House of Lords
Wednesday 26 October 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.
Oaths and Affirmations
Several noble Lords took the oath or made the solemn affirmation.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
To ask His Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Azerbaijan regarding (1) recent military offensives inside Armenia, and (2) that government’s failure to release Armenian prisoners of war and hostages under the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement.
My Lords, on 13 September, following fighting along the Azerbaijan/Armenia international border, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Azerbaijan spoke to President Aliyev. Further, the Minister for Europe, my honourable friend Leo Docherty MP, spoke to Armenian Foreign Minister Mirzoyan and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov on 15 and 17 September respectively. In these engagements, we urged de-escalation and a return to peaceful negotiations.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his encouraging reply, but I point out that I have visited Armenia twice this year and witnessed the pain inflicted on Armenians by Azerbaijan with impunity, including failure to fulfil its commitment in the 2020 ceasefire agreement to release all prisoners. Whereas Armenia released all Azeri prisoners, Azerbaijan recently confirmed holding at least 33 Armenian captives, including three civilians, and several hundred Armenians are still missing, with Azerbaijan refusing to allow Armenia to retrieve its dead from the occupied territories. There is recent video footage showing the maltreatment, torture and slaughter of Armenian prisoners. What significant initiatives have been or are being taken by the UK Government to call Azerbaijan to account?
My Lords, first, I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s work in this area and in bringing these issues to your Lordships’ House. I assure her that in our most recent engagements directly with the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister the issue of the return of all prisoners of war was raised again, as well as the remains of those who are deceased. I assure her of my good offices, of those of others within the FCDO and of the ambassador to continue to do so. On the wider issue, we continue to work with our key partners, including at the OSCE, to call for calm, peace, de-escalation and, one hopes in time, a restoration of relations between those two countries.
My Lords, the recent border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan highlight the urgent need to accelerate the EU-led peace and normalisation process between those two countries. Does the Minister agree that to achieve a sustainable solution to all the remaining issues and fully normalise the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a comprehensive peace agreement needs to be in place? Furthermore, can the Minister reaffirm the British Government’s support for the EU-led mediation efforts between the two countries?
My Lords, negotiations are of course key, but are solutions made more complicated by the promotion of disharmony, particularly when the UK has no real leverage to bear on this quagmire? Doing so is counterintuitive, restricting the ability of Armenia to attract direct inward investment.
My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Viscount on the UK’s position. We are active in our engagement with our EU partners, but we are also central to, and support, the efforts of the OSCE. In terms of stability and security, we need peace between those two countries, which will see the resumption of inward investment, boosting the economies of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Government’s efforts to de-escalate are certainly welcome, as are their efforts to work with the EU and the civilian mission that will go there. One of the advantages of the Minister’s longevity in post is that he will remember my repeated questions to him about Russian involvement in this area. What is the Government’s assessment of this, and what is being done to ensure that Russia does not provoke even more violence than it already has?
On the noble Lord’s first point, time shall tell. On the more substantive point of Russia’s role, we have been very clear, and I appreciate His Majesty’s Opposition’s strong support for the position on Russia. Russia is playing a particular role in the region, between those two countries. We have made no attempts to engage with Russia—we are very clear on this issue—while other partners do so. The important role for Russia, or anyone else mediating or keeping the peace, is to do exactly that.
My Lords, I strongly endorse what my noble friend said about the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Will he arrange for her to see and to brief our new Foreign Secretary? The noble Baroness has more knowledge of this subject than almost anyone else and serves the whole House in what she does. Will he try to arrange for her to talk to the Foreign Secretary?
My Lords, when I look around your Lordships’ House, that is probably a description of many within it and I am sure that the Foreign Secretary would have a busy schedule if I arranged that kind of expert insight and briefing for him. However, I can assure my noble friend that the Foreign Secretary will be fully aware of the noble Baroness’s remarks, as I always ensure he is, and we will look for opportunities for a full briefing from the FCDO with those interested, and for colleagues in your Lordships’ House to come into the FCDO to meet other key Ministers.
My Lords, may I draw the Minister’s attention to the very important humanitarian issue of explosive mines and mining mats for demining efforts in the Armenia-Azerbaijan normalisation process? I commend His Majesty’s Government for their financial assistance of £1 million for demining efforts in Azerbaijan. Most explosions over the past two years have been caused by mines, and 260 civilian casualties have occurred in Azerbaijan. Clearly, this is a continuing human tragedy. There are 3,890 missing Azerbaijanis, about whom Armenia refuses to release any information. What, if any, discussions have His Majesty’s Government held with the Government of Armenia about the release of fully accurate mine data to achieve cleaning of the territories of Azerbaijan? What further support are His Majesty’s Government considering?
I get the gist of the noble Lord’s question and assure him that we are working with both Governments. First, on the deceased, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, this is an important issue to bring closure to those families who have lost loved ones, and we will continue to do so. On demining, I am looking over to the Lib Dem Benches, where the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is a great advocate for these issues in conflict zones. I am very proud of the UK Government’s support for these activities and pay tribute to the key players in this sphere, such as the HALO Trust, which does phenomenal work on demining across the world. Of course, I will take specifically what the noble Lord suggests and make sure that our Ministers and officials are briefed appropriately.
My Lords, just before the pandemic, I participated in dialogue sessions with young people from Armenia and Azerbaijan in Georgia. Will the Minister ensure that any work of dialogue that the UK is participating in involves young people, who have the biggest stake in any form of peace arrangements? I understand that in the recent political community meeting—at which I was glad that the UK was represented—President Macron chaired a session with representatives from the two countries. Were British officials involved in any of those discussions? Are we offering any technical assistance on the valid issues of human rights abuses, investigations and peaceful dialogue? What technical assistance is the UK offering?
My Lords, there were three questions there. On UK Government’s direct engagement, I will write to the noble Lord. On ensuring that we are giving technical assistance, I have already alluded to that and, of course, we stand ready to support that. As for involving young people, we are celebrating one of the youngest Prime Ministers in two centuries to hold the No. 10 office, so the noble Lord can be assured that young people’s views, or those who are slightly younger, will be fully sustained in all negotiations.
My Lords, I welcome the recent discussions held in Prague on 6 October. It is a fact that, following the trilateral ceasefire agreement, the Azerbaijanis have not been provided with any details of 3,890 missing Azerbaijani persons. Families have been in turmoil for the last 30 years. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to urge the Government of Armenia to fully co-operate with Azerbaijanis so that these outstanding humanitarian crises are eradicated?
My Lords, I believe I have already answered that question in part. We have talked to both sides about the importance of the return of not just prisoners of war but the remains of the deceased on either side. We will continue to make that point very poignantly. I share with the noble Baroness the view that families need closure, and it is important that we continue to work on that key priority.
Housing: Manifesto Commitment
My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that housebuilding is a priority for this Government and a central part of our plans for growth. As my noble friend said, the 2019 Conservative manifesto stated that we will continue our progress towards our 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. To unlock home ownership, we must build more homes in places where people want to live and work. We will continue to explore policies to help build the homes people need, deliver new jobs, support economic development and boost local economies.
I am grateful to my noble friend. However, at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, the former Prime Minister said that
“we will abolish the top-down housing targets.”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/22; col. 679.]
As a former Minister for Housing and a former Minister for Planning, perhaps I can say to my noble friend that we will never get the new homes the country needs in the places where they are needed if we rely solely on the goodwill of local government. Does she agree that, while there needs to be dialogue with local government, the responsibility for ensuring that families live in decent and affordable accommodation is one for the new Administration?
I do agree that it is one for the new Administration and I cannot comment on the past Administration any longer. I agree with my noble friend that we must build more homes in places where people want to live and work, as I said. The Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 put beyond doubt the requirement for all areas to be covered by one or more plans that address the strategic priorities for each area. Authorities that fail to ensure that in-date plans are in place are failing their communities by not recognising that homes and other facilities that local people need are relying on ad hoc, speculative development that will not make the most of every area’s potential. Ministers have powers to intervene when local planning authorities fail to meet the timescales set out for preparing a local plan. However, these powers have not had to be used as yet.
My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell the House whether all these new builds will be fully insulated and fitted with heat pumps in order to meet our climate change targets without the need for any retrofitting? If not, why not?
Yes, my Lords, from 2025, the future homes standard will ensure that new homes produce at least 75% fewer CO2 emissions than those built to the 2013 standard. These homes will be future-proofed with low-carbon heating and high energy efficiency. In December 2021, the Government introduced an uplift in energy efficiency standards which delivers a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions and acts as a stepping stone to the future homes standard. New homes will be expected to deliver around 30% fewer CO2 emissions.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that housebuilding is in for a very rocky time in the months ahead, with interest rates rising, building and material costs going up, fewer people able to buy, and housebuilders sitting on their hands. Therefore, is this the moment to invest rather more in social housing, which can compensate those losses, and get some affordable homes built?
My Lords, we have announced £10 billion of investment in housing supplies since the start of this Parliament, with our housing supply interventions due ultimately to unlock over 1 million homes over the 2020-21 spending review period. This includes an additional £1.8 billion investment announced in the 2020-21 spending review. Of course we want to invest in affordable homes, so we are also investing £11.5 billion in 2021 to 2026 on the affordable homes programme, which we hope will deliver 180,000 more affordable homes.
My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, does the Minister agree that the Government should promote carbon-neutral homes with clean energy sources as part of any drive to increase housebuilding? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that environmentally sustainable homes are built as part of meeting housebuilding targets?
I think I have given a clear answer to that. The future homes standard will provide fewer CO2 emissions, but this is not just about new houses; it is also about the houses that exist at the moment. We have our Help to Heat programme, which I spoke about in the last Question I took at the Dispatch Box, boiler upgrades, local authority delivery schemes, home upgrade grants for sustainable warmth and social housing decarbonisation—I could go on. We are looking at energy efficiency in not just new houses but the housing stock we have.
I thank my noble friend for the answer on insulated homes, but since the Government went back on the promise of zero-carbon homes, we have built 1.5 million homes that have to be retrofitted, at the cost to the owners, and the profit was made by the housebuilders. Is it not time that the Government brought their future homes standard forward and enacted it immediately, so we do not put the bill for extra costs on people who buy new homes?
I say to the Minister that 300,000 homes is the equivalent of building a Newcastle every 12 months. My question is very simple: who is going to build them? The construction industry has been sounding the alarm on skills and labour shortages for some time, exacerbated by Brexit. What is the Government’s plan to address this pertinent issue now?
The noble Baroness is right that skills are important; we cannot build these houses without skilled construction workers. We are collaborating across the whole of government to ensure that we are effectively supporting the sector. The Department for Education is approving training routes into construction, creating opportunities for workers to retrain by working with employers to make apprenticeships more flexible and promoting the use of T-levels, which are very important. DWP is also working with its work coaches to identify suitable candidates who might be able to change jobs and move in with local employers. A lot is going across government to make sure we have the skills in the construction sector.
My Lords, is this not now a golden opportunity for the new Government to recognise the success of Milton Keynes as a new town/city, Northampton as a new town, and Welwyn Garden City? That concept can be modernised and is an opportunity —to pick up the point made by my noble friend—for social housing to be in the lead? Should not every one of the roofs in these new towns be appropriate for dealing with Covid, et cetera?
New towns have been around for many years, and are a part of the solution if local people are happy to have that in their area. I will take my noble friend’s views back to the department; we will discuss it further and I will talk to my noble friend.
Noble Lords will have to wait: I do not want to say words that are not correct, so I will make sure that I get the correct numbers. There were approximately 242,000 homes built in the last period before Covid. During the Covid period, obviously the number of homes went down, but looking at the projections for this year and forward, we are expecting to exceed the targets set.
Online Pornography: Digital Economy Act 2017
The Government have decided to use the Online Safety Bill to protect children from online pornography. This will provide greater protection to children across a wider range of services, and we expect that it will be implemented as quickly as the Digital Economy Act—if not more so. The Government are committed to bringing the Bill back to Parliament and are working closely with Ofcom to ensure that the implementation period following passage of the legislation is as short as possible.
My Lords, 18 months ago I urged Ministers to commence Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, so that we can put protection from harmful pornography in place for children. I was told that that would take two years, so any benefits of an interim measure would be minimal at best. Since then, millions of children, as young as seven, have accessed violent online porn, in some cases causing mental health problems and the urge to sexually assault other children. We now know that Ofcom’s road map for regulation demonstrates that there will be no enforcement of the Online Safety Bill before 2025. Ofcom is taking over three years to begin enforcing laws on video-sharing platforms. Does the Minister now accept that we could have protected children three years sooner, and will the Government now commence Part 3, so that it is enforced until the new Bill is ready to replace it, and protect our vulnerable children?
I thank the noble Baroness for those questions. We must be clear about why the Digital Economy Act was criticised. It was originally criticised because it did not cover social media companies, which host a considerable quantity of pornographic material. There are also other sites that it did not consider. It also considered only ISPs as gatekeepers. A number of flaws have been identified in the Digital Economy Act and we will address those with a stronger Online Safety Bill, targeted more at children.
My Lords, to follow the powerful question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, parents are increasingly desperate for a legal bulwark against the tide of harmful and pornographic content that flows into their children’s minds from the internet. They are deeply unhappy that adult freedoms currently trump their children’s safety. In particular, the Government must be very clear about if and how the Online Safety Bill will prevent future deaths from potentially lethal challenges such as “blackout”, which killed Archie Battersbee. Could the Minister take this opportunity to bring clarity in this area of concern for many parents?
I thank my noble friend for that question. It was a deeply saddening case and our thoughts are with Archie Battersbee’s family. We are focusing on doing everything that we can to prevent cases such as Archie’s happening again. That is why the strongest protections in the Online Safety Bill will be for children. It is important that we sort this out as soon as possible, while putting aside or looking at some of the debates on wider issues of freedom of speech. Clearly, free speech is not a defence for not protecting children. That is why we will focus on children. Tech firms will be forced to protect children from dangerous viral stunts and other illegal or harmful content that will cause significant harm. Where content depicting or promoting online challenges risks causing significant harm to a number of children, companies will have to take steps to protect children from this content on their services. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State, who has just been reappointed, is very clear: she wants to bring the Online Safety Bill back as quickly as possible and we aim to do that.
My Lords, the Government have commissioned research on the prevalence and impact of a wide range of harmful content online, including pornography. Could the Minister indicate when that research will be published, and if a copy will be placed in the Library in your Lordships’ House?
On that particular piece of research, I will have to check with the department and write to the noble Baroness. We are quite clear that, when we bring back the Online Safety Bill, the focus will mostly be on the protection of children from harm. We can have a debate on some of the other issues—the tension between freedom of speech and what adults should have access to—sensibly and calmly, as noble Lords usually do, but we want to get this right for the protection of children.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with the evidence that Barnardo’s gave to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill? It said that the failure to enact the original age-verification legislation over three years ago has meant that thousands of children have continued to easily access pornography sites. Does the Minister agree with that? Given his comments today, will he undertake to tell Ofcom that its road map needs changing and that this needs to be a major priority, in that road map, for implementation?
Indeed. One of the issues my department has been discussing with Ofcom is age verification and age assurance. We have to remember that age verification is one form of age assurance. The other thing we have to be aware of is how technology changes very quickly, so we must make sure that we can be as flexible as possible so that Ofcom can update its guidelines or advice on tackling this. We are clear that we do not want to be technology-specific. We want to make sure that it is future-proofed when it comes to age verification and age assurance.
My Lords, I hope the Minister will agree that keeping children safe online requires more than just age verification. What is illegal or prohibited content offline should also be illegal and prohibited online. Will the Government ensure that the new legislation currently in the other place will indeed ensure that protections offline will be the same for online content?
The noble Lord will be aware of the debate, which was about how we challenge in the Bill things that are legal offline while making sure that there is consistency between the online and offline worlds. One of the challenges is that technology is changing very quickly. We have to be honest: sometimes kids are much smarter than their parents. Whatever processes you put in place, a determined child will access this. We have to take all that into account, but we want to focus on child protection. This is why we want to bring back the Online Safety Bill as quickly as possible.
My Lords, the Minister said that the Government are focusing on the protection of children, but although he listed the reasons why the Digital Economy Act is not perfect and does not cover everything, it is better than nothing. The Government have been faffing around for three years on online safety and not bringing forward the necessary legislation. Why?
I fundamentally disagree with the noble Lord. Many noble Lords will be aware that often in legislation there are unintended consequences and things that were unforeseen. I used to do a lot of writing on technology. In fact, I once wrote a book and the moment it was published it was already out of date. That shows just how quickly technology moves on. We want to make sure that we have flexibility. If we were to implement Part 3 of the Act, it would take longer than bringing in the Online Safety Bill. It would also be far too narrow: it would not take account of social media or non-ISPs. Noble Lords might shake their heads, but they are completely wrong on this.
My Lords, many of us are concerned that the “legal but harmful” clauses of the Online Safety Bill will be a chill for free speech. Can the Minister assure the House that these clauses will not be included in the Bill when it comes to this place?
I thank the noble Viscount for that question. It is very important that we understand the tension that we will see in this debate. Of course we want to protect children and adults from illegal content, unpleasant content and anything that encourages suicide, violence and other such things. At the same time, we live in a free society and we have to get the balance with freedom of speech right. This will be a challenge and I think we will have very interesting debates in this House. Indeed, we have a debate on this issue tomorrow. It will show the range of views but, with noble Lords’ wisdom, we will try to reach that right balance.
My Lords, Ofcom’s new polling shows that 78% of people expect to verify their age when carrying out certain activities online, including gambling or buying alcohol, and 80% believe that users should be required to verify their age when accessing pornography online. Given this level of public support and how easily young people are able to access pornography, why has there been long-running resistance from the Government to act?
I am afraid I disagree with the noble Baroness. There is not a resistance to act; we just want to make sure that the technology is right, and that we understand the issue we are dealing with and the unintended consequences. There is a range of age-assurance issues; age verification is just one. We also have to be careful that we do not mandate not only one technology but just one company and inadvertently create a monopoly on this issue. The other tension is that pornography is not illegal, so there will be adults who watch it who will be worried about their personal data being leaked. We have to give that assurance and get that right balance with data protection. What we really want to do when we bring back the Online Safety Bill is focus on where there is consensus in this House, and that is on the protection of children.
This Government are committed to delivering 50,000 more nurses and putting the NHS on to a sustainable long-term workforce supply. We have set up a comprehensive work programme to improve nurse retention, support return to practice, diversify our training pipeline and ethically recruit nurses internationally. We are over half way towards meeting the commitment, with nursing numbers over 29,000 higher in July 2022—our latest available data point—than the September 2019 starting point for this commitment.
My Lords, recent analysis shows that there are over 50,000 registered nurse vacances across all settings in England alone. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of current vacancy rates on patient safety? What is the Minister’s response to the warning of the Chief Nursing Officer that the Government’s pledge for additional nurses, even if it is reached, will not be enough?
We appreciate that recruitment is an ongoing process, and while I think the whole House would agree a 29,000 increase is a good record—up 9,000 in the last year alone—we cannot rest on our laurels. Vacancies of 50,000 is partially a function of a full-employment economy, which I think we would all support. We are showing that our recruitment is working and, as I say, we are over half way towards our target of 50,000 more nurses.
My Lords, a few months ago, the Secretary of State but two said that the NHS long-term workforce strategy would include numerical assessment of both supply and demand of nurses and other clinical professionals but that publishing those details would depend on cross-government agreement. There was broad agreement in this House, in June, that those numbers should be published. Could my noble friend the Minister put on record his support for publishing NHS workforce supply and demand numbers? If he does not feel able to, could he explain how we will know whether 50,000 is the right number of nurses?
There is a long-term workforce strategy plan being put together, as I think we know, and that builds on the NHS people plan of 2020, which has seen this increase in numbers. I will find out where we are with that, and the details behind that, and write to my noble friend.
My Lords, what advice would the Minister give to a senior staff nurse, working in theatre, and at the top of her pay band, alongside agency nurses who are paid two to three times as much as she is for a 10-hour shift? Should she leave the NHS and become an agency nurse herself, or should she vote to strike, as she may well be asked to by her union?
I would hope and trust that such a respected person would see this position as the vocation that it is and the support that they give. We accept that there are some agency workers being used in this space, because obviously, in terms of safety, we need to make sure we cover that number of people. The whole recruitment plan—which, again, we are on target to achieve—is all about making sure we have enough nurses so that we do not have to use agency workers.
My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, can I ask the Minister if there are plans to increase the number of student nursing places at universities and student apprenticeships over at least the next decade? While there is a short-term crisis, there is also a longer-term sustainability crisis, especially with current demographics.
The noble Baroness is correct that this is a long-term pipeline. We have 72,000 nurses in training at the moment. To be clear, there is no cap at all on student places. We are seeking to increase them as much as possible, and we put a £5,000-a-year grant in so that trainee nurses could enjoy superior levels of financial support than other students. The fact that we have a pipeline of 72,000 shows that this is working, but that pipeline is not capped, so if we can get more people in, we definitely want to do that.
No matter how many nurses we try to recruit, we never seem to catch up with the rate of loss. What are the Government doing to help retention of nurses? We must try to encourage them and support them to stay. What plans are there to do that, and what plans have the Government got to bring back nurses who have left or retired?
First, we are actually exceeding the number of leavers. There were 36,000 people who left last year and 45,000 who joined—a net increase of 9,000. That is not to say that we do not want to retain people. I absolutely accept the premise that we do, which is why we have a retention programme in place to ensure that we are able to do so. We also have a restart programme to help people who have left to get back into nursing in a quick and easy way. Overall, the main point here is that the number of joiners is exceeding the number of leavers. We are more than catching the number up; we are exceeding it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a nurse and the co-editor of the WHO report, State of the World’s Nursing. It is true that we have 9,000 additional nurses, but of the 48,000 who in the last year joined the register for the whole UK—for the four countries, not just England—more than half had trained overseas. Those nurses are very welcome here, but it illustrates that we are not encouraging people who wish to go into nursing to do so, beyond the 72,000 the Minister referred to. That is very much to do with student finance and the lack of apprenticeship opportunities for older people who want to go into the profession. Can the Minister look into increasing those opportunities?
Indeed, and towards that aim we have set up the nursing associate role, which is a stepping-stone to allow people to ease in and have qualifications on the way to becoming a fully trained nurse. The overall point I make, as before, is that by putting in a £5,000-a-year grant for student nurses, we are recruiting the numbers. I reiterate that 72,000 is a big pipeline but also that it is an uncapped pipeline. The more we can attract, the merrier—whether domestically or, as in the fine tradition of the NHS, from overseas sources.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the percentage of nurse vacancies is much higher in community care than in any other part of the sector? What is the department doing to ensure not only that we have enough nurses but that they are in the right places?
That is an excellent point. One thing I probably should have said is that the number of 36,000 leavers includes people who have left NHS trusts and gone into community care, working in GP surgeries. We do not catch that number who come back in again, so the real number is less than 36,000, but the basic premise of the question—making sure we are attracting nurses to the right place—is absolutely the right one. I believe that is the plan in place, but I will check on that and make sure we are doing as requested.
My Lords, I raised the subject of agency nurses in my maiden speech. In the private sector, it is quite common that if you receive training by an employer and leave within a certain period of time, you repay the cost of that training. If nurses qualify and then transfer to become an agency nurse and rip off hospital trusts, as we heard earlier from the noble Baroness opposite, should they repay the costs of the training they have been given?
I do not think I can quite agree with the words “rip off”, but I get the sentiment. As I am sure we all have, I have been involved in industries where, if your employer pays for your training and you do not return the contract—for want of a better word—or investment by giving a few years’ commitment to do it, there should be some sort of clawback. I understand the approach, but right now my focus is on making sure we get as many people into training as possible.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, it might assist the House to know that today, all Members are invited to attend the Members’ open day, which takes place in the Robing Room until 5 pm. Staff from teams across Parliament will be there to talk to noble Lords about the services and facilities available to all Members of the House and to answer any questions that noble Lords might have. It includes information on subjects such as Questions, debates, legislation, catering, finance and much more. Noble Lords may visit the Robing Room at any time it suits them.
Airports Slot Allocation (Alleviation of Usage Requirements) (No. 3) Regulations 2022
Motion to Approve
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
My Lords, with your Lordships’ permission, may I ask the Minister whether these restrictions mean that the need for slots for most aircraft also applies to the very smallest aircraft operating through Heathrow and Gatwick, for which this is sometimes regarded as an excessive restriction?
I thank my noble friend for raising the issue of small aircraft. I know he has a great interest in the matter. I will have to write to him about whether it applies to private jets and other small aircraft. The instrument that we debated in Grand Committee very much covered the slots held by the large commercial airlines.
We are aware that the current passenger cap at Heathrow of 100,000 passengers will be removed very shortly—indeed, I think it is this weekend. I believe that no decision has been taken on the Christmas period. However, significant numbers of staff have been recruited by Heathrow, so on balance I expect that it will not return, but that would be an operational decision for Heathrow.
Water Fluoridation (Consultation) (England) Regulations 2022
Health and Care Act 2022 (Further Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2022
Motions to Approve
Universal Credit (Removal of Two Child Limit) Bill [HL]
Order of Commitment
My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
Seafarers’ Wages Bill [HL]
Relevant documents: 10th and 16th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 3: Power to request declaration
1: Clause 3, page 2, line 15, leave out “the harbour” and insert “a harbour in the United Kingdom”
My Lords, I declare my interest as honorary president of the UK Maritime Pilots’ Association and a former harbour commissioner for the port authority in Cornwall.
In moving Amendments 1 and 2 I will reflect on the purpose of the Bill. Although it was created, as Ministers have said, to avoid a repeat of the frankly disastrous attempt by P&O Ferries earlier this year to change all their seafarers, it was the process that I felt was abhorrent. Clearly, the purpose of this Bill is to ensure that the national minimum wage legislation applies to all seafarers when working in UK waters but not within the UK.
We debated the two issues in Amendments 1 and 2 in col. GC 102 of the Grand Committee on 12 October. I would like to start on Amendment 1, which is linked to Amendment 2. The question is: what is a harbour?
My Amendment 1 would leave out the words “the harbour” and insert
“a harbour in the United Kingdom”.
We understood what the Minister told us in Committee, but then it got a bit confusing. She kindly wrote a long letter to us, which was helpful, but she said in the letter:
“A service is defined … as being ‘for the carriage of persons and goods by ship, with or without vehicles, between a place outside the United Kingdom and a place in the United Kingdom’”.
The word “a” is interesting. If it were “the”, as in the Bill, that would be just one harbour, but my argument is that “a” place can be any harbour. This comes into the scope of whether the Government are trying to protect all seafarers who are, shall we say, based in the UK—those who work in UK waters but are not necessarily employed on UK land—or whether this provision just sorts out the P&O Ferries problem. It is my contention that as the Minister referred in her letter to “a” place, that is what should be in the Bill.
I also want to explore why this needs to be confined to Dover to Calais. Many noble Lords will recall that a previous Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, created a new ferry service between Ramsgate and Zeebrugge to try to sort out the traffic jams at Dover. Of course, that ferry service did not actually exist; I discovered that the head office was in an office owned by a very large manufacturer of construction equipment in the City, but there was no ship or ferry. But Ramsgate is a perfectly good ferry terminal and I can see that ferries might operate between Dover and Calais one day and between Ramsgate and Calais the next; it could effectively be the same service. It is not right to confine the service included in the Bill to just one service, when ships can go round the country. I believe that the seafarers, in all these things, need similar protection.
We then move on to the question of having 52 or 120 days a year where the ship would have to come into a UK port in order to be included under the Bill. Ministers have said that the key is that the service must have close ties to the UK. I suppose I would question how you can define close ties—it is a bit of a woolly concept. I am not going to give any examples, but if you are a seafarer and want to be included, you might wonder whether the company employing you has those close ties. It is a difficult question to answer.
I am grateful to the RMT trade union for some information it has sent to me and, I expect, many other noble Lords. There are two issues here. Is there a need for this when you are operating a ferry service to a close member state of the European Union such as France, the Netherlands or the Republic of Ireland, where maybe the national minimum wage is higher than what we pay here? The argument may be that it is not really important. But this is legislation that could be on the books for many years and most countries could change their policies, so it is as well to make this applicable to many countries—member states and other reasonably close places—rather than saying that we do not need to bother with France because its pay is high anyway.
More interestingly, rather than just talking about Dover/Calais, the RMT has given me a list of services and vessels which go to and from the UK and could well meet the 52-visit figure I am proposing; the Government would rather have 120 visits. I have counted and there are 34 vessels and routes, not just one or two. I shall not read them all out. There are probably seven or eight different operators: P&O is a big one and there are DFDS, Stena and Cobelfret. We all know them. Some pay very well and, according to the RMT, some pay very badly. The lowest I have seen is Condor Ferries, which pays £2.40 per hour. That is a little bit below the national minimum wage, is it not?
It is difficult and dangerous to try to limit this legislation to services which are a bit like Dover/Calais. If you are a seafarer on many of those 40 or so services, the same comments and worries apply to you all. This applies only within UK territorial waters; what happens outside is a separate issue. That is why I have tabled Amendment 2: to reduce the number of visits of a ship or a service from 120 to 52. We can debate whether 52 is the right number—that is one a week on average—but it means that we can include a much greater range of services for which seafarers deserve to be treated properly. That includes cruise ships. Why should people on cruise ships not get paid a national minimum wage? I shall not go into detail—there is another amendment that could have come in—but the key is that the 52 visits a year can be measured. That can be controlled and I think it is a much better number than the 120 in the Bill.
In moving and speaking to these amendments, I look forward to the Minister’s response to Amendment 1 on whether option A or option B on harbours is favoured. It will be very interesting but I think the key is the 52 visits in Amendment 2. I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say and then I will decide whether to seek the opinion of the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a director of J&J Denholm, which has shipping and port services interests. I have not participated in this Bill because I thought it was excellent and doing the job that Ministers made clear was its purpose, which was to prevent a recurrence of the appalling behaviour of P&O in its ferry services. That was declared at the time.
We are looking at the provisions in the Bill and the suggestion in Amendment 2 that we should leave out 120 and insert 52. I believe that P&O has something like 15 crossings per day between Dover and Calais, so the Bill clearly deals with the problem that it was presented as seeking to solve. I am not unsympathetic to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, who is splendid and very careful in the work that he does in this House. Indeed, we have agreed on matters such as HS2 and others from time to time. But his amendment would completely change the Bill’s scope, and to do that on Report would be quite ridiculous, when the whole thing has been presented to the public.
I am intervening because of representations from the Chamber of Shipping, which accepts that the Bill is right and the number 120 is right, but is concerned that we are drawing in other services. I have no idea what those services are and the noble Lord did not say what they were; I have no idea what the implications and costs are for the administration of the ports and so on. What I do know, however, is that it is not what the Bill was introduced to deal with. Therefore, at this late stage, it would be wholly inappropriate to amend the Bill in this way or to create an unknown administrative burden on the ports.
I guess that the noble Lord chose the number 52 because it meant once a week, but that does not address the problem that has occurred, so I hope my noble friend will continue to resist the amendment. The noble Lord seems to me to be in danger of trespassing on international conventions and rules. The Labour Party has always been a great supporter of the ILO and so on, and of having an international approach. We must tread with care. The Government, in seeking to deal with the P&O episode, took a step in a direction that moved away from the conventions that the flag of convenience should govern the rules on board ships, which was entirely justified. But this amendment is a step too far. As it is Report, I shall say no more.
My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with what my noble friend Lord Forsyth has said. We have set out to deal with the problem of P&O. I have heard nothing from the RMT—it is clearly not that bothered about this side of the House—but this pushes things a bit further than they should go. I hope the noble Lord will not test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I very much endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, just said. I am very concerned about this amendment, as is the Chamber of Shipping. The Bill is part of the Government’s nine-point plan to address the whole problem of seafarer welfare—an important one nevertheless, dealing with services with close ties to the UK, making regular port-to-port international voyages adding up to 120 calls a year. It is not just about Dover/Calais; ports all around the country will be affected, so it is wrong to concentrate just on Dover/Calais, although admittedly that is where the main problem occurred.
The Government went through extensive consultation on the Bill and came up with the figure of 120 calls a year, which is probably the right balance. I know that the chamber is very concerned that widening the scope of the services affected to those making only a single call a week would draw in a very large number of non-UK ships, subjecting many more foreign companies to UK national minimum wage legislation. In turn, that would provoke a severe reaction from the international shipping community—and I know that the International Chamber of Shipping is especially worried about this. In turn, this could be seen as an even greater infringement of international conventions and an excessive claim to prescriptive jurisdiction.
It would also be impractical for the Government to oversee such a large and diverse number of shipping services calling at UK ports, increasing the administrative burden on ports, as has already been said, and creating uncertainty across different shipping sectors such as coastal, wet and tanker services, dredgers and other services that were never intended to be part of this Bill. Any decision to have a scope in the Bill that is way beyond the original stated intention will seriously damage confidence in the UK as a global centre for shipping; it also risks fewer ships calling at UK ports.
My noble friend Lord Mountevans has taken a greater part in this Bill than I have, so in many ways I am speaking for him. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, who is a good friend, that no cruise ship would be affected by this amendment, because cruise ships do not call that frequently and most of them migrate during the winter months. So, I do not think that the effect of his amendment would be as great as he might have hoped, and therefore I hope the Government will resist it.
My Lords, I want to start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for his usual attention to detail on these issues. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said that he had not participated before. If he had, he would know that the scope of the Bill has been a persistent topic, and those of us who have been engaged throughout have pressed the Minister on a number of occasions, and in a number of ways, to define it more closely. I am particularly interested in Amendment 2; the key point here is the reduction in the number of visits required to demonstrate close ties and regular links with the UK—the noble Lord has suggested a reduction from 120 to 52.
The argument against that is that it might bring in a new range of services, and I understand the Government’s desire to avoid mission creep. But the truth is that although we all agree with the principle of this Bill—that seafarers should be paid a decent wage—in practice it is very poorly drafted. It has imprecise definitions, penalties that are in practice not going to be imposed—such as the denial of access to the harbour, which will come up in an amendment later—and a very cumbersome structure whereby the Government will rely on harbour authorities to implement the rules. I believe it would not have got this far in its current state if the Government had not been so distracted recently; we are after all on the third Secretary of State in three weeks, and it is difficult to get that continuity.
To address the specific issue of the numbers, the noble Lord suggests that the total is 52. It is easy, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, has just pointed out, to base one’s judgments on what happens from Dover; in practice, there are ferry services in the rest of the UK that are in every way similar in structure, ownership of the company and the seafarers involved, but they go much less frequently. It is possible to envisage, for example, some of the ferries between the north of England and Scandinavia and ferries between the south-west of England—maybe Poole—and the north of Spain. Those are regular ferry services that often do not run at all in winter, so a total of 52 may not be out of kilter with what is required.
In the interests of fair wages, it might be worth broadening the definition. I urge the Minister to consider that, and to look, even at this late stage, at the pattern of services throughout the UK. There may well be a case to reduce the total number of services which are caught in the Bill.
My Lords, I support both my noble friend Lord Berkeley’s amendments. They make it more likely that operators will not be able to evade their obligation to pay at least the national minimum wage equivalent. The behaviour of P&O Ferries in March this year is the very reason for the Bill, and that behaviour shows the lengths to which operators will go to save money on seafarers’ wages. The Bill should bend over backwards to narrow every opportunity for operators to evade their very modest obligation to pay seafarers the national minimum wage equivalent and prevent such behaviour.
It is not just P&O Ferries. The effect of allowing ship operators to evade the national minimum wage equivalent is that they undercut their competitors, which then join the race to the bottom and put at risk the jobs of some 2,000 UK-resident ratings and officers. Like my noble friend Lord Berkeley, I looked at the table provided by RMT. Perhaps he will forgive me giving a correction: he said that the lowest rate was £2.40, paid by Condor Ferries. However, according to the table, the lowest rate is P&O Ferries on the “Pride of York”—a vessel registered in the Bahamas—on the Hull-Zeebrugge route, which pays €2.04 per hour for cooks of Lithuanian extraction. There are a number of other low rates. For example, DFDS’s “King Seaways”, going from Newcastle to Ijmuiden, is on the Danish international ship register and has Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian and Filipino crew, and it pays $2.63 an hour for a cabin steward. I will not read any more examples, but this appears to be a perpetuation of nationality-based discrimination on pay which this legislation should be tight enough to avoid.
I hope the Minister will forgive me for asking before I sit down for her to clarify a point raised in Committee—namely, whether a harbour in one of the Crown dependencies is a UK harbour or whether it will become subject to a national minimum wage equivalent corridor. I did not understand the answer she gave in her very kind letter of 21 October. If it is to become the subject of a corridor, can I ask how negotiations are progressing, and whether they involve the social partners?
My Lords, to make some general comments, we welcome the Bill. I think everybody has been shocked by P&O’s behaviour, but this goes a bit deeper than that. I had no idea how badly seamen are paid. It is disgraceful. This is clearly a worldwide problem, and there are problems with addressing it from a singular point of view.
I also object to the criticism of my noble friend by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, because this has been a normal Bill. We could not vote in Grand Committee for the usual conventional reasons. It was well debated—the noble Lord would know that if he had been present. Essentially, Amendment 2 is a judgment about degree, and we come to a different judgment than the Government. While we support the Bill in general, we have amendments where we think that a little finesse will make it more effective. A weekly service is the sort of thing that should be within the scope of the Bill. While we will not press Amendment 1, we will support the noble Lord if he wants to press his Amendment 2 to a Division.
My Lords, I am very grateful for all contributions on this first group. I appreciate the support from Members on my own side; it is always good for the Minister to know that there are a range of views and that people are thinking about the Bill and taking it seriously—it is a very serious Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, mentioned the welfare of seafarers. He is absolutely right and there are mechanisms, which the UK is deeply embedded in and has been for a very long time, which work internationally, as many noble Lords will know, to try to improve the conditions and pay of seafarers. However, that is not under discussion today. As pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, this is an important part of the nine-point plan that Ministers set out earlier in the year, but the Bill is narrow in scope and effect. That is for many reasons but a key one is that we have to be mindful of the extent to which we are legislating; we have to be mindful that we do not overreach, because that might have some very serious unintended consequences that we would later regret. That is why, throughout the drafting of the Bill, we have had at the front of our minds not only international law but our international obligations; that is critical. Although I accept that there are many things that noble Lords would very much like to do for seafarers—and that, probably, on the face of it, I would like to do too —the reality is that, as a Government, we have to be sensible and potentially a bit boring. We must stay in our lane and make sure that we do not overreach, because the consequences would be very significant.
There are two amendments in this group. The first brings back the old chestnut of “the harbour” versus “a harbour”. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for enabling that discussion once more. I cannot go much further than I went in Committee; I just state that it is absolutely important that unless we say “the harbour”, we cannot define what a service is. A service is from one point—the point—to another point. It is of great regret that the word “a” crept into the letter, but noble Lords can imagine that that was the overarching ambition: from a point overseas to a point in the UK, but “the harbour” within a place overseas and a place in the UK. Because we have defined it that way, from “the harbour” to “the harbour”, we capture the high-frequency services that, let us recall, can be serviced by any vessel—you can put another vessel in when one is off being maintained or whatever—but it is always between two specified harbours.
The second part of that definition—the harbour to the harbour—that is very important is
“120 occasions in the year”.
That, essentially, defines a service that has close ties. The second point about this is that unless you define it as “the harbour” to “the harbour”, it would be incredibly difficult to enforce the Bill, because the Bill relies on one harbour authority being responsible for monitoring and enforcement. Individual harbours may be able to anticipate that a particular service will call in its harbour 120 times a year, perhaps because that service has been doing so for years, if not decades. That harbour authority may not be able to anticipate whether a particular operator has services to other ports, so how would the enforcement and monitoring work in those circumstances?
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, brought up an example about, I think, a former Transport Secretary and ships that could be brought in to operate services, but he reinforced the point I am trying to make: it is not about the ships or the specific seafarers on a particular service; it is the service itself that we must make sure falls within the Bill’s scope.
I am content that we have defined the scope well. I am a little disappointed that I have not given sufficient explanation such that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is content, but I feel that we are there and have clarified exactly what would happen. In response to concerns raised about services suddenly deciding to go to another port so that they do not have to pay seafarers a fair wage, as I said in Committee, I do not think that would be commercially viable. I do not think operators would play switcheroo with UK ports because, frankly, their customers would not put up with it. I do not think that point works.
I hope the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment to change “the harbour” to “a harbour”. It would make the entire Bill not worth the paper it is written on, and it would not function in the way that I know the noble Lord wants it to function.
I turn now to Amendment 2, which seeks to decrease the threshold frequency from 120 times a year to 52. The figure of 120 was arrived at following very thorough and extensive consultation and bilateral discussions with industry and other stakeholders. We have looked incredibly carefully at the patterns of services, noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and at maritime traffic data by type to reach the figure in the Bill. The scope of the Bill captures services calling 120 times a year on purpose. It is a very specific number that balances the need to maintain close ties with wanting to do the very best we can for seafarers.
The rationale is clear. It covers the vast majority of passenger ferries, including ro-pax, non-passenger ferries and ro-ro services calling at the UK. Critically, it focuses the Bill on short sea services, which justifies the connection to the UK and therefore the UK-equivalent level protection of pay. We do not want to bring into scope some of the high-frequency deep sea container services. That would not be our intention at all and, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth mentioned, would completely change the scope of the Bill and would go against the Government’s intention.
For the UK to impose pay requirements for seafarers on foreign-flagged ships that call at its ports only once week would risk being seen as an overreach by international partners. It would weaken the justification for the UK taking legislative action. As my noble friend Lord Forsyth said, we must tread with care. I appreciate that the noble Lord’s intention is to protect as many seafarers as possible, but the Government can justifiably legislate only for those with close ties to the UK. To seek to do more could risk making the Bill inoperable and could damage the UK’s reputation internationally.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate and to the Minister for her reply. To some extent, these issues were discussed in Committee and many of us suggested to the Minister that there were questions, which the Chamber of Shipping has clearly raised with other noble Lords, about the legality of this from an international shipping point of view. The Minister convinced us—well, she said there was no problem and she thought it would be all right and within scope. The only difference, therefore, is how many times a service goes into a port before it ceases to cause an international problem? I do not know the answer to that, but I cannot believe that, if it is all right to have 120 visits a year, it is somehow illegal to have 52.
The noble Baroness also raised the question of foreign-flag ships. I thought we had established that it applied to any ship, regardless of what flag, so I do not think the foreign flag comes into it at all.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hendy for setting out in more detail what the RMT has sent us, but seafarers who are operating on a service where the cook gets paid £2 an hour might look askance at sea- farers who are getting the national minimum wage because they happen to be going on a short sea crossing where P&O had caused some problems earlier this year. It does not seem logical to me.
Assuming therefore that the Government believe that the purpose of the Bill is legal under international law—I have to take that as read—it seems to me pretty unfair that some seafarers are going to benefit and some will not. I am sure that is not what was needed or wanted by the Government and I am sure that there will not be too many unintended consequences. It is quite possible to monitor which ships go into which ports and where, and I know the MCA and the Government can do it.
My real purpose in this amendment was to try to support seafarers who work around the UK and make sure that they are all subject to the same national minimum wage. We cannot have a few exceptions, just because a service happens not to go into a port quite so frequently.
Finally, on the question of increased costs if wages go up—we know that is why P&O did what it did, and no doubt others will try to follow—I do not think the evidence that increasing the minimum wage on certain ferries will suddenly put the UK out of business is credible. There are many other reasons—which I will not start debating now because other noble Lords will want to debate them as well—but the question of cost is something which P&O tried, and I expect won, and we do not want to see it again. It must apply to all ships which may come into the UK, as defined in the Bill, at least 52 times.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, and I would like to withdraw Amendment 1.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 3, page 2, line 15, leave out “120” and insert “52”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would reduce the number of visits by a ferry service to one particular port needed to qualify and bring further services within the scope of the Bill.
3: Clause 3, page 2, line 17, leave out paragraph (a)
Member’s explanatory statement
In response to the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in relation to the Bill, this amendment removes a power to restrict the circumstances in which national minimum wage equivalence declarations may be requested.
My Lords, the thrust of the amendments in this group is to consider the delegated powers in the Bill. I will speak to the first amendment, in my name, and return to the remainder when I have heard contributions from noble Lords. Amendment 3 addresses a concern raised in the report by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, the DPRRC. The amendment removes the power in Clause 3(4)(a) to make regulations that make provision restricting the circumstances in which harbour authorities may request that operators of shipping services provide national minimum wage equivalence declarations.
After reflecting on the comments of the committee, and representations made by noble Lords on this point in Committee, I agree that the power as drafted could have been exercised in a way that had broad effect to amend the application of the Bill, with limited parliamentary scrutiny. That had not been the intention of the clause when it was included, but, after some consideration, the Government are satisfied that the removal of this power would not have any impact on the operability or policy intention of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I stand to speak to the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Scott: Amendments 6, 7, 8 and 9 in this group. We are pleased to see that the Minister has responded to comments from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and that her amendment addresses some of the issues that it was concerned about. Our amendments also address their comments, and the Government do not seem to have taken all of the committee’s comments on board. That concerns us.
Clause 11 gives the Secretary of State power to give directions to harbour authorities, requiring them to do—or not to do—a number of things. The DPRRC concluded that this was
“a completely open-ended power”
and pointed out that this could modify the whole Bill by directions which are not subject to any form of parliamentary scrutiny. The Government accepted this argument in relation to Clause 3 and put in an amendment, so my question is this: why is the same principle not applicable to Clause 11? I made the point earlier this afternoon that the Bill is, in my view, poorly constructed. I genuinely think that it is quite possibly an error, rather than a considered decision by the Government, that has led to their failure to rectify Clause 11, because there is no logic to making the effort with Clause 3 but not making the effort with Clause 11.
As the Bill stands, the Government are hiding behind harbour authorities by expecting them to do the enforcement work. I understand the points the Minister made in the various debates in that regard, but at the same time the Government want to retain all the ultimate power. That is not satisfactory. It overrides Parliament’s role and parliamentary democracy. It is an abuse of government power and it is bad law.
So my question to the Minister is: will the Government consider responding to and taking on board the rest of the DPRRC’s comments and, at a very late stage—at the last moment—ensuring that there are amendments in line with its comments? If she feels that the Government really cannot do that, will she give an undertaking in this House that they will not depart from the Bill’s basic script and intention—because there is a fear that that could happen, given the very wide-ranging power they are giving themselves in the Bill?
My Lords, I tabled Amendment 10, which is designed to do exactly the same thing as the amendments from the noble Baroness. All I can say is that I entirely agree with what she said. It is really not acceptable that the Government can instruct or direct ports to do something, direct them not to do something, and then basically fine them, take them to court or whatever if they do not do what they say. It is all wrong and I support the noble Baroness’s statement. I hope the Minister will consider this and possibly come back with changes, as she did with the earlier recommendations.
My Lords, as a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, I support all these amendments. The Government accepted the committee’s recommendation in relation to Clause 3 and introduced Amendment 3; they should also concede Amendments 6 to 9, and preferably Amendment 10.
The problem is that the Government have made harbours the enforcers of the Bill, in particular by way of imposing surcharges. That reveals the flawed structure of the legislation. The arguments are by now familiar so I will outline only three of them.
First, the national minimum wage equivalent for seafarers should not be enforced by harbours, some of which are wholly conflicted since they share ownership with the shipping lines they are to police. I do not understand how the noble Baroness could say in her letter to us of 21 October:
“The Government is confident that there are no conflicts of interest.”
Instead, the declaration of compliance should be received by, and the prime enforcement body should be, a state authority. The obvious candidate is the MCA.
Secondly, there should have been provision for seafarers or their unions to enforce the national minimum wage equivalent, not least by making the entitlement to it contractual.
Thirdly and lastly, enforcement by way of surcharge is, with respect, inappropriate. It is a penalty and the noble Baroness’s letter to us, of 21 October, says of surcharges that
“Rather than being a punitive measure, its purpose is to make it not worthwhile for an operator to underpay their seafarers.”
Of course that is so, but then there is no distinction of purpose between a fine and a surcharge. One suspects that the real reason that a surcharge is preferred to a fine is that it avoids the stigma of a criminal sanction, which is, if that is true, an unattractive justification given that we are all here seeking to prevent repetition of the disgraceful behaviour of companies such as P&O Ferries. Such companies should be stigmatised by criminal prosecution if they underpay their seafarers.
I thank the Minister for Amendment 3. Moving on to Amendments 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, I am more sympathetic with the Government than any of the previous speakers. These sorts of powers are necessary. Arguably, the way pressure is put on harbours to do the right thing is wrong, but it is the way the drafters of the Bill have chosen.
I wish the Government would get back to the tradition of doing what the DPRRC says, which way back, when I sat on those Benches, we did. However, none of those things will probably happen and, certainly, I do not feel it is an issue over which we would support dividing the House. I would, however, recommend that the Minister allay some of the fears that these clauses have provoked, by reading into the record the statement made to the DPRRC on 25 October, particularly, from the bottom of the page in the report:
“The policy intention is that this power would only be used in the following circumstances”
and all those circumstances, to the end of that document. In the best Pepper v Hart frame, the world would then have easy access to those limitations, much improving the likelihood of the Government sticking to those limitations. Of course, if she wants to amend the document more fully, I would not be averse to her bringing this back at Third Reading. However, I can tell from her demeanour there is not a prayer of that, so would she agree to putting those assurances into the record?
I will indeed take option A from the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. I accept that we do not want our powers to be overreaching. I believe there is a good justification for these powers, and I will happily read into the record the circumstances in which the Government believe it would be justified to use these powers.
I will quickly address the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. I do not believe he will press it to a vote because it would remove all of Clause 11 and then it would remove the guidance for the harbour authorities, so it would be incredibly messy.
Let us focus on the second element of the concerns from the DPRRC. We have very carefully reflected on its recommendations. We have looked very carefully at the powers of direction for the Secretary of State in Clause 11. We have concluded that to remove them would significantly reduce the effectiveness of the Bill. These powers of direction form an important part of the compliance mechanism under the Bill. Without that power of direction given to the Secretary of State, there will be no means of correction if the harbour authorities do not exercise their powers under the Bill, or if they exercise their powers inappropriately. Given that noble Lords have raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest between harbour authorities’ commercial interests and statutory functions, these powers also provide a safeguard against this risk. I assure noble Lords that the power is not intended to have general effect to allow the Secretary of State simultaneously to direct all harbour authorities to exercise or not to exercise their powers under the Bill, or to exercise them in a particular way. Nor is it intended to modify the character of the Bill itself by means of direction.
The policy intention is that this power would be used only in the following circumstances: first, to direct a harbour authority to request a national minimum wage equivalence declaration where it appears to the Secretary of State that it has the power to request a declaration under Clause 3(1) but has not done so; secondly, to direct a harbour authority not to request a national minimum wage equivalence declaration where doing so would disrupt key passenger services and supply chains critical for national resilience; thirdly, to direct a harbour authority to impose a surcharge where circumstances are such that it should do so under Clause 7(2) but has not done so; fourthly, to direct a harbour authority not to impose a surcharge where doing so would disrupt key passenger services and supply chains critical for national resilience; fifthly, to direct a harbour authority to impose a surcharge of an amount specified in the direction instead of the amount determined by the harbour authority’s tariff; sixthly, to direct a harbour authority to refuse access to a harbour where a surcharge has been imposed on an operator but it has not paid it; and, seventhly, to direct a harbour authority not to refuse access to a harbour or set conditions on the refusal of access—for example, with respect to timings—where the Secretary of State considers that the refusal of access would cause damage by disrupting key passenger services and supply chains critical for national resilience.
I hope that this is helpful in setting out the purpose of this power and provides some reassurance as to its application. I beg to move.
Amendment 3 agreed.
Clause 9: Refusal of harbour access for failure to pay surcharge
4: Clause 9, leave out Clause 9 and insert the following new Clause—
“Detention of vessels for failure to pay surcharge
(1) A ship providing a service to which this Act applies may be detained by a person appointed by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this section if—(a) a harbour authority has imposed a surcharge on the operator of the service in respect of the entry into its harbour by any ship providing that service, and(b) the operator has not paid the surcharge in accordance with provision made by or under this Act.(2) It does not matter for the purposes of subsection (1) whether an objection has been made to the surcharge under section 8.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would replace the penalty of refusal of access with a more conventional penalty of detention.
My Lords, in Committee we sought to deal with a number of operational issues that have been giving us concern. The harbour authorities—the port authorities—do not want the powers they are being given in the Bill; we covered that area very well. They do not think that it is appropriate or that they are equipped. We sought to make amendments to give those powers instead to the Secretary of State, so the irony of the debate we have just had is that if the Government had accepted our amendments, taken the powers away from the port authorities and kept them for the Secretary of State, they would have been in compliance with the instructions of the Delegated Powers Committee. There is a certain Alice in Wonderland quality about this debate—and not for the first time.
I would like to return to one issue. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is not in his place, but in the 22 years I have been in this House the common practice is to have debates in Committee in which we listen to each other, then a gap in which we reflect on what has been said, talk to stakeholders and, crucially, have meetings with and letters from the Minister. Then we come back on Report. If taken seriously, his suggestion that this is somehow too late would render this House completely impotent. Despite his not being here, I wanted to make that point.
I turn to the point about denial of access to a vessel as a punishment for various transgressions under the Bill. Detention in a port is the accepted international way of dealing with all sorts of transgressions. It is well understood and has been done for many years. As the Minister pointed out in her letter to us, it is a considerable inconvenience to the port and therefore never undertaken lightly. The main impact is on the shipping company, which gives it an absolute incentive to comply in the first place.
Denial of access, as opposed to detention, raises a whole host of issues. The International Chamber of Shipping does not believe that it complies with international law. The British Ports Association believes that it would break long-standing UK law by denying access to such a vessel. The Government are expecting harbour authorities to take the risk of costly legal action, at their own expense, when there is this legal uncertainty hanging over them. It is even more ridiculous to expect port authorities owned by ferry companies to deny their own ships access. It is simply not going to happen. As we have just heard in Clause 11, the Secretary of State could overrule the port authorities for a wide range of reasons, which leaves the harbour authorities no comfort all. What possible incentive does the Minister see for port authorities to ever deny access to a vessel? Given the Government’s assertion that this is the ultimate compliance measure, it is really hard to see how it will ever be effective as a deterrent.
If—just assuming for the moment, and giving the Government the benefit of the doubt—a ship is denied access, what might the result be? Presumably the Minister does not expect ships to be bobbing around between Dover and Calais with passengers and crew onboard. In all seriousness, I would like it confirmed that that would not be the way the Bill would work. Denying access in advance is still a massive inconvenience to the passengers who have booked on the ferry. Many will have cars; they might find it impossible to make alternative arrangements. Moreover, the port in which the vessel is docked, unable to leave because we will not take it, is going to be put to significant inconvenience. That is likely to be in another country, almost certainly France. There will be significant diplomatic ramifications if a ship is not allowed to leave the harbour, which could result in all sorts of retaliatory action. I really cannot believe that the Government think this is a sensible way to proceed. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment for the reasons put forward by the noble Baroness. In the Minister’s letter to us of 21 October, she said that sufficient notice will be given of a contravention that will result in refusal of access, so that a vessel will not start its voyage. If that is so—which many doubt—the same notice that the vessel will be detained for transgression will no doubt preclude it coming to port as well. If adequate notice is not given, detention is safer for the vessel, its cargo, its passengers and other vessels than if the defaulting vessel is refused access just outside the port in question. The arrest of ships for non-payment of debts that are payable to seafarers, the port or third parties is a common and international practice. I for one am at a loss to understand why the Government do not accept that practice here.
My Lords, there is quite a good case for the noble Baroness’s amendment, but I accept that the Government have, I hope, expended an awful lot of effort working through the intricacies of how this will happen. I fear that passing the amendment at this point would unduly stop this extremely important Bill’s progress. I hope that the Government’s judgment is correct, and that they come back very rapidly with emergency legislation if it proves to be incorrect.
My Lords, the amendment in this group in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, relates to the refusal of access. The refusal of access is one way in which we establish the provision of national minimum wage declarations as a condition of access to ports. If this were replaced by a power of detention by the MCA, this would become a punitive measure and go beyond the voluntary mechanism envisaged by the Bill. Detention of vessels is a disproportionate and inappropriate mechanism in these circumstances. Detention of ships can also carry a significant cost to the port by blocking a berth, which is not the case if they are refused access.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, has previously expressed concerns that refusal of access is unworkable as it might result in ships mid-passage being unable to dock, but this is not how the Bill will work in practice. By virtue of the high-frequency requirement, all services captured are almost certain to be on short routes, and access refusal would take place before a ship has set sail from the origin port. As set out under Clause 9, we will set out in detail in the regulations how the harbour authority is to communicate refusal of access, which will ensure that sufficient notice is given to prevent this possibility happening and to provide notice for users of the service to make alternative arrangements. We will of course be consulting closely with the ports on these draft regulations.
As an additional safeguard, the Secretary of State has a power to direct the harbour authority as to how or whether it discharges its power to refuse access, which will ensure that access is not denied where it would cause damage by disrupting key passenger services and supply chains critical for national resilience.
I am grateful to the Minister but I have a quick question. She said in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, who moved this amendment, that if the amendment were accepted it would cause a significant cost to the port. If there is significant cost to the port in Dover by this not happening, what about the cost to the port in Calais, or do we not worry about that because it is foreign? It is the same issue, just at the other end of the route.
I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, which was not wholly unexpected. I happen to think that the Government are wrong. Being an optimist at heart, I still hope that, by the time this gets to the Commons, there will have been an outbreak of reality and that we might come up with something different, in not just this but other parts of the Bill. If not, then the next amendment that we come to discuss, which is about monitoring, will be really important. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
5: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Implementation and monitoring
(1) Within 90 days of this Act being passed, the Secretary of State must publish a report on the implementation of, and monitoring of the effects of, this Act.(2) The report must include—(a) an assessment of the impact of this Act on—(i) roster patterns,(ii) pensions, and(iii) wages of seafarers;(b) a statement as to whether further legislation will be introduced by the Government as a result of the findings of the assessment under paragraph (a);(c) a strategy for engaging with trade unions for the purposes of monitoring the implementation of this Act, including in reference to conventions of the International Labour Conference;(d) a strategy for monitoring the establishment of minimum wage corridor agreements with international partners of the United Kingdom, insofar as any such agreement ensures that any non-qualifying seafarer is remunerated for UK work at a rate that is equal to or exceeds the rate that would otherwise be required under this Act. (e) an assessment of the interaction between this Act and existing international agreements or international maritime law, including reference to any litigation that has arisen as a result of this Act.(3) The report must be laid before each House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would mean that the Secretary of State must publish a report on the implementation and monitoring of this Act.
My Lords, P&O’s behaviour shocked all sides of the House. Until that happened, I suspect—I cannot know this—that few of us understood just how badly seafarers are treated. It provoked the Government into introducing this Bill and I thank them for that, but it is only a first step. It also reminded us just how badly some private companies will behave if not restrained by sensitive law and regulation.
The Bill addresses pay, but only in a narrow area. As a former pilot shop steward, and subsequently an industrial relations manager, I know how critical these other issues are. This amendment is our attempt to address them.
Subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b) of our proposed new clause address rosters, pensions and wages and require the Government to determine whether further legislation is required. We expect that it will be.
Subsection (2)(c) requires the Government to set out how they intend to engage with trade unions in monitoring the implementation of the Act.
Proposed new subsection (2)(d) touches on the extremely important initiative of establishing international minimum wage corridors, so that seafarers are properly protected for the whole of their employment in these corridors. The Government have already started work on this issue and this amendment will strengthen their arm. It is important for the House to understand what these corridors will achieve. If carried out effectively, they will extend the effect of the Bill so that it has real bite at the two ends of the route—and, I hope, sensibly in between.
Proposed new subsection (2)(e) will require an important assessment of how the Act will interact with existing maritime laws and agreements.
This amendment will strengthen the Bill in a sensitive way. I beg to move.
My Lords, I added my name to this amendment because the concerns that we have raised in this House have been quite wide ranging, from the principles of the Bill and its compliance with international law to details of its implementation. We are all agreed that we need to do something about the pitifully low wages being paid to seafarers. I think we were all probably quite shocked to hear from the noble Lords, Lord Hendy and Lord Berkeley, just how low they are. But wages are by no means the only problem; rosters and pensions and so on are equally problematic. So we commend the Government for giving this some thought, particularly in the nine-point plan; the difficulty is that if the Bill does not work as intended, nobody is a winner.
We know that the International Chamber of Shipping is very concerned about compliance with international conventions, and we have heard from both the RMT union and the port authorities that they just do not see how the Bill is going to work in practice. We know that the Government do not accept those concerns. That is fine. But it is slightly troubling to me anyway that the key stakeholder groups have not really been listened to.
Rather than re-table amendments on all those issues, I think we have settled on this amendment being the best way forward because it provides an opportunity to review how the Bill is operating in practice and, crucially, how it is fitting with the nine-point plan and with the progress we are making on international wage corridors and so on. We can see how the international shipping community is responding and where the port authorities have found ways of delivering what the Government ask. Crucially, we might be able to work out whether this legislation is resulting in a better deal for seafarers.
My Lords, this amendment is needed to put the seafarers’ charter in the Bill. There is no doubt about that. Voluntary agreements do not work with employers such as P&O which have shown complete and utter contempt for the law and have avoided working with trade unions fighting to preserve local jobs that really keep the economy going. As a good example, the agency crew on P&O ferries are denied the basic ILO right to organise.
We have mentioned often in this debate the Dover-Calais route, and that must be an absolute priority for imposing conditions that P&O and Irish Ferries have to abide by, stopping them exploiting foreign seafarers on poverty pay for long and exhausting roster patterns. We need more ratings to be trained, but it is disappointing to see that only 60 new ratings have been trained since 2020. It is scandalous at a time when demand for ratings is increasing. The number of UK ratings employed in the industry has plummeted, with almost all the jobs operating in and out of UK ports now held by foreign workers.
Will the Government act now to protect our depleted and declining maritime workforce or are they prepared to see UK seafarers suffer and struggle for survival at the hands of law-breaking profiteers such as P&O? I urge everybody to support this important amendment.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment, which goes some way to implementing one of the Government’s nine points in response to P&O Ferries’ shameful conduct. That point was the creation of minimum wage corridors and
“asking unions and operators to agree a common level of seafarer protection”
on ferry routes.
In the Minister’s recent letter to us of 21 October, she said that the Government were
“committed to a voluntary Seafarers’ Charter because it avoids confusion, complexity and over-regulation of an industry. It is right to keep this as a voluntary agreement initially, while we monitor the impacts of the Charter. However, we are keeping the need for a legislative basis under review.”
It appears, disappointingly, that discussions have stalled; the last version of the charter has not been circulated since early August, and the forum of employers and trade unions overseeing it appears to have been unilaterally scrapped by the department. The crucial area of roster patterns, which had been agreed by unions and operators —two weeks on and two weeks off—has now stalled, because the Government have proposed that further research is needed. That may be delay the publication of the seafarers’ charter. Is the Minister in a position today to give us a timeline for completion of that vital work?
Still, the principle of collective bargaining lies behind point nine, and also underlies the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe. Given the precedent established by P&O Ferries in abrogating without notice collective agreements with unions that had been updated and developed over 100 years, it is essential for the Government to act to restore protection for seafarers by way of upholding collective bargaining, as intimated in the Minister’s letter.
It may be relevant for your Lordships to note that the EU, which of course covers the countries to and from which most of the routes that we are considering go, has adopted a social pillar, which in principle encourages the social partners
“to negotiate and conclude collective agreements”.
Partly in consequence of that, the European Council and Parliament have recently approved a draft directive on minimum wages. Seafarers are excluded on the basis that ship owners and seafarers’ unions will collectively bargain their own procedures to determine minimum wages. The UK should encourage such sectoral collective bargaining. That would be consistent with our obligations under the trade and co-operation agreement.
A return to encouragement of the social partners in the shipping industry to negotiate a comprehensive seafarers’ charter, impact assessed and monitored in accordance with my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe’s amendment, is important. I invite the Government to adopt his amendment.
My Lords, I will say a couple of words. This clause is a typical “Let’s have a review” clause. In 90 days, it could do nothing at all, of course, because by the time the Act has commenced nothing at all will have happened. We have a failing in this House, and in legislature generally, that we tend to pass Acts and then forget them; they just pass away into the distance. I would welcome it if the Minister could give us some assurance that there will be monitoring of this Act and that we will be looking to see where it goes.
A subject such as this seems to be an ideal one for an inquiry in about a year’s time as to how the Act has affected the industry. I suspect that it will have very little effect on pensions, for instance, and we might well wish to look at a stronger charter overall. Could the Minister assure us that her department will keep this under review? Perhaps some noble Lords could decide in time that it might be a subject that should be looked at by a special committee of this House.
My Lords, this final group contains one amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. I have listened very carefully to what the noble Lord had to say and to all noble Lords who participated in this debate.
In my response I will have bad news and then good news. First, I will address why the amendment as it stands is not appropriate. As my noble friend Lord Balfe pointed out, I am afraid that after 90 days, to coin a phrase, nothing will have changed. There will not be regulations in place, the guidance will not be in place and there will be little, if anything, actually to report on. Therefore, the fundamental premise of having a report in 90 days will, unfortunately, not achieve what the noble Lord is looking for.
Looking at the detail of the amendment, proposed new subsection (2)(a) goes back to the point that my noble friend Lord Balfe made. It is true that we pass laws but we do not forget about them; there is always the process of the post-implementation review, but we would have to wait five years for that. I accept that that is a long way away and possibly not ideal, but it would cover pensions and pay. I will retain the position that to cover rostering would be a challenge because there are many different impacts on rostering. It may be that we can decouple them but I would not want to make that commitment now.
Proposed new subsection (2)(b) goes beyond the implementation and monitoring of the Bill. I understand that noble Lords wish to probe the UK Government’s plans for legislation, but I cannot say that we currently have plans to legislate further than is necessary. I have already noted that we must tread with caution, but we are already taking action on the areas beyond the matter of minimum pay, which, as I think noble Lords will all agree—indeed, as I agree—is not the only aspect of seafarer welfare that requires attention.
Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, mentioned the seafarers’ charter; I will get an update for him on where we are with it. In government terms, if the latest version was published in August, that is not as bad as I feared; I thought the noble Lord might have said April. But I will provide a written update afterwards on where we are and what the next steps are, because that is incredibly important.
Turning to proposed new subsection (2)(c), we always engage with the unions and recognise the importance of doing so. We have discussed the Bill with the unions. I do not feel that a written strategy of union engagement would be helpful; it would not be flexible enough and may miss things or include things that are no longer appropriate, and it would mean that we would be too constrained. I am absolutely sure that noble Lords would be the first people to write to me if they felt that unions were somehow being cut out of discussions.
Proposed new subsection 2(d) refers to
“a strategy for monitoring the implementation of”
bilateral wage corridors. Again, I appreciate the noble Lord’s interest in this important area and we are working hard to seek agreements. However, publishing a strategy for the implementation of a bilateral wage corridor may in itself be counterproductive, as many noble Lords discussed in Committee. These corridors will be memorandums of understanding and backed up by domestic legislation in each country, so their implementation will be different in different countries. Proposed new subsection (2)(d) would be a step too far in the current circumstances.
On proposed new subsection (2)(e), we do not consider that the Bill’s proposals interfere with rights and obligations under international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. We therefore would not deem it necessary to state as much in the Bill.
In potentially better news, although I cannot commit to legislating for a report, I can reassure noble Lords that we are currently looking at governance structures to deliver Maritime 2050. Noble Lords will know about that very important document; it sets out the Government’s vision and ambitions for the future of the British maritime sector. This governance structure will include the delivery of the nine-point plan. Furthermore, the Government are planning annual joint industry and government progress reports—it is almost as though my noble friend Lord Balfe read my notes beforehand. Every year we will have an annual joint report between the industry and government. It will include progress on the nine-point plan, implementation of the Bill, the seafarers’ charter and an update on bilateral wage corridor negotiations. I feel that is pretty much what noble Lords are looking for. On the basis of this reassurance, I hope the noble Lord feels content to withdraw his amendment.
I almost feel that the noble Baroness totally agrees with me but not quite enough. The amendment is meant to be helpful—it is helpful. I note that she more or less said that virtually everything in the amendment was right. I just want this in the Bill, so I feel that I have to divide the House on this point.
Clause 11: Guidance and directions
Amendments 6 to 10 not moved.
Avanti West Coast Contract Renewal
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 25 October.
“On 7 October, a short-term contract was entered into with the incumbent operator for the West Coast Partnership. The contract extends the delivery of the West Coast Partnership and Avanti West Coast business for six months until 1 April 2023. This gives Avanti a clear opportunity to improve its services to the standard we and the public expect. The Government will then consider Avanti’s performance while finalising a national rail contract for consideration in relation to the route, alongside preparations by the operator of last resort should it become necessary for it to step in at the end of the extension period.
The primary cause of Avanti’s recent problems is a shortage of fully trained drivers. Avanti was heavily reliant on drivers volunteering to work additional days because of delays in training during Covid. When volunteering suddenly all but ceased, Avanti was no longer able to operate its timetable. Nearly 100 additional drivers will enter formal service between April and December this year, and Avanti has begun to restore services, initially focusing on the Manchester and Birmingham routes.
From December, Avanti plans to operate 264 daily train services on weekdays, a significant step up from the circa 180 daily services at present. We need train services that are reliable and resilient to modern life. Although the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers. We will hold Avanti fully to account for things in its control, but this plan is not without risk and, importantly, requires trade union co-operation. The priority remains to support the restoration of services before making any long-term decisions.
In assessing options for a longer-term contract, the Secretary of State will consider factors including outcomes for passengers, value for money and the delivery of major projects and investment—in this case High Speed 2, given the links to its future delivery model. To put it simply, things must improve during this probation period for the contract to be further extended.”
A cursory look at the coverage in local and regional newspapers across the north-west and West Midlands will tell you that there is seething frustration about Avanti’s ongoing failures and their impact on the travelling public. It also impacts those living in London and rest of the south-east looking to travel to some of our other great cities for work and pleasure. This is therefore a matter of national concern and I hope the Minister will ensure it becomes a bigger priority for her new boss at the department. Will she explain what level of failure the department is waiting for before ending Avanti’s management of the service? It should surely be expected to equal or exceed the performance of the state-owned LNER.
My Lords, the Government take the performance of Avanti very seriously. We are looking at the performance metrics and working with it on its recovery plan. As noble Lords will know, any award is published in line with Section 26(1) of the Railways Act franchising policy statement. There is also an independent process to assess whether performance targets have been met. We are very focused on working with Avanti to pull it out of this period of poor performance and on to the sunlit uplands of fulfilling the needs of its passengers. From the next timetable change in December, Avanti will go from 180 daily services to 264—a massive step change. Everybody will notice the trains are back. We need to make sure that they are reliable, but I absolutely appreciate that at this current time the service is not good enough.
My Lords, Avanti has run only 40% of the services out of Euston that its predecessor ran. The Government’s Answer to this Question refers to Covid as a cause of the problem, but other operators do not seem to have had the same problem with training—GWR, for example. The truth is that bad management has undermined staff goodwill and the Government have rewarded failure in this decision. Will the Minister explain why Avanti has reduced its service but has been rewarded with the same £6 million fee? If the excuse is that it is in the contract, why are the contracts so badly written that the Government could not reduce that fee?
Secondly, it is almost impossible for the poor souls forced to travel on these trains to buy advance tickets. They have to buy on the day, and it costs more as a result. This is a con. Will the Minister intervene on this issue and ensure that the prices are adjusted appropriately if no advance tickets are available?
My Lords, there were several questions there, but I hope to get through as many as possible. There is a well-worn path which involves independent adjudication for contracting and that is utterly necessary. We do not want contracts in the whim of Ministers, because on either side of that debate, it could end up with very poor outcomes. Contracts must be assessed properly and there are legal and contractual processes to be gone through. It is absolutely true that Avanti is on probation. It has the six-month extension for a reason, and we will be watching it like a hawk. Obviously, its performance will be measured by the independent adjudicators.
What we tried to do over the summer period—as we tried in the aviation sector—was to ensure that we had reliability. If you have good communications and a robust timetable, at least people who do have a train ticket can turn up and actually get their train, which brings me to the advance ticketing issue.
I am pleased to say that it is now possible to get advance tickets on weekdays until 13 January and on weekends up to four weeks from 7 November. It is shorter at weekends, because travel is sometimes disrupted by engineering works.
I am aware that I have not covered the Covid issue, but I might come back to that in subsequent questions.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. I think the Government fully accept that at the moment the service that Avanti is offering is basically not acceptable. I am very pleased that extra pressure is being put on Avanti by the Government, but there is no quick, easy solution to this, because of the problems of driver training. I am pleased that another 100 drivers will be trained in the next few months. However, there is growing concern, not only about Avanti but about TransPennine services. Will my noble friend relay to the Secretary of State the very deep concern across the whole House and across the north about the poor service which they are currently getting?
I will certainly relay that concern to the new Secretary of State. I am very grateful to my noble friend for raising TransPennine Express, because that is a very similar situation. It goes back to Covid, the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, was trying to get me on to. TransPennine Express is having the same issues as Avanti—actually, it is slightly earlier in its journey, so at least the Government will have had experience with Avanti when trying to get TransPennine Express through. It has had higher than average sickness among train crew, high levels of drivers leaving and reduced training. It has also had the loss of driver rest-day working because ASLEF decided not to extend or renew the rest-day working agreement that has expired. There is a theme here. The Government will work with Avanti and TransPennine Express. I encourage all noble Lords on the other side of the House to work with the unions to reach an agreement on getting these services up and running.
Will the Minister accept that her responses stretch credulity, to say the least? As recently as July this year, in response to a Question from me, she acknowledged that Avanti’s performance was “terrible”. Since then, it has had a contract extension and, for no accountable reason, a £4 million bonus for customer service. Is she aware of the misery that regular travellers on the west coast main line have to put up with daily from this incompetent outfit? What will it take for the Government to do their job and relieve Avanti of any responsibility for being involved in our railway system ever again?
I am pretty sure that Avanti has not received a performance bonus of £4 million for providing services in the current period—if I am wrong, I will of course correct the record. I should like to be a bit pragmatic about all this, because we have to look at the alternative. The alternative would be to send in OLR—obviously there would be legal and contractual processes to go through—but what would OLR do? It does not have train drivers up its sleeve. The issues are the lack of train drivers and the rest-day working agreement not being adhered to, and those issues would remain. We understand what the problems are. We are getting the drivers trained and into the trains, and services are going from 180 to 164. I hope that the next time I speak to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, he will be at least a little more content than he is now, because I do want to make him happy. We all want Avanti to succeed.
I declare an interest as one of the seething passengers: my train from Crewe this morning took one and a half hours longer than it should have. Can the noble Baroness say whether the independent adjudicator will take evidence from individual passengers, because I would be very happy to send some to it? Your Lordships’ finance department knows very well the number of delay repays that have gone back to my travelcard because of the delays on Avanti trains over the last six months. If Italian state railways can work on time, why cannot ours?
I suggest that we convene a meeting with the Rail Minister—I am not the Rail Minister—which may be a better idea than shouting at an adjudicator. Perhaps noble Lords could join me in that meeting. We can discuss Avanti and TPE, and we might be able to touch on reform and how we are going to take the railways forward. I am very happy to sort that out; perhaps a bit of face-to-face discussion with the Minister would be appreciated.
I cannot give a guarantee on the first question, because Avanti is on probation, as I said. Let us be clear: there is a recovery plan, which has been reviewed by the ORR and Network Rail’s programme management office. It could be that that recovery plan comes into place and, in a few months’ time, everybody is content with the performance, so I shall say no more than that. On the legislation for Great British Railways, we are working as hard as we can to find parliamentary time for it, and in the meantime are doing everything that does not need legislation—important elements that will take us towards a modern, seven-day railway.
UK-India Free Trade Deal
Commons Urgent Question
I ask noble Lords to indulge me with their forgiveness for not delivering my maiden speech as my first item, but I have been asked to answer this Question. I will be giving my maiden speech tomorrow, for those who wish to hear it, in a QSD on Iran. It is a pity, because I should obviously like to use this opportunity to talk about the courtesies and kindnesses I have received from so many noble Lords, but please know that that will be forthcoming tomorrow.
I also declare an interest, as we are talking about India and a free-trade agreement. I have equity in a fund management business that invests in India, although I do not think there are any specific issues raised by this discussion.
With the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Answer given to an Urgent Question by my right honourable friend the Minister for Trade Policy.
“India is an economic superpower, projected to be the world’s third largest economy by 2050. Improving access to this dynamic market will provide huge opportunities for UK business, building on a trading relationship worth more than £24 billion in 2021. That is why we are negotiating an ambitious free trade agreement that works for both countries. We have already closed the majority of chapters and look forward to the next round of talks shortly.
A strong FTA can strengthen the economic links between the UK and India, boosting the UK economy by more than £3 billion by 2035. An FTA can cut red tape, making it cheaper for UK companies to sell into India’s dynamic market, helping drive growth and support jobs across region of the UK. Greater access could help UK businesses reach more than a billion more consumers, including India’s growing middle class, estimated to reach a quarter of a billion by 2050, and give them a competitive edge over other countries that do not have a deal with India. An FTA with India supports the Government’s growth strategy by taking advantage of the UK’s status as an independent trading nation, championing free trade that benefits the whole of the UK. We remain clear that we are working towards the best deal for both sides and will not sign until we have a deal that is fair, reciprocal and, ultimately, in the best interests of the British people and the UK economy.”
My Lord, I welcome the Minister to your Lordships’ House and wish him all the best for his maiden speech tomorrow. I know he will agree that achieving a free trade agreement with India is vital for the opportunities it presents— financial opportunities to increase our GDP, create new markets and achieve key areas of shared interest, but also opportunities to raise a number of vital issues where the Indian Government fall short, including on human rights and workers’ rights, the environment, climate and other geopolitical issues.
In January, the Government promised that talks towards the deal would be completed by Diwali, which Hindus across the world are celebrating this week. What makes the Government’s failings on this FTA all the worse and significant is that that deadline was self-imposed, but we all knew it would fail. I challenge the Minister: can he therefore outline to your Lordships’ House what plans his Government are making to get the talks back on track?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, for that follow-up question, and thank him very much for his kindness earlier, as well. He promised to be as kind as possible during this debate, so I thank him for that.
Actually, the Government never promised to conclude these talks by Diwali. We promised to have the majority of the talks concluded by the end of October, which we have: 16 chapters, the majority, are already concluded. This trade deal is actually on track. For me, it is one of the most exciting opportunities this country has had in generations. If we think about what India has to offer us, it is phenomenal. I was in India last week, and I pay tribute to our staff on the ground there, who are doing a huge amount of work to ensure our cordial relations with a country that will, in my view, become one of our greatest partners. I have celebrated Diwali with our high commission office in Mumbai.
Negotiations are ongoing and have been going on today. We have had five formal negotiations so far, I think; we are expecting a sixth in the next month or so. If we expect progression of that, we will be looking forward to substantial progress over the coming months.
My Lords, I also welcome the noble Lord to his position. Since I have been covering international trade issues for these Benches, he is now the seventh Minister that I have been shadowing, so I wish him a long time in the position. If he lasts more than nine months, he is breaking the average over the last few years.
Given that the Minister has not yet had an opportunity to update his register of interests on the Parliament website—I am grateful for his declaring of that interest at the moment—could he say, given that the UK is seeking to have services as part of this agreement and given that he has a direct financial interest, whether he will recuse himself from any of the discussions on services going forward?
We would support an FTA with India very strongly, and when we debated the issue, we also questioned which areas were still outstanding. Can the Minister confirm that the UK has put wider visa access and mutual recognition of qualifications on the table?
Can he also confirm that—while not disregarding the figures of benefits that he indicated—nearly as much of the benefit for trade with India will be offset by a decline in trade with developing nations through trade diversion, to the tune of about £3 billion, which means that the net benefit for trading with the wider region is far less than what we would expect?
Finally, can he say whether the fact that India has negotiated with Moscow a rupee/rouble swap, for the purchasing of cheaper fuel, has been raised by the UK at the very time that we are discussing services access? Surely it is not right for us to fail to raise issues of such seriousness when we are negotiating with our friendly nation in Delhi.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for that range of questions, which I am sure we will have an opportunity to discuss at great length personally. I would like to reassure noble Lords that I am very much available to all of them for not only the formal process for discussion around trade deals but also as an individual, to make sure that we share the excitement and the opportunities offered to us and I can give noble Lords as much information as I can, in order that we can progress this process.
I would like to answer, most importantly, the first question. I do not want to go into my financial details now, but I am in the process of ensuring that I will not be presented with a conflict of interest in the next few days—hopefully by the end of the month. Of course, if there is any conflict of interest, I assume that will be addressed in the appropriate manner. I am grateful to noble Lords for your indulgence to ensure that this is done properly and effectively, and I hope that you see me as transparent on this point.
My Lords, I also welcome my noble friend the Minister to the Dispatch Box. If the House will indulge me for a second, I have known the Minister since we were teenagers, and he has always been wise, humble and funny, albeit evincing a curious fondness for the European Union which doubtless will endear him to all sides in this House, including several noble Lords who I see are present here now.
May I ask him about the potential landing zone for the UK-India FTA? There has been a demand from some in Delhi for visa rights equivalent to those for Australia and New Zealand, which I think all sides recognise is not realistic given the disparity in GDP and the disparity in numbers. However, I think that there is space for a more generous visa regime, particularly for business travellers and some work permits, as well as a more generous attitude from the UK when it comes to respecting WTO rules on food, rather than adding on EU additions, in exchange for a lot more market access for our services. Does my noble friend the Minister see the outlines of a deal on that basis?
I am very grateful to my noble friend for highlighting our childhood friendship and exposing me as a Europhile—I am not sure if that was quite so necessary in my opening gambit. But I am a free trader above all things, and I think he encapsulates very well the views of this Government in terms of the benefits that free trade brings.
I would like to make an important clarification, and I am happy to have further discussions with noble Lords about this. The free trade agreement with India does not include sections on immigration; that is a completely separate matter. What we are talking about here is mobility visas for businesspeople, and we require those opportunities as much as Indian companies do. I remind noble Lords, and my noble friends behind me, that Indian companies in this country employ literally tens and tens of thousands of people. The opportunities we have to swap intellectual property—our human capital, which is what we will export to India in exchange for the huge opportunities that it will present to us—insist on, and ensure we should have, an element of toing and froing. That is how we benefit through the brotherhood of trade and the brotherhood of nations. But I must separate those two points; I think that is very important.
On behalf of the International Agreements Committee and as its chair, I welcome the Minister to his place. He will have read our report on the India free trade agreement, so I will ask him two questions. The first is the one that he did not answer from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on how this sits alongside the close relationship that India has with Russia, which goes against our current interests. Secondly, facilitation payments are common in India and are well below modern international business standards. What are the Government doing to tackle this great problem in our business relations with India?
I greatly appreciate the noble Baroness’s question. I thank her for all support she has given us in the department to ensure that we have a very powerful exchange and that we work very closely with her and her committee. I hope she will feel that I am fully available to her to ensure that she is thoroughly apprised of our activities around all free trade deals.
It is important that we are negotiating a free trade deal with India, and it is important to note, when it comes to the noble Baroness’s question about Russia, that we work with all our international partners, including India, to co-ordinate the international response to Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine. We encourage all our partners to support international efforts to counter Russia’s flagrant aggression and violation of the United Nations charter, and to avoid any actions that might undermine this. It is important that we stress our position in those words.
My Lords, I too pay due regard to and thank all our representatives in India, including those in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai. I have recently returned from that country, and I left with an undeniable assessment that there is a firm need for this country to have a strategic relationship with India. We need to run to keep up. One area I can identify in particular is the supply chain, given our issues with China. There is a real role for India to fulfil that position not only for the UK but globally, along with Turkey and Brazil, for example, so that supply chain issues can be diversified to the benefit of the world at large.
I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for his point and I completely agree: the opportunities we see there are phenomenal. If we can find a powerful way to access this market, we will astonish ourselves with the wealth that we will create and the additional opportunities that we will have to control our destiny. When I was there last week, I came across a mobile phone company that had 400 million subscribers and a car company that wanted to sell 30,000 cars in one year and instead sold 100,000 in half an hour. As has rightly been said, there are opportunities for this nation. It is a millimetre away from escape velocity to become one of the greatest economies in the world. The state of Tamil Nadu will have an economy bigger than the UK’s, we think, in 10 to 15 years’ time. I appreciate the noble Viscount’s support and this question. We should be continually striving to do free trade agreements with India and other countries. I very much look forward to the support of noble Lords opposite and my noble friends behind me as we embark on this great mission.
Republic of Ireland: British Passports
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box and I wish him well in his new role. I am grateful to have the opportunity to hold this debate in your Lordships’ House. This is a very personal issue to me and to many out there who believe that this is a serious anomaly that needs to be addressed.
I will give a brief history of how we got here. When the Irish Republic—previously known as the Irish Free State—left the Commonwealth in 1949, the British Government at the time allowed those who had been born in the Republic and had moved to Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom prior to that date to retain their British citizenship. That all changed after 1949: for people born in the Republic of Ireland after 1949, that right was taken away from them. Since 1949, many individuals who have lived here in the United Kingdom for many years, voted in UK elections and paid their taxes have found themselves disadvantaged by a bureaucratic and lengthy process.
Indeed, instead of an application fee of £100, there is a large fee to apply for citizenship of around £1,300. These costs put many people off. There is also a requirement for Irish citizens who have been resident here in the UK for many years then to pass a Life in the UK Test. This is a discriminatory process for those who have been living and working in Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom, for years, who find when they go to apply for British citizenship that they have many hurdles to clear that simply do not exist for others. They look around and see that many with no prior connection to the United Kingdom or Ireland find the process of applying for a British passport much quicker and far less hassle. Those Irish-born citizens who have lived, worked and voted in Northern Ireland and paid their taxes for many years—for many decades in some cases—have every right to British citizenship, to be an equal part of this United Kingdom and to hold a British passport. I question the very logic of this process. It impacts many thousands of people, and I question the hurdles that have been introduced.
One point worth noting is that last February, the Court of Appeal found that similar fees of £1,000 for children to register as British citizens were unlawful and must be reconsidered by the Home Office. The current application process can be an increasingly long and frustrating one for many. It is especially challenging for those from lower-income backgrounds.
The process of British citizenship applications can take six months, but usually it takes much longer. It has several steps and can be a major hurdle to people who genuinely want to apply for British citizenship. As part of the process, applicants are required to pay £350 simply for the privilege of a decisions report, where somebody will tell them whether they can apply and whether they qualify for British citizenship. That will cost £350, whether it is a “yes” or a “no” answer. In many instances, another frustration exists whereby even if registered as a British citizen and successful, this does not automatically entitle an individual to a British passport; it entitles them only to apply for a British passport.
This is an insensitive situation for those who have paid taxes and national insurance contributions here for many years. Present census figures indicate that it affects approximately 40,000 people living in Northern Ireland, and this number is growing year on year. This is a huge number of people who cannot avail themselves of a British passport without navigating a long and winding process. It is quite clear that barriers exist in their route to citizenship.
Of course, this is against the backdrop of a process that has been simplified in respect of Irish passport applications for people living in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government reviewed the whole process of application in 2011 and came up with a simple way of applying for an Irish passport for those living on the island of Ireland. If you apply for an Irish passport, the application is around €80 in total. Anyone born or living in Northern Ireland, or anyone who has a parent or grandparent living on the island of Ireland, is automatically entitled to apply for Irish citizenship. They have thrown the net so wide. Applicants do not need to have been born on the island of Ireland if their father, mother or a grandparent was born there; they are entitled to an Irish passport and Irish citizenship. It is a simple and quick process. When you apply for an Irish passport, you can trace the whole process, and online applications are completed in approximately 20 working days. This is a sharp contrast to the long and costly process that some Irish-born people living in Northern Ireland face when applying for British citizenship.
There are ways to remove the financial and bureaucratic barriers in relation to this, if the will exists from government and the Home Office. There is a solution; a modest change in current practice could affect that group of 40,000 people. This is a sensitive matter that affects many and requires only a slight adjustment to be resolved. If an individual born in the Irish Republic after 1949 can prove that they have been living in Northern Ireland for between five and 10 years, have been working, voting and paying taxes and national insurance contributions, and are genuinely a part of that community, surely there ought to be a practical, sensible, streamlined way forward in this process.
I welcome the report published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place last year and concur with its recommendations that these fees and this cumbersome process should be abolished. That committee has unionist, Conservative, Labour, Alliance and SDLP members, so there is unanimity in trying to resolve this issue not only in this House— I hope—but in the other.
The great irony is that when we hear people in the media and Members of this House and the other House talk about the Belfast agreement, they often say “parity of esteem”: two communities working together and recognising whether someone is Irish, British or both. The extraordinary situation I have outlined today goes directly against the grain of the Belfast agreement. Let us not forget that the agreement is held up because it recognises the birthright of people living in Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish, British or both. We are talking about people living in Northern Ireland for 30, 40 or 50 years, who were born five miles across the border in the Republic but have lived in Northern Ireland for virtually all their lives. To date, there has been a reluctance by government to act in relation to this. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate and trust that noble Lords will concur that this is an unfair process that could be remedied with minimal change.
A number of Members in the other place agree with the recommendations that the lengthy process required and the payment of associated fees should be waived in the applications of long-term residents of Northern Ireland who were born in the Republic of Ireland and wish to access their British identity by holding a British passport. Other representations have been made to the Home Office in respect of this issue, which goes back as far as 2004 or 2005, when it was raised in the House of Commons by my colleague Gregory Campbell. For whatever reason, the Government have refused to address it.
There should be real parity of esteem for people living in Northern Ireland who were born in the Republic. That is not the case. For many decades, the Government have failed to consider the history of the personal ties of thousands of people in this unique situation. This issue unites all backgrounds and traditions in Northern Ireland. That does not happen often, but on this issue, it is the case. I hope today’s debate will move us some way towards finally bringing a resolution.
Does the Minister agree that this issue must be addressed? Will he commit seriously to doing so? It directly affects a large number of taxpaying residents in our United Kingdom. It is so bad in Northern Ireland at the minute that the number of people applying for British passports has dropped by 30%, while the number applying for Irish passports has gone up by 27%.
My Lords, I am pleased to welcome the Minister to his post, and I know that he will bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to this House. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hay of Ballyore on securing this short, but nevertheless important, debate. This issue, I know, is incredibly personal for him, but, more importantly, for the many thousands of others living in Northern Ireland.
It is wrong that many Irish-born citizens, who have been living, working and paying their taxes in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom for years, have so many hurdles to go through before they can officially be recognised as British. They may have identified as British for years, or even for decades; but a costly, overly bureaucratic and uniquely discriminatory process has meant that, in the eyes of the law, they are technically not yet fully recognised as British citizens. Many of these people feel very strongly that holding a British passport should come naturally to them, as they have been law-abiding, taxpaying residents of this United Kingdom. As it stands, they feel, understandably, that they are being blocked in respect of this.
This process is set in stark contrast to the simple and easy way of applying for an Irish passport for those born and living in Northern Ireland, whereby some who have never been to, or lived in, the Republic of Ireland can quickly apply for and receive Irish passports. Indeed, all they have to do is simply go along to their local post office, ask for an Irish passport application, fill it out and attach a relatively small fee of 80 euros; and the passport, when determined, will be delivered to the home by the post in a relatively short period of time. This is all under the terms of the Belfast agreement.
Yet, those born a few miles across the border who are resident in the UK must pay £1,300 to register their citizenship, and then apply for a British passport. In terms of UK citizenship, it is clear that the people in this situation are still somewhat disadvantaged. Certain financial and bureaucratic barriers still exist that make it difficult for Irish-born residents of the United Kingdom to attain British citizenship or a British passport.
It is false to claim that changing this would have any impact whatever on the Belfast agreement. Indeed, for true parity of esteem to exist, those Irish-born citizens who live and work in Northern Ireland should be able to avail of a British passport in the same way as Northern Irish-born British citizens can avail of an Irish passport. It is a curious situation that we presently have two groups: those who were born in the Irish Republic and live in Northern Ireland, who cannot easily obtain British passports; and those who were born in, have relatives in or live in Northern Ireland, who can easily and cheaply obtain Irish passports.
Last year, the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission called on the Government to fix this anomaly. He said categorically that,
“the Belfast agreement presented no impediment to slightly changing the law, if the UK Government decided to exercise its discretion to do it.”
If certain criteria were set, surely this could be resolved with relative ease.
I, too, welcome the findings in the report published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place last year. I concur with the recommendations made in the report that the fees and the current unwieldly process should be abolished. Does the Minister agree with the findings, and will he commit to look at this further?
The Government should take the opportunity presented today to look seriously at a different approach to this unique situation, which has created an unfair process. The issue has been overlooked for too long. As has been alluded to, this unique situation, which has been outlined today by my noble friend Lord Hay, goes directly against the grain of the Belfast agreement. Routes to British citizenship for those who have spent the vast majority of their lives contributing to British life or communities, and the tax base in the United Kingdom, should not be fraught with difficulty and uncertainty.
It is right and proper that this issue should be addressed as a matter of urgency. It is wrong that successive Governments have failed so far to deal with this issue. I trust that today’s debate will help move us towards righting this wrong.
My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to his place this evening. I am sure that we all wish him well in his new role.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which I congratulate my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hay, on securing. Your Lordships will be well aware of his long-held and understandably strong views on the matter before us tonight, which he has again outlined with the customary clarity we have come to expect from him. While we may be concentrating on his dilemma this evening, the anomaly applies equally to many more persons in a similar situation. My noble friend has been a passionate campaigner on the right of people living in Northern Ireland, but born in the Republic of Ireland, to hold a United Kingdom passport. This is an incredibly personal matter for him, and understandably so.
As the House will be aware, the noble Lord, Lord Hay, was first elected to Londonderry City Council more than four decades ago and, in 1993, served as the mayor. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 in the wake of the Belfast agreement, and held the senior position of Speaker from 2007 to 2014. He is also a prominent member of both the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry. I am proud to have marched with Willy Hay on many occasions down the years.
In short, and despite the occasional political differences he and I may have had, there are few Northern Ireland citizens more committed to their British identity than the noble Lord, Lord Hay. As such, it should be described not as an anomaly but as an abomination that he is not allowed or entitled to a British passport as of right.
The noble Lord mentioned the Good Friday agreement, as did the noble Lord, Lord Browne. Despite being on opposite sides of the debate in 1998, I am sure the noble Lords would agree that the Belfast agreement was a huge game-changer with regard to national identity. Under the provisions of that agreement, Northern Ireland residents can apply for an Irish passport, and many, from both political traditions, have chosen to do so. In contrast, people resident in Northern Ireland but born in the Republic of Ireland are not automatically entitled to a UK passport, even if, as in the case the noble Lord, they have lived there for many decades, paid their taxes there and, in his case, made a significant contribution to the public life of Northern Ireland.
Speaking in another place last week, the Northern Ireland Office Minister Steve Baker proudly described himself as “defiantly and ferociously pro-union”. However, he proceeded to describe his holding of a United Kingdom passport as
“an administrative thing, not a definition of who I am”.
“I gently make that point to illustrate that perhaps not all of us feel exactly the same way about our passport”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/10/22; col. 242WH.]
Mr Baker has not been in post for very long and, with the ministerial shuffles currently going on, he might not stay in place much longer. However, I respectfully suggest to your Lordships that this Minister’s understanding of the unionist mindset in Northern Ireland remains very much in the remedial stage.
It will shock this House to learn that, despite his fresh-faced youthfulness and boundless energy, my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hay, was born in fact in 1950. However, that makes him one of an estimated 40,000 people born in the Republic of Ireland after 1949 and resident in Northern Ireland who are currently expected to apply for naturalisation before being entitled to a UK passport. That application currently comes at a cost of £1,330 and the process includes a requirement to pass the Life in the UK test and attend a citizenship ceremony. For people such as my noble friend, who have lived in the Province for many decades, it is nothing short of demeaning that this should be the case.
I commend the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place which last year conducted an inquiry into the barriers to UK citizenship for Northern Ireland residents. The committee concluded that a bespoke solution was required for Irish citizens to gain UK citizenship, reflecting
“personal ties, relationships, geopolitical realities and movement of people”
between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It also recommended that the current £1,330 application fee should be abolished, describing it as
“at worst indefensible, and at best unreasonable and excessive.”
I recognise the UK Government’s desire to better control our borders in a post-Brexit world, and I support this approach in principle. However, Northern Ireland is different, not least because of the 300-mile land border with our friends in the Republic, incorporating more than 280 crossing points. The issue we are debating today has nothing to do with Brexit. This is a matter which has been around for many years and which successive United Kingdom Governments have failed to deal with, hence the reason why my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hay, has rightly felt compelled to continue his high-profile campaign, not just for himself but on behalf of the many others in his position.
The United Kingdom is a welcoming country and I would argue, without fear of contradiction, that Northern Ireland is its most welcoming component part. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hay, I am a committed unionist, and unlike many UK government Ministers down the years I am proud to describe myself as a persuader for the union. I want as many people as possible living in Northern Ireland to support the British identity in Northern Ireland and to embrace it collectively. It is something to be cherished, of that there is no doubt, but also something which should be shared.
My friend the noble Lord, Lord Hay, is every bit as British as I am. He is every bit as British as everybody in this Room tonight. He and others like him should have that identity recognised in the same way as my British identity is recognised, and noble Lords’ British identity is recognised, by having the automatic right to hold a British passport. I commend my noble friend for bringing forward this important debate and I hope the Minister will finally signal a change of approach on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in his closing remarks. The noble Lord, Lord Hay, has my full support in what he is seeking to achieve.
My Lords, I also welcome the Minister to his place and look forward to hearing his maiden speech in response to this very important debate this evening. I wish him well in his future career as a Minister.
I can be very brief and say that I fully support the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, this evening. It seems to me quite wrong that someone who has lived in the United Kingdom for more than 50 years, and indeed has served as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, should not be entitled to the same rights that I have in being able to apply for a United Kingdom passport.
Like other noble Lords this evening, I very much agree with the conclusions of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons on the need for a bespoke solution for people in Northern Ireland like the noble Lord, Lord Hay, who find themselves in this situation. We are not talking about very many people here; we are talking about approximately 40,000 people. I feel that it is such a small number that we need to look at it correctly, properly and in proportion.
The Government’s approach to this matter is unnecessarily inflexible and bureaucratic. I have two points on which I should like to receive clarification from the Minister in his concluding remarks. First, Ireland already enjoys special status with the United Kingdom for the common travel area and the EU settlement scheme. As I understand it, the Republic of Ireland is not considered a foreign country for the purpose of UK laws. Irish citizens in the UK are treated as if they have permanent immigration permission to remain from the date when they take up ordinary residence here. If the common travel area and the EU settlement scheme already mean that Irish citizens are treated differently in this country, why could that special status not be extended for the application process for UK passports?
My second point is simply about having generosity of spirit. As other noble Lords have mentioned this evening, there is a special relationship between these islands. We have common bonds, family connections and hundreds of years of shared history. My father was born in Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, so four years ago I was able to take advantage of that special relationship and apply for my Irish passport, for which I am very grateful. It seems somewhat inexplicable that we are not willing to demonstrate that generosity of spirit the other way around, for people born in Ireland who, like the noble Lord, Lord Hay, have lived in this country their entire working lives and would like a UK passport. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to both points this evening.
My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to his new position. I know that he is also a local councillor at Gedling Borough Council, so he will be well used to the cut and thrust of debate across the Chamber.
We are sympathetic to the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hay. We too believe that the Government seem unnecessarily inflexible on this matter. I shall also speak relatively briefly on some of the points raised today and in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. That cross-party committee, chaired of course by the Conservative Party, recommended, first, that the naturalisation fee charged to Irish applicants who wish to naturalise as British citizens be abolished altogether. Secondly, it recommended that the requirement for Irish citizens to pass a “Life in the UK” test be waived. Thirdly, it recommended that attendance at the citizenship ceremony should be optional.
Could the Minister explain to the House why each of those recommendations in turn is not being accepted by the Government, and why the Government have not taken the generality of the recommendations forward? On the question of the fee, which is £1,300, how much is the actual administrative cost to the Home Office and how much is a fee on top of that? What is the actual administrative cost of processing the applications? On the “Life in the UK” test, is there a point at which the Minister considers that it may not be necessary—after 20, 30 or 40 years? Surely, at some point that test would not be necessary. How many people do the Government estimate will be impacted? We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, that it may be 40,000, a figure the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, also referred to. Could the Minister confirm the figure?
Finally, in the Westminster Hall debate earlier this month, on 18 October, Steve Baker, the House of Commons Minister, who I understand is still in his place —I certainly welcome that—said that he would reflect on the issues raised. What does that reflection look like in practice? What further discussions have been had by Northern Ireland Ministers, and with which stakeholders, since the issue was raised in Parliament?
For some people this is a minor matter, but for the people concerned it is extremely important. An expression of good will could have ramifications on other, far more important matters, if I can put it like that, such as the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that we were talking about last night. There is an opportunity here for a gesture of good will, and I hope that the Government will take up that opportunity.
My Lords, it is a great honour to be here to make the final contribution to this short debate today, and I thank you all for your kind words of welcome. As the newly appointed—and, I hope, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, has noted, remaining—Lords Minister of State in the Home Office, it falls to me to respond on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to this interesting debate. As your Lordships have all noted, this also happens to be my maiden speech.
First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, for tabling this Question for Short Debate. I am aware that this is an issue of personal relevance for the noble Lord and for many, and one about which, clearly, he and many others feel strongly.
If I may, I will now turn to the customary part of a maiden speech. I must thank noble Lords for the great welcome they have given me in this place, particularly my supporters, my noble friends Lord Sandhurst and Lord Sharpe of Epsom—the latter being my fellow Home Office Minister. I also thank Black Rod, the clerks, and especially the doorkeepers. Needless to say, I am very grateful to my wife Amelia, and my children Matilda and Archie, who have been very supportive of my sudden change of career, notwithstanding that this means that I am not on hand as often at Blidworth, in the County of Nottinghamshire, to help with their homework.
As a lifelong member of the voluntary party, I was until 7 October proud to serve as the Conservative Party’s East Midlands regional chairman and as deputy leader of the Conservative group on Gedling Borough Council, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has observed. I would like to thank all the hard-working Conservative volunteers for their help through the years and for their support.
It is with some trepidation that I come before your Lordships’ House. My professional background is as a barrister specialising in public law and human rights, and I have had the honour to have been led by some truly learned and impressive legal Members of your Lordships’ House: notably, my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, who led me in the very lengthy Kenyan emergency group litigation, which was one of the longest running civil trials in England; the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, who led me in a number of cases, notably one before the Supreme Court which concerned the assessment of damages for the violations of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights; and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who led me in an important case concerning the imposition of “Do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation” notices and more recently in the litigation in relation to the memoranda between His Majesty’s Government and the Government of Rwanda, in which case the judgment is still awaited.
Having worked with these three noble Lords, I am sure your Lordships can now appreciate the trepidation to which I referred earlier. I shall be responsible in particular for the conduct of Home Office business before your Lordships’ House concerning migration and borders. This is a matter of special interest to me, not least since litigation concerning these issues has formed a significant part of my legal practice for the last 15 years, but also because it is one of the most difficult and sensitive areas of policy-making.
One pertinent family matter which I should perhaps mention in connection with this debate, is that, as with the noble Lord, Lord Hay, my mother is a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, having been born in County Cork.
That brings me neatly to the question before the House today. In summary, the answer comes in three parts. First, given the long history of these two islands and the close relationship between the Government of Ireland and His Majesty’s Government, Irish citizens have a special status in all of the United Kingdom. An Irish citizen residing in the United Kingdom is treated in the same way as a British national, even including, as the noble Lord demonstrates, in relation to entitlement to membership of this House.
Secondly, it is of course open to those of more than five years’ residence within the United Kingdom, such as the noble Lord, to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen should they wish. Thirdly, the present entitlements to nationality are compliant with the provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which provides that British nationality may be available for certain people born in Northern Ireland and not more broadly. By way of amplification, British citizens are defined by the British Nationality Act 1981. Only they are entitled to hold a British citizen passport as a matter of statute. This has been the case since the change of law in 1949, as the noble Lord, Lord Hay, referred to. The Government have no plans to reverse this position.
Article 1(vi) of the Belfast agreement states that it is the birthright of all people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British—or both, as they may so choose—and separately confirms that both Governments recognise that the people of Northern Ireland are able to hold British and Irish nationality. That agreement is very clear in its definition of “the people of Northern Ireland”. It defines them as
“all persons born in Northern Ireland and having, at the time of their birth, at least one parent who is a British citizen, an Irish citizen or is otherwise entitled to reside in Northern Ireland without any restriction on their period of residence.”
People born in Ireland and living in Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK are consequently not deemed to be “people of Northern Ireland” for the purposes of that agreement, and they do not benefit from the agreement’s important birthright provisions on identity and citizenship. Turning to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, it is important to note that the birthrights on how a person of Northern Ireland chooses to self-identify and their citizenship are quite rightly separate and distinct.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, raised a point on the interpretation of the Belfast agreement. As noble Lords are well aware, the Belfast agreement was carefully negotiated and accepted in referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There are no plans to reopen it to change the definition of a “person of Northern Ireland”; nor indeed would the UK Government be able to amend an international treaty. Not meeting the definition of a “person of Northern Ireland” under the agreement does not mean, however, that you cannot get British citizenship.
As noble Lords across the House have noted, there is already a residence-based route which Irish citizens born after 1 January 1949 can utilise to become British citizens should they choose to do so: they can, of course, apply to naturalise. When naturalising, an applicant need show only five years’ lawful residence. This is of course a fraction of the period that the noble Lord, Lord Hay, has been resident in Northern Ireland. If an individual opts not to become a British citizen when they first become eligible to do so, and so resides in the UK for far longer than the minimum time period needed, they will still need to meet the same statutory requirements as any other applicant. This is fair and applies to applicants of any nationality. The noble Lord, Lord Hay, noted that the process was, in his view, discriminatory. I do not accept that, because it is important when considering naturalisation that everyone is treated the same. Many people across the union of the United Kingdom have lived here for a long time and paid taxes, and there is no particular reason why they should be treated differently from those the noble Lord suggests should be.
Turning to the question of fees, fees for naturalisation have remained static in recent years. This followed a period of increases imposed as part of the Home Office’s move towards a user-pays model. Irish nationals are considered as settled in the UK from their date of arrival, which gives them an advantage over applicants of other nationalities, who need to hold indefinite leave to remain under the Immigration Rules before they can apply to naturalise. Irish nationals do not, therefore, have to pay ILR fees, which amount to £2,404 on some routes to indefinite leave to remain. On the point from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about the breakdown of fees in respect of the cost of actually processing the application, I do not have that information to hand, and I will ensure that he is written to.
Turning to the knowledge of language and life in the UK test, mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Hay and Lord Rogan, individuals applying to naturalise across the piece are required to meet the Life in the UK test. A special provision, unsurprisingly, means that Irish nationals are exempt from the requirement to prove English language competency.
The Government’s view is that it is fair that all those who choose to take the step of becoming British citizens should meet the same core criteria, so citizenship can be awarded consistently. Citizenship carries important personal and legal consequences, and while I note the strength of feeling of the noble Lord, Lord Hay, on this issue, it cannot be assumed that just because someone is a long-term resident in Northern Ireland, or any other part of the United Kingdom, they wish to become a British citizen. We do not consider that automatically imposing British citizenship on Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland, or indeed anywhere, without their opting to apply for it would be appropriate. We would not want to do anything that might jeopardise the unique relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Our existing naturalisation processes provide an adequate route for Irish citizens with a close and continuing connection to the UK to become British, should they wish to do so. That route can be accessed by Irish citizens with far less residence than that suggested by the noble Lord. There is no provision in British nationality law for the automatic acquisition of citizenship on the basis of long-term UK residence for anyone, and we do not consider it appropriate to single out Irish nationals born in Ireland who live in Northern Ireland for different treatment from those from other countries with which the UK has strong links, such as the Commonwealth or EEA countries.
It would be impracticable to operate a system where an applicant must demonstrate residence in the UK for five decades. It would raise logistical issues regarding acceptable documents, permitted absence periods and challenges in establishing evidential thresholds for historical residence. They are changes which would, in turn, inflate the costs of citizenship processes for all and potentially reduce the likelihood of a successful application.
While I appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue, and why the noble Lord, Lord Hay, has raised these questions, matters of identity and citizenship are complex and present difficult questions for our society. However, for the reasons I have given, it would not be right automatically to confer British passports on Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland in the manner the noble Lord has suggested.
I am aware that a number of direct questions were asked of me by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I will reply to those by correspondence given the lack of time available.
House adjourned at 6.53 pm.