, it was rejected at that time by the Government on the grounds that it would lead to an added burden on the new safety regulator and would
“distract it and hinder its success”.—[Official Report, 29/3/22; col. 1403.]
However, in a remarkably short space of time, there has been a welcome change of heart, following the Government’s own working group concluding that five-yearly checks on electrical installations in social housing should take place. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, pointed out, consultation is already under way on the details of introducing such a measure.
So, with just one reservation, I warmly welcome Clause 10, which provides powers to the Secretary of State to do so by way of regulation. However, a careful study of Clause 10’s proposed way of achieving this—by amending Section 122 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016—reveals that the Secretary of State does not have to make any changes; merely that he may do so. Will the Minister give an assurance that, following the consultation, the Government will commit to ensuring that “may” becomes “must” so that the pledge to ensure the parity of social tenants with private tenants is honoured?
While faulty electrical installations can cause fires, so, too, can faulty electrical appliances, as was tragically the case in the Grenfell Tower fire. I have previously drawn attention to regulatory deficiencies regarding the safety of electrical appliances. For example, shopkeepers are responsible for the safety of electrical products they sell whereas, under current legislation, online marketplaces are not responsible for the safety of products sold by third parties on their platforms. Again, unfortunately, my amendment to the then Building Safety Bill to rectify this did not find government favour. Yet, with more and more electrical appliances being bought online and evidence that, in London at least, a disproportionate number of electrical fires happen in social homes, the Bill could be a vehicle to address this issue. Will the Minister have another change of heart and consider doing so?
I recognise that some progress is being made. The Government state in paragraph 89 of the consultation paper, previously referred to, that there should be at least a legal requirement for the regular testing of those electrical appliances that are provided by social landlords. Given the clear intention of the Government to do that, can the Minister explain why there is no enabling clause in the Bill? Will he agree to bring forward an appropriate amendment to ensure that there is?
Finally, as many other noble Lords have done, I turn to energy efficiency, so powerfully referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, just now. Not least in the current energy crisis, one of the most important ways of improving social housing is by improving the energy efficiency of such properties, thus reducing energy bills and excess winter deaths, and improving the quality of life for residents. As the Minister knows, I have frequently raised the issue of the need for a coherent national plan for energy efficiency in all forms of tenure; this is supported by many organisations. As we know, the Building Back Britain Commission has argued that energy bills could be reduced by £200 every single year just by improving a home’s energy performance certificate rating from D up to C.
As others have done, we recognise that the retrofit industry is needed to deliver this and the Government’s oft-repeated target of getting all fuel-poor homes to EPC band C by 2030, and all others there by 2035. Having been let down so many times, the industry says that it would be much more likely to invest in equipment and training with the certainty provided by putting those targets into legislation. Yet the Government have repeatedly refused to do this; frankly, I still fail to understand why.
More specifically, as we have heard in relation to social housing, in the Heat and Buildings Strategy published last October, the Government said:
“We will … consider setting a long-term regulatory standard to improve social housing to EPC band C, with levers required to decarbonise the stock in line with Net Zero”.
As others have pointed out, the strategy continues:
“We will consult the sector before setting any regulatory standard”.
I join others in expressing real concern that that consultation has not yet started. I hope that the Minister will be able when he winds up to explain why not and tell us when it will commence.
Can he also explain what the legislative process will be to introduce the necessary new regulatory standards once agreement on them has been reached? Surely this Bill is an ideal vehicle for doing so, and an amendment to achieve that would be very welcome. While welcoming this overdue Bill, I believe that there are several missed opportunities, which I hope will be rectified during its passage through your Lordships’ House. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in social housing, in particular as the chair of Look Ahead, a small housing association in London. Like other noble Lords, I warmly welcome this Bill, which will support stronger and more proactive consumer regulations and the inclusion of further health and safety requirements in social housing to protect tenants.
The National Housing Federation provided a very useful briefing for today; it has been detailed by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick. I particularly want to talk about its recommendations that the Government should seriously consider the potential costs of the ombudsman and regulator in taking on these new responsibilities, and ensure that there is effective funding so that they can conduct them properly. Can the Minister clarify what funding will be made available to ensure that the aims of the Bill can be achieved at pace within sound government structures?
In all the briefings received—including those from Shelter and Electrical Safety First, already referred to by other noble Lords—issues arise with the proposed electricity checks. Will such checks include appliances such as white goods, for example fridges, as well as main electrical installations for sockets and lights? We know—again, as other noble Lords have said—that the Grenfell Tower tragedy was linked to such an issue. New white goods are expensive. What will happen if tenants’ own white goods fail assessments for safety? Will they be removed? How will people afford replacements? These are really important issues for social tenants.
It is clear that social landlords will need sufficient powers to gain access to properties if they are truly to make sure that large buildings are fully assessed for electrical safety. Should safety checks cover leasehold properties in social housing blocks as well as homes that are rented out?
If the new proactive consumer regulation regime is adopted as outlined in the Bill, are the Government confident that the definition of “social rented sector” is sufficiently detailed? The statistics in the Library briefing suggest that the social rented sector provides homes for 4 million households, or, perhaps more importantly, one-sixth of all households. The Bill and briefings received appear to make no mention of shared ownership properties, which are a particular interest of mine, as the Minister knows. Many shared ownership households own only a quarter of their homes and pay social rent to housing associations on the remaining 75%. Is there a need for an amendment to the Bill to clarify the rights and responsibilities of both parties involved in shared ownership, particularly with regard to safety checks and the costs of putting things right? Under current legislation, I suggest that these will fall on the tenant, rather than the housing association, and I would welcome clarity on this.
Other noble Lords spoke eloquently about the positive aspects of the Bill, and it will certainly improve the lots of tenants if enacted. I look forward to working with the Minister and Members on all sides of this House to make revisions in areas where further definitions may improve the Bill, particularly with regard to the rights of shared ownership tenants, many of whom work in the public sector and are already suffering with the cost of inflation, before the mortgage element of their shared ownership increases.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my role as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a non-executive director of the Hertfordshire Housing Conference. From these Benches, I congratulate the noble Viscount on his maiden speech; I am delighted that he is joining the housing geeks, and I am sure that he will make an excellent contribution.
As always in your Lordships’ House, this has been a thorough and wide-ranging debate, from my noble friend Lord Foster’s comments on electrical safety to the timely reminder of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about the importance of energy efficiency in poverty and quality housing. As ever, many points of detail will emerge during Committee, and I suspect that the Minister will have his hands full.
Many noble Lords have reminded us that the catalyst for this was the tragedy at Grenfell Tower and the subsequent shocking discovery that repeated concerns about fire safety were raised by residents but fell on deaf ears. In week 80 of the inquiry, evidence was found of
“wilful blindness and complacency towards safety”.
Those are strong and shocking words indeed. So all of us who are working on the Bill will work to change such negative cultures and root out and eradicate poor providers.
Conversely, many landlords are good or very good and are already actively changing their performance measures, becoming more transparent and engaging better with their tenants. They have not stood by and waited for the inquiry outcomes or for legislation to be passed, as was detailed by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, in the role that she is, sadly, giving up soon.
Had my noble friend Lady Pinnock been allowed to speak—she was delayed by the same rail problems that have deprived us of the wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Best—she would have said that we applaud and support much in the Bill. At its heart is the expansion of the powers of the Regulator of Social Housing and the removal of the “serious detriment” test; these are two sides of the same coin and must have equal balance. The removal of the “serious detriment” test is an essential tool to allow intervention before a crisis point, by which time it will or could be too late, as we know and as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford pointed out.
I note the expanded Housing Ombudsman Service has seen a massive increase in casework, and it may take more than the memorandum of understanding to clarify all the roles and responsibilities and ensure effective partnership working to cut out duplication and overlap. These concerns were forensically dissected by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. I will also ask how the Government will ensure that both the regulator and the ombudsman have sufficient resourcing to enable them to effectively conduct their duties, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, whose comment about shared ownership was particularly pertinent—this was not something that I was aware of, and her points were very well made.
Giving the regulator Ofsted-style powers is fundamental to successful change. From my own experience—it was first introduced while I was assistant head in a large secondary school—I believe that it is the right way to go. At first, it was draconian, top-down, massively intrusive and a heavily judgmental process—a far cry from the friendly old inspectors and advisers we were used to seeing to, but largely ignored. However, it was a very, very necessary change. A key factor in its success was the certain knowledge that there would be very regular inspections, not a one-off so that schools could paper over the cracks, hope for the best during the inspection week and then breathe a sigh of relief when the inspectors left on Friday afternoon. It was known that they would be back and approximately when—it kept us on our toes for years, until we learned to absorb the new normal of continuous improvement and performance management. Therefore, we will be looking to strengthen the Bill along those lines.
I say to the Minister: because it will take time for the regulator to be tooled up with enough trained inspectors and for the whole inspection regime to be established, surely the regulator’s activity will initially prioritise intervention with landlords who are experiencing the most severe challenges. Will the Government then work proactively with the National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association to ensure that there is a proportionate, risk-based and outcomes-focused approach to inspection that satisfies everyone?
During the passage of this Bill, we want to look at broadening the focus of the inspection to also include each provider’s work on homelessness. The inspection process will, of necessity, mean that landlords will focus on what can be measured. We think that the homelessness provision aspect needs to be given some weight in any judgment. Surely it is also part of the regulator’s remit to look closely at why the landlord is failing, and not just to say that it is failing. Is it the endemic culture of the organisation or financial capacity? Each requires very different responses—and that is where the PIPs will be very important. For the former, change takes time, which is why we believe that reviews and more regular inspections will be needed. For the latter, with below-market rents being a very necessary feature of social housing, the reality of each landlord’s financial situation must be recognised.
To support council landlords, will the Government agree to prioritise reforms that remove the financial constraints on councils, including the ability to retain 100% of right-to-buy receipts with no restrictions on their use—I apologise to the Minister for sounding like a broken record on that issue—and reform social rent policy to allow a longer period of annual rent increases for a minimum period of at least 10 years? On the topic of money, it is also worth noting that, while the removal of the fine cap is a deterrent, could the Minister assure us that it is intended to be a penalty of last resort? This is because—as another noble Lord mentioned; I hope I will be forgiven for forgetting whom—tenants will, in effect, be the ones who pay that fine through their rent.
I say to the Minister that it is clear that there is a lot riding on this Bill, which is why we will be looking to put amendments down to look at regular reviews and progress of the whole sector as the years go by. If there is a weakness, we believe that it is around the tenant voice being heard, as was very passionately articulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport. Indeed, the residents advisory panel falls far short of a meaningful voice for tenants, and there is a real danger that, as it stands in the Bill, it will effectively just be a short-term token gesture. In this regard, we feel—to use my old teacher parlance—that the Bill could do better.
Finally, I want to put on record that despite the shameful tragedy of Grenfell and other high-profile failures of housing providers, it is still true that millions of people and their families living in one of the sector’s 4.5 million homes are, for the most part, glad to be in this sector rather than the private rented sector. As one resident said to me when I joined her when she moved into her brand-new council house, “I feel like I have won Willy Wonka’s golden ticket—a safe, stable roof over our heads, a rent I can afford and a landlord who appears to listen.” That is, always will be, and must be the sector’s mission. I look forward to working with your Lordships on this important Bill because, sadly, we know that this is not the case across the board or this Bill would not be here today and it would not have the very clear cross-party and outside consensus that it seems to command.
My Lords, this has been a fairly short but excellent debate on this Bill, enhanced by the really good speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose. I warmly welcome him to this House and look forward to his future contributions.
As my noble friend Lady Wilcox said in her introduction, we welcome this Bill, which, as we have heard, introduces long-overdue changes to social housing regulation some five years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, where safety concerns raised by residents had been ignored by their landlord. I join the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in praising the Grenfell campaigners for continuing to press for these much-needed changes to the law.
It is worth noting that, since 2010, the Government have reduced tenant representation, abolishing the Tenant Services Authority, abolishing National Tenant Voice, and removing national funding through the decent homes programme. The Bill today represents a crucial opportunity to put this right. However, while the Bill is very welcome, we also feel it is disappointing that it does not go far enough in putting tenants at the heart of regulation and governance. We believe it needs to focus more on tenant empowerment and representation.
My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe talked about the important role that housing associations play in providing support to people in need. While many provide good and excellent service, unfortunately that is not the case for all. There needs to be a proactive inspection regime for the Regulator of Social Housing that monitors all providers and not just those it suspects might not be compliant with consumer standards. We believe that the regime announced by the Government falls short of this.
We welcome the key focus of the Bill to enhance the regulator’s consumer standards regulatory regime. Again, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said, we also welcome the removal of the “serious detriment” test, which other noble Lords have mentioned. This is a long-awaited change and will give the regulator more power over consumer standards and broaden the monitoring and enforcement powers.
The Bill enables the RSH to issue a code of practice, as we have heard, for its consumer standards. That will match the approach taken for economic standards. This will help providers have a better idea of what is expected of them and tenants to have a better idea of what to expect from their landlords. However, we believe it should also establish a grading system for these consumer standards, in line with what currently exists for economic standards.
We have heard about the introduction of tenant satisfaction measures. Again, we welcome this, but there must be transparency and accountability throughout the regulatory process, especially since social housing tenants have limited ability to have any choice in their landlord.
We have heard that the Bill enables the RSH to deregister a private registered provider for failing to meet a regulatory standard. We believe this sends an important message to providers but does not offer any additional security or compensation for the tenants of deregistered providers. I ask the Minister: will the Government look at this?
It is important to note that, to raise standards in social housing, new legislation must be properly resourced for the regulator to be truly proactive and to deliver a decent homes standard fit for the future and robust requirements for strong tenant representation within the regulatory system.
We have heard much about tenant representation in today’s debate. The Bill has a greater focus on transparency and making information available to tenants, but transparency alone, although important, is not enough to drive the kind of change that we need to see. The only provision in the Bill that is directly related to tenant representation is the requirement to set up the advisory panel. As my noble friend Lady Wilcox and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, mentioned, we need more than this. I would be interested to know the Minister’s response to the suggestion from the Mayor of London on the creation of a commissioner for social housing to address underrepresentation across the sector and across government. What does the Minister think about that suggestion and whether it would help?
My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe welcomed the work that housing associations are already carrying out to drive up standards. We absolutely support those housing associations that are doing important work on that aspect. We are also pleased to see that the Bill introduces performance improvement plans and states that tenants can make a written request for a copy of their provider’s performance improvement plan. The Government need to establish a clear communication channel between tenants and the RSH so that tenants can share information about whether and how their landlord has been taking action. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, said, we need to know where there are failings and why.
We have also heard that the Bill removes the cap on fines and about the Secretary of State’s power to amend the value of fines. This flexibility is welcome, especially as it allows penalties appropriate for the serious harm that tenants may endure as a result of poor standards. However, we also believe that the different thresholds need to be clearly stated so that there can be full, public accountability for any enforcement action. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, asked about costs. Enforcement and inspections will of course need significant resources, so I am interested in the Minister’s response to his questions.
We welcome the Bill’s strong focus on transparency and access to information. Because measures relating to transparency and information are important, keeping tenants informed about landlord performance and governance should be matched with robust requirements for tenants to be able to discuss this with their landlords. We believe that we should have a goal for landlords and tenants to work together to reduce the likelihood of things going wrong in the first place, rather than just retrospective accountability for poor performance.
There has been much discussion about the Housing Ombudsman scheme and the relationship between the ombudsman and the RSH. We know that the Bill puts into law the ombudsman’s code of practice. The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, asked a number of important questions about resources in this regard and the nature of safety checks and assessments. I look forward to the Minister’s response to her questions.
Confidence in the complaints system is as important as the robustness of the system itself. Complaints handling is itself the second most common complaint to the ombudsman after property condition. Improving the system must be a priority and the ombudsman will need to be properly resourced to deliver this, especially as it has had a significant increase in casework, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill. I am also particularly interested in the Minister’s response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, about the power of the regulator regarding complaints, how that will operate alongside the ombudsman and the potential for any confusion.
We welcome the requirement for registered providers to designate a person to act as lead on the provider’s compliance with its health and safety obligations towards tenants. This is very important.
Finally, a number of noble Lords talked about electrical safety standards, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, who I know has an interest in this. We welcome the proposal in the Bill to impose electrical safety duties on registered providers to ensure that safety standards are met when premises are occupied under a tenancy. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, highlighted the importance of pushing for energy efficiency in social housing. This is increasingly essential; as she said, social housing often has very poor ratings for energy efficiency and, as we look at the increased costs of energy and the increase in fuel poverty, we really need to tackle this, both to support people who are struggling to make ends meet at the moment but also as a crucial step to achieve net zero. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, asked, will energy efficiency therefore be included in the code of practice? This is very important and I think would have support from right across the House. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to working with him and other noble Lords to improve the Bill as it progresses through your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I thank everyone across the Chamber for contributing so constructively to the spirited and very wide-ranging Second Reading. The debate once again highlighted the breadth and depth of noble Lords’ expertise and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Camrose on an excellent maiden speech. He comes with really practical skills—probably more practical than the scribblers out there, even though his family includes very distinguished owners of many of the titles that many of us read today. I am looking forward to his measured and thoughtful contributions to this House over the coming years.
Across all the contributions today there has been a consistent concern to ensure that tenants of social housing receive the housing and respect that they deserve. I share this concern. The Bill will deliver extensive and much-needed reforms. It will continue to drive forward the once-in-a-generation change required to make sure that tenants live in decent, safe and secure homes and are treated with respect. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, in praising the contribution of the Grenfell community in advancing this important agenda. I will do my very best to address as many of the points raised as I can—again, this has been an incredibly wide-ranging debate.
A number of questions focused on the supply of social housing, including the contributions from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. This legislation is not about supply, as I think they both realised, but we are committed to increasing the supply of affordable homes. We have invested more than £12 billion in affordable housing over the five years, but we recognise the need to build more social rented housing, which is why this current programme of affordable housing is seeking to double the number of social homes we are building to 32,000. I noticed the focus in the excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on the decent homes standard. There is no greater sign that the Government recognise the importance of the decent homes standard than trying to extend it into the private rented sector. It is about raising quality, irrespective of whether you are a social tenant or a private tenant, so we improve quality in the round.
In response to the noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick and Lady Thornhill, I undertake that we will continue as a Government to work closely and engage closely with both the National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association as we bring forward these reforms and improve regulation.
A number of noble Lords, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised the issue of why it has taken so long to introduce the Bill. We have to recognise that the Bill is just one of many reforms that the Government have delivered in response to Grenfell Tower, including the Building Safety Act and last year’s Fire Safety Act. We spent time listening to residents, as pointed out by my noble friend Lord Camrose. We had to hear at first hand about their experiences and how they wanted a sea-change. More than 8,000 residents contributed to these discussions, including the bereaved, survivors and residents of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. There has been a process: a social housing White Paper, which we consulted on, then we responded to the consultation, and now we are moving to legislation. It is important to get these things right.
A number of noble Lords asked about funding for the new regulatory regime, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox, Lady Watkins and Lady Thornhill, and my noble friend Lord Bourne. We are making significant changes to the regulator, which will drive change in the sector and improve the lives of social housing residents. Given the scale of reform, it is likely that the regulator will need to double in size to deliver the strengthened consumer regulation regime. Further work will be carried out to determine the exact cost of delivering the new consumer regulation regime, in part because the regulator will need to design and consult on the new regulatory framework following the passage of this Bill.
However, the Government are committed to ensuring that the regulator has the resources it needs, both to deliver the new consumer regulation regime and to continue effectively regulating on its economic objectives. A new fees regime will need to be developed for when the new consumer regime has been implemented. This will be subject to engagement and formal consultation with stakeholders. Government policy is to maximise the recovery of costs through fees in the same way that the regulator already does.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford raised, issuing fines is one of the enforcement powers the regulator can use. It is not the only one, and it is for the regulator to decide on the appropriate sanction depending on the circumstances. Government rent policy limits the maximum amount of rent that the social landlord can charge, subject to certain exceptions. It is down to the regulator to get the system of enforcement right, and there are protections on rent levels.
I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, in particular that the vast majority of the cost associated with this regulation, estimated at some £174 million, is largely a result of the requirements on providers to perform five-yearly electrical safety checks. That is certainly the largest source of cost. I know that he, in exhorting me to move from “may” to “must”, recognises that we do not want to pre-empt the consultation on electrical safety measures for social housing. However, we are obviously looking at the financial impact of that and would not be putting those powers in the Bill if we were not very serious in our intention to level up between private and public housing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, asked a difficult question about how the electrical safety power and associated costs affect shared ownership properties. I was scratching my head; I undertake to write to her with details on this critical issue.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox, Lady Thornhill and Lady Hayman of Ullock raised the issue of how we listen to tenants’ voices. We launched this social housing quality resident panel only in March, which brings together social housing residents from across the country so that they can share their views with government and Ministers. Let us see how that plays out. However, I note that the Mayor of London has called for a commission. We will look at that seriously and, I am sure, respond to those points.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, has really been into the details of this Bill. She wanted to know how we focus inspections and why small landlords will not be inspected. The system of inspections will be based on risk profile to ensure that those landlords at greatest risk of failing, or whose failure might have the greatest impact on tenants, are subject to greatest oversight, which makes sense to me. The regulator will continue to develop its approach and the details of how it will manage consumer inspections.
My noble friend Lord Young, who is forensic in his analysis of all housing legislation, asked why this advisory panel needs to be statutory. Placing the requirement in statute ensures that this happens. It also sets out expectations on the make-up of the panel and the range of matters it would consider. I believe it is sensible to ensure through legislation that this happens, rather than relying on the regulator choosing to do so. In other words, we are making sure that there is no way out and that this will happen.
In my meeting before today’s debate and during it, my noble friend Lord Young raised the confusion between the Housing Ombudsman and the Regulator of Social Housing. The Regulator of Social Housing has the emergency repair power. I point out that there is a long track record of close working between the regulator and the ombudsman, and we are ensuring effective information sharing between them. The proposals in the Bill will reinforce and strengthen the co-operation that already exists. We are also delivering a communications campaign to tenants so that they know where to go and are well informed.
There were a series of important contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the noble Lord, Lord Foster, and my noble friend Lord Young about what has happened to the government consultation on energy efficiency and what the Government are generally doing in this important area, particularly with respect to social housing. The Government agree that improving the energy efficiency of homes is a must. In the 2021 Heat and Buildings Strategy, we committed to consider setting a long-term regulatory standard to improve social housing to EPC band C, and we will consult the sector before setting any standard. The Government have committed some £3.8 billion to the social housing decarbonisation fund, which will help councils and housing associations to upgrade social housing. In fact, Lancaster West Residents’ Association has been a beneficiary of that fund.
I have to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, is incredibly dogged and has raised right to buy on pretty much every occasion, certainly in recent weeks. I know that a number of your Lordships are concerned about the impact of right to buy on social housing stock. The Government agree that it is important that homes sold under right to buy are replaced, and we want to see an increase in the number of replacement homes sold by local authorities. Following a consultation on the use of right-to-buy receipts, the Government introduced a package of reforms in 2021 to help local authorities build more homes. This set of reforms, combined with the abolition of the borrowing cap in 2018, certainly gives councils more flexibility to build council homes. That is what we are seeing: councils are building more council homes. With regard to the replacement of homes sold under the extension of right to buy to housing associations, tenants will be central to the scheme design. I am sure that the replacement of stock sold through that voluntary scheme will be foremost in getting the scheme right.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, raised the issue of tenant satisfaction measures. We believe that these measures provide a snapshot of a landlord’s performance, so they will not include everything. I know that the regulator has worked with the sector, the National Housing Federation and others in developing a balanced set of tenant satisfaction measures that cover the issues that tenants have told us were important to them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, asked a very specific question about whether the Government are looking at compensation for deregistered registered providers. I will take this important issue back to the department, as I do not have an answer here and now.
With regard to the focus on including net zero in the decent homes standard, as I said, we committed in the Heat and Buildings Strategy to consider setting a long-term regulatory standard to improve social housing to EPC band C. We will consult the sector before setting that standard, as I said in an earlier response.
It has been an incredibly wide-ranging debate, but I thank noble Lords, because I think there is a genuine desire to get behind the Bill to make sure that the voices of tenants are heard. I am sure there will be many opportunities to come up with practical proposals. Having taken forward legislation in this area, I look forward to working with those on all sides of the House to get this important legislation right and I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.
Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL]
Order of Consideration Motion
That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:
Clauses 1 to 12, Schedule 1, Clause 13, Schedule 2, Clauses 14 to 28, Schedule 3, Clauses 29 and 30, Schedule 4, Clauses 31 and 32, Schedule 5, Clauses 33 to 36, Title.
Social Security (Additional Payments) Bill
Second Reading (and remaining stages)
My Lords, the Government are fully aware of the acute pressures that families across the UK are under due to the rising cost of living. This is why we have brought forward this important Bill to your Lordships’ House.
A series of global economic shocks have led to price rises unseen in the UK for decades. As a result, families up and down the country are seeing their budgets squeezed, with many struggling to make ends meet. That is why we have decided to provide more than £15 billion of further support, targeted at those in greatest need. This is on top of the £22 billion announced previously, bringing the Government’s support for the cost of living to more than £37 billion this year. This £37 billion includes the means-tested and disability additional payments for which the Bill makes provision, as well as a one-off increase of £300 to the winter fuel payment for pensioner households, a non-repayable £400 discount in their energy bill this autumn for domestic electricity customers in Great Britain—the UK Government are working to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland receive the equivalent of this support as soon as possible—and a £150 non-repayable rebate on council tax bills for all households in bands A to D in England, to name only a few measures we have taken.
Although we as a Government have always been open about the fact that we cannot cover every situation or solve every problem, we are committed to going further to provide support to relieve the financial pressure people are facing. Taken together, this £37 billion package will provide at least £1,200 of additional support for the majority of households least able to afford the rising cost of living. The Bill before the House today builds on that commitment and will enable us to make additional payments targeted to those on the lowest incomes. It legislates for two additional payments which form part of our wider package to support families with the cost of living. The first is a direct cost of living payment of £650, split into two separate payments of £326 and £324, which will go to more than 8 million people receiving means-tested benefits. The second is a £150 payment to disabled people on a qualifying disability benefit. This will be paid on top of the cost of living payment for people who are eligible, and is estimated to benefit 6 million disabled people. Both new payments will be delivered by the UK Government to eligible households across the UK.
Social security is a transferred matter in Northern Ireland. However, this Bill will legislate for the whole of the UK in the absence of a fully functioning Assembly and Executive. This approach has been agreed by the caretaker Minister for Communities in Northern Ireland, who has also laid a Written Statement confirming this position. The timing of both payments will differ. For the cost of living payment, the first payment of £326 for households claiming a DWP means-tested benefit will be paid from 14 July, with the second payment of £324 coming in the autumn. Payments to those claiming tax credits only will be paid later to avoid duplication. Those not eligible for the first payment in time may become eligible for the second payment if they receive a qualifying benefit in the month before the next eligibility date.
We have intentionally excluded the second eligibility date from the Bill to prevent increasing fraudulent applications for benefits and fraudulent reporting of changes of circumstances. The Secretary of State will lay further regulations to specify the eligibility date for the second payment; however, it will be no later than 31 October. For the disability payment, those on a qualifying disability benefit will be paid from September. Where eligibility at the qualifying date for any of these payments is established beyond the expected payment dates, people will still receive the cost of living or disability payment, albeit at a later date. Both payments are tax free and will not count towards the benefit cap or affect existing benefit awards.
For families who miss out on this additional support but still find themselves in additional need, the Government are providing an additional £500 million to help households on top of what has been provided since October 2021, bringing total funding for this support to £1.5 billion. In England, an additional £421 million will be used to extend the household support fund from October 2022 until March 2023. Also, the Barnett formula will provide around £79 million to the devolved Administrations.
This deliberately straightforward Bill, stretching to only 11 clauses, will enable us to get support to families in need swiftly and without the need for additional bureaucracy. No one eligible for these additional payments will need to fill out any forms to claim them and payments will be made automatically. We have deliberately kept the rules for these payments as simple as possible because this is the only way of ensuring that we can develop the systems and processes required to deliver them at pace.
I know that many of your Lordships take a particular interest in delegated powers, of which this Bill makes provision for two. The first allows the Government to set a second eligibility date for the second part of the cost of living payment; the second is to facilitate the existing overpayment and recovery procedures for the qualifying benefits, to be applied to the cost of living payment. These are powers to allow for the effective administration of the payments, particularly to protect the public purse. I note that, in its report, the DPRRC raised no concerns for the Government to respond to.
This Bill will make a real difference in easing the stresses being felt by people up and down the country by supporting them on the rising cost of living at this most challenging time, and doing so simply and swiftly. I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I welcome the much-needed additional support that this Bill offers and the recognition that the social security system represents the obvious mechanism for providing it, despite concerns that are raised about the nature of the support. I am grateful to the Minister and the Minister for Welfare Delivery for the very helpful briefing that they provided last week.
At last, the Government are responding to the fact that the cost of living crisis is hitting those on benefits and pensions hardest, not least because the differential impact of inflation means that they face an even higher inflation rate than the rest of us—an estimated 10% or so for the bottom tenth of the population, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation. The latest package, of which this Bill is a part, is progressive in its impact. Nevertheless, there is a “but”; I am sure that the Minister would be surprised if this were not the case.
My concerns stem in large part from the decision to provide one-off payments rather than increase benefit rates themselves so that they reflect the actual inflation rate instead of the 3.1% recorded last September. I understand and accept that there are technical difficulties when it comes to uprating benefits other than universal credit—although many stakeholders do not—but, if the Government had not delayed in bringing forward this package, would an autumn uprating really not have been possible? Even now, is it really the case that a decision to increase benefits in May could not be implemented in the autumn instead of a second lump sum payment?
Can the Minister explain how it was technically possible to uprate benefits twice in 1975, in April and November, in response to high inflation—a point made in the Commons but studiously ignored by the Minister there? Can she also tell us, in a subsequent letter if not now, exactly how long it would take if all the stops were pulled out to uprate universal credit, the legacy benefits that it replaces, the other benefits covered by the Bill and the other benefits not covered, in particular the carer’s allowance and contributory benefits? How long are we going to allow “computer says no” to drive policy?
A key group to lose as a consequence of the decision to make lump sum payments rather than uprate benefits is families with children—especially larger families because payments will not be differentiated according to family size. Thus, according to the Resolution Foundation, the average amount gained from the Bill by families with three or more children is less than that received by those with no children because the latter are more likely to receive a disability benefit. Yet spending on essentials is significantly affected by family size. The foundation suggests that fuel spending among families with three or more children is likely to go up by over £500 more than for those without children. It calculates that, had benefits been uprated by 9.5% in October, larger families would have received more than £100 more on average than they will from the May support package.
In the Commons, the Minister emphasised that the payments are targeted at “those in greatest need”, as did our Minister. This is true and commendable, up to a point, but it ignores children—especially those in larger families, who are already at a significantly disproportionate risk of poverty, including deep poverty. This greater risk has grown over the past decade thanks mainly to government social security policies, including the two-child limit and the benefit cap. It is welcome that the payments covered by the Bill will be disregarded for the purposes of the cap. Nevertheless, as the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee pointed out in the Commons, it is high time that the level of the cap, which has not changed since it was established six years ago, is subject to the review required by statute. The Minister’s response to him was that it would be reviewed “at the appropriate time”. Can the Minister tell us when the appropriate time will be, as many would argue that it is already high time?
A growing body of evidence shows how much families with children generally are suffering. Just last week, the Childhood Trust reported that the mental health of children living in poverty is already suffering as a result of the cost of living crisis. Hungry, Anxious and Scared is how it summed it up. It quoted Charlotte, aged nine:
“Your emotions just drown and the only emotion that’s left is sad”.
That made me feel pretty sad and actually very angry. When the Chancellor was questioned by the Treasury Select Committee about the lack of additional support for children, he rather sidestepped the question but acknowledged that no analysis has been done of the package’s impact on child poverty. However, we were told by the Minister for Welfare Delivery last week that the lack of differentiation for families with children was due to technical reasons.
There is a pattern here that suggests an underlying disregard for the needs of children. The welcome universal credit uplift during the worst of the pandemic did not include any uplift in the allowances for children. It was only thanks to Marcus Rashford that action was taken on school meals at the height of the pandemic, and now the Government refuse to extend free school meals to all children on universal credit despite the recommendation in the independent national food strategy and the calls from teachers and others—although I do applaud its extension to all qualifying families with no recourse to public funds. According to analysis of government data by the Child Poverty Action Group, of which I am the honorary president, over one in three—more than 800,000—children in poverty do not qualify for free school meals.
If the Government really cared about hungry children, they would have found a way to boost their financial support and at the very least would have extended free school meals and also put more money into free school breakfasts as called for by Magic Breakfast. The Treasury has, understandably, highlighted the progressive vertical distributional impact of its latest package of support, but nowhere has it shown the horizontal distributional impact as between those with and without children, which also matters. Can the Minister explain why the Government time and again ignore children when it comes to financial matters?
The Secretary of State has herself previously warned that one-off payments are less helpful from a budgeting perspective than a steady stream of money—a point made also by charities such as Sense and CPAG. One consequence is less security. Another consequence of making lump-sum payments linked to entitlement on a specific date is the much steeper cliff-edge that it creates, adding to the insecurity created by often fluctuating incomes and circumstances among those on low incomes. What estimate has been made of the numbers who might become eligible for one of the qualifying benefits in the period until next April when they are next uprated but who do not qualify for the payments in the Bill because they were not entitled to a qualifying benefit at the specified times? Anyone who, say, starts claiming benefit because they have lost their job or become ill after the second cut-off date will get nothing at all. This seems like very rough justice.
Even rougher justice is the issue raised by my noble friend Lady Sherlock in last week’s briefing, and by MPs, where someone has not qualified for UC in the specified month because of the way their wages are paid. Has thought been given to the suggestion made by Nigel Mills MP that the qualifying period be extended to two months? Another group who are victims of rough justice is low-income self-employed people who do not receive UC during the qualifying period solely due to the operation of the minimum income floor. Equity has challenged the response to this point in the Commons, and I ask the Government to reconsider the exclusion of this group.
Just to follow up on the briefing meeting, the Minister for Welfare Delivery promised to let us know how payment will be made to the small number of people without a bank account. Is the Minister able to tell us today? For the record, can she confirm that all recipients will be informed individually as soon as possible after payment has been made so that they know why this extra payment has appeared in their account?
I have emphasised the failure to help children; I am also very concerned about the exclusion of carer’s allowance. I realise it is not a means-tested benefit and that some recipients will qualify via a means-tested benefit they are claiming but, according to Carers UK, there are several hundred thousand carers in receipt of carer’s allowance who do not receive means-tested benefits and many of them are facing serious financial stress. Carer’s allowance is lower than other equivalent benefits. Many carers face additional costs associated with caring. Why, therefore, could not the disability payments have been devised in such a way as to include carers? Nine out of 10 carers surveyed by Carers Trust earlier this year said that they feel ignored by the Government. The exclusion of carer’s allowance from the Bill’s qualifying benefits will only reinforce this sense of being ignored and, of course, many of those affected will be women who also bear the main burden of budgeting in low-income families. It is also not clear why the qualifying disability benefits do not include contributory employment and support allowance—an example of the downgrading in importance of contributory benefits. Can the Minister please explain why it is not included?
When announcing the package, the Chancellor acknowledged that small numbers will fall between the cracks and gave the example of those in receipt of housing benefit not also claiming other benefits but—“fear not”—they can claim help from the additional £0.5 billion that is being put into the local authority household support fund from October. The problem is that those raising concerns about, for instance, children in poverty—not exactly a small group—excluded carers or low-income self-employed people are also being directed to the fund. I fear it is the loaves and fishes approach to policy-making, which we have seen all too often. While the fund has provided much needed help to some, it is discretionary and cash-limited and, as such, is no substitute for weekly payments as of right. What will be done to direct excluded groups in need to the fund, what monitoring of the fund’s use is taking place and what happens if a local authority runs out of money, as we know they do? Can the Minister also tell us whether any thought has been given to the calls from stakeholders, including the Lloyds Bank Foundation, for the suspension of deductions from benefits, at least until next April when benefits are uprated?
This brings me to my final point—which I am sure will be a great relief to noble Lords. I welcome the confirmation that, subject to the Secretary of State’s review, benefits and pensions will be uprated next April in line with this September’s inflation rate, although claimants will face a long, hard winter before that. I hope the Government will ignore the siren voices arguing against such inflation-proofing. The Chancellor concluded his Statement by noting the need to put the measures into context. We need to do the same, but it is a rather different context to that highlighted by the Chancellor. Overall, working-age and children’s benefits have been reduced by approaching £40 billion a year as a result of freezes and cuts since 2010. The latest OBR Welfare Trends Report notes that the
“decline in the real value of unemployment-related benefits … even excluding the effects of the removal of the … £20-a-week uplift … represents the largest fall since annual uprating began half a century ago”.
As the Covid Realities research demonstrates, the reality of life on a low income is one of perpetual crisis. This Bill represents no more than a temporary salve to mitigate the crisis, welcome as it is. We now need a commitment to a review of how benefits are uprated, as called for by the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee and others. Ad hoc one off-payments and discretionary local authority support do not provide the security that those on low incomes desperately need and that the social security system ought to provide.
My Lords, this Bill is clearly welcome. It is a good thing that cost of living payments can be made to those who most need them, so the policy is a good one. There are obviously a number of ways that this could be addressed—some potentially more effective than others—but anything that helps is to be welcomed.
However, there is a “but”—like the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I have a “but”, and it is one that she has already mentioned. My concern is how the Bill will affect those self-employed whose earnings fluctuate from month to month, including many creative professionals; I am grateful to Equity for its briefing on this. The particular concern here is for those who did not receive a universal credit payment in the qualifying month and therefore will not be eligible for the cost of living payment because of low and irregular incomes. Can the Government ensure that the £650 cost of living payment be made to those whose entitlement to universal credit has been reduced to zero because of the minimum income floor?
There has been concern from the self-employed sector about the reintroduction of the minimum income floor after its welcome suspension during the pandemic. Of course, I am not trying to address that in relation to the Bill, but I ask the Government to acknowledge the effect of the MIF on the cost of living payment and reassess how fairly some self-employed—and, indeed, employed—workers will be treated. Despite the recent fall in the number of self-employed, the Government should acknowledge better the trend towards increasing self-employment in the longer term: currently, 15% of the workforce and 35% of the creative industries, which, pre-pandemic, were the fastest-growing sector of the economy and second in importance only to the financial sector.
The Government’s qualifying rules ignore the very nature of payment to creative professionals, which is often irregular and cannot be equated directly with salaried work. To ask people to change their behaviour work-wise to accommodate benefits such as these does not take into consideration the fundamental character of much creative work. There should instead be an acknowledgement by the Government of the need to be both realistic and fair in their rule-making. They should accept the validity of the self-employment work structure for creative professionals and others. This is on top of the fact that claimants are in any case being assessed on a past period—that is, the month until 25 May—so it is not something they can do anything about even if they had been able to; I believe that they should not be asked to.
The key issue is that payments such as these are intended to go to those in need. Self-employed people in the hospitality and entertainment sectors are among those who are poorly paid, at least partly down to the fact that they are among the last to come out of the pandemic and are now being hit by another crisis: the cost of living crisis. As Equity points out, missing out on these payments will have a devastating impact on many entertainment professionals. Young people just starting out—for example, those coming to the end of a start-up period—and those from diverse backgrounds will be among the significant number who may be affected in this way.
I appreciate that this is a money Bill and that it would have been frowned on to have introduced an amendment to the Bill in Committee and disrupted proceedings for the day, but I ask the Government to do everything they can to address this concern and provide a solution to a problem that is ultimately one of fairness.
My Lords, I should first explain that my noble friends Lady Kramer and Lady Janke, who normally speak on these issues, are unable to attend today so your Lordships have me instead.
This is a small and, in a sense, relatively modest Bill that we do not oppose—indeed, we cannot oppose it due to its nature as a money Bill. We have heard some really knowledgeable input from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, who made important points on the subject of children and families with children and about the self-employed, particularly those working in the creative sector. I hope that the Minister will take those on board.
As we heard from the Minister, the Bill implements some of the cost of living support that was announced by the Chancellor in his emergency Statement—specifically, the £650 support for households in receipt of means-tested benefits, which comes in two instalments, as the Minister set out, and the £150 for recipients of non-means-tested disability benefits.
The Bill does not include the other support mentioned by the Minister, presumably because it is not needed from a legislative perspective. As I intend to suggest later, it also does not include many of the measures that the Chancellor should have announced in the light of the situation that the country finds itself in today. Even as we debate here today, the economy is the major concern on everyone’s radar, especially with the official rate of inflation predicted to reach double digits very soon. Then, as well as the worry of inflation, households are facing the highest tax burden in 70 years. The typical family will see a hit of £1,200 a year thanks to the Conservative Party’s tax rises. I hardly need to remind the Minister that the UK is in very difficult territory.
At the heart of all this is a much wider endemic issue that needs to be at the front of our minds when we debate an issue such as this. I am going to presume that the Minister would describe herself as a capitalist; I describe myself as a capitalist as well. However, for the UK to be a successful capitalist country, its citizens need either to have capital or to have a reasonable expectation that they will obtain it. Yet, in Conservative Britain today, it is quite clear that the gap between those with capital, and therefore a stake in the economy, and those who stand little or no chance of ever acquiring it is getting wider every day.
Worse than that—never mind savings and capital—while the top 10% of the country’s earners tighten their grasp on our economy, an increasing number of citizens are slipping below the subsistence line. It is not just global shocks that have caused that to happen, as the Minister put it. The slide was already happening, then Covid came and made it worse, and now inflation is rapidly increasing the number of people in economic peril and the pace with which, in some cases, they are traveling towards destitution. Proud families who never dreamed that they would find themselves in trouble are now struggling to pay the bills.
At the last election, the Conservative Party successfully campaigned on the idea that there are specific geographic areas that have been economically left behind. Although that is undeniably true, the party’s careful selection of particular towns and cities skirts over the underlying issue: the ever-widening income gap across the whole of our country. Although that gap is somewhat defined by geography, it is far more complex than that, being caused by demographics, educational opportunities and—let us face it—who your parents are.
That ever-widening gap is the real challenge at the heart of many issues that we are seeing in the UK today. So what is the modern Conservative take on it? While one part of the Government is signalling for the EU cap on already huge banker bonuses to be lifted, another department is seeking to limit public sector pay increases to one-third or one-quarter of the rate of inflation. Clearly this Government are not even trying to address the gulf between the richest and the rest of our country; in fact, it seems to look like the opposite.
When it comes to acknowledging the need to arrest the pain inflicted on the poorest in society, the Bill takes a few small steps in the right direction. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, eloquently expressed, it is a completely inadequate response to the cost of living crisis. It fails to reinstate the £20-per-week universal credit cut, which would have provided households on universal credit with an additional £1,000 a year. It fails to cut the main rate of VAT to 17.5% for one year, which would have put an average of £600 in the pocket of every UK household while lowering inflation and, importantly, helping our high streets, giving them a much-needed boost and increasing economic growth. A similar VAT cut in 2008 was found to increase retail sales by 1% and increase aggregate expenditure by nearly one-quarter of 1%.
The Bill also fails to consider repealing the national insurance rise and freezing the income tax thresholds. These are unfair tax rises that are making the cost of living crisis worse for millions of families across the UK. It fails to support rural communities concerned with rising fuel prices through the rural fuel duty relief scheme, which was promoted today by the newly elected MP for Tiverton and Honiton. It also fails to include those claiming the carer’s allowance from the list of benefit recipients qualifying for additional support.
Furthermore, provisions in the Bill allow for payments to be made in two instalments. By paying all the support on 14 July, the day of the first instalment, the Government could have supported people who need assistance more immediately. Perhaps the Minister would concede that, given the increase in the rate of inflation, the second payment should be accelerated as well.
It has been a pleasure to speak, briefly, in this short debate. I am looking forward to the Minister’s explanation of how the ever-widening income gap will be addressed in the second half of this Parliament. Most of all, I am looking forward to the Minister explaining how the Bill even scratches the surface when, across the country, thousands of honest, hard-working families are slipping ever deeper into poverty.
Following the by-election defeats inflicted on the government party last week, the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said:
“We’re now facing pressures on the cost of living … spikes in fuel prices, energy costs, food costs—that’s hitting people. We’ve got to recognise there is more we’ve got to do.”
What is this “more” and when will it be done? Or, as is usually the case, is the Prime Minister’s statement merely empty words with no substance, no policy and no prospect of implementation?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction to the Bill and all noble Lords who have spoken. I thank my noble friend Lady Lister for halving the length of my speech by her excellent analysis. I would be really interested to hear the Minister’s response because, as a critique of what has happened to families with children, there are many questions that the Government have to answer, and I really hope that she will take the time to do it properly. There can be few Members of this House who know more about child poverty than my noble friend Lady Lister. When she makes a critique like that, it needs to be listened to.
These are the toughest times that most British people alive now will have had to live through. By next April, wages will be worth £2,000 less in real terms than just in 2020. Real pay in the UK is falling at the fastest rate for 20 years. Inflation is over 9% and rising. Fuel prices are skyrocketing and we are warned that the energy cap could rise by as much as another £1,000 in October. People are more desperate than they have been in a very long time.
Following the Spring Statement, the OBR warned that we were heading for the biggest fall in living standards since the 1950s, with more children set to be pushed even into absolute poverty. It was to avoid this catastrophe that Labour proposed a windfall tax on North Sea gas and oil producers to help families and pensioners. I am delighted that, after some months—indeed, after many months of ridiculing the policy—the Government have adopted it. If the Minister wants other ideas on how the Government should change their mind, I look forward to her having a chat with me and I can gladly supply her with some in future.
We recognise the extra support that the Government are now allocating, and these measures are welcome as far as they go. However, I share my noble friend’s concern that help is once again being given by a series of one-off payments, rather than addressing the underlying problem, which is the inadequacy of the social security system. I know that Ministers know that the welfare state is not fit for purpose because, when the pandemic hit and millions of people were flowing on to benefits, they had to add £20 a week to universal credit because they knew people could not manage. Once millions of people could see that, they would realise the system was not fit for purpose. However, that £20 was taken away just as inflation started to rise and now millions of people are struggling to feed and clothe their children and pay their bills. Why has it taken us so long to get to today? The pandemic may have been a shock overnight but the rise in prices was not—we have seen this coming. As the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee said when this Bill was debated in another place,
“the decision has been taken to replace adequate uprating with ad hoc payments from the Treasury”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/6/22; col. 897.]
The Government should have put in place a broader package of support through our social security system. It has been established that one-off packages, with heavily simplified eligibility, lead both to increased fraud and to the kind of rough justice we have heard about. We have heard about rough justice for children. Can the Minister really justify a scheme that gives the same amount to a single person on benefits as to a couple with three children when their energy, food, clothing and other costs are so radically different? Families in the bottom half of the income distribution with two or more children spend twice as much on food, essential household goods and services, clothing, footwear and transport, but there is no recognition of this. The social security system acknowledges things such as family size up to a point, but this does not and cannot. Does the Minister accept that this is rough justice?
Does the Minister also accept that it is rough justice for people with fluctuating incomes, a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, in a helpfully clear critique of the impact on people who are self-employed? As we have heard, this £650 payment comes in two parts. To be eligible for each, the claimants must be entitled to a minimum amount of benefit or tax credit in respect of an assessment period covering a specified date. However, the Minister often tells us how happy she is about universal credit coming in, because it is really flexible—it flexes to someone’s circumstance—yet she has designed a system that makes that a disadvantage. Universal credit is designed to flex month by month, so some people will be entitled to a payment one month but nothing the next because their income is lumpy in that way. If they are unlucky with how that falls, and they get nothing in the month in question, they will not get one penny from this system. That can even hit people whose earnings do not change at all, just because they happen to have two paydays within one universal credit assessment period—for example, the last Monday of the month. When that happens, the system thinks their pay has doubled, they earn too much, get no universal credit and, therefore, they will not be eligible for this. Given that the Government boast about the flexibility of universal credit, what are they going to do about these payments, to give support to those for whom that flexibility is taking away any chance of any support at all? I would be interested in hearing whether someone who is self-employed, who is simply getting nothing just because of the minimum income floor, will therefore be excluded entirely from the payments.
There is a different form of rough justice for some disabled people who have non-means-tested benefits. They will be eligible for the £150 payment. However, the Minister can tell the House, I am sure, that the Government are in the process of changing the rules specifically to debar 290,000 people who get DLA, PIP or attendance allowance from getting £140 off their energy bills through the warm home discount scheme—“Have £150 here, give me back £140 over there and have £10.” In these circumstances, the reason disabled people get these benefits, even though they are non-means tested, is to cover the extra costs of disability. That includes things such as higher energy bills and higher transport costs. Can the Minister explain why the Government are giving help with one hand while taking it away with the other? I would also be interested to hear a response to the query about carer’s allowance from my noble friend Lady Lister.
The Minister points to the household support fund—this is always the answer, the great catch-all, whenever we raise a question. I think loaves and fishes were mentioned. I have a great affection for loaves and fishes and like to see them extended. However, much as I admire some things the Minister says, I do not think she yet has the power to multiply loaves and fishes. The household support fund will be a fixed amount of money. I have been looking at the websites for some councils, and many have already made their allocations for the period April to September. They specify what is for; they are often small grants for particular purposes. For April to September, is more money coming in, will the guidance change and, if not, will anyone get any help then, even they miss out on these payments altogether in the first tranche in July? For the extra money in the period from October, will the government guidance say that the kind of people we have described who miss out on the payment because of rough justice should be able to get the full £650 from the household support fund? If so, will there be enough, and what will happen to all the other things it is supposed to be spent on as well?
On pensions, I am sure the Government now regret breaking their manifesto promise commitment to the triple lock, given what is happening to pensioner poverty. It is good that those on pension credit will be able to claim the £650, but—it is a small point—why does the impact assessment show fewer people on pension credit getting the second payment than the first? Is there something going on there that the Minister wants to explain? The impact assessment projects the case load, the number of people on pension credit who will get payments 1 and 2. The number getting payment 2 is slightly lower than payment 1. This was asked in the Commons but not answered, so I hope her officials—someone behind the scenes who I would not dream of referring to—have had the opportunity to read Hansard and will therefore be able to advise on the answer to this question.
Emergency and one-off measures have their place, but they really do not give people the security they need or match the increases in costs that people are facing on the ground. The truth is that we came into these cost of living increases after years of underwhelming growth and savage social security cuts, which left our system simply unfit for purpose. I will mention just the two-child limit, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, inadequate help with housing and council tax, and repeated real-terms cuts to universal credit and legacy benefits, as detailed by my noble friend Lady Lister.
I am glad that the Government have finally been dragged, kicking and screaming, into recognising the extent of need out there. But we now need a long-term plan to rebuild social security, grow our economy, sort out our labour market and raise living standards so that we can lift people, from children to pensioners, out of poverty. Surely we can all agree with that.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate today. I hope we agree that this package of support will make a significant difference to families up and down the country, notwithstanding the points that have been made.
As I said earlier, the Government are committed to going further to provide support to relieve the financial pressures families are facing. The measures announced by my right honourable friend the Chancellor will provide an estimated millions of low-income households with £1,200 of one-off support in total this year to help with the cost of living, with all domestic electricity customers receiving £400 through the energy bills support scheme. This Bill will give us the necessary powers to deliver the additional payments set out in this package to families on the means-tested and qualifying disability benefits which we have been debating today.
There were a huge number of questions, which I shall endeavour to answer. There are some where I will have to write and the answers will be much better if I do so, so I hope noble Lords will accept that.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Sherlock, asked why we are not uprating benefits. The one-off cost of living payment will enable timely direct transfers, ahead of the next uprating review of benefits and pensions, which will commence in the autumn, with any change in rates being payable from April 2023. This will help to support households most in need in managing increased costs. Our cost of living policy will also provide a payment of £650, as we have already said, whereas uprating the same benefits by 9% from April 2022 would be worth, on average, only £530. These payments will be tax-free, will not count towards the benefit cap and will not have any impact on existing benefit awards. This approach will allow households to retain the full value of the payments they receive. There is no need for people to fill out complicated forms, as we have tried to reduce bureaucracy.
Separately from the 2022-23 cost of living support package, benefit and pension rates are subject to an annual review. As mentioned by the Chancellor on 26 May, the uprating of benefits is a matter for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Her annual statutory review of benefits for the tax year 2023-24 will commence in the autumn, when she measures inflation using the September consumer prices index. Following completion of her review, the Secretary of State’s decisions will be announced to Parliament in November. For the avoidance of any doubt, we are committed to the triple lock for the remainder of this Parliament.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked whether the uprating process will be adjusted in the future. The work of the department in 1975 was mainly undertaken by hand and on a claim-by-claim basis. It was therefore possible to uprate twice in one year, provided the trained manpower resources were available or could be secured. The department began to computerise the payments of benefits in the mid-1980s; we have indicated the constraints of the core IT systems in undertaking a mid-year uprating and the risk that would pose to payments. The Social Security Administration Act 1992 provides for a statutory annual review of uprating and is the basis on which Parliament has required successive Secretaries of State to act. The requirement is for one review each tax year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked how long it will take to uprate all benefits, including UC and legacy benefits. I will need to write to her on that, which I will do and place a copy in the Library. She also asked about the flat rate of payments not tailored to circumstances. She said that this disadvantages children in large families and that the issue should have been solved by uprating benefits. The Government are committed to providing direct and timely relief to those who need it most through these one-off cost of living payments. Flat-rate payments are the quickest way to deliver support to those who need it most; they will allow us to make timely transfers to more than 8 million people and 6 million disabled people before the next benefit uprating in April 2023. As I have said, we have deliberately kept the rules as simple as possible. The Government are spending over £5 billion on qualifying means-tested benefits—around £2 billion more than the additional cost if the qualifying benefits increased in July 2022 to 9% higher than the previous year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who has been very busy, asked about the focus being on reforming UC and said that the two-child limit means that people do not receive enough money. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2021, of all families with dependent children, 85% had a maximum of two in their family; for lone parents, this was 86%. The Government feel it is proportionate and fair to taxpayers to provide support through child tax credit and universal credit for a maximum of two children.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. Clearly, we cannot amend this legislation but I think it is accepted across the House that there is nothing in here for children. Can she take that message back to her colleagues in government and could they look at other ways they might be able to help children during this period?
I am always happy to take things back to the department and am quite prepared to do that. I may need a little more information from the noble Baroness, but I am sure that will be forthcoming.
The next review of the benefit cap has been raised. As all noble Lords will know and as we have said many times, our statutory duty is to review the levels of the cap at least once in every five years and this will happen at the appropriate time. The current unusual economic period, with potentially counterintuitive and shifting trends, will need to be considered in the context of any decision in respect of the review.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Sherlock, raised their concern about those who receive two lots of earnings in one universal credit period not being eligible. We anticipate that the vast majority of people entitled to one of the qualifying benefits will receive their first payment. Because of a change of circumstance, however, some may not qualify. Again, we have deliberately kept the rules simple and, unfortunately, it is not possible to distinguish those who have a permanent increase to their earnings from those whose earnings temporarily fluctuate. If a UC claimant’s income subsequently falls, these claimants will return to having a positive award after the cut-off date and may be eligible for the second cost of living payment, worth £324.
The noble Baronesses also raised a point about people who become eligible later. Where a person is found to be eligible for a qualifying social security benefit or tax credit payment but did not receive a payment, a retrospective payment will be made automatically. This could occur if a claimant successfully challenges the DWP’s decision on their social security benefit entitlement.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked why we are excluding those in receipt of the carer’s allowance from the cost of living payment. Nearly 60% of working-age people on carer’s allowance will get a one-off payment as they are on means-tested or disability benefits. Carer’s allowance recipients will benefit from the £400 per household with a domestic energy supplier, provided through the energy bills support scheme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked why we are excluding those on contributory based benefits from receiving the one-off payment. Non-means-tested benefits are not eligible benefits in their own right, but low-income recipients can claim an eligible means-tested benefit alongside them. Contributory and new-style benefits were not included because people claiming these benefits may have other financial resources available to them. They may also benefit from other parts of the package of support, including the £400 per household domestic energy help. Claimants who require further financial assistance may be eligible for universal credit; if their claim is successful, they may then qualify for the second cost of living payment in the autumn.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised the important issue of children—and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, about the knowledge and experience the noble Baroness has in this area. I am advised that this is an issue where we will need to write to the noble Baroness. We will probably need to have some continued communication to ensure that I answer her questions to the level and standard that she wishes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, asked about fluctuations in earnings. As I have said, we have deliberately kept the rules as simple as possible. I have said before that it is not possible to distinguish between those who have had a permanent and temporary increase. I do not think I can say more on that at this point.
On the minimum income floor, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, it is the same thing: we have deliberately kept the rules as simple as possible. For those who are not eligible for this support, or families that still need additional support, the Government are providing the household support fund with an additional £500 million to help households on top of what has been provided. Since October 2021, the household support fund has gone up to £1.5 billion. In England, this will take the form of an extension to the household support fund backed by £421 million and administered by local authorities.
I thank the Minister for giving way. On the concern I raised about the minimum income floor and fluctuating incomes, can the Government keep an eye on this? It would be very helpful if the noble Baroness could promise to do that. She says that it is very simple, but maybe it is too simple for this particular problem. If the Government could keep a close eye on that, it would be helpful.
I am very happy to go back to the department and request that. I am not in a position to commit to doing it, but I will go back and write to the noble Earl with the outcome of those discussions.
Another important point that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised was about how we are making customers aware of these payments. We are working on an extensive communications plan. There will be digital advertising, social media and display materials such as posters and leaflets for jobcentres and stakeholder premises.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Sherlock, raised the issue as to whether the household support fund is sufficient. Local authorities in England have ties and local knowledge to best determine how this support should be provided to their local communities. They have the discretion to design their own local schemes within the parameters of the grant determination and guidance to the fund. We are going to publish new guidance for local authorities for this latest extension of the household support fund ahead of the fund going live at the start of October.
The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, asked about low-income and self-employed people. We accept that earning patterns can vary substantially and it would be impossible to choose qualifying dates that work for every person on UC. However, a second qualifying date certainly reduces the risk that those with non-standard pay periods on UC miss out on a cost of living payment altogether.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, raised the point about whether the Government are putting up taxes during the cost of living crisis and whether taxes should actually be reduced. The actions the Government have taken to return the public finances to a sustainable path post Covid mean that we are in a strong position to respond to the cost of living challenge. The Government’s goal is to reform and reduce taxes. The Chancellor’s Spring Statement set out the Government’s tax plan, which includes reducing the tax burden on working families by increasing the threshold at which people start paying NI contributions—a tax cut worth over £330 for a typical employee—and by cutting fuel duty by 5p for 12 months. The tax plan also shares the proceeds of higher growth with working people across the country by cutting the basic rate of income tax by one percentage point to 19% from April 2024, saving more than 30 million people £175 per year on average.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked whether the cost of living payments are a sticking plaster. In total, the measures the Chancellor announced in May provide support worth £15 billion. Combined with other plans, as I have already said, this raises the money to support people during this cost of living crisis to £37 billion. This is more than or similar to the support in countries such as France, Germany, Japan and Italy. Importantly, around three-quarters of that total support will go to vulnerable households.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked whether the Government were wrong to reduce the £20 uplift to universal credit. It was always to be a temporary measure, and it was a temporary measure. I do not think there is anything else I can say to noble Lords about that.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked what we are doing to help people in rural areas. The boiler upgrade scheme has a budget of £450 million to support households in England and Wales to make the switch from fossil fuels to low-carbon heating. This helps people in rural areas transfer from fossil-based fuels to low-carbon heating with grants of £5,000 towards the cost of installing an air source heat pump, £6,000 toward the cost of a ground source heat pump and £5,000 for biomass boilers for properties not suitable for a heat pump, provided they are in a rural location and not connected to the gas grid. The home upgrade grant will provide upgrades to low-income rural households living off the gas grid in England to tackle fuel poverty and meet net zero. The Government have allocated £1.1 billion to the home upgrade grant over the next three years.
Again, the noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked why we are delaying half of the £650 to later in the year. Cost of living payments for those on means-tested benefits are deliberately being delivered in two payments to help support budgeting. This approach will also ensure that any newly eligible claimants can be paid the £324 payment even if they did not get the £326 payment and that all recipients of the second payment receive this closer to winter.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked whether we were being more generous to those on means-tested benefits and said that £650 is not going to scratch the surface. The Government are providing over £15 billion in further support, as I have said. Three-quarters of it will go to low-income households. Each cost of living payment will be paid to 8 million people on a means-tested benefit. Millions of the lowest income households will get £1,200 of one-off support. I have said that the Secretary of State will use the CPI in September to decide on the uprating of benefits.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked what impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on poverty. The latest available—
I thank the Minister for giving way. I appreciate the spirited defence of the measures that the Minister has just made. I am assuming that the Prime Minister was fully aware of what the Government are planning in terms of support when he spoke on Friday. On Friday, the Prime Minister unequivocally said that we are not doing enough, and we need to do more. Would the noble Baroness therefore agree with her own Prime Minister that the Government are not doing enough and need to do more?
I agree that the Government have made great strides in providing additional finance. If my Prime Minister said that we need to do more, he was not saying that we are not doing enough. This will probably get me into trouble, but he would be daft to say that we need to do more in the current climate. It has been very nice knowing you all in this job.
On the impact of the cost of living crisis on poverty, the latest available poverty statistics cover 2021 and projecting what has happened to poverty since then is complex and inherently speculative. It requires projecting how incomes will change for every individual in society; these are affected by a huge range of unknown factors. However, the Treasury published distributional analysis showing that the full package of measures announced on 26 May is well targeted at households on low incomes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked why we waited so long to bring the measure forward. As the Chancellor set out, by waiting to know what the autumn and winter energy price cap is, we were better able to design and scale our policies across the package.
I am conscious that I have not answered every question—oh, here we go.
Essentially, noble Lords all around the House have said, “This system is so simple but it’s creating rough justice. What will the Minister do?” The Minister’s answer is, “Give us rough justice, but that’s because the system is so simple”. All that everybody has asked today is, does the Minister understand that lots of people will miss out and others will get much less than they need? Are the Government going to even begin to think about addressing that in some way to mitigate it—yes or no?
I cannot accurately answer that question because I honestly do not know, but I do know that, all the way through Covid and this cost of living crisis, the Government have responded at different times to issues raised in relation to additional support. All I can say is that I do not see that changing. I am sorry but I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Baroness the answer she wants, although I am quite sure that the Government will want to—I see that the noble Baroness is standing up; would she like to speak again?
We will have to invent a board game for the Chamber. I know that I have not answered some questions, and I am sorry, but time is marching on. I will endeavour to write to all noble Lords whose questions I have not answered and to those to whom I have promised to write.
This Bill will enable the Government to provide support to families most in need across the country. I thank all noble Lords again for their contributions. As ever, I would be happy to speak to any noble Lord who wants to discuss particular issues further and, as ever, my door does not know how to close; it is open.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.
British Council Contractors: Afghanistan
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 23 June.
“Last August, when the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating so rapidly, the UK Government worked at great speed to evacuate more than 15,000 people from the country within a fortnight. This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations, and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are right to be proud of what our British forces and others achieved at that time. Those evacuated included British nationals and their families and about 500 particularly vulnerable Afghans, including some British Council contractors, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges, and many others. All former British Council employees who wished to resettle have arrived in the UK, with their family members.
The British Council played an important role in Afghanistan in working to support the UK mission there and to promote our values. It is right that the Government do the right thing for British Council employees and contractors, and that includes resettling eligible contractors if they are at risk. Therefore, in January this year the then Minister for Afghan Resettlement, my honourable friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, Victoria Atkins, announced the launch of a new Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will resettle up to 20,000 eligible people over the coming years. There is no application process for the scheme, but people can express an interest in resettlement.
Eligible individuals will be referred for resettlement via three referral ‘pathways’. Under pathway 3, we are committed to considering eligible at-risk British Council and GardaWorld contractors as well as Chevening alumni. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will refer up to 1,500 people from Afghanistan and the region to the Home Office for resettlement, including eligible family members. On 20 June the FCDO opened an online system, whereby eligible individuals can express their interest in resettlement.”
My Lords, the situation in Afghanistan is obviously dire: there are humanitarian and human rights crises. In the Commons last Thursday, we heard that just under 200 British Council contractors are still trapped in Afghanistan. All of them are in fear of their lives. We know their names but not their locations. Bob Blackman asked the Minister, Vicky Ford, if the applications for those people to come out of Afghanistan to the UK can be “lodged by other people” on their behalf. As he rightly pointed out,
“people will have to spend time online and getting to places that will be unsafe for them to travel to.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/6/22; col. 966.]
In response, Vicky Ford said that she would examine whether “third parties” can put in applications. Can the Minister advise the House on the progress on this because speed is absolutely of the essence, lives are at risk and we owe a duty of care to these people who worked on our behalf?
My Lords, first, I put on record my sincere thanks to the noble Lord for his constructive engagement on this important issue both during Operation Pitting and subsequently. He will be fully aware of my direct engagement on this. We welcome the opening of this particular pathway.
The noble Lord makes a valid point about accessibility. We are working directly with the three key partners that we announced in the three cohorts; the British Council is primary among them. The important thing is to get these people registered on the portal and here. The difficulties within Afghanistan are well known to us; we are of course working with key partners, such as the British Council, to ensure that we identify and look for safe passage for those of whom we are aware and whose details we have—although their locations may be sensitive—to leave Afghanistan and move onwards towards the United Kingdom. I cannot delve into more detail than that but I can reassure the noble Lord that we are working directly with the organisations we have identified and the British Council is a priority among them.
My Lords, we owe these contractors gratitude and safety because they kept British officials safe, in the British Council and elsewhere. I understand that the pathway to which the Minister referred is temporary—it opened today—and the expressions of interest can be made only in a two-month period. Why is it temporary and why will it not be an ongoing rolling programme given many of the complexities, only one of which was rightly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins? What will the turnaround time be between expressing an interest in using this pathway and receiving a final decision about accessing resettlement? Who is in charge of making the final decision?
I ask because, last week, my honourable friend Munira Wilson asked the Prime Minister about a case with a constituency interest. It concerns a former member of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan and a former government Minister who applied to be part of the ARAP scheme in October last year, received a ticket in February but has heard nothing since. The Prime Minister asked the Home Secretary to follow up; the noble Lord, Lord Harrington, was deemed to be the Minister responsible. I saw him in the Chamber earlier but he is obviously not answering this Question, although we are grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, is. Who is in charge and what will the turnaround time be?
My Lords, I will certainly follow up with my noble friend Lord Harrington. I fully accept that there are undoubtedly cases; I am aware of several and am grateful to the noble Lord for identifying one. Let us see how quickly we can move through some of them. On the ARAP case he identified, that scheme remains open and will be open—of course, it is being administered directly by the MoD—but I will certainly follow up with my noble friend Lord Harrington. I am sure that one of us will be able to provide the noble Lord with an answer.
On contractors, the noble Lord is right that there is a time-limited window during which these expressions of interest can be taken forward. The window for this particular pathway will close because, on pathway 3, there is a limit for year 1 of settlement. Once we reach this, eligibility criteria will be applied on an objective basis. As I alluded to in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are working directly with the three cohorts: the Chevening cohort—this is directly under the FCDO—GardaWorld and the British Council. We are doing so to identify, where we can, any information that we need.
Of course, when that window closes, another announcement will be made towards the end of this year for the following year’s scheme, when we will be able to identify an additional cohort based on the numbers we have identified. However, as my honourable friend Vicky Ford said, the number for this year is set at 1,500. Because of commitments that we have already made, priority will be given to those who are covered through the Chevening scholarships; those who are involved and engaged through GardaWorld; and, of course, those who were working with the British Council as contractors.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for answering this question. Can he say whether he has any further information on the extent to which the Taliban in Afghanistan, particularly around Kabul, are still pursuing those linked to the British administration—and indeed many others who are linked to foreign organisations? As far as I can tell from the media, that is not a huge problem at the moment but I may be entirely wrong.
I thank the noble Baroness for her work in this area. The picture is different across Afghanistan. There are about eight or nine provinces where girls are being allowed to go to school and women are being allowed to work. However, there are certain places where the local commanders may be operating in a way that does not reflect the openness that we wish to see—even in a limited way—and that is being demonstrated in those eight or nine provinces.
On the specific issues around Kabul, I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that our current focus is on supporting the direct victims of the tragic earthquake that took place in Afghanistan—and we are doing exactly that. However, the situation with some of the other priority issues, including girls’ education and the freedom of women to go out to work, are certainly among our priorities. As all noble Lords know, the situation is very difficult: we do not have a presence on the ground yet, but we are engaging with the Taliban at an official level. Have we seen co-operation? The short answer is yes. Indeed, I pay tribute to the officials in the FCDO who recently worked specifically, as noble Lords will be aware, on the release of British detainees. That was down to the fact that we worked in a very co-ordinated fashion and to the great courage and commitment of officials in the FCDO, who ensured the release of those detainees.
My Lords, if I understand this correctly, these people are contractors for the British Council, and employees of GardaWorld are working as security contractors for the Government and the embassy. In Scotland, they are very well known to us; we know exactly who these people are and we know a lot about them. Presumably, given what they were doing, we must be very sanguine about their attitude towards security. Why were these people excluded from the ARAP scheme in the first place? Why does the British Council now tell us that it was allowed to put only employees through the ARAP scheme and not the contractors? Why is it only now that we recognise that we should fulfil our obligation not only to them but to their families, to the extent of 1,500 people? Why do we not just include them in the ARAP scheme and give them the flexibility that everyone else has, rather than putting these people—a lot of whom, as we know, are living in daily fear of their lives—through this short window of opportunity to get registered for resettlement and, we hope, to get back to security with us?
My Lords, first, as the noble Lord is aware, there are two different schemes: the ARAP scheme has its eligibility criteria and the ACRS—which is now open as this particular pathway—has its own criteria. I know of individual cases of people being considered for the ARAP scheme but not being accepted on to it. However, there have been opportunities, as we have seen in certain cases, allowing others then to go through the ACRS process.
On the small window of opportunity that the noble Lord asked about, there is a cap on the number we will be taking in year one which is both manageable and, I think, consistent with the announcements we have made previously. Equally, this is only year one; other pathways are also open to those seeking settlement, including Pathway 2, on which we are working very closely with the UNHCR. There are those people, including those from the cohorts we have discussed, who will be in neighbouring countries. We are working very closely with the UNHCR on that pathway as well. Therefore, ARAP, ACRS, Pathway 2 and, indeed, ACRS Pathway 3 are different routes, which enable people to go through a process which would allow for their resettlement in the United Kingdom.
Schools Bill [HL]
Committee (6th Day)
Relevant documents: 2nd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 1st Report from the Constitution Committee
156: After Clause 65, insert the following new Clause—
“School land and buildingsThe Secretary of State must, within one year of this Act being passed, report on—(a) the condition of all school land and buildings, and (b) the amount of capital investment that would be required to provide all pupils with access to key amenities, including but not limited to computer provision, sports fields, and science and technology laboratories.”
My Lords, it is good to be back here; I hope we can finish the last three groups this evening. I am moving our Amendment 156 on “school land and buildings”. We are very worried about what happened to the state of school buildings following the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future by the coalition Government in 2010. It is telling that a very recent former Minister has also felt the need to table what we think is a very reasonable amendment on this issue. There is clearly growing concern across your Lordships’ House and across the sector more widely.
Our amendment seeks to compel the Secretary of State to
“report on … the condition of all school land and buildings, and … the amount of capital investment that would be required to provide all pupils with access to key amenities”.
We think that, unless we require the Government to report on the condition of the school estate, the Treasury will not recognise the scale of the problem. This is probably what has landed us in the state we are in now.
My noble friend Lady Wilcox was hoping to be here this evening to speak to this. She was very keen for us to highlight the work being done in Wales on school buildings. I am very keen that the Minister should understand exactly what is happening in Wales and to know what my noble friend would have talked about if she were here. In Wales, there is a programme called 21st Century Schools, which is a collaboration between the Welsh Government and local government. It is a significant, long-term and strategic capital investment programme that has created 170 new schools or colleges so far in its first phase, with a further 43 projects already approved for the second phase, which will create schools of the right type and size and in the right place. It ensures the effective and efficient use of educational estate by the wider community.
Unfortunately, the Government’s own analysis of England’s school buildings shows that some are “a risk to life” and “crumbling”, according to internal government documents leaked to the Observer. According to the House of Commons Library, spending generally followed a downward trend between 2009-10 and 2013-14; in the years since, it has fluctuated. Overall, between 2009-10 and 2021-22, capital spending has declined by 25% in cash terms and by 29% after adjusting for inflation. We could do a lot worse than refer directly to the emails that were leaked on this issue. I will quote from an email, which is quite startling, from Department for Education officials to No. 10:
“School buildings: the deteriorating condition of the school estate continues to be a risk, with condition funding flat for FY 2022-23, some sites a risk-to-life, too many costly and energy-inefficient repairs rather than rebuilds, and rebuild demand x3 supply.”
This was on 4 April this year. Under the same heading of “Risks and opportunities”, the official repeats the warning that some school sites are a “risk to life”. The second email says:
“We would like to increase the scale of school rebuilding.”
I hope that noble Lords can see why we are quite so concerned about this issue and felt the need to table this amendment, which we hope will assist the Minister in making the case, which I am sure she can see, to her colleagues in the Treasury. If this correspondence is to be believed, and is supported by others working in schools, then it is something that we all need to be concerned about. I ask her what she is able to do and to commit today to help to alleviate some of the concerns raised. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely and I invite her to speak.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Amendments 156 and 171 address the issue of school land and buildings that may not be safe. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, outlined, Amendment 156 asks for condition reports on school buildings and land within a year of the Bill being passed. As we have heard from her, there are real worries that too many schools have major condition problems because school budgets have made it impossible to keep buildings safe and there is no money from central government.
I am particularly delighted that the noble Baroness referred to the Welsh 21st Century Schools plan. Kirsty Williams, while Lib Dem Welsh Education Secretary in the Senedd working in coalition with Labour, led with local government on this. It just shows what can be achieved when there is a will to do it. However, I am afraid that England at the moment is a different story. The Treasury is not providing funds for major structural repairs and rebuilds even when there is danger for children and staff.
One such school is Tiverton High School, which is in need of a multi-million-pound overhaul. The Environment Agency says that it is not a safe place for children, with staff having to deal with rain pouring into leaking classrooms; worse, there have been a number of incidents involving asbestos being exposed and then damaged, which is dangerous to both pupils and staff. Even worse, the school sits on a flood plain and requires flood protection. The school was promised a complete rebuild in 2009. It got planning permission and got detailed designs ready over the next four years, but the money never followed. It is vital that we know the condition of school land and buildings across England, and Amendment 171 says that, where a building is unsafe, the Secretary of State should take responsibility for it.
Under Part 1 of this Bill, the school—currently a foundation school—would become an academy. I ask the Minister: does the Secretary of State become responsible for the condition and fabric of school building and land under the extensive powers listed in Part 1 or is the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, necessary? It seems extraordinary that children are required to go to school in a building which other bodies have said is unsafe, the governors and local authority do not have resources to deal with, and central government just refuses to provide the funding for.
Amendment 167 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, calls for the Secretary of State to ensure that all schools are provided with defibrillators, in school and in sports facilities, which I support. Oliver King, who was 12, died of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome, a condition which kills 12 young people under 35 every week. The Oliver King Foundation has been campaigning for a defibrillator in every school. Last September the Secretary of State for Education announced that every school should have a defibrillator.
In an Oral Question in your Lordships’ House on 15 June, the Health Minister said in response to a question from me:
“while we require defibrillators to be purchased when a school is refurbished or built, one of the things we are looking at is how we can retrofit this policy. We are talking to different charity partners about the most appropriate way to do this. What we have to recognise is that it is not just the state that can do this; there are many civil society organisations and local charities that are willing to step up and be partners with us, and we are talking to all of them.”—[Official Report, 15/6/22; col. 1582.]
While I know that the DfE has been working with the department for health and the NHS to make this happen, including schools being able to purchase defibrillators via the DHSC at an advantageous price, only a few thousand appear to have been purchased so far. The Health Minister is clearly expecting schools to find benefactors to fund life-saving defibrillators at a time when there are many other pressures on school budgets. How do the Government plan to enable all 22,000 schools to be given defibrillators now, not just when their school is rebuilt?
It looks as if we may need to support the amendment in front of us today about defibrillators. This is urgent and I hope that the Minister will give it some good consideration.
My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendment 167 in this group, which is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. He was all ready to move it late last Wednesday evening with my support, but is unable to do so today as he has to be in Wales for important meetings as chair of governors at the Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools. I am pleased to speak to the amendment and grateful to my noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson for her support, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for what she has just said.
We have previously discussed a number of issues that should be mandatory parts of the curriculum. One of these is first aid training. As well as that, every school should have access to defibrillators. I use the plural intentionally, as does this amendment, because one may not be enough. The Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools, for example, have five defibrillators, one of which, close to the cricket nets in the pavilion, has been used to save a life at a school sporting event.
There are some 60,000 sudden out-of-hospital cardiac arrests each year in the UK. Survival depends on prompt action such as CPR or defibrillation. The chances of survival decrease by 10% with every minute that passes without such action and, in fact, only one person in 10 survives.
Of course, the great majority of such cardiac arrests affect older people, most often in their homes or workplaces, but a significant minority of cases are younger people, specifically those who are fitter and more active. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, cited the fact that sudden arrhythmic death syndrome kills 12 young people under 35 every week. Young athletes are three times as likely to suffer cardiac arrests as non-athletes, so access to defibrillators is important not just in a school’s main learning areas but equally, if not more importantly, in its sports facilities.
In my recent Question on defibrillators, I mentioned that devices are beginning to appear on the market that are much smaller, lighter and cheaper than existing models—up to a 10th of the size, weight and price. A recent parliamentary drop-in featured a personal defibrillator small enough to fit in my jacket pocket, which is expected to sell for about £200. I know that exhibits are frowned on, but I actually have a training version of such a defibrillator in my jacket pocket.
Developments like this will open up new opportunities for increasing access to defibrillators and making them much more easily available and locatable in schools, workplaces and homes—indeed, wherever there are risks of cardiac arrest and where defibrillators should be easily accessible, even in sports coaches’ kit bags or in private homes.
Of course, there is limited value in increasing access to defibrillators if people are not familiar with when and how to use them. This is an area where the UK lags behind many other countries. While our overall survival rate is only one in 10—and in some parts of the UK it is a great deal lower even than that—in Denmark, where training in CPR is mandatory in schools and for anyone applying for a driving licence, the survival rate tripled within five years. Italy has introduced new laws mandating defibrillators in public buildings, on transport, at sporting events and in schools, and has a cardiac arrest awareness day every October. I will mention one other example, in the USA: Seattle has increased its survival rate to 62% through a city-wide training programme. There are many other examples to show that first aid training and access to defibrillators actually save significant numbers of lives.
Training, both in basic first aid techniques, including the use the defibrillators, and in recognising the symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest, can easily be done in schools. It takes only a few hours, is readily available at a reasonable cost from organisations such as the British Heart Foundation, British Red Cross, Resuscitation Council UK, St John Ambulance and St Andrew’s First Aid in Scotland, is relatively inexpensive and is practical, enjoyable and confidence building for young people—and indeed older ones, as I can testify from having had such training here in Parliament some years ago when there was a first aid APPG. Incidentally, the intranet lists 27 locations where there are defibrillators on the Parliamentary Estate; it also says that
“Staff should familiarise themselves with where the Defibrillators are located.”
I shall not speculate on how many of us could locate one with confidence.
Amendment 167, from the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, represents an important first step towards reducing the number of deaths from sudden cardiac arrests in and around schools, including at their sports facilities. Defibrillators are already required in all new or refurbished schools; it makes no sense that they should not be a mandatory part of every school’s first aid equipment. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord, Moynihan, would argue that they should be as common in public places as fire extinguishers. I hope that the Minister will accept this amendment, or at least spell out firm plans to ensure that defibrillators will become mandatory for all schools—obviously with support for how they can afford them. Failing that, this is an issue that I, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and perhaps others may well wish to pursue further on Report.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to Amendment 167, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and my noble friend Lord Aberdare. I draw your Lordships’ attention to my interests in the register, including as president of the Local Government Association.
As my noble friend Lord Aberdare, has already pointed out, sudden arhythmic death syndrome kills 12 young people under 35 in the UK every week. Possibly what is less known is that it has been estimated that up to 270 young people a year die in schools—lives that are surely worth saving. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and I have worked on this area for a number of years, but, for me, more specifically in a sports setting. However, as 40% of sports facilities in England are behind school gates, which also have increasing community use, and as there is a greater drive to open school facilities in the summer holidays, it makes sense to have defibs in every single school.
I know that if the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, were here, he would say that noble Lords on all sides of this Chamber have made the case for ensuring that defibrillators are not just a voluntary addition to a school’s first aid equipment and should not just be required in new or refurbished schools, as is currently the policy. There should not be differentiation between new schools and older schools. Surely all lives are equally important. However, looking at the data from NHS Supply Chain, its website says that there are 23,000 eligible schools in the UK that could have access to defibs through its scheme to make use of bulk purchasing. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, would have pointed out, the Government need to go further and ensure that there are defibs in all 32,163 schools in the UK. I wonder if the noble Baroness the Minister is able to say how many schools in the UK have defibs and how many do not. Last year, Gavin Williamson, when Secretary of State for Education, was on record in another place as saying that the Government would be looking at
“changing the regulations, which are underpinned by secondary legislation, to ensure that all schools have defibrillators in the future and hopefully prevent such a tragedy visiting more families.”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/21; col. 19.]
As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out, the Oliver King Foundation has done a tremendous job in getting 5,500 defibrillators into schools, saving 56 lives. The Joe Humphries Memorial Trust has done a huge amount to get them in to use. I was at an event in the north-east of England yesterday with Rotary North East, and its One Life initiative is amazing. In the last two years, a small team of three people has worked with community groups, individuals and local councillors in the north-east to offer advice and guidance on the subject and to promote the installation of further public access defibrillators across the region. It is fantastic that these groups are doing so much good work, but it is far too ad hoc.
Should this amendment be passed, secondary legislation could be introduced to focus on the types of AEDs; their siting; training requirements; how many should be in our schools; and where should they be placed for easy access. I have read too many cases of lives that potentially could have been saved. This should be an open door in terms of protecting and supporting everyone in the school setting. Would the noble Baroness the Minister agree to undertake a meeting with me, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, my noble friend Lord Aberdare and other interested Peers to discuss what steps we can take to keep the door open on this conversation?
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 171 in my name. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister and her officials for taking the time to meet with me.
Although I immediately concede that there may be drafting issues—in particular, the scenario that I am going to outline may not be dealt with as swiftly as it would need to be by the use of regulations—the amendment is a vehicle to explore with Her Majesty’s Government the legal powers that the Secretary of State has, or does not have, if there should be a failure of a building material within the school estate.
The estate comprises nearly 64,000 teaching blocks and its condition, as noble Lords have mentioned, is an issue that is beginning to be discussed more publicly. Many noble Lords spoke to the issue at Second Reading. While I know that my noble friend will not be able to comment on the recent alleged government leak to the media that some issues in the school estate pose a “threat to life”, there are a number of specific issues in the public domain. For example, reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete is found in hospitals in Norfolk and Suffolk; the BBC reported on it on 16 August 2021 and, when I checked, it had made the news again on 27 April 2022. It is a material also found in schools. In the news report from 2021, the NHS foundation trust was taking legal advice on potential liability for corporate manslaughter.
The question that I am asking Her Majesty’s Government to consider is whether the Secretary of State needs a legal power to be able to bring certain school buildings into their ownership or control—usually that would be by way of a power to direct—if there were a failure in such a building material. To try to avoid the risk of this sounding like a law examination paper, there are, I think, four brief steps to consider to get to the scenario where the Secretary of State might need such a power of direction. First, school buildings and virtually all land are not owned by the Secretary of State. Land and buildings are leased to the academy trust—in that scenario, from the landowner, usually the local authority, a diocesan trust, other charitable trusts, occasionally a university or FE college or, in a very small number of cases, from the DfE when it is a free school. The academy trust is, in law, the “responsible body” in charge of the land and buildings. For maintained schools, the responsible body is the local authority and, for maintained church schools, it is the relevant diocesan authority. Responsible bodies are legally responsible for the building.
Secondly, obviously, if there is a building material failure, it could be present in other school buildings. In such a situation, responsible bodies—here I must put on record the excellent capital team of the Department for Education—would of course spring into action. They would be inspecting, sending out surveyors and providing reassurance on the safety of buildings.
However, to move to step 3, if a responsible body says “No, we disagree with the Department for Education and the assessment of our buildings; we are closing them”, the DfE may maintain until the cows come home that the buildings are safe, but it is not the decision-maker.
Fourthly, noble Lords might say to me, “All these responsible bodies and schools are insured.” That is correct, but insurance or the DfE risk assurance protection are irrelevant to the liability that a responsible body, and possibly its trustees, might believe they face under the Health and Safety Executive powers or any criminal liability. The department of course faced similar issues to this when dealing with health and safety during Covid but, under the Coronavirus Act, the Secretary of State did have a power to direct a school to open or close. The political realities of using that power were another matter of course. That power to direct has gone.
I accept that the risk of this occurring is very low but, if it does materialise, there could again be disruption to the education of hundreds, if not thousands, of pupils. I believe this is a legal question that parents and schools should know has been considered in your Lordships’ House if, God forbid, this eventuality ever arises—even if the DfE says to noble Lords, “No, we do not want such a power to direct the ownership or control of school buildings to the department.”
When one of noble Lords’ main criticisms of this Bill is the scope of the powers that the Secretary of State is taking in Part 1, it would be ironic if, by way of this amendment, I have discovered the only power that the Secretary of State does not think he wants. While I appreciate that my noble friend the Minister might not have an answer today, I reserve the right to bring back this important issue on Report.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Aberdare and Lord Moynihan, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, for having on two occasions said that I must sign an amendment and then failing to do it. I must also declare an interest here; although young people may fall down occasionally, it is usually older, occasional sportsmen who do so, and I am certainly in that category.
As was mentioned before, many sporting facilities are on school grounds. If we want people playing sport, and playing it as safely as possible, we should really make sure that, at the very least, school sports grounds—which have more structure and over which we have more control—have access to defib. It is a pretty common practice now. Most people say that, if you follow the instructions, you will be able to use it correctly, although extra training cannot hurt. Indeed, it sounds like the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, is a man to be beside when you are under any stress at all if he has the thing with him. If we can put something in the Bill that says we will have better coverage of defib capacity and some training on how to use it, or at least make it more common, that will be a definite step forward.
I live in a village designed for horseracing, and on the high street there is a nice big yellow defibrillator, because if people fall off horses and get injured, defib might be required. This is something we can do easily and in a straightforward manner that will make people’s lives that little bit safer. I recommend that we embrace this and go forward with it, if not in this exact form then, I hope, something very like it.
I will briefly cast my eye over the other two amendments in this group. On the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, I like the idea in proposed new paragraph (b) of having a list, including sports fields, to make sure that we know how they are doing. I have a Private Member’s Bill that puts a little more emphasis on this, so possibly I am biased.
I do not have to tell the noble Baroness who will be responding for the Government just how important is the capacity of computers to help many people in their educational process, and making sure they are up to date. These are two good examples of why the idea within the amendment should probably be brought further forward. It would be a good thing.
As for the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, I had not really considered what she has brought forward but it does sound sensible. I look forward to hearing the answer. It occurs to me that there is a certain degree of irony here; we often argue against overregulation, but this sounds like one they have missed that might be very useful.
My Lords, we support all three amendments in this group. I declare my interest as vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I start by telling the Committee that every single school on Merseyside has a defibrillator. Why? As we have heard, at the school that my daughter attended at the time, a young boy called Oliver King had a tragic sudden cardiac arrest in the swimming pool and died. As noble Lords can imagine, the school was grief-stricken; the pupils and the staff needed counselling. However, from that awful tragedy something wonderful happened, in that Mark King established a charity in his son’s name, the Oliver King Foundation, with the simple aim of putting a defibrillator in every school on Merseyside. As noble Lords can imagine, the community rallied round—the local press, benefactors, et cetera—and it happened. As we have heard from other noble Lords, Mark has continued his mission, not just for Merseyside but for schools throughout the UK. He was a frequent visitor to Parliament, trying to encourage MPs and Peers to get behind his campaign. I have to single out former Education Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, for whom I managed to arrange meetings with Mark King. The noble Lord had planned to celebrate, so that when we reached the target of, say, 1,000 defibrillators in schools, we would have a party. Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, was reshuffled, or decided to leave, and that never happened, but he was very helpful and supportive in that campaign.
I mention that it is not going to be expensive, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, rightly said. We are not allowed to use props or visual aids in the Chamber, but an Australian and a Canadian—noble Lords have probably met them as well—have come up with something, because most cardiac arrests actually happen in the home. They do not happen in public places, at schools or sporting events; most happen in the home and it is too expensive to spend several thousand pounds to have a defibrillator in your house unless you are very wealthy. These two people—one is an inventor and the other a salesperson—have invented a defibrillator which is about the size of a notebook. They are very simple to use and they cost, I think, just under £200. If you cannot afford that, there is a monthly subscription of a few pounds, and there is no reason why everybody should not have one in their home. For those who cannot afford one, there should be some mechanism of support. I gave mine to my noble friend Lady Walmsley and she promised me she would show it to the Health Minister. Maybe she will show it to the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, as well, or I will get it back off my noble friend. It is a real way forward.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, when he rightly says that this is about protecting young lives. There are various other things we can do. Defibrillators should be available in every school, but so too, for example, should an EpiPen—it should be mandatory for every school to have one. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, puts his finger on it when he says that every school should include first aid training as part of its curriculum. It does not take long. There is a gap when year 6 pupils have finished their SATs and are kicking their heels before they go to secondary school. That is an ideal time to do first aid training. It could be four or five sessions, and St John Ambulance or the Red Cross are only too willing to help out. There are wonderful schemes whereby they can provide lesson notes and all the rest.
Similarly, another area that should be mandated—by the way, I have a Private Member’s Bill on this—is water safety. We could prevent young people drowning if people knew proper water safety. This is about preserving lives, so it is hugely important. I am sorry that I have repeated the points that others have made.
The amendments on school buildings are absolutely right. At Second Reading I mentioned the internal memos, which the Minister will know about, outlining real concerns about the safety of our school buildings. This has gone on for a while—the coalition time was mentioned; I am not sure if that is true but perhaps it is. Of course, the Building Schools for the Future programme was excellent, but many of the buildings were very shoddily built and had a life expectancy of 20 or 25 years. Never mind the whole business of PFIs and whether they were good value for money—we will not go there—but I know from personal experience that many of the buildings, certainly the ones I have seen, are quite shoddy in my opinion; they are well past their proper use. These two amendments are hugely important and I hope that, between now and Report, we can look at them carefully and see what support we can give.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, for Amendment 156. Well-maintained and safe buildings and facilities are essential to support high-quality education, and they remain a priority for this Government. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be very kind and pass on my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for her update on the Welsh strategy.
As my noble friend Lady Berridge pointed out, responsibility for school buildings lies with the relevant local authority, academy trust or voluntary-aided school body. Those organisations are best placed to prioritise available resources to keep schools safe and in good working order, based on their local knowledge. We provide significant annual capital funding, major rebuilding programmes, and extensive guidance and support to the sector. We have allocated more than £13 billion to improve the condition of schools since 2015, including £1.8 billion committed this year.
In addition, our school rebuilding programme will transform 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising schools where evidence of significant issues has been submitted. As I have mentioned to your Lordships before, we hope to announce the next 50 or so schools in the programme shortly but also plan to announce the following 250 before the end of the year so that schools can plan and local authorities and other responsible bodies can plan their capital expenditure.
Turning to the first part of Amendment 156, we have significantly improved our understanding of the condition of the estate through our condition data collection programmes. I assure the noble Baroness that we have already published a report on our overall findings on school conditions, in May 2021, as I think she may have referred to, and have shared individual reports with the school sector. We plan to publish more detailed condition data at school level this year and will publish information from our new survey, the condition data collection 2 programme, in due course.
On the second part of the amendment, our view is that schools and those responsible for school buildings are best placed to assess the needs of their pupils and the provision of suitable equipment, ICT and other facilities. The department continues to prioritise its resources, and those of the sector, on data collection to support local authorities to deliver sufficient school places, and to help bodies responsible for schools keep those schools safe and operational.
It would be resource intensive for the department and the sector to collect data on amenities and equipment down to classroom level; we are concerned that it would quickly become out of date. Defining and agreeing the scope of what equipment and facilities are appropriate for very different settings and pupils across all schools would also be challenging and open to interpretation. The department has, however, recently piloted central delivery of net capacity assessments; these assess teaching space, including size, type and use of rooms. We are planning to roll out assessments across secondary and special schools from next year. This will improve our intelligence on the quality of provision across the school estate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to Tiverton High School in Devon. The department has met local representatives from the school to discuss the buildings and the flood risk. As she knows, Devon County Council is responsible for the school and receives an annual school condition allocation to keep its schools safe and in good working order, including £3.8 million for the financial year 2022-23. As I mentioned, we are currently in the process of assessing nominations for the rebuilding programme, which will be announced shortly.
On my noble friend Lady Berridge’s Amendment 171, our view is that there are sufficient mechanisms and powers in place to support the sector to keep school buildings safe and open. It is important that schools and responsible bodies have clear responsibility for their buildings and meet their wider legal duties for the safety of their pupils and staff, based on up-to-date local knowledge.
The safety of pupils and staff is paramount. However, we expect schools, trusts and local authorities to make decisions proportionate to the level of risk, and to minimise disruption. School buildings should close only where there are significant safety issues that cannot immediately be mitigated, typically based on professional advice. The department has also published advice on emergency planning to support the sector in preparing for rare events.
When schools alert us to significant safety concerns with their buildings, the department will always consider additional advice and give support on a case-by-case basis to help ensure that closures are only ever a last resort and that any disruption is minimised. In some cases, this may include commissioning a project directly in conjunction with the relevant parties, including the governing body. We also work closely with relevant regulators, such as the Health and Safety Executive, as appropriate.
My noble friend referred to reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete; she knows very well, as she was responsible for it, that we published guidance in February 2021 on identifying RAAC and, where necessary, taking action to address it. We also stay informed about systemic risk so that appropriate support, guidance and programmes can be provided to support the sector in meeting its duties to ensure that schools can stay safe and open.
Where system-wide challenges have been identified, for example with the safe management of asbestos or risks from certain types of building construction, we have provided additional guidance or collected further information on the estate to help us understand and respond effectively to these issues. As I mentioned, we are rolling out a capital advisers programme, which will offer the sector best-practice recommendations from a team of experienced technical advisers.
Our view is that the current arrangements allow the department to take action proportionate to the level of risk and support schools with advice and funding when needed, but without abrogating the responsibilities and legal duties of the sector. We do not think that additional powers to compel schools to open when they have safety concerns are required at this time. The department taking on direct responsibility for school buildings, or compelling schools to open when they have safety concerns, could actually reduce safety overall as it could undermine the incentive to maintain buildings effectively and obscure the currently clear responsibilities for the safety of pupils and staff in our schools.
The amendment is not saying that we should compel schools, for that reason. My noble friend may need to come back to this, but what happens in a scenario where there is no agreement between the department and the responsible body about what should happen to a building? That is the key issue in the amendment: transferring the responsibility to the department. Although I appreciate the detailed case-by-case examples, it is a very different scenario if you have a building material fail across thousands of schools and risk going across the system. Can my noble friend say what happens if there is disagreement in that kind of scenario?
It might be most helpful to the Committee if I come back to my noble friend. She is right to insist to have this point discussed on public record but it would be more useful to take a real example that we can quantify in some way.
On Amendment 167 in the names of my noble friend Lord Moynihan, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, we absolutely recognise the importance of defibrillators. That is why our guidance for building new schools has included the provision of defibrillators since 2019. As noble Lords referred to, we have also worked with NHS England to establish a framework for schools to purchase defibrillators at a reduced rate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for his update on the latest in defibrillator technology, and I would of course be delighted to meet with the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and colleagues.
I was touched by the reference of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, to the tragic death of Oliver King; a friend of my children died in a school local to us, so I am all too aware of the tragedy involved in such cases. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has committed to working with the Oliver King Foundation to ensure that all schools have access to defibrillators. We are currently working on options to deliver these life-saving devices, and I look forward to being able to update noble Lords on that before too long.
I am told, for your Lordships’ benefit, that there is a defibrillator in Black Rod’s box, so we are all now informed.
I therefore ask the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, to withdraw her Amendment 156 and ask other noble Lords not to move the amendments in their names.
I am very pleased to hear what the Minister has just said about defibrillators. I was waiting to hear what noble Lords said on that amendment before responding, and I have to say that the case is overwhelming, given the tragic cases of Oliver King and a young person who was a friend of the Minister’s family, as she said. It is very strange that whether these devices are accessible to you largely depends on when your school was built. That does not seem to make any sense. They are not expensive and the benefits are incredible. I am encouraged by the Minister’s last sentence about wanting to come back to us, I hope on Report, with something more on that.
On the amendments on school land and buildings, I think I followed what the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, was arguing. Had she not tabled her amendment, that issue probably would not have come to the attention of noble Lords. Again, we need to hear what the Minister has to say on that. If she is intending to write to the noble Baroness, could that letter be shared so that we can all appreciate and understand how the Government intend to answer that question?
On the amendment I tabled alongside my noble friend Lady Wilcox, we remain concerned about the condition of school buildings. I understand the points made from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench about BSF, but I gently point out that if you were a governor at a school who had put a lot of time and effort into their BSF bid—as I did at the time—and then had that cancelled, you would much rather have what the noble Lord describes as a less than gold-plated building to learn in than what we were presented with: a leaky, cold, not particularly safe building that dated back to the 1970s. I would have bitten Michael Gove’s hand off at the time to get that bid agreed. It was not as if BSF was replaced with something less bureaucratic, which I can accept may have been needed. That did not happen and the investment was not forthcoming. I understand that the Minister does not want to comment on leaked documents, but we find ourselves now in a situation where, as a parent, you read that there is great concern that buildings are deemed a risk to life. That is something we need to continue to press Ministers on and may well return to on Report. I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 156 withdrawn.
Amendments 157 to 171G not moved.
171H: After Clause 65, insert the following new Clause—
“Education partnership boards(1) Within two years of the passing of this Act, local authorities must begin to work with schools within their area of authority to establish an education partnership organisation for every local authority in England.(2) Education partnership organisations may offer services including—(a) promoting the needs and strengths of schools in their area,(b) supporting at-risk schools,(c) brokering support with external professionals, (d) offering specialised events, and(e) facilitating collaboration and partnerships between schools.”
Our Amendment 171H would require the Government to ask local authorities to work with schools in their area to establish an education partnership organisation. I want to say a little about why that is a good idea in the context of all our schools becoming academies. Partnerships are an excellent way to support schools and to tackle some of the area-wide issues that are difficult for schools to address by themselves. This could include music, theatre or sport; brokering support with external providers; sharing facilities; or, in the spirit of the Bill, doing anything else they can come up with when they get around to thinking about it. Our amendment is very similar to that tabled by my noble friend Lady Morris. I am sure she will share her experience with the Birmingham Education Partnership and the benefits that has brought to children in Birmingham.
The thinking behind this approach is that it takes a village—or a town or a city—to raise a child. The whole community has a stake in making sure that we do the best job possible to support and encourage our young people. My experience of this approach comes from chairing the Darlington Children’s Trust, where we were very keen on partnerships to tackle the trickiest issues. We would apply this approach to just about anything, including long-term health concerns, growing older, anti-social behaviour and school exclusions. We think that anything that needs a joined-up, place-based approach is best tackled with multidisciplinary partnership thinking.
Now that local authorities have a much-diminished role in education, with youth services and early intervention and prevention unrecognisably altered for the worse, we need an approach that encourages public services and schools to pull together—to agree priorities, share strategies and even pool budgets to support children and young people. All the secondary schools in Darlington are academies and, although they no longer have to do it, there is definitely a culture of collaboration. However, that is being increasingly tested the more time moves on and as some join MATs based in other parts of the country.
My amendment and that tabled by my noble friend Lady Morris would be a helpful step in the right direction. Her amendment would enable partnerships to bid for resources and be part of the school system, which is an incredibly good idea and something that we would like to see encouraged in other areas of the country. If the Government take the view that these partnerships should be a coming together of the willing, as opposed to compelling organisations to work together—I can kind of see an argument for that—they could at least be more proactive in encouraging them to work more closely together. It might be that we want to discuss ways that this could be achieved.
The noble Lords, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, have tabled amendments to extend the role of the Local Government Ombudsman. We particularly support this in relation to admissions, where parents are relatively powerless to challenge in any meaningful way. We think that there should be an independent process; that would be incredibly helpful.
I do not have a strong view whether that should be through the Local Government Ombudsman: there might be other locally based, more user-friendly ways to approach it, but I absolutely agree with my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Davies that with so many schools now academies, it is not fair to deny parents the ability to challenge decisions through an independent process. I beg to move.
I shall speak to Amendment 171U in my name in this group. I support the other three amendments, but I shall not comment on those that have not yet been moved. I declare my interest as the chair and a trustee of the Birmingham Education Partnership and a member of the Association of Education Partnerships. I also acknowledge that the Minister has already given me and my colleagues some time to discuss this issue, for which we are grateful, but I have come back in this setting because some legislative change could help the work we do.
I emphasise the differences between this amendment and that just moved. I do not have a problem with children’s trusts: if they develop in that way, that is great and they can be a partnership for all services, but my thinking and experience has been of partnerships for school improvement, hence my amendment today, but I am not against taking that wider to the children’s trust idea. The problem my amendment solves is this. The thrust of the Bill into multi-academy trusts is an acknowledgement that schools need to work together: isolated schools are free to fail as well as free to thrive. In schools that are working together, you add capacity to the system.
At the moment, in any geographical area, we have church schools, maintained schools, academies and schools in multi-academy trusts—in one area or beyond. Even if every school in a group is a member of a family, the problem is still not solved because there are still gaps between the groups. Whereas we worried about the fragmentation of individual schools going it alone, even when every school was in a multi-academy trust in 2010, they could fall between the cracks of different groups in any geographical area. At the moment, the problem is worse, because some schools are in multi-academy trusts and some are still maintained, some are still relating to the regional schools commissioner, some to the local authority and some to the diocese.
In an area as big as Birmingham, with more than 400 schools—and it is not the biggest local authority area in the country—that fragmentation is writ large, even if no school is a stand-alone school unconnected to anybody else. Even if we get everybody into a multi-academy trust by 2030, we will still have the gaps between the trusts. That is a problem, in my mind. It is a built-in weakness of the system, in two ways.
Schools have responsibility, first and foremost, for the children in their school. That is what teachers get up and go to work for, and that is where their prime responsibility lies. I have always thought that every teacher accepts a second responsibility, and that is for the children in the area where they teach. They want their children to be best, but they do not want them to be best at the expense of the failure of children in the neighbouring school. They want to accept both those professional responsibilities: primarily, to the children in the school but, secondarily, to the children in their area.
I taught in a Coventry school. If someone asks, “What were you?”, I say, “A teacher in a Coventry school.” It meant something to me. I was educated in a school in Manchester, and that means something to me. That notion of place defined, in part, my experience as a pupil and defined, in a larger part, my experience as a teacher. We have knocked that out of the system.
Even if we get where the Government want us to go, where everyone is in a multi-academy trust, we will have solved the problem of isolated schools but there will be nothing at all that acknowledges place. Who holds the ring for education in Birmingham as a common good, a common endeavour? That is so important: it is what pupils, parents and teachers feel. All the partnership does is act as an umbrella under which every school can come together to recognise their joint endeavour as delivering a local education service. That is not being part of the local education authority; it is an acknowledgement that they, together, deliver the local education service—call it what you want.
Nothing in any of this legislation will allow that to happen. I am aware of more than 30 geographical areas—usually based on a local authority, because that makes sense to people—where schools have, by their own will, because they know it is needed, formed a partnership to deliver their second professional responsibility, which is to act in the interests of every child in that area. You can say, “That’s great: get on with it, go and do a good job, you do not need government to tell you what to do or give you permission to do it”, and indeed you do not and indeed they will. What is missing is a government acknowledgement that they are a player in the system. That is the important thing.
I can give a number of examples. The Government will put out a request for a bid or initiative, ask for volunteers or seek partnerships, but they only do so with the multi-academy trusts, which means that the partnership cannot collectively, on behalf of all its members, bid for the money, try to be a partner or try to be a player in the game. They have to read between the lines to make sure their local area is not deprived of resources.
That is what is missing. I look to the Government to say, “Yes, there is a need in our education system to acknowledge place and deliver for it, and that schools want responsibility for that that goes beyond the children in their class—they want to accept the wider responsibility for children in the area.” At the moment, as we know, every measurement—every accountability structure—militates against that happening. Even in the bidding arrangements, MAT has to bid against MAT in Birmingham for resource for Birmingham children. That does not make sense. Why would you want one MAT to fragment and bid against another to get resource for Birmingham children? If the partnership could bid and the bid go through the MAT—the partnership is no more than the MATs, it is no more than all the groups within the city of Birmingham—that would focus on school improvement and acknowledge the notion of place.
I very much take the point made by my noble friend Lady Chapman about working with other organisations. If a museum in a geographical area, a sports club, the local orchestra, the drama club or a local employer wants to work with the school, because of the demise of the local authority, there is no one to whom they can go to make those links. They end up either just finding a school and working with it because it is easier—that is great, but no one else gets a look in—or they give up because there is no one door through which they can go to say, “I am now working with all the schools in Coventry”. Partnerships are a one-stop shop for any of those essential partners in educating our children to knock on the door to say, “I want to work with Darlington schools.” We could say, “Right, we are the place that can make the introduction.”
For lots of reasons—and now in particular because the system is fragmented, but even when it is as the Government want it to be; I have my own views on that, but I am not going into them now—there is still the need to work in partnership, to recognise place and to mind the gaps between smaller groups that have been reconstructed into local authority areas.
My Lords, I have two amendments in this group and support my noble friends Lady Chapman and Lady Morris in their Amendments 171H and 171U. I have seen at first hand the huge value of the Birmingham Education Partnership, which my noble friend Lady Morris has led, and the impact that it has had on schools. On this issue of who in education can talk to some of the other sectors, the Minister will know that my principal interest is in health. I have mentioned a couple of times, particularly in relation to mental health, the need for the education sector to have a strong voice around the table of the new integrated care partnerships and integrated care boards that the health service has now established. I do not know who in education in Birmingham will do that, unless we have my noble friend, and have the Government recognising that it has a very valuable role to play. I hope that the Minister will consider this between now and Report, whenever that is—perhaps she will say when Report will be, though I am not hopeful of that.
Turning to my Amendments 171T and 171W, earlier in Committee we had a lot of debate about academisation and the role of parents in schools. Many noble Lords referred to what I can only describe as the chaotic nature of the admissions system to secondary schools, particularly when it comes to academies, where parents are faced with multiple application forms and details of schools. This is bewildering to them and not in the best interests of children. My amendments are an opportunity to strengthen the rights of parents and to increase the public accountability of schools by setting out straightforward, practical changes, to simplify the confusing system of redress that is currently faced by parents and carers if they raise concerns about their child’s education. I am very grateful to my noble friends Lord Davies and Lady Blower for their support, and to my noble friend Lady Chapman for what she said in her introductory remarks, particularly in relation to the admissions system.
The changes that I am proposing can be delivered easily and at low cost, through the logical extensions to the existing remit of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. My noble friend Lady Morris has said that the principle is important and that who does it is a secondary consideration. I accept that, but the Local Government Ombudsman has an important role to play, having had a tried and tested mechanism to remedy public complaints and to improve local services for nearly 50 years. The ombudsman’s remit already includes many education and school-related matters.
My Amendment 171T would enable parents to seek an independent investigation into complaints about admissions to academies if they think that their child has been wrongly denied access to their preferred choice of school. Prior to the introduction of academies, parents had the right to bring complaints about defects in school admissions processes to the local ombudsman. Over many years, this has been a robust system. Indeed, the ombudsman published one of its regular reports just last week, highlighting shortcomings in the admissions process at a popular and oversubscribed school in Surrey. Its intervention resulted in a fresh appeal for the pupil involved and an undertaking from the school to review and improve its system for others in future. It is a practical, transparent and proportionate system that has been proven to work well for parents, pupils, and schools.
However, since the introduction of academies—and we are on a pathway to full academisation by 2030—the complaints process for school admissions has become increasingly disjointed. Although complaints about admissions to maintained and voluntary-aided schools continue to be investigated by the ombudsman, complaints about academy admissions must be addressed to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, a body which does not have the same powers, purpose or independence as the ombudsman. This means that, in practice, parents with concerns about one of their most important decisions regarding their child’s education are potentially faced with navigating two entirely different complaints systems through two entirely different bodies. This amendment will remove this needless complexity by bringing academy and free-school admissions within the single scope of the ombudsman, and we can restore the previous one-stop arrangements for parents and carers.
Amendment 171W proposes an equally practical but perhaps an even more important extension to the rights of parents and pupils: the right to complain about what goes on within the school itself. It is remarkable that schools are one of the only public services in this country for which there is no completely independent right of complaint and redress. People have a statutory right of access to an independent investigation into complaints about their local council, the police, the Armed Forces, the health service, universities, and central government departments, but not about schools.
There is an in-house schools investigation service that operates within the Minister’s department, and which looks at complaints about local authority-maintained schools. There is also a separate academy complaints service run by the ESFA. However, these services are limited in their scope. They are mainly responsible for checking whether schools have followed the required complaints procedure. They do not carry out a fresh investigation into the substance of the issue that was complained about. They do not come to an independent view on whether there has been fault, and they cannot provide a remedy for parents or pupils.
I am not critical of the staff who carry out the current arrangements. However, those arrangements fall a long way short of the rights and redress available in most comparable sectors. My amendment would provide a comprehensive and genuinely independent schools complaints service simply by extending the functions of the ombudsman. It is important to note that this is not a novel or untried proposition. This is a role that the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman already performs with great success. It is a duty that was previously piloted by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman in England under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009. Unfortunately, the 2010 election intervened, and the function was not implemented, but it was thoroughly tested at that time in schools across 14 local authority areas.
There is support from the Commons Education Committee for an extension to the ombudsman’s remit so that it might look more effectively at the support given in schools to children with special educational needs. If that is right, and if the committee is right, if it makes sense to extend that to SEND children, then surely it makes sense to extend it to all children in all schools, whatever category. I very much hope that the Minister can consider this.
My Lords, I support these amendments, particularly Amendments 171T and 171W, to which I have added my name. The case has been set out extremely clearly by my noble friend Lord Hunt, but it is worth emphasising the logic of the proposed change.
To a parent faced with one of the most difficult decisions in relation to their child—choosing a secondary school—it is incumbent on us to make that process as simple and as clear as possible. Unfortunately, because of how the system has developed, that is currently not the case. We have the extraordinary circumstances that in some local authorities the appeals system for academies is run jointly with the local authority. A parent may have applied to a maintained school and to an academy and been dissatisfied with the result but then discover that there is one system of appeal for the maintained school and another system of appeal for the academy, which cannot make sense.
It is reasonable to propose that the ombudsman has considerable experience in the tried and tested process of reviewing problems with school choice. My noble friend said that who should do the job is not an issue of principle, but the ombudsman is there and has been doing this work. It would be wrong to make the system of appealing against school decisions out of line with the generality. If people have a complaint, they should know where to go and should not have the barrier of figuring out which is the appropriate appeal body. There is considerable justification for allocating it to the ombudsman but, if another proposal were to come forward from the Government, we would have to consider it seriously.
The point has been made that the ombudsman currently cannot make judgments on issues within the school gates: it can if it is a local authority issue but, if it is within the school gates, it has no right to pursue an issue on behalf of concerned parents. Again, this cannot make sense. This is a public service. We need a proper system of review by an independent body.
I spent a bit of time trying to discover the argument behind dropping the provision in the 2009 Act, which provided for the ombudsman. Could the Minister enlighten us and explain why it was taken out in the Education Act 2011? It appeared to be a case of the Minister wanting not to lose power to an ombudsman. On balance, I think that the Committee would prefer the ombudsman to make this sort of decision as opposed to it being a matter for the Minister. I am sure that parents would prefer to have an independent expert body looking at the issue, whether the ombudsman or some other body.
I strongly support the amendments and hope that the Minister can give a helpful response.
My Lords, I will make a brief intervention. I agree with what the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Davies, said about the ombudsman. A process is being proposed; if you extend the ombudsman’s remit, you have the advantage of a process that is understandable to those who might wish to make a complaint. I very much hope that the Minister might be willing to look at how an amendment could be phrased, perhaps by the Government or by all-party agreement, on Report. That might bring us to a solution on how those who want to make a complaint can be assisted because, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, just said, it would be better if this were done by someone who is perceived to be independent than by the Minister.
The other half of the group relates to partnership boards. Noble Lords explained why there are two amendments, Amendments 171H and 171U. When I read the amendments, I much preferred the one from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, partly because it is quicker: it would force the Government to do something practical very quickly, which is to produce the guidance. The truth is that the two amendments could be brought together. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, said, we should have a culture of partnership rather than competition and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we need a one-stop shop to fill the gap between the groups of schools. All that seems eminently logical and would therefore have my support.
Previously in Committee, I talked about partnerships between schools and FE. Of course, there is the potential for greater partnership working with the independent sector as well. How all that is brought together seems to be of fundamental importance. The whole concept of working education partnership boards is very important to a local area. Again, I hope that the Minister will be agreeable to finding ways in which this could all be brought together through all-party agreement to ensure that there is this local focus created by education partnership boards.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, for Amendment 171H and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for Amendment 171U, both on local education partnerships. I very much enjoyed my meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, a few months ago to discuss her important work chairing the Area-Based Education Partnerships Association. I absolutely agree with both noble Baronesses and other noble Lords about the importance of local coherence and collaboration between different parts of our schools system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about the importance of school improvement in part underpinning her amendment. She will be aware that, in the schools White Paper, we set out a specific plank of the strong trust framework focused on school improvement. We absolutely support the spirit of her amendment but, as she knows, we believe that this is best done through strong multi-academy trusts.
However, as all of your Lordships have said, it is vital that trusts, local authorities and other actors in the school system work together effectively. The schools White Paper sets out our commitment to ensure that this is the case, and the special educational needs and disability and alternative provision Green Paper outlines proposals to enable statutory local SEND partnerships. We are also establishing local partnership boards in the 24 priority education investment areas that bring together local authorities and strong trusts to help identify local priorities and drive improvement at key stage 2 and key stage 4.
However, we do not believe that either of these amendments is necessary. We have already committed to developing a collaborative standard, which will facilitate effective partnerships between trusts, local authorities and third sector organisations to impact their communities positively in the way your Lordships have described. We will work with the sector to develop the detail of this standard as part of the regulatory review.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about the importance of place. Again, we agree with her. She will be well aware of our work previously on the opportunity areas and, more recently, on the education investment areas.
What the Minister just said is very interesting. I was going to intervene to ask what mechanism the Government will use to bring them together. Am I right in interpreting what she said as that the mechanism might be something the Government will look at in the regulatory review? If so, at that point, would she consider partnerships as one of the mechanisms that might bring it about?
I am sure that the noble Baroness would not allow me to get away with prejudging the findings of the regulatory review. In all seriousness, the point of the review is to engage intensively with the sector and partners. I was going to invite her to meet to talk about some of these points in more detail as the review progresses. The review will also develop not just the collaborative standard that both noble Baronesses pointed towards but the area-based approach to commissioning, which we articulated in the guidance we released in May on implementing school system reform.
I also point to the work done by the Confederation of School Trusts, which represents many in the sector. It has done a lot of work on public benefit and civic duty, which speaks to the spirit of what is behind both noble Baronesses’ amendments and which we support very strongly. Although we continue to emphasise the importance of local partnerships, we do not believe it is for government to mandate a particular form in every area, and we believe that local partners are best placed to determine the arrangements that are right for their areas.
I now turn to Amendments 171T and 171W, both tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, which seek to extend the role of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman to include complaints about academy admissions. There is already a strong and effective route for complaints by anyone, including parents, about academy admission arrangements, including oversubscription criteria, through the independent Office of the Schools Adjudicator, whose decisions are binding and enforceable. Forgive me: I am not sure I heard the noble Lord refer to that, but we believe that system works very well.
Where an individual child is refused a place at a school they have applied to, the parent always has the right to an independent appeal. We made changes to the School Admissions Code last year to improve the process for managing in-year admissions and to improve the effectiveness of the fair access protocols, the mechanism to find places for vulnerable and unplaced children in-year. The local authority can direct a maintained school to admit a child and the Secretary of State has the power to direct an academy to admit a child. Looking forward, the schools White Paper confirmed that the Government will consult on a new statutory framework for pupil movements between schools and a back-up power to enable local authorities to direct an academy trust to admit a child. More broadly, there is a requirement that every academy trust has a published complaints procedure and, in turn, that this must include an opportunity for the complaint to be heard by a panel containing members not involved in the subject of the complaint and one person not involved in the management or running of the school.
As noble Lords have rightly said, it is important that parents have access to a strong and effective appeals process. The department currently provides a route for independent consideration of complaints about maladministration of appeals in relation to academy schools. To put this in perspective, we received 374 complaints about maladministration by independent appeal panels between 1 April and 31 December 2020. Of these, 123 complaints were in scope and were considered further. However, that is a tiny number compared to the total number of appeals that year, which was 41,000 for academies and maintained schools. We are aware that the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has made proposal in its triennial review, similar to the one supported by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, that it should include maladministration of academy appeals. We are considering its proposals and will publish a response in due course. Therefore, we believe that there are sufficient measures in place for academy complaints and that these amendments are not necessary. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, to withdraw Amendment 171H and other noble Lords not to move theirs.
I am very grateful to the Minister for her response. The amendments that my noble friend Lady Morris and I tabled are different, but they come from the same place, if I may put it like that. My experience is more about getting anyone who has any interest whatever in the life of young people in a particular place together, and I found that useful, but I completely understand and support the idea of getting a focus on school improvement. There is a lot to be said for that and it is pleasing that the Government are, I think, starting to recognise the value that brings and the need to allow for a place-based approach. Children live in a particular area and a particular community, and it is a problem when schools do not work together.
As an example, we had a problem with transition between primary and secondary school. We were able to get all the schools to work together and to agree that they would have one week that primary schoolchildren spent in their secondary school and the secondary schoolkids spent at work experience or in their sixth form or FE college nearby. Everyone did it together, it made life a lot easier and it made the experience far more beneficial for the children involved. There are practical things but it needs somebody to hold the ring and to organise and broker that agreement. If you do not have that, these things just do not get done. That is all we are trying to get at.
The other thing it does is to make head teachers and subject leaders, and perhaps a PHSE group in primary schools, accountable to one another. That is so valuable. My noble friend Lady Morris said that she felt she was a teacher in Coventry and had a responsibility to that place in which she had an identity. Mutual accountability brings out the best in school leaders. We are very pleased to hear that the Government are looking at it. I will go away and have a look at the things the Minister referred to, but I wonder whether the approach she outlined is strong or energetic enough to inspire that collaboration at a local level everywhere that needs it. It is interesting that EIAs will be asked to work on that. I would have thought that if it is beneficial to areas with that kind of problem, it would be beneficial to areas that fall just outside the criteria for them. I cannot think of a place that would not benefit from having school leaders and others working together.
On the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, we need to look at the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, but having said what I said initially and having listened to my noble friend make an incredibly good case, perhaps I have to look again at my experience of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, at how user-friendly or not it might be and at whether there is something that could be done quite straightforwardly along the lines outlined by my noble friend that would improve the situation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 171H withdrawn.
Amendment 171I not moved.
171J: After Clause 65, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to report on spoken language and communicationThe Secretary of State must lay a report before Parliament each year during the period of five years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, setting out—(a) the overall level of school pupils’ spoken language and communication ability in academies, independent educational institutions and maintained schools;(b) the provision available to develop pupils’ spoken language and communication skills in academies, independent educational institutions and maintained schools;(c) the provision available to support pupils with speech, language and communication needs in academies, independent educational institutions and maintained schools.”
My Lords, I am speaking to Amendments 171J and 171 K in my name, and I should declare an interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy. I want to acknowledge the support I have received from I CAN, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and Voice 21, just three of the 39 organisations which have circulated a comprehensive briefing on these amendments to noble Lords.
These are probing amendments to clarify how the Government intend to ensure that children are adequately supported in schools to develop proficiency in spoken language, or “oracy”. In framing these amendments, the aim was to ask questions of the Minister, specifically on how the Government will raise the status of spoken language in the education system to reflect its importance to children and young people’s outcomes in education, as per evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation, how they will support schools to address the ongoing impact of school closures on children’s spoken language across all ages, and how they will ensure that every teacher is equipped to understand how to develop children’s spoken language skills and ability and are trained to identify those who struggle with their speech, language and communication and are thus in need of further support.
Spoken language underpins literacy skills and vocabulary development. As such, it is central to learning across the curriculum. It should not be necessary to state that the ability to communicate effectively and articulate well is an essential ingredient to success in both school and beyond. Oral communication skills are required in almost every job and in every walk of life, yet we expect children just to pick them up rather than explicitly teaching them as we do reading and writing.
This puts many children at a significant disadvantage if they do not live in a language-rich home where conversation and discussion is the norm. All too often that is the case, which underlines the necessity for children to be able to access these experiences and develop their oracy at school as a key part of the curriculum. For some children, this will be their only chance to develop their confidence and competence in spoken language.
As noble Lords will be aware, two weeks ago the Times Education Commission published its final report. It included a paragraph that in itself speaks to the content of these two amendments, as follows:
“The independent sector has long understood the importance of the spoken as well as the written word. Communication skills—‘oracy’—should become mainstream in state schools too. Pupils need to learn to converse, to debate, to present, to persuade, to justify and to challenge. These tools are highly valued by employers, but they are not systematically taught in school.”
The final point will resonate with business leaders and recruiters, who continually raise the importance of oral communication skills, which are rated one of the key transferable skills—yet they are also among the workforce skills gaps most identified by employers.
The Education Endowment Foundation’s teaching and learning toolkit demonstrates that oral language interventions—teaching and learning with an emphasis on spoken language—enable an average of six months’ additional academic progress over the course of a year, and are listed as one of the highest-impact and lowest-cost interventions that can be made in the classroom. We have seen a significant focus on tuition and extending the school day within the Government’s programme for education recovery, yet the foundation highlights that these approaches enable four months’ and three months’ additional progress respectively at secondary and primary level. This is not an either/or solution, but it is legitimate to question whether the strength of the evidence on oracy is being acknowledged as it should be by the DfE.
Last year, the Oracy All-Party Group undertook a comprehensive review of the evidence in relation to the impact of oracy on children’s education and their lives. We heard from leading academics, education experts both here and abroad, school leaders, teachers and, most importantly, children and young people. The inquiry found that oracy has been a Cinderella discipline compared to reading, writing or numeracy and that a lack of a shared understanding and expectations for oracy in schools feeds the inconsistent, sporadic and, too often, inadequate focus on oracy. The inquiry demonstrated beyond doubt that oracy in schools cannot be viewed as an extracurricular activity for a self-selecting few—the preserve of those with the inclination or opportunity to be taught it or something only valued at the beginning of a child’s educational journey, rather than a golden thread running through it.
If that is not enough evidence for the Minister, there is more, this time from your Lordships’ House. The Youth Unemployment Committee report published seven months ago highlighted what it termed
“compelling evidence on the value of oracy, the skill of oral communication”,
and identified the detrimental impacts of the current lack of oracy provision in education on young people’s opportunities to progress into employment.
Amendment 171K refers to Ofsted inspections; on that we appear to be pushing at an open door because last month Ofsted published its review of the English curriculum, which gave spoken language significant prominence. It focused on raising standards in reading, writing and spoken language and said:
“Opportunities for pupils to develop their proficiency in spoken language require explicit teaching of the knowledge, for example vocabulary, and ideas necessary for effective communication. These opportunities should be planned carefully, both in English lessons and across other subjects.”
Given such unequivocal remarks, surely the Minister would agree that it would be neither responsible nor fair if a school found not to be offering such opportunities were to be graded either good or outstanding.
None of the emphasis in the various sources that I have referenced is currently reflected in our education system, which leans heavily towards reading and writing. There should be parity of esteem between literacy, numeracy and oracy, as in the new curriculum for Wales. Oracy in children’s education has always mattered, but it matters now more than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic has widened the already stubborn language gap and exacerbated the inequities facing children in our school system. In years gone by educationists would stress the importance of young people being taught the three Rs, stretching alliteration close to breaking point. In narrower terms, I suggest that English should comprise a slightly different three Rs: reading, ‘riting and ‘rticulation.
I hope that in her reply the Minister will indicate that DfE Ministers and officials now accept the strong evidence base for spoken language to be given equal prominence to reading and writing—and that they will do more than talk the talk, so to speak. I beg to move.
I would also like to say a few words—this is the only opportunity I have to do so—on Amendment 171L in the names of my noble friends Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox. I do so not just because I fully support the amendment but because there are clear links with the two amendments that I have tabled, particularly in relation to the children’s Covid-19 recovery plan. There are calls within the amendment for
“extra-curricular activities for every child”,
including book clubs and drama clubs, which are clearly appropriate for oracy, as well as
“small group tutoring, with no more than six pupils in a group, … ongoing learning and development for teachers”,
to which I referred, and an education recovery premium, to include
“increasing the Early Years Pupil Premium to match the premium rates for primary school pupils”.
This is very important because if children who show from an early age that they are behind in their speech development can be given additional support, a significant barrier can be crossed and dealt with before the child enters formal schooling.
On the education recovery premium, it is exactly a year since Sir Kevan Collins resigned as the Government’s education recovery tsar over what he called the lack of a credible recovery plan, due to the Government providing just 10% of the £15 billion that he had calculated was necessary. I know that more resources have been made available since then, but I think most noble Lords will agree with me when I say that it is still well short of what is required. The past year has seen that the Government’s attempts at helping children who have lost out on their education during the pandemic to make up some of the deficit has been characterised more by failure than by success. I offer just one word on that: Randstad.
I will not labour that point but finish by saying that the recovery plan outlined in Amendment 171L shows what could be done to make a real difference. It is of course not all that needs to be done and I would not expect the Government to adopt it all. It is clearly badged as Labour Party policy—I do not think there is any need to disguise that fact—but there are some very strong points in there that I ask the Minister to take account of. Having said that, I beg to move.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely. I invite the noble Baroness to speak.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a patron of the Traveller Movement, a member of the All-Party Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma and a founding chair of the All-Party Group on Bullying. The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, has introduced his probing Amendments 171J and 171K, ensuring that the Secretary of State reports on spoken language, or oracy, and communication, and that Ofsted
“must assess the provision available to develop pupils’ spoken language and communication skills”.
I support these amendments, and not just because of the problems that very young pupils have had with lockdown during the pandemic. He laid out very clearly why oracy is absolutely critical for children right from the very start, and certainly in their early years once they get to school.
In some areas it can be extremely difficult for children with speech and language difficulties to get any appointment at all, let alone a speedy appointment, with speech and language therapists, who, frankly, are among the unsung heroes of the NHS and the education system. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, in its response to the Health and Social Care Select Committee inquiry into clearing the backlog caused by the pandemic, has identified that a minimum increase is needed in the speech and language therapist workforce of 15%, but year-on-year increases in recent times have been around 1/10th tenth of that, at 1.7%. Then there are delays while newly qualified speech and language therapists gain the expertise they need. Meanwhile, the schools White Paper—Opportunity for All, which was published in March—is silent on how to reduce the ever-widening language gap for disadvantaged or disabled schoolchildren.
I know from my granddaughter’s experience of SLT support almost from birth—because she frequently used an oxygen mask and had a feeding tube down her throat for the first three years of her life—that SLTs can perform miracles with babies, toddlers and children who literally cannot use their voice for large parts of the day. Without more staff, though, they cannot work with more children. I absolutely support the aims of the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, but, frankly, we have to tackle the workforce issue too. I hope the Minister will tell the House how the increasing speech and language workload can be managed without a corresponding increase in therapists.
Amendment 171L, on a children’s Covid-19 recovery plan, looks extremely sensible. I have one question for the Minister. Last week, an employment tribunal confirmed that an employee suffering from symptoms of long Covid was disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010—by the way, more cases are in the pipeline and lawyers are saying we will shortly have a considerable amount of case law history. In addition to that, academic studies in the UK, Europe and the USA now recognise that a small number of children get long Covid, and get it badly. Can the Minister say if the advice to head teachers about long Covid, for both staff and pupils, will be updated to reflect that some may have long Covid so badly that they are to be regarded as disabled, with consequences for employment and for SEND?
I have signed Amendments 171N, 171O, 171P and 171Q, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, on the creation of a duty to register protected-characteristic-based bullying, and I am very much looking forward to hearing the noble Baroness. She is an outstanding advocate for our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma.
I think it might be helpful to quote from the statutory guidance for schools on pupils with medical conditions. Paragraph 3 says:
“In addition to the educational impacts, there are social and emotional implications associated with medical conditions. Children may be self-conscious about their condition and some may be bullied or develop emotional disorders such as anxiety or depression around their medical condition.”
Many schools now have effective anti-bullying policies and practices but that is not universal, and still too many children suffer immensely from bullying.
I am a co-founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bullying, and we have had joint meetings with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, of which I am also a member, to take evidence about how GRT children are treated in and out of school. Our last session, which was pre pandemic, was eye-opening. Perhaps the most shocking evidence was of the number of racist incidents to GRT children in schools by their teachers that were then copied by other children. The use of derogatory names, assumptions about their lifestyles and the lack of interest in their academic progress all breached the Equality Act 2010, but very rarely could families take them up, as head teachers or governors were not interested. As a contrast to that, we also had evidence from schools that were doing an exceptional job with the same sort of children, and you could not recognise that this was the same community at all.
However, I am afraid that the same challenges were faced by other children who look or sound different. The wonderful charity Changing Faces continues to fight for ending appearance-related discrimination, but it has told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bullying that, for many children with a visible deformity, school is not the welcoming place that we all assume it should be.
One six year-old girl I know well has a large birthmark on her leg. She is already being teased—let us call it that—about it. She feels uncomfortable, wants to wear a uniform that means it cannot ever be seen, and is worried about days when she has to wear a swimsuit. Her parents have raised the issue with teachers, but it is only one step on, if that teasing continues and increases, to the pupil getting worried about going to school. That is the experience of children who are now looked after by Changing Faces. The targeting can escalate all too easily. It may be only a small disability, but PHSE at school should be managing the practical examples that pupils face in their own lives.
The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, would ensure that the bullying of children of all protected characteristics, including race and disability among others, did not go unreported. They would provide a suite of techniques for recording and reporting, which would provide important data for schools, local authorities and, at a national level, Ministers. I am delighted to have added my name to them and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I add my support for Amendments 171J and 171K in the names of my noble friends Lord Watson of Invergowrie and Lady Blower.
As a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties, patron of the British Stammering Association and a stammerer myself, I emphasise the importance of fluency for all aspects of education. My noble friends’ amendments would raise the profile of the subject and lodge it more decisively in schools’ responsibilities, to the benefit of the very many children who suffer from speech and language defects. That is apart from the fact that oracy development has been generally underestimated as a life skill in the maintained system, as my noble friend Lord Watson so eloquently set out.
Now that we are at the end of Committee, I will not detain your Lordships with a detailed explanation of Amendments 171N to 171Q in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for whose expert and committed support I am most grateful—they are self-explanatory. They are there because current anti-bullying policies are simply not achieving the eradication of bullying in school cultures, with all its damaging effects on well-being, mental health and education itself.
Bullying is particularly harmful when it is on the basis of an attribute which is part of the child’s identity—a protected characteristic such as race, for example—and so we have focused on that, as a means of reinforcing the public sector equality duty. Bullying is ascribed as the cause of a large proportion of the drop-out from secondary school of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children, among others, although there is a regrettable absence of targeted data. It is relevant that 76% of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children surveyed felt a need to hide their identity. That is a shameful admission.
Many anecdotes testify to inaction on the part of teachers when faced with complaints of bullying. In some cases, they may simply not know what to do. I draw the Committee’s attention to a letter from the chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, to the Minister for School Standards, where he says:
“witnesses repeatedly raised incidents of bullying and racism faced by children, from both their peers and teachers. Many ethnic minority groups experience bullying, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils however, there are no official statistics which break these cases down by ethnicity. We believe that, to understand the scale of the issue and the impact it has upon educational outcomes, local authorities should work with schools to better understand the extent of the problem”.
Incidentally, how surprised and disappointed would Robert Halfon be to see a Report stage of the Bill ahead of the regulatory review? Following the Select Committee, we think the incidence of bullying must be made more salient in local authority records, with a register of incidents and necessary information about them. Our amendments also require parents to be fully informed, if the child consents, soon after the incident. We think the prevalence of bullying in local authority areas must be made known to the Secretary of State, so that remedial action can be taken if this violence against children is getting out of control. These amendments would go far to really make bullying on the grounds of identity unacceptable, and I hope the Minister will agree.
My Lords, I will say a few brief words on these amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, undersold the point he is making slightly, because for many people the disparity between verbal skills and written skills is actually a sign of special educational needs. Dyslexia is the classic example of this, and often dyspraxia as well. It is also the coping mechanism—the primary coping mechanism—by which people handle this. I put my hand up as an example of that. If people can explain their case verbally, they stand a chance of getting some form of accommodation on a casual basis. If you have the ability to come forward and explain yourself to a new teacher in a classroom—this was drummed into me from an early age—the teacher then has the chance of making some response that is appropriate. If you are terrified of doing this, or not told how to do so, then you have another problem. The ability to talk coherently is incredibly important, as it underpins just about everything else that goes through.
I know this is not exactly what the noble Lord was driving at, given the tone of all the discussion so far, but I hope that when the Minister responds she will have some idea of how disparities between expected verbal communication are going to figure in the Government’s thinking when it comes to things such as the new version of special educational needs. The Government must have a little guidance on this already. I know they are having a review; there must be some undertaking of what is going to happen. The interventions we have spoken about, with a speech and language facility and support, are incredibly important, because the whole thing is underpinned by the ability to talk. Very few people master good written language if they cannot at least talk coherently. Can the Minister give us some idea of how they are planning to bring these two together? If they do not, they are missing a trick, and also the identification of a need that is very important for dealing with many problems in our education system.
These amendments are hugely important. There is a rhyme, is there not?
“Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words can never harm me.”
But how wrong that is. Words are very harmful and are often used by bullies. However, it is not just the person being bullied who needs support; it is also the bully themselves. Many of the bullies have real problems, and we must not forget that.
Secondly, we have made tremendous strides on bullying issues at schools. I pay tribute to the work that schools have done over the past decade or so on the issue of bullying there. I was quite shocked when my noble friend Lady Brinton said that many—or some— schools still do not have anti-bullying policies, as I thought they were a requirement. I thought that this was one of the things Ofsted looks at when it inspects schools, particularly for safeguarding reasons. My noble friend Lord Addington is absolutely right that it should be part of teacher training—it is not because of time constraints—as dealing with incidents of bullying is quite a complex issue. Teachers need to feel supported and equipped to be able to deal with it.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for putting down his probing amendment on oracy in schools. I think that we have forgotten the importance of oracy or the spoken word. I always remember my education tutor saying to us that the three most important things for developing children in the early years were good toilet training, play, and talking and speaking. Our national curriculum and SATs do not give teachers the time and space they should have to develop the spoken word.
Many schools do things as part of the school day. Remember how we used to have children reading aloud? When I go into schools, if you suggest that children should read aloud, people look at you as though you are a bit barmy. We should go back to some of those practices, such as school class assemblies where children can perform and talk in front of their peers; school drama productions are really good for that too. There is a whole list of things we can do but, looking back, I just get the feeling that we were so focused on the literacy hour and all its ingredients that the spoken word—oracy—was somehow sidelined and lost. No doubt the Minister will give us chapter and verse in her reply about all the things we are doing but I want all those things to happen in every school; I get the feeling that that is not the case.
To reiterate what the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, there are four things. We want to raise the status and priority of spoken language in education. We want to equip teachers in schools to develop their students’ spoken language. We want to make children’s spoken language a key pillar of education recovery after Covid, which we will hear about in a minute. We want to ensure that children with speech, language and communication needs are adequately supported, as in the point that my noble friend Lady Brinton made.
First, I want to say a few words about Amendment 171J in the name of my noble friends Lord Watson of Invergowrie and Lady Blower. It is such an important amendment because it highlights the need for the Government to report on the level of spoken language and communication ability in academies, independent schools and maintained schools. I do not know whether I need to declare an interest but my husband is a former director of campaigns at the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, so I am very familiar with some of the issues.
My noble friend Lord Watson did a fantastic job of explaining why this issue matters. I pay tribute to his work, not just on this amendment but in this area more generally. He made the case very powerfully and both his amendments raise a vital issue. We would like to see it properly considered by the Government and look forward to the Minister’s response. We are hopeful that she can say something positive.
Amendments 171N, 171O and 171Q, in the names of my noble friend Lady Whitaker and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, would require the reporting and recording of bullying based on protected characteristics, the provision of information to parents and the sharing of that information in the interests of the welfare of the child. We support my noble friend and the noble Baroness in their amendments and feel that they would assist us in tracking what is going on and enabling us to do something about it. Their amendments would go a long way to help address and prevent bullying, especially that directed against minority groups and particularly, as they said, the GRT community. That is probably now the least well recognised form of racism that we see, sadly, in schools.
Our Amendment 171L would require the Government to consult on and launch a children’s recovery plan, including breakfast clubs, music and drama, small group tutoring and othe