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Grand Committee

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 23 November 2023

Grand Committee

Thursday 23 November 2023

Food and Biological Security: Agricultural Fungicide

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of how the United Kingdom’s current agricultural fungicide use will affect long-term food and biological security.

My Lords, I am grateful to those who have joined this debate, to the Library for its excellent briefing and to the University of Manchester and the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy among others who have prepared additional material on a subject that may at first appear niche and specialist. I hope that by the end of this debate it will be much more familiar to this Committee and far beyond, with its status lifted up in Defra’s and the Department of Health’s agenda. I must also thank my BSAC intern, Lorna Flintham, who has played a major part in my preparations for today.

The severity and widespread impact of fungal disease and fungicide use are often greatly overlooked. Annually more than 150 million severe cases of human fungal infections occur worldwide, resulting in about 1.7 million deaths a year. Many of those deaths are because the drugs that once worked to cure now work no longer because the fungi are resistant. That is not solely or even primarily because of medical use of drugs.

First, I shall make a quick distinction. Antifungals are human medicines used to treat fungal infections; fungicides are pesticides used to treat and prevent fungal plant infections, particularly in food crops. Some 4,000 tonnes of fungicide are sprayed on arable crops annually, accounting for 38% of pesticide use. They are not used without reason. The Irish potato famine, African wheat blight and the way our world coffee industry now sits in South America, and not where it originated in south Asia, are all the result of fungi defeating human efforts. The problem is what these fungicides are doing to our environment, food security and biosecurity.

First, there is their direct killing action. To date no policy document has shown an appreciation of the state of the UK’s soil microbiosphere and how it is being affected by biocides such as fungicides. We benefit hugely from mycorrhizal fungi and, indeed, many other fungi that break down materials that would otherwise literally cover our planet, but they are being eradicated by indiscriminate fungicide use in industrial agriculture in what is being termed a large microbial extinction event. Not only is this destroying environmental biodiversity but soils depleted of these microbes have lower crop yields. Some 80% of our food is dependent on plants. Lower crop yields will push food security and supermarket prices only one way.

Then there is cross-resistance. Most fungi exposed to fungicides in a crop field will die, but some will survive and become inherently resistant to the fungicide due to natural selection. The fungicide will also stop working in the field. The key issue is that the fungicides that fungi are resistant to are extremely similar chemically to the antifungals we rely on to treat patients in healthcare. By developing resistance to fungicides, these fungi also develop cross-resistance to clinical antifungals. More and more patients are coming forward with resistant fungal infections that healthcare providers simply cannot treat.

Fungal diseases affect more than 1 billion people every year. For those billion people, antifungals are indispensable tools in fighting infection. Development of treatments for fungal diseases in humans is intrinsically more challenging than agricultural fungicides due to the shared characteristics of human and fungal cells—that is, it is very challenging to eradicate a fungal cell without also damaging the host, and therefore the utmost care must be taken to produce and protect effective antifungal drugs.

A new emerging antifungal drug, Olorofim, has been effectively trialled in the treatment of aspergillosis, a highly debilitating fungal lung infection with a 30% to 50% death rate even when the strain is not resistant to medication, which 20% of cases are. Olorofim could make a real difference to the patient population, but there is a big problem: its efficacy is threatened by ipflufenoquin, a newly developed agricultural fungicide. These two drugs use the same mechanism of action to kill fungi, a big problem considering cross-resistance and the spread of resistance from our fields to our hospitals. As a government priority, the approval of ipflufenoquin for use in agriculture and other commercial sectors should be paused pending further investigation into the cross-resistance risk. I hope the Minister, to whom I have given prior notice of all the questions in this speech, will be able to directly respond on that issue.

We should not allow the approval of a pesticide that could undermine decades of antifungal drug development and risk the well-being—the life—of thousands of patients who could benefit from it. There is an opportunity here to truly benefit physically vulnerable people, which most of the affected patients are, who are absolutely reliant on this new breakthrough medication, which is a spin-out from University of Manchester research.

Further, the Government need to assess the feasibility of ring-fencing certain mechanisms of action for human antifungals. Ring-fencing could prevent the fungi in our environment being exposed to similar chemicals that we use to treat fungal disease in healthcare, ultimately safeguarding effective antifungals for the future. In addition, to promote the safe deployment of novel fungicides, regulators should introduce new criteria when approving antifungal compounds for commercial use. Are the Government looking at that?

Our infrastructure could greatly benefit from developing a risk management framework to evaluate the likelihood of cross-resistance emerging between new agricultural antifungals and existing clinical agents before they are approved for use. This is a genie that, once out of the bottle, cannot be put back in. In doing so, we could stop the inevitable inefficacy of antifungals in future and allow our UK antifungal innovation to remain competitive.

Unsurprisingly, it has to be noted that the climate emergency will only increase the pressure to act. The UK Food Security Report 2021 mentions fungal pathogens only three times in 322 pages, although it notes that:

“Warmer temperatures can also encourage fungal diseases such as potato blight”,

backing up what the science has told us in multiple directions—that the effect of the climate emergency on plant diseases, of which 80% are fungi-based, will lower crop yields. In humans, fungi such as the valley fever pathogen are known to thrive in warmer soils. More frequent severe storms, floods and hurricanes are also increasingly dispersing harmful fungi across hundreds of miles to human hosts, potentially causing infection outbreaks through what were previously rare diseases. Here in Parliament, we need to seriously consider how fungicide use will fit into the growing pressure from fungal diseases in a warming world.

I turn to broader issues. Increasing our fungicide use in agriculture is not the answer; in fact, we clearly have to massively decrease it. Innovation should not automatically mean new synthetic chemicals. Yes, we need to make further research funds available to replenish our antifungals and fungicides but, much more, we need to explore innovative agricultural practices that reduce our reliance on fungicides. The Minister has frequently expressed agreement with me about the need for agro-ecological practices. To put it another way, as does the Exeter researcher Jamie Lorimer, we need to use life to manage life—using mechanisms that have been around for hundreds of millions of years.

Our approach to agriculture is outdated and comes from a time when we were not aware of the environmental and human risks of pesticide use. In that vein, I strongly urge His Majesty’s Government to share their plans and ask the Minister when we will see the updated UK national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides.

I acknowledge to the Government that striking the balance between prioritising our food security and safeguarding our clinical treatments is an impossible challenge, but it is an essential one that we have to meet as best we possibly can. Managing fungal crop disease has always been essential to our ability to feed the population, but we cannot afford a haphazard, piecemeal approach that will hurt our public health and our NHS. We need integrated, “one health” considerations of the impact of the climate emergency and responsible fungicide legislation.

Mitigating these risks will require the Government to work collaboratively with cross-sector stakeholders: clinicians, industry representatives from agritech and pharma and third-sector organisations in both those spaces, and farmers. Globally, as we are reminded by reports of a new disease outbreak in China, no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Are the Government working with the Quadripartite, the organisation that brings together the WHO, the FAO, the UNEP and the WOAH, to look at the specific antifungal and fungicide issues I have outlined? Are they seeking mechanisms to reserve particular actions of chemicals for human drug use? Urgently, we need to delay the approval of ipflufenoquin in the UK pending further investigation and to leverage international mechanisms to address the approval of this chemical worldwide. Ultimately, no one is safe until everyone is safe. I look forward to the debate and hope for urgent consideration of the issues raised.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for introducing this important but niche subject. As a botanist, I have always felt that fungi are often underestimated and largely ignored, yet they play a major role in the natural environment, in particular in the soil ecosystem, where they break down organic matter and make it available to plant roots through the miles of mycelium under our feet. Without the fungi in a healthy soil, our crops would fail and our food security would be affected. However, as we heard from the noble Baroness, some fungi are regarded as pests that infect food crops and reduce the harvest, or even make the food inedible. The challenge is to control the one without damaging the other or, indeed, insect pollinators and our wild bird population.

The major tool for the challenge of these fungal pests is fungicides, controlled by our plant protection products—PPP—regime, now independent since the UK left the European Union. I am glad to say that it is true that the use of fungicides has fallen in recent years, partly because of more sensible and economical use of fungicides—what farmer does not want to save money on unnecessary spraying?—and partly through the development of resistant varieties of crops, in particular wheat, barley and oilseed rape.

What support are the Government providing for research to develop disease-resistant varieties of crops? What damage has been done to such projects since the Government’s protracted negotiation about joining the EU Horizon scheme, from which UK scientific research benefited so much for so many years?

I do not deny that there is a role for minimal pesticide use if we are to feed our country as much as possible from our own limited land area, on which there is so much pressure, and I look forward to the Government’s long-awaited land use strategy. However, there are other ways of skinning the cat, and sustainable farming methods can be just as productive and better for our damaged biodiversity. Practices that protect soil health and pollinators will give just as much benefit as widespread use of pesticides of all kinds, if not more, and still give farmers a living.

However, the briefing we received from CropLife UK, which made the case for the controlled and legal use of pesticides, noted that:

“The UK has one of the most rigorous regulatory regimes for PPPs in the world. Active substances and products must be safe for the environment and pose no unacceptable risks to human health”.

I underline that last phrase.

This brings us to the point of the noble Baroness’s debate today, for she and the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which also briefed us, believe that we are in danger of just such a risk unless action is taken. The same fungi that affect crops can also affect humans, as she said, and are very dangerous to the most vulnerable patients. Nature is endlessly inventive, and clever fungi have developed resistance to the fungicides that farmers commonly use. But the researchers in bioscience are also very clever, and have developed a very effective treatment for humans. There is also a new treatment, developed by the University of Manchester, which is effective against the new antimicrobial-resistant strains of fungi when they affect humans.

So far, so good. However, a new product approved by the FDA in the US has now been developed for agricultural use and is effective against the antimicrobial-resistant strains of Aspergillus in the field—I will not try to pronounce the name, as the noble Baroness has already done so. You can therefore see the attraction to farmers. Yet there is a risk to human health because it uses, as the noble Baroness said, the same molecular mechanism as the effective human treatment. Scientists believe that, if it came into general use, it would both stimulate the development of more resistant strains of fungus in the field and jeopardise the effectiveness of the new treatment currently undergoing clinal trials.

I therefore support the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, in asking for a pause and a risk assessment before this product is licensed for use in the UK. If we do not do this, we will be constantly chasing our tails as nature develops resistance to our chemicals, and we then have to develop more and more chemicals to protect humans. Nature will always win in the end. That is why I support the further implementation of low-pesticide agricultural practices to protect our soils and reduce environmental selective pressure, which undoubtedly leads to more resistant strains emerging. Can the Minister therefore outline the environmental land management payments that are relevant to this sort of agricultural practice? Can he also say how successful uptake has been among farmers of all sizes, including tenant farmers?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for bringing us this debate today. We have heard a lot about how fungicide infections have an impact on humans—it is a huge global problem—and about the environmental impact of the use of fungicides.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about the importance of protecting pollinators and soil, and the damage that can happen if we are not careful. Fungicides can affect the gut microbial fauna of invertebrates, and honey bees are a classic example of that. But we do not have enough information about the impact on other pollinators, so it would be interesting to know whether the Government plan to do any more research in that area. We have also heard about the difficulties of fungicide resistance and the resulting impact on infection in humans. I am sure that the Minister is very aware of the issues around run-off into freshwater environments; we have had many debates about that, and fungicides and pesticides are part of that issue.

To think further about how pesticides affect people indirectly through the environment, farmers are not required by law to notify people when spraying is taking place. We know that this is best practice, and voluntary initiatives encourage it. Most farmers do it, but we also know that the health impacts from dietary exposures to pesticides are unclear. Again, it would be useful to know what the Government do to check how many farmers do not comply with that, given that it could have an impact on health. The European Environment Agency has looked at links between human exposure to chemical pesticides and increased risk of various chronic illnesses. I know that it comes more under health than Defra, but this is an important thing to be aware of.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, went into some detail about the concerns that have been raised around serious fungal infections in humans—the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about that—and the impact of potentially undermining the new research and new treatments if something similar is then introduced into agriculture. So it is important that the Government assess the feasibility of ring-fencing certain mechanisms so that fungi in the field are not exposed to the same types of chemicals that are used clinically—the noble Baroness put that point across extremely well.

I also support the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on pausing the approval of ipflufenoquin for use in UK agriculture until more research has been done on the implications for cross-resistance, for example. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also talked about the importance of developing a risk management framework to evaluate the likelihood of cross-resistance, which again we would support—it needs to happen before antifungals are approved for use—as well as the importance of further research funds so that we know we have safe, effective treatments going forward for both humans and crops.

I want to ask the Minister about the UK National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides. We know that its review is a statutory requirement and that publication was scheduled for spring last year, but we have not had an update since December 2021. The Government have also said that the revised plan would have due regard to the environmental principles policy statement that was published following the Environment Act 2021.

In September the Government said that the UK was committed, as a party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, to meet a global target to

“reduce the overall risks from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by at least half by 2030, as agreed at COP15”,

and added that the Government would need to

“update and submit its National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans by the 16th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity”,

which is due to be held next year. It would be very helpful if the Minister could provide an update on what is happening in these areas.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about the decreased environmental impact and the fact that usage is coming down. I want to ask the Minister about integrated pest management—I thank CropLife UK for its briefing on this. CropLife has asked for the expansion of the adoption of the IPM—the integrated pest management strategy—and apparently it is expected in the upcoming national action plan. Again, it would be very useful if the Minister was able to update us on that.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing this debate and welcome the opportunity to respond on the assessment of how the UK’s current agricultural fungicide use will affect long-term food and biological security. I thank her not only for the way in which she opened the debate but for giving notice of the very serious questions that she put; I will endeavour to answer them and other questions that have been put in this debate.

The noble Baroness is entirely right: fungal diseases can cause serious damage to crops and other plants. Potato blight, which was mentioned, and Dutch elm disease are well-known examples but fungal infections can affect all crops. Fungi can also leave poisonous chemicals, such as mycotoxins, in infected plants, with consequent risks to people.

Most of the food we eat here in the UK is produced here in the UK. While the diversity of our food supply chain, where domestic production is combined with imports through stable trade routes, ensures its resilience, we cannot underestimate the importance of British farming in delivering food security in the UK. A key component of this is the management of pests, weeds and diseases. Careful selection of crop varieties and attention to good husbandry will help to limit fungal infection of crops. However, fungicides will be essential in some situations to prevent or control infection.

I come to some of the points raised by the noble Baroness. She asked what was being done to address the damage done to the microbiosphere and soil fungi—a point also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. We know that agricultural fungicides can affect the structure of soil microbial communities, including beneficial soil fungi, of which there are many. We promote the use of integrated pest management approaches, including the use of cover crops, which are known to increase soil microbial diversity. Through our environmental land management schemes, we are encouraging, incentivising and supporting farmers to develop integrated pest management into how they farm, and the use of green cover crops, which is absolutely vital. I will perhaps come on to say a little more about that.

I come to the noble Baroness’s specific point about ipflufenoquin and whether its use in agricultural or other commercial sectors is right, pending further investigation into the risk of cross-resistance emerging. I am of the belief—and I am happy to discuss this further with the noble Baroness—that this is not an active substance that is currently approved in the UK, or one that the HSE, which regulates this area, has received an application to approve. As and when it does, there is a very proper debate that the noble Baroness would be right in raising.

The noble Baroness also asked what work the Government were doing to reserve certain modes of action of antifungals for human medicine only, and about a risk management framework against cross-resistance development. The scope of the current regulatory regime extends only to considering resistance in the target pest, weed or disease, and therefore does not consider human pathogens. This is consistent with internationally accepted standards and guidance. However, we recognise the importance of understanding the broader impacts of resistance beyond single species. The new antimicrobial resistance national action plan, due to be published in 2024, will include a focus on plant health and will have commitments focused on better stewardship of antimicrobials in plants, as well as a call for a search on drivers of AMR in plants and the transmission routes of AMR through plants—directly responding to the very good point that the noble Baroness made—and on our greater understanding of the impacts of these fungicides in the wider contexts of the food we eat and the environment we seek to protect.

As with all pesticides authorised for use in Great Britain, fungicides can be placed on the market only after a thorough scientific risk assessment. That assessment and subsequent reviews consider risks to the environment and human health, as well as the efficacy of the fungicide. The assessment of efficacy is important in this context. To avoid excessive use, the regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, assesses the minimum dose of the active substance—that is the chemical that delivers the required effect—needed in the product. This will ensure that the product is sufficiently effective without applying more of it than is required, minimising the potential for resistance to develop. However, any pesticide must be used with care. We know that overuse of pesticides can have an impact on the natural environment but it can also lead to resistance, which costs farmers more and may cause further downstream impacts, including to human health, as the noble Baroness said.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked about compliance. There is a very strict enforcement process, governed mainly by the Environment Agency, on the release of chemicals into the environment, particularly into watercourses. I do not have a figure for the number of cases that we have dealt with in recent years, but it is certainly available and I am very happy to provide it to the House.

Managing antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, effectively is essential for biological security in the UK and globally. Our understanding of fungicide resistance as an emerging AMR threat is still growing. We are currently reviewing evidence of the link between fungicide resistance in crops and transition to animals, including humans. This work will fit into the broader context of the action this Government are taking on AMR, which encompasses resistance to infections caused by fungi, bacteria and other micro-organisms. In 2019 we published our 20-year vision to contain and control AMR by 2040. This strategic vision is supported by our current five-year AMR national action plan, running from 2019 to 2024, and a new action plan due to be published next year.

We have already made significant progress in combating AMR in agriculture. Our work on antibiotic resistance in animal agriculture has led to a 59% reduction in the use of antibiotic medicines in farmed animals between 2014 and 2022. It is a remarkable story, and there have been some staggering increases of way more than that. Alarmingly, last year there was a big spike of antibiotic use in salmon farming. We hope to see that continue to improve, but there are serious issues to answer there. Within this new plan, we seek to promote research into better understanding the transmission of antifungal resistance through the environment to humans and to encourage responsible antimicrobial use in crops by providing evidence-based guidance.

The noble Baroness asked what the Government are doing with the Quadripartite on these issues. Antifungal resistance is a subset of AMR and is taken into consideration in the UK and in global AMR strategies. I work with Ministers in other departments to make sure that the UK is absolutely at the forefront of these issues through our “one health” agenda. The UK is a leading member of the Quadripartite multi-stakeholder partnership platform on AMR, which is driving action on AMR across the sectors, including Governments, researchers, civil society organisations and funders.

A question was put about the national action plan on pesticides. We appreciate that noble Lords are concerned that the publication of the NAP has been delayed, and we will publish it shortly. We have not waited for its publication to move forward with work supporting sustainable pest management. Farmers can now sign up to new paid integrated pest management actions within the sustainable farming incentive scheme. We are really pleased with the level of interest in the new scheme, which includes integrated pest management, and we have had more people showing interest in the first month after the new actions were announced than we had in five months under the previous one. We are starting to see real buy-in to this. Feeding into that is a near doubling of the number of farmers in Countryside Stewardship, and our landscape recovery schemes are also taking place. This is moving into a good place, but there is much more work to be done.

We are also supporting research into pest management and IPM through the £270 million farming innovation programme, through which farmers and growers in England, with industry partners, can apply for funding to develop innovative methods and technologies to boost sustainable productivity in agriculture and horticulture. This work will help farmers access the most effective pest management tools available and ensure that we understand the changing trends in pest threats across the UK. It is really important that we see this grow and that research can be scaled here in the UK. Too often in the past we have seen really good ideas brought forward by unbelievably talented universities that have to go abroad to be scaled up. We want to see this investment here and this great new green tech boom exporting good practice and innovations across the world. We have not waited for the new AMR plan to be published to take action on pesticide resistance, as I said. This Government are already supporting this in a variety of different ways.

This holistic approach carefully considers all available plant protection methods to ensure that pesticides are used only where they are needed. Alternative methods of prevention and control are encouraged, and decision-making tools and monitoring systems are used to track pests and understand when intervention is required. IPM therefore helps to minimise chemical intervention and diversify the techniques used for pest and disease management, which reduces input costs for farmers and growers. We are all pulling in the same direction here: it absolutely makes sense for a farmer to use fewer pesticides, fungicides, sprays and other interventions if they possible can. The added advantage is that, over time, that will increase their resilience and reduce the likelihood of resistance. This year we announced new IPM actions as part of the SFI. That is working holistically, seeing better results for food security, the environment and, we hope, our health.

Around 10 years ago, when people started talking about precision farming, it seemed to be the future. Now, precision farming seems a little analogue in a digital age, when we are starting to see technologies coming through that can treat individual plants using data that is in the tractor cab and available through satellite imaging and other tools. We are starting to see benefits to both agriculture and horticulture, which could mean a dramatic diminution in the amount of spray we use.

Finally, in 2021 this Government established a £19.2 million research programme called Pathogen Surveillance in Agriculture, Food and the Environment, PATH-SAFE. This programme, led by the Food Standards Agency, will bolster our understanding of AMR in the environment, including the importance of different sources and potential transmission routes. We expect the final details of this project to be published next year.

Before the Minister concludes, I want to raise a couple of points that he has not covered. One thing that he alluded to is how this crosses over with the Department of Health. I have an easy question for him: will he please refer this debate to that department and make sure that it is aware of it? On the new AMR action plan, can the Minister ask the department whether we can have a meeting to talk about the specific issue of antifungals and make sure that it gets the attention it deserves?

I have two other questions that have not been covered. The Minister said that he does not know of any attempt to get ipflufenoquin registered here. Of course, if it is being used in the US, it is creating resistance that will be imported here, which is where the issue of trade deals will come in. Can the Minister make sure that this is drawn to the attention of our trade negotiators?

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about the numbers in terms of the SFI and integrated pest management. I understand that the Minister may not be able to answer now, but can he update us in a letter on the numbers of people applying to that?

I thank the noble Baroness for those points. I sit on a cross-ministerial committee with Health Ministers, and we are absolutely making the point that antimicrobial resistance is a matter not just for health but for Defra, and that we have an international role in different fora, such as the WHO, UNEP and others. We certainly take this extremely seriously. I will write to the noble Baroness with more details about when the AMR action plan comes out. I am very happy to connect her with the officials who will draw that up.

On trade deals, we have a write-round process in government and I can assure her that we take this really seriously. There is perhaps enough interest in the House on SFI that I could write and put a letter in the Library with up-to-date figures on the uptake of ELMS.

I am conscious of time, so I will conclude by saying that, as with many areas of environmental and health policy, there are connections and tensions between two priorities. We are bringing together expertise from across government to ensure that our policy, regulation and strategy strike the right balance, so that pests, weeds and diseases can be managed effectively, while reducing the impacts of resistance across society, our environment, the food we eat and our reliance on it.

The specific actions being taken on resistance through the AMR national action plan and pesticide-specific policies and regulation are only one component in this broader picture. The recently published UK Biological Security Strategy and next year’s edition of the UK Food Security Report—a requirement of the Agriculture Act—showcase the UK Government’s focus on these key areas and how we will ensure that this country remains ready to handle these challenges.

Sitting suspended.

Mopeds, Motorcycles and Powered Light Vehicle Industry

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support a safe and sustainable future for mopeds, motorcycles and the powered light vehicle industry.

My Lords, I am pleased to have secured this debate. I hasten to add that I am not a petrolhead, and if anybody asks me to go on one of these vehicles I might run a mile. Notwithstanding that, there are certain issues that require debate.

There is a need for increased government promotion of powered light vehicles. The primary challenge for the sector, in the shape of the Motor Cycle Industry Association, is transitioning to zero emissions at the tailpipe. The powered light vehicle sector calls for granting large motorcycles more time to transition due to architectural, technical and consumer challenges—and I emphasise that I support the journey to zero. The sector also stresses the importance of technology neutrality, supporting clean and synthetic fuels alongside electric options. It outlines steps for a safer and more sustainable PLV future, urging collaboration between government and industry.

The industry faces several challenges. The first, as I have referred to, is to phase out new non-zero-emission L-category options. In July 2021 the Government proposed phasing out all new non-zero-emission PLVs by 2035, subject to consultation. The Motor Cycle Industry Association engaged selectively with the consultation and officials and submitted a response in September 2022, to which the Government have not yet responded. Maybe the Minister can enlighten us about a possible response today.

It is important to note that, while the industry fully supports the net-zero agenda, any government agenda must not negatively impact this £7 billion-a-year industry and should recognise the diversity of PLV usage and energy capacity. The industry association asserts that focusing on a single-technology approach of zero emissions at the tailpipe does not reflect the complexity of the sector.

PLVs make a contribution to the economy, as we know, and the industry suggests that they contribute less than 0.5% of UK domestic transport emissions. In this respect, government action should be pragmatic, realistic and proportionate to emissions, minimal miles travelled annually and urban mobility benefits, such as reduced congestion and increased air quality.

PLVs face technical, architectural and safety challenges in transitioning to zero emissions. It is also suggested by the industry that all technologies should be supported with equal measure. Electric has proved a workable solution for lower-powered L-category vehicles, but that is not the case for high-powered ones. There is therefore a suggestion that a technology-neutral approach is needed.

The second challenge is having the ability to deliver on joint government and industry powered light vehicle action. Once the Government finalise the phase-out dates, it is crucial to establish the necessary policies and regulations to ensure the feasibility of these timelines.

To fully realise the potential of PLVs by harnessing opportunities and overcoming barriers, the Government should implement a series of recommendations. There should be a review of the existing L-category vehicle regulation to ensure that it remains fit for purpose and caters for the evolution of future PLVs, including assessing the potential for a new vehicle category. There should also be a review of the current grant and incentivisation structure in the PLV sector, including adopting learning from other vehicle categories, where the rollout of zero-emission tailpipe vehicles has proven successful. A public awareness campaign should be jointly led by government and industry to promote the existence, availability and benefits of zero-emission PLVs to consumers and businesses.

Central to all this is simplifying the existing licensing regime across all L-category segments to improve access to zero-emission PLVs for a wider section of the community, increasing access, uptake and adoption. This view is supported by the industry association. Motor drivers might take a slightly different position, but I am inclined to agree that there needs to be a simplified licensing system. The present licensing process has failed to improve safety. A Licence to Net Zero will improve safety by removing provisions that disincentivise riders from receiving more training and becoming safe road users. Road safety is a main issue in all this.

I also recommend engaging with local authorities through the local authority transport decarbonisation toolkit to ensure that zero-emission PLVs form part of an integrated transport solution for the UK, and engaging with industry to ensure that zero-emission PLVs are considered and incorporated into the development of the EV charging infrastructure.

As a result of this, I would like the Minister to answer several questions; if he cannot do so today, perhaps he will write at a later date. What plans do the Government have to consider the whole life-cycle analysis of L-category vehicles in helping to get to net zero? The Prime Minister recently extended the phase-out for vans and cars as part of a

“pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach”

to reducing emissions. Will this be extended to the L-category sector? Will the Government conduct readiness checks ahead of phasing out L-category vehicles to ensure that infrastructure, technology and demand-side policies are all in place before deciding on the final phase-out dates?

Given the joint nature of the government and industry action plan, what assessment does the Minister make of the industry’s A Licence to Net Zero campaign? Will he commit to a full-scale review of the existing licensing regime? What plans do the Government have to progress the additional actions in the action plan for the rest of this year, next year and, perhaps, the future?

This is obviously a very important issue for the industry, which is seeking to do the right thing and progress to net zero, but it needs the necessary infrastructure and technology to enable it to do so. I look forward to the Minister’s answers, outlining what steps the Government will take to support a safe and sustainable future for mopeds, motorcycles and the powered light vehicle industry.

My Lords, I find it very difficult to follow the acute and comprehensive speech just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, in which she covered a wide range of detailed issues relevant to this topic. I shall say only that the questions that she raises are extremely important, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give comprehensive answers to them, if not today then appropriately in writing in due course.

I find myself, a little bit like the noble Baroness, slightly a fish out of water in this particular debate. Although, unlike her, I would very much like to ride pillion on a motorcycle, my one experience of doing so when I was a teenager was so terrifying that I have never actually repeated it. That has been my sole exposure to riding a motorcycle ever since then. Maybe, as I move into my dotage, I shall take up riding pillion, but I do not bring that particular experience.

What I do have experience of is working with people who are transport policy professionals. When I started working in the field of transport and was involved as a local councillor and later with Transport for London, I was surprised at the comprehensive hostility of transport policy professionals towards the motorcycle sector, which they dignified with the name “powered two-wheelers”, a bizarre distortion of the English language, or even “category L vehicles”. In my few minutes I shall refer to them as motorcycles generally because that is a word that more people understand. Transport policy professionals are very hostile to them and to any suggestion that there should be a privilege for them or special provision. Special provision for push-bikes is absolutely all right, but nothing at all to do with motorcycles. Any suggestion like that is pushed back.

Part of the reason is to do with their safety record. It is true that, if you are riding on a motorcycle and travelling at speed and you come off, you more likely to injure yourself than in other circumstances. That is part of the reason: it contributes to poorer road safety figures. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that motorcycles probably do less harm to other road users in collisions than cars do. When we look at the road safety figures, we do not always sufficiently take account of the fact that making it safer for motorists to drive a car often transfers risk to people who are not in the car—that is, to pedestrians and others who are using the road—because it encourages slightly riskier behaviour on the part of the motor car driver. That does not happen with motorcyclists as one sees them dashing through the traffic.

There is also a sense in which the market is getting ahead of the definitions that the department uses. It used to be clear what was a car, what was a motorcycle and what was a push bike, but we now have all sorts of intermediate vehicles, which are creating a sort of merger between different modes of transport that are increasingly hard to distinguish. We have e-scooters, which are encouraged by the department, at least to the extent that trials have been authorised in certain places to allow e-scooters to be looked at, although no final decision has been taken. We have electric-assisted push bikes, which help you up the hill, and so on, so we are getting this merger of typologies. Indeed, even in the motor car sector, you now see tiny cars that are basically little more than tricycles with a vacuum cleaner engine attached to them going through the streets. The department sticks to very old typologies, which are being set to one side.

In pursuit of that, the Government have their target of non-zero motorcycles by 2035, subject to consultation. I often wonder whether the Conservative Party, the heir to the Cavaliers, has adopted a puritan agenda. Even if one actually accepts that the large-scale destruction of much of our economic capacity is justified by the very serious threats of climate change, it is a net-zero target, not an absolute zero target—that is, it is accepted that there will be some carbon emissions going ahead. Given the very small contribution that this sector makes to our overall emissions, could my noble friend perhaps say when he answers that he is willing to cut this sector some slack?

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to contribute to this short debate and congratulate the noble Baroness on achieving it. We seem to spend a lot of time talking about this subject in the round at the moment. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, also expanded on the complexity and the different types. There is the generic type, which is probably “a wheeled vehicle”, although I am not sure about that. However, there are more and more of them; we had a very interesting debate on pedicabs last night, and some of us thought that that legislation should be extended to scooters for various reasons that I will not get into now.

The important thing is that the Government, when looking at all these different types of transport and the regulations that inevitably go with them, do so on a consistent basis. As the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, said, some of that is to do with net zero, but some of it is also to do with things such as safety, which is in the title of the debate, and sustainability. You could add things such as parking, the electric power, regulation and what these vehicles are used for. We have talked about different types of motorbike today: there are big ones and small ones, and some noble Lords will say that some of them are hated by people and others are loved. However, they may also be hauling trailers taking kids to school. They may be doing all kinds of different things. The legislation must somehow cover all that.

One issue has not come up so far, which is the question of lithium-ion battery fires. I have been studying quite a lot of them in relation to fires on ships, which are a much bigger problem because obviously the vehicles are bigger. They have a habit of setting themselves on fire. That can apply to motorbikes or whatever we are going to call them, and to electric bikes, cars and everything else. All that needs looking at because it is a terribly important safety element.

The other issue which the noble Baroness mentioned was the consultation that has been going on for these L-category vehicles. I hope that when the Minister responds he will be able to tell us when we are likely to get some answers on that because we need them. I was, frankly, surprised at the Prime Minister’s statement on the delay in phasing out petrol and diesel cars. It is interesting that the Financial Times reports today that the Office for Budget Responsibility says that the take-up of EV cars has slowed, which it appears is the result of that delay, although we know that they are expensive. Clearly, the Prime Minister does not really mind too much about where they are manufactured and how many are manufactured, but he cares about people who want to go around in 4x4s emitting a maximum amount of pollution. We need to look at all these things in the round.

I remember, probably before most noble Lords were even in this House, moving an amendment to some Bill suggesting that 4x4s were the most unsafe vehicle if you were to hit a child outside. They are very safe inside for little Johnny but if you are going to hit somebody outside, they are very unsafe. Therefore I suggested that 4x4s should be banned for one mile around schools during the school-run period. Of course, the Government did not like that. Is that surprising? We love the cars and nothing else.

It is important to take into consideration the special circumstances of the motorcycle industry—it is a very wide industry; my electric bike could well have been built within it—and for the Government to get the staging of net zero and any other regulation that goes along with it into a proper sequence. We will talk about automatic vehicles next week, and there is the same problem there. Given the whole-life effect, as the noble Baroness said, and the involvement of cars, vans, trailers and everything, there needs to be a consistent and comprehensive policy. Does the Minister agree? If so, when will the Government produce one?

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his new role and congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this debate. Like her, I am certainly not a petrolhead but should declare that I own a moped. I apologise that my contribution will be narrowly focused on the safety of powered light vehicles, echoing a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley.

Electrically powered micromobility, such as e-bikes and e-scooters, is increasingly popular as a greener, healthier and more economic form of transport. However, I entirely accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that the categorisation system we now use is way out of date for what is happening in modern society. Last year, the e-bike market alone was worth £300 million and it is growing rapidly, but as demand for them increases, so too does the risk of battery fires.

Lithium-ion batteries store more energy than any other battery type, allowing longer use. Yet most people are totally unaware that a fully charged e-bike battery contains a similar amount of energy to six hand grenades and that they can be putting their lives at risk when charging them. If overheated, through damage, flawed design or using a substandard charger, lithium-ion batteries can create fierce fires—with temperatures over 600 degrees centigrade—that are not only difficult to extinguish but release toxic gas.

Helped by the charity Electrical Safety First, I entered this year’s Private Members’ Bill ballot with my “Safety of Electric Powered Micromobility Vehicles and Lithium Batteries” Bill. Sadly, I was unsuccessful, but I hope it will be taken up in the other place or perhaps by the Government, because fires from lithium-ion batteries in e-scooters and e-bikes have surged since 2020, with an estimated average of one every day this year. They have caused millions of pounds-worth of property damage and 48% of fires in waste facilities are from these batteries, also costing millions. They have caused more than 190 reported injuries and, tragically, 12 lives have been lost. I know the Government plan to consult on battery regulations—it would help if the Minister could update us on that—but, to save lives and property, a wider range of actions is urgently needed.

E-scooters, e-bikes and their batteries can currently be sold without independent safety checks, unlike other high-risk products such as fireworks. There are inadequate standards for charging systems and conversion kits for turning an ordinary bike into an e-bike, and no regulations on safe disposal of these batteries. The Bill I mentioned would rectify all these omissions. It includes requirements for pre-sale independent safety checks, regulations for safety standards for conversion kits and charging systems and regulations for the safe disposal of lithium batteries.

The Bill is ready to go. It offers a pragmatic, life-saving solution, first outlined in Electrical Safety First’s report Battery Breakdown. It is supported by fire and ambulance chiefs, insurance companies from AXA to Zurich, consumer groups, RoSPA and many others. To prevent further tragedies, we need the political will to tackle this issue head on. I hope the Minister will respond by saying that the Government will seriously consider taking up the proposed legislation and, if not, tell us what they will do about it.

My Lords, I am grateful to take part in this debate encouraging motorcycling in its regulation. I have been a motorcyclist for some years, largely in London, and have always felt that, with a few judicious pushes—or perhaps more than a few—motorcycling could become much more central to our whole transport system. I hope that if we, as well as the industry and the Government, get this right, we could now lay down markers for the future as to how all this develops, particularly in how we deal with decarbonisation and the fluctuating net-zero targets.

This a useful debate, but what we have before us are slightly more technical aspects than can be readily resolved by a debate such as this one. Still, I am largely happy to support the direction of the briefing from the Motor Cycle Industry Association, for which I am grateful. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, kindly outlined a lot of what it is putting forward, and she put to the Minister the questions that arise from that.

I am fully aware of the need for transitional processes to mesh in with what is possible in this important and significant industry, and I hope the department can carefully play its part in helping all interests, both short-term and long-term, to zero emissions in due course. I am also aware of the need to come up with standards that do not isolate us from international and continental practices and manufacturers. We have seen what the announcements about cars’ net-zero timescales have made possible and achieved, but there is no direct read-across to the very different circumstances for motorcycles.

It is good to see that the promotion of low or zero-emission powered light vehicles—PLVs—could be the occasion to stimulate or drive demand in the market, and that there could be more public awareness of what would be achieved by lowering emissions. I would very much support a concentration on low-cost PLVs, with which the apparent move to rationalise the whole process of simplifying the licence acquisition for individuals goes well.

Those using the roads and pavements are aware of the profusion of personal and commercial battery-assisted cycles and step scooters, which should not be any substitute for traditional low-powered motorcycles. I declare my interest as a London owner of a succession of Piaggio 125s. I hope I am not being out of order to suggest that, although I have a full motorcycle licence, their twist-and-go operation, not needing gears, should make life much more accessible to encourage novices into the motorcycle habit. Also, slightly beyond the scope of this debate, I believe that our more general access to use marked bus lanes might be becoming more possible.

Another aspect, also currently influenced by local government, would be a more sympathetic attitude to being able to park motorcycles more readily. Given the space that parked motorcycles take up compared to a car, that is another area that we, with the help of the department and local government, could try to change.

I believe there are many more ways in which we can make motorcycling more user-friendly. However, before us in this debate are more serious issues and changes that we should be supporting, and I hope that the Minister and the department can treat some of those with the urgency and importance that they deserve.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, on calling this debate at such a timely moment. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower on his new position and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on his position on the Opposition Benches.

I will focus on safety and a possibly tenuous connection to e-scooters and e-bikes. Like the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, I too have a little Bill prepared on which I hope my noble friend and the Government will look favourably. It proposes to

“amend the Road Traffic Act 1988 and the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 to create criminal offences relating to dangerous, careless or inconsiderate cycling, in particular applying to a pedal cycle, an electrically assisted pedal cycle, and an electric scooter”.

I associate myself with all the previous remarks on batteries, but time does not permit me to explore that here.

I recognise that the majority of cyclists are responsible. However, they must have regard to other road users. I am appalled at the flagrant abuse of legislation by e-bikes, e-scooters and regular scooters from Deliveroo and others, particularly in mounting pavements. How long are these delivery scooters allowed to ride with an L-plate without passing a test to show that they are legally competent to drive? Not stopping for pedestrians at pedestrian crossings is an increasing problem. What fines have been issued in the last six months or year and what prosecutions have been made for the illegal use of such e-bikes and e-scooters?

Why have the Government extended trials of e-scooters to 2026? If the evidence already exists that there are issues regarding their safety, why are these not being addressed now and regulated? For what reason are e-cyclists and those on e-scooters allowed to ride without any insurance or a driving test as a prerequisite? Is it still the case that e-scooters, other than rented ones, cannot legally be used on public roads?

I took great heart from the fact that, in connection with the tragic case of Kim Briggs, who died from injuries caused when she was knocked over by a cyclist travelling at speed on a bicycle with no legal brakes at all, my noble friend’s predecessor, my noble friend Lady Vere of Norbiton, wrote to her husband Matt Briggs on 23 March 2022:

“As the Secretary of State has already announced, we are considering bringing forward legislation to introduce new offences around dangerous cycling; we will do this as part of a suite of measures to improve the safety of all road and pavement users”.

What has happened to that legislation?

The ABI is deeply concerned about the implications for the Motor Insurers’ Bureau of a corresponding insurance requirement being levied on e-scooters in particular. Its key point is that legalising the use of e-scooters on UK roads should ensure that no additional liabilities are placed on the Motor Insurers’ Bureau without such a corresponding insurance requirement. By what date does my noble friend intend that the Government will introduce that? The ABI also argues that enforcement against illegal use of e-scooters on UK roads should be increased; is it my noble friend’s intention to do so? It also argues that the Government should share data on the outputs and results from trials to date to inform the public about ongoing discussions in this regard.

In conclusion, there should be space for cyclists, e-scooters and e-bikes, but only in so far as they are driven responsibly and with regard to the law. Are noble Lords aware of the superhighway to be built along Millbank, and that the iconic palm tree on the roundabout will be removed, enabling cyclists and e-scooters to travel at even faster speeds? That will put your Lordships at even greater risk when we try to cross the pedestrian crossing at Millbank. I regret that it may lead to more deaths and casualties of pedestrians and other road users.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, on bringing this debate forward and I welcome my noble friend Lord Davies and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, to their roles.

It is a privilege to be able to speak, as I was not going to do so. I speak from a personal perspective as much as a professional one. I held the role of the mayor’s transport adviser from 2008 to 2011 in this city. During that time, I had much chance to consider and look at the policies for different modes of transport as they applied in the city. One mode I was not part of then and did not use was motorcycling. I fixed that by learning how to ride a motorbike when I took on the role. I thought that, if we were judging policy on them, it was important to have the experience. I had to learn how to ride and not fall off, but it also taught me heightened awareness of the safety and security of not just me as a rider but all other users of the road network—pedestrians, cyclists, HGVs and everything else. It was a revolutionary experience, because you have a completely different perspective on what is happening and how you feel about your personal safety and usage.

It also took me into a very deep conversation about the benefits and the challenges. The benefits became ever clearer when asking the motorcycling and powered two-wheeler community, as it was then—there were no electric mopeds at that point—about their usage. I must acknowledge the warmth of the community. It is very strong. Anyone who is a biker will know that it is a very good community to be part of. They see journey time reliability, flexibility and safety as vital parts of using this mode of transport. It brings benefits not just to them but to broader society and to the city.

London lags behind similar cities in the world that rely on powered two-wheelers as part of the extensive social mix. Cities in a number of European countries demonstrate that. There is something cultural that we have not quite got right there. I ask the Minister to consider in his deliberations the need to recognise the personal ability to use bikes and the benefits it brings for commuting, logistics and minimal impact on the environment. Enforcement must be considered with greater usage of motorbikes and powered two-wheelers in the logistics industry, but it is a growing industry that will only provide benefit to dense urban areas rather than be a hindrance.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, for securing this debate, which is badly needed. As everyone is giving their bona fides on transport, all I can offer is that I spent my youth perilously on the pillion of the back of a 1952 Excelsior Talisman Twin motorbike—an antique even then.

This debate is badly needed because the Government consulted 14 months ago and we have still had no response from them on their decisions. Given the pace of technological change, this is a ridiculous delay. The Department for Transport seems to have been in hibernation while a technological revolution has taken place. Anyone who ventures outside their front door knows that electric bikes, motorbikes, mopeds, scooters and cargo bikes have proliferated in the past couple of years. I must congratulate the Motor Cycle Industry Association on the very effective campaign and detailed briefing putting its point of view and raising some very valid points on these issues. In particular, it emphasises the need for certainty and swift government decision-making if the UK is to retain its motorcycle manufacturing investors in future. When the Minister responds, I hope he will be able to give us some of that certainty.

It is also important to point out to that, inspired by their narrow victory in the Uxbridge by-election, the Government have changed their plans in the meantime on net zero for cars and changed their rhetoric in relation to cars versus alternative methods of transport: cycling, walking and so on. That was illustrated yesterday by the Minister in his answer to an Oral Question from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. In the light of that, the Government’s original plans on PLVs on which they consulted are now somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the hierarchy—if I can put it that way—of vehicles. My own discussions with members of the automotive industry indicate that the industry is desperate for certainty. They were knocked sideways by the Government’s change of heart, and they really need certainty in future.

I am an enthusiast about the benefits from electric bikes—the bikes that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, referred to as a push bike—because they encourage people to extend the length of their journey or to extend their cycling career into older age. However, as other noble Lords have pointed out, there is an urgent need for clarity on the different categories. There is a great deal of confusion out there, and there is need for enforcement of the regulation for the larger categories of L-category vehicles. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, also mentioned the concept of intermediate vehicles.

The police need resources to implement the regulations. I live in Cardiff, where noble Lords will recall that, tragically, two young boys were killed on an electric bike earlier this year. Following that, the police took action in the centre of the city, where they seized dozens of bikes that were being illegally ridden without the appropriate registration or licences. But it is not just the police. As my noble friend has said, the fire brigade needs additional resources because of the considerable fire hazard, trading standards needs additional resources, and we need to improve training and awareness in the supply chain and the repair sector of the industry.

Lastly, it is coming up to Christmas. Thousands of these vehicles are going to be sold as presents, some of them from very dubious sources of supply. We need a public information campaign to raise awareness of the dangers involved.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, for her intelligent introduction to this brief debate. I agree with many of the points that have been made by other members. The key points made by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, about the merger of typologies and the diversity of what technical change is bringing are things that we have to take into account.

While the net zero dimension of all this is important, it is not the whole story. It is a net zero policy, as someone said, but we have to consider the whole issue in the context of the problems that emissions from these vehicles pose compared with those from cars. Is it proportionate to apply the same tests to them?

A dimension of this that not many noble Lords have referred to is that of industrial policy, which I am personally very interested in. We used to have a thriving motorcycle industry in Britain; it has declined, but there are still some firms that are now growing. What are the Government doing to promote that industry? Do they have a forum of regular consultation with the industry to see what can be done to help it to compete? Of course, that industry needs a clear regulatory framework for the future. That regulatory framework also has to align with what is happening globally, particularly in Europe, because people are not just producing for the domestic market. What is happening on the industrial policy dimension?

I have a couple of other questions for the Minister. Given that emissions from these vehicles, especially when viewed on an all-life basis, are often less than from cars, has the Minister considered taking steps in order to encourage drivers to switch? Have the Government thought about that question? On another point, it has been reported that, increasingly, vehicles in this category are being used for food delivery services. What assessment have the Government made of this? Would promoting electric light vehicles be a good way of reducing emissions from vans that traditionally do this job?

Above all, I think that the simple point is that the Government are dithering on their policy. They have had lots of consultations, but they are not offering the sector any clarity. It is time that they did so. My direct question to the Minister is: are the Government planning to do anything that will give clarity to the industry between now and the general election?

My Lords, I am pleased to respond to this Question for Short Debate and thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions to the debate before the Grand Committee today. Whether I will be able to answer all noble Lords’ questions in the 12 minutes allocated, I do not know, but I will attempt to respond to as many questions and concerns as possible and, when I am not able to, I will certainly follow up with a letter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, my noble friend Lord Moylan and the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, talked about decarbonisation, net zero and the Government’s commitment. We have a legal obligation to meet net zero, and the Government are committed to phasing out the sale of all new non-zero emission road vehicles by 2040. This includes ending the sale of polluting motorcycles and mopeds. The Government are committed to our net-zero ambitions and will continue to drive forward our work to cut emissions. The broad approach is one that is fair, affordable and pragmatic, easing the burdens on the British public.

Following a consultation last year, we are now analysing the responses to our consultation on when to end the sale of new non-zero emission L-category vehicles, including views from the industry, with which we have been engaging. We will respond in due course. Our approach will continue to account for technical and commercial feasibility and ensure that transition is affordable for consumers. The Prime Minister’s announcement pushed back the end-of-sales date for new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 by requiring 80% of new cars to be fully ZEV by 2030. The mandate will continue to require the most ambitious regulatory trajectory to 2030 of any country.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, talked about the end-of-sale dates for non-zero-emission motorbikes and mopeds. We consulted between July and September last year on when to end the sale of new non-zero-emission L-category vehicles, which was supported by a thorough programme of stakeholder engagement with manufacturers and the wider industry. The Government are analysing the responses and taking into consideration the wide range of views expressed. The consultation proposed two separate dates for the end of sale of new non-zero-emission L-category vehicles: 2035 for all L-category vehicles at the latest, and 2030 for L-category vehicles in the L1 L2, L3, L6 and L7 subcategories.

The Government recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach to regulating emissions from road vehicles is not appropriate, as the technology pathway is not as clear for certain segments of the market. However, they will continue to engage with industry and the public to ensure that the final confirmed end-of-sale dates for new non-zero-emission L-category vehicles are feasible from both a technological and a commercial perspective. That includes ensuring that adequate infrastructure for the sector is in place and that the transition is affordable for consumers.

We are now analysing the responses to the consultation on ending the sale of new non-zero-emission L-category vehicles, including evidence provided on this issue, and we will bring forward the government response in due course. Analysis of lifecycle emissions is an important consideration as we accelerate the transition to a zero-emission fleet of road vehicles. While there is no internationally recognised method of measuring lifecycle emissions in any transport sector, the Department for Transport’s energy model, published in 2018, and the externally commissioned lifecycle analysis of UK road vehicles, published in 2021, provide clear assessments of the relative environmental impacts of different road vehicle technologies and fuels in the UK.

The Government will consult on any future regulatory framework to deliver and enforce the end-of-sale dates for non-zero-emission L-category vehicles as appropriate. The Government keep all their regulations under review to ensure that they are fit for purpose and future-proofed. Policies are already in place to support the transition, such as plug-in motorcycle grants, and the Government recently made up to £350,000 of funding available for research and development projects to grow the zero-emission motorcycle supply chain in the UK. However, we appreciate that there are technology and infrastructure considerations for these vehicles as we transition, and we will continue to work with the sector to support and consider how best to overcome demand-side challenges, including the infrastructure needs of zero-emission L-category vehicles.

On the Motor Cycle Industry Association action plan, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, the Government are committed to continuing to work with the industry and other stakeholders to ensure that the sector is ready, ahead of decarbonisation. In February 2022, the Motor Cycle Industry Association published Realising the Full Potential of Zero Emission Powered Light Vehicles: A Joint Action Plan for Government and Industry. That was commissioned by the Government as a transport decarbonisation plan commitment and was delivered in partnership with the Motorcycle Industry Association. The document aimed to set out the 10 key actions that the industry believes are needed to support the L-category sector ahead of decarbonisation.

The Government are engaged with the industry to deliver the action plan where appropriate. Zero-emission vehicles offer an opportunity to create jobs, strengthen British industry, cut emissions and keep Britain moving. Phasing out new non-zero-emission L-category vehicles positions the UK as a world leader in L-category decarbonisation, driving innovation and creating a market for zero-emission vehicles.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, spoke about a plan for the future, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. The Government are pleased with the progress made so far on the action plan and will continue to engage with the sector on it. For example, to address actions 2 and 3 on growing and developing the supply chain, as I said earlier, the Government made up to £350,000 of funding available for research and development projects to grow the zero-emission motorcycle supply chain in the UK.

The department is also working with the recently established powered light vehicle community to address action 9 on creating a formal L-category community. Additionally, the department is currently engaged with the MCIA’s recent licensing review proposals to address action 6, to review minimum testing and licence entitlements for all battery, electric L-category vehicles. We continue to engage with industry to deliver the action plan where appropriate and will continue to do so.

The noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Foster of Bath, referred to the plan for drivers in as much as it applies to motorcyclists. Like drivers, motorcyclists will benefit from many of the measures in the plan, including around fixing roads faster, better traffic lights, and the right speed limits in the right place. Specifically, in seeking to make better use of bus lanes, we will refresh the technical advice for local authorities to make it clear that they should use their powers to ensure that bus lanes are open to motorcycles, and we will launch a consultation on allowing motorcycles to use bus lanes by default. The plan confirms that, to help riders make the transition to zero-emission vehicles, plug-in vehicle grants continue to be available for motorcycles.

The noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, asked a question about lithium batteries. There is no real evidence that electric vehicle fires are more likely to occur than petrol or diesel vehicle fires, and it remains safe to have them in covered car parks. The safety of electric vehicles and their charging is of course of paramount importance to the Government and is kept under regular review. Multiple safety systems are designed into electric vehicles to protect passengers, emergency services personnel and other users from harm. However, the risks are different and need to be understood and controlled. Fire prevention, fire detection and firefighting in electric vehicles is a developing area, and the Government review their guidance and regulations in step with the development of best practice. We continue to work with the fire services, industry and experts from across the UK on this, and before vehicles can be sold or registered in the UK, the manufacturer must supply evidence that the vehicle complies with international approval requirements. For hybrid and electric vehicles, fire and electrical safety is included in this assessment. The department is therefore working with the Office for Product Safety and Standards and other government departments to develop guidance on the safe use of batteries in e-cycles and e-scooters and will publish this at a later date.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked about cycle offences and dangerous cycling. Of course, dangerous cycling puts lives at risk and is completely unacceptable. Like all road users, cyclists are required to comply with road traffic law in the interests of their own safety and that of other road users—that is of course reflected in the Highway Code. If they do not adopt a responsible attitude and if their use of the highway creates an unsafe environment, they may well of course be committing offences, which is a matter for the police to prosecute.

I think I have covered most of the questions that have been asked.

Perhaps the noble Lord might say something about the simplification of the licensing scheme—and I welcome him and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, to the Front Benches.

I will go back to the department and see exactly where we are on that, and I will certainly write to the noble Baroness on it.

Perhaps we might pursue very briefly the issue of fires, as raised by my noble friend Lord Foster. There are lots of statistics on this, and there is a very big difference between the record of electric cars and vans and so on, which have an extremely good record on fires—they are much less likely to burst into flames than, for example, petrol and diesel cars. However, my noble friend was referring to the issue of bikes and mopeds, and so on.

I take the noble Baroness’s point and I will write on that issue in respect of motorcycles.

To conclude, the steps that the Government are taking, which I have set out today, provide a package of support for the motorcycle and powered light vehicle industry that will help this sector to contribute to a safe and environmentally sustainable future for road user transport in this country.

Air Travel: Disabled Passengers

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of air travel for disabled passengers.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group. I thank the House of Lords Library for its helpful briefing, as well as Transport for All, Disability Rights UK and Rights on Flights for their continuous campaigning to improve the service that disabled people receive when trying to travel by air.

I emailed the group of disabled Peers prior to this debate and am grateful to those unable to attend today for their comments and to the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, for being here. Every single one of us has faced repeated problems, and our experience reflects that of the wider disabled community.

More than a decade ago, when I started using a wheelchair regularly, the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, warned me that flying with a wheelchair was a fraught issue. A couple of days ago, she said to me:

“Until I gave up flying, I was regularly left on aeroplanes, sometimes for hours waiting for my power chair to be brought to the door of the plane. In the end I decided I simply couldn’t stand the stress anymore after my power chair was smashed by the bag handlers at Heathrow. I didn’t find out until we arrived in Canada and … was unable to use the chair independently (my husband had to push me everywhere) for the entire holiday. We could not find any repairers near enough to our location who stocked the part needed. I was not compensated and only after several complaining letters did I receive an apology”.

What has changed since then? Not a lot. Disabled passengers are still having to fight for their right to be able to use a plane, travel through an airport and rely on their wheelchairs and mobility equipment not being treated as baggage. Not only is failing to provide a safe service in breach of the UN charter for disabled people but it is legally discriminatory in the UK, the EU, the USA and many other countries. Worse, every glitch in the journey is emotionally exhausting. This is not like losing a suitcase. Damage to mobility aids can mean that you cannot get around in the country you are travelling to, and the level of payment, set internationally, when damage is done on the journey does not recompense for the actual cost of repairing the mobility aid or the hiring of an alternative, if that is even possible, as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, told me.

The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, told me that he avoids flying whenever he can, because he feels he is treated like cargo, not a customer. Disabled passengers have to sit around and wait: check into the airport at least an hour before everybody else and wait on the plane, and wait on the plane while one’s chair is, or more usually is not, brought from the hold. That reminds me of arriving at Mexico City Airport and waiting for my wheelchair to arrive in the baggage reclaim area. British Airways had put it in the special wheelchair container—I wish everybody used those—and through the glass window I watched staff remove it from that then try to put it on the moving conveyor belt. Unsurprisingly, it got stuck because the chair was larger than the hole it was going through. It fell off the conveyer was damaged. That was not a good start to being a UNICEF visitor followed by an international conference.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, told us that it is the practice that we need to change, rather than just keeping stepping up enforcement, because enforcement is not working. Too many airlines send out messages that disabled people are just not welcome. He says that changing practice would ensure a win-win because smooth journeys mean an end to horror stories and a better reputation for the airline and service providers in the airport, even though it is only the airline that has responsibility under 1107/2006.

The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, told our group that he has been left on planes twice this year when ground staff forgot about him. On one occasion the pilot took him off the plane and even through passport control. The pressure for that, by the way, is that the new captain and crew for the next flight cannot come on board until the last passenger leaves. There is no comparable pressure on ground staff. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, also talked about the ridiculous process we have to fill in for our wheelchair dimensions and battery details when booking the flight, then again when the airline confirms the booking, then again when you check in online to get your seat, then again when you arrive at check-in and again when you arrive at the departure gate.

My experience of three flights this year has forced me to reconsider whether I should fly at all. In May I flew from Gatwick to Stockholm with Norwegian. All forms were repeatedly filled in, and Gatwick and Norwegian accepted my lightweight travel chair with two lithium batteries, carried into the cabin by ground staff for safety as per IATA guidance. After my conference I returned to Arlanda Airport. I got through check-in, again repeating battery details, but when I got to the plane the ground staff told me that the pilot had refused to allow the lithium batteries to be brought into the cabin because under IATA rules they cannot be in the hold. I asked to see the pilot, showed him my outward ticket from Gatwick and said, “But your colleague flew me out”. At that point he said, “Well, on this one occasion you can fly, but not again”. Thank goodness I had flown out with the same airline.

In September I flew Wizz Air from Luton to Vilnius for the day to speak at another international conference. I checked in to be told that my lithium batteries were now too big. They were not, according to the IATA chart, but the ground services manager refused to come to talk to me directly, so I had to leave my chair at Luton and fly without it. I was in considerable pain, and not just for that one day.

In October I flew Wizz Air from Bucharest to Luton after speaking at another international conference, this time about the barriers that disabled people face. This time I took my regular dry cell battery wheelchair—this one—to avoid the row about lithium batteries. The ground services manager in Bucharest had got his battery types muddled and would let me on the plane only if I personally carried them both into the cabin. These batteries are old-fashioned bus batteries. They are bigger than old-fashioned car batteries. I cannot lift even one of them easily, and under IATA guidance they are designed to remain in situ in the hold with the electrics immobilised. He refused to allow me on the flight. It cost me €900 to fly back with British Airways as there was only one seat available over the next 48 hours. Worse, the Wizz Air complaints system does not work for this type of problem because the flight was not delayed or cancelled. The CAA has now kindly put me in touch with a senior Wizz Air manager, but I was in despair for seven hours at Bucharest Airport that day.

Here is the problem. The current systems allow too many tiers of staff to make ill-informed decisions that muddle up different regulations and different types of batteries. In my role as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group I recognise the importance of keeping batteries safe and getting it right. IATA has two sets of guidance: the Battery-Powered Wheelchair and Mobility Aid Guidance Document and the Dangerous Goods Regulations, which sits with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air. The latter, the DGR, is related to commercial freight and differs entirely from the Battery-Powered Wheelchair and Mobility Aid Guidance Document, but it is not clear.

My first question to the Minister is: when will there be one clear international flowchart with one set of common data relating to wheelchairs and mobility aids and one standard for service for disabled passengers? There is much confusion about what is or is not included, and I fear that is often an underlying problem when things go so wrong. There are moves for a universally accepted wheelchair passport, which would help, but it must be recognised by all the airlines, not left to the whim of checking staff or even the pilot.

There must also be a standard for training staff and for ensuring that disabled people are not handed on from person to person. On one journey at Madrid airport, I was handled by four different people before I could get to my own chair. At one point, I was literally just dumped in front of a concrete wall airside and told to wait for the next person to arrive; I was on my own for nearly 15 minutes.

There are plenty of talking shops. I have sometimes been invited to the industry/departmental meetings convened by the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, in the past, as have other Peers, and it is good that disabled people and organisations are involved, but until there are real changes nothing will change. The examples that I have given today are repeated every day when disabled people travel. Everyone is horrified when they hear what has happened, but there is no urgency to solve it. The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, said that if non-disabled people received this level of service it would simply be deemed unacceptable. Personally, I think there would be riots.

My last question to the Minister is: how can this Government get all the parties together to change what is happening? I do not mean just in the UK. This is a global problem that can be solved only by Governments, regulators and airlines coming together. It can and must be improved so that disabled people can travel and live their lives like everyone else.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for tabling this debate today and asking such pertinent questions. Nothing that she has said has surprised me. This issue is close to my heart, and working on this speech has been relatively cathartic.

As an athlete, I was privileged to be able to travel extensively, and with that have come many interesting experiences. The issue with being a disabled traveller is that the bad journeys are so horrendous that it is easy to think that getting on and off a plane in a vaguely timely manner, not being forced to sit in a special little room—which is claimed to be better for us—and not having a damaged chair is fabulous, when actually it is just what non-disabled people take for granted. When your view of travelling is so skewed to expect it to be bad, it is easy to see why things are slow to improve.

I do not mind checking in early, getting to the gate early, having to give up my day chair and not getting off until the end. I understand that, being disabled, I have to do things differently, but, even with all that, we do not have equality. I shall take a few moments to recount some of my favourite disasters. If I had the whole hour, that would still not be enough to cover them all.

When flying with my then young daughter, the two of us had preboarded but I was told that I was not a responsible adult to fly with her and that I needed to find someone, literally anyone—in fact, a stranger—to say that they would take responsibility for her.

Over the years, both my racing chair and my day chair have been severely damaged and even lost. One time my day chair was put on a completely different plane to me, which was incredible, seeing that it was carried down the steps and the hold door was right next to them. I realised, thanks to the length of time that I was left on the plane when I arrived back in Birmingham, that there was something wrong, and my day chair did not arrive. I was asked whether I really needed it. That is potentially a fair question, as not everyone is a permanent wheelchair user and I might have been able to use an airport chair. I was asked if I could walk and I said no, I was paralysed. The next question was, “Have you ever tried to walk?” Clearly I was missing the obvious: maybe I had just not tried hard enough.

Later, I was excited to be told that my missing item was going to be returned to me. When it landed on my doorstep, it was two sleeping bags with another person’s name on them going to a destination that I was nowhere near. The individual who dropped them off queried whether I actually knew what I had lost. When I said it was a wheelchair, I was asked whether I was sure it was a wheelchair. My day chair was returned to me several months later pretty much sawn in half, and I was offered £200 compensation for a £5,000 wheelchair.

Disabled people are asked to preboard to give us more time to allow the use of an aisle chair, but on one occasion, when the team did not turn up to help me on, the airline had to start boarding the rest of the plane. When I eventually managed to get on, the pilot announced to the whole cabin that we were late because of me. I have to say that I was angry for being blamed. I was not even accorded the courtesy of being called a wheelchair user; I was called “the wheelchair”. That has happened so many times.

Another time, when I was refused my day chair at the gate, even though it had a gate tag on it, I was blamed for delaying the next flight. My daughter was two years old and by that age we did not use a pram for her; she used to sit on my knee for longer walks, and the distance from the gate to baggage was too far for her to walk. The airport would not allow her to sit on my knee in the airport chair because it was not insured to carry two people. It was suggested that, if she could not walk that far on her own, perhaps she could crawl.

I have also been refused boarding after checking in because the pilot told me, “We already have three of you”. I am not entirely sure what the three of us were. I was travelling with the British team, so we had to work out which three of us should take the first flight to get to our destination in order to compete and which athletes could be left behind. On a different flight, I was asked whether I really needed my racing chair to compete. The answer was yes.

One airline told me that it had put me in a specific seat on the plane because if there was a problem it did not want me getting in the way of anyone else getting off and risking non-disabled people’s safety. In fact, in front of other people I was told that if the plane went down, I was not likely to make it off. I was clearly being told that my value as a disabled person did not exist. As disabled people, there are things that we know and do not need to be told, certainly not in front of other passengers. This happened when we were going off to compete in a major games.

Another airline sent me a form which asked me whether my impairment would cause offence to other passengers. When the airline then rang up to cancel my flight because it had decided my impairment was offensive—it told me that on the phone—I happened to have a TV crew at my house doing an interview about the competition I was trying to get to. That allowed me to get a full refund. The airline wanted to charge me for it cancelling my flight.

It is not just me. Wheelchair athlete Nikki Emerson said that when she flew to Australia for the Commonwealth Games airline staff told her she would “upset other passengers” by “climbing on the floor”. She had had to drag herself up the aisle after being told she would have to wait an hour to get to her seat from the toilet. I have also been refused access to toilets. I totally understand that the cabin crew cannot and should not assist inside the toilet, but because of the inaccessible nature of the cabin there should be a reasonable expectation of an aisle chair. The reality is that some airlines that run short-haul flights do not even have an aisle chair on board. Many might be surprised to know that “short haul” can include flights of up to four hours’ duration.

Victoria Brignell, who works at the BBC, was left on a plane at Gatwick for 90 minutes, and I despair of the number of times that Frank Gardner has posted about being abandoned. When I talk about train travel, I joke that I want the same miserable experience of commuting as everyone else, which I do not get, but I always hope for slightly better on planes. I know that Frank is not arguing for any special treatment, but if an airline cannot flag his name in the system and make sure that he gets on and off, given the amount he travels and his public profile, what hope is there for anyone else?

While airports and airlines call this unacceptable, change just does not happen. I commend Sophie Morgan on using her platform to highlight this issue using the hashtag #RightsOnFlights. Many are campaigning to ensure that disabled people who need to remain in their wheelchair, such as my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton, are able to travel. I am really interested to see that some trials are now taking place that would stop people being discriminated against.

The reality is that we are always asked to be patient. We are treated as though it is the first time that it has ever happened when, quite frankly, it is not. Earlier this year I met the CAA, which was very helpful, but, sadly, I am now of the opinion that financial penalties are perhaps the only way things will change. It has gone on far too long and it is far too distressing for many disabled people. The time for excuses should now have passed, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Brinton for providing the opportunity for this important debate. Noble Lords will forgive me if I occasionally have to look over my shoulder; the only timer in the room is over there.

My experience of provision for people with disabilities when travelling is at one remove: my late husband, Steve Hitchins, had a leg amputated in 2015 to save his life from sepsis and, after a few months in a loaned wheelchair while the wound healed, was fitted with a prosthetic leg. This was heavy and unwieldy, given especially that the amputation was above the knee, so he could not walk very far and needed wheelchair assistance when travelling by air or train to get to or from the gate or platform. I learned a great deal about access problems in the four years before he died—of unrelated causes—in 2019. I came to the conclusion that provision for the protected characteristic of disability is not only 20 years behind that of other protected characteristics under the Equality Act but is flavoured too often with patronising pity rather than simple efficiency.

In the period that Steve used a wheelchair, he once found himself stranded inside the courtyard of Somerset House. It was the anxiety about how on earth he would get out, as much the inconvenience, that was so distressing. We took only a couple of flights, but my recollection is of quite a lot of toing and froing at the airport to check that the promised wheelchair assistance would materialise and anxiety as to whether it would appear in time. The problem is often the outsourcing of the service and lack of seamless communication. Because he was not taking his own wheelchair, Steve did not have the issues referred to by my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson.

The helpful Lords Library briefing tells us that, in their December 2018 consultation on the future of aviation, the Government noted that 70% of passengers who had requested assistance when flying in the previous 12 months were

“happy with the service provided”.

That is fine, but it means that 30%—almost one in three—were not. There seem to have been lots more consultation exercises and responses from both the Civil Aviation Authority and the Government than actual delivery of improvements.

In June last year, the CAA said that significant service failings were “unacceptable”. It warned airlines that they could face enforcement action regarding their legal obligations. What enforcement is actually happening? Perhaps the Minister can tell us. In June this year, the Government said it would seek to

“legislate when parliamentary time allows”—

in the time-honoured phrase—on enforcement powers of the CAA. We have learned in this House not to hold our breath regarding such promises. Can the Minister give us a date for such legislation? What is happening in the meantime on enforcement?

Many passengers—including, as we have heard, colleagues in this House—have been left stranded on planes without their wheelchairs being returned to them or with wheelchairs and other mobility aids lost or damaged, and the ensuing fight for compensation. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, has spoken about poor experiences and said that disabled people are

“routinely … told they are not allowed to fly on their own because of health and safety”.

To anyone who is, for instance, single or widowed, or for any reason whatever is travelling alone, for business or pleasure, this is a massive and patronising inconvenience.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, had a documentary on the BBC World Service last night, entitled “Tanni’s Lifetime Road to Disabled Equality”, about how not only in the UK but worldwide countries are still struggling with providing proper access for people with disabilities. One thing she highlighted—not about travel—was that 40% of the disabled people who lived in Grenfell Tower died in that fire. She campaigns on evacuation provision. As she said, the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, whose being stranded on a plane waiting for the return of his wheelchair hit the headlines, complained on the noble Baroness’s programme about being treated as an “invalid” or “special person” instead of a service user like any other with particular needs. He wants common-sense practice, not “policy”, to guide service.

My main experience with my husband was of train travel, so I will say something about that, if I may—I think my noble friend Lady Brinton is permissive on this score. Provision for him was pretty hit and miss, with lots of pre-booking and checking up necessary. It arrived, more often than not, though often with a delay or with it needing to be chased by phone, but a majority of times is not good enough. I do not know if the situation has improved these days, with apps, but being stranded on trains is reported regularly. People’s needs differ. I recall one hairy occasion at St Pancras when, getting off a Thameslink train, the only offer was a ramp, but that was of no use to Steve, by then on his legs. He could step down but the big gap between train and platform without well-placed grab rails was nerve-wracking. By the way, Steve found the grab rails in the new electric taxis not to be very convenient, but they are great otherwise.

In the programme I just cited, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, reminded us that step-free access to trains, once promised for January 2020, has been put back to—unless I misheard—2070. Can this possibly be true? Even if there is level boarding from platform to train, there remains the problem of reaching the platform. Disgracefully, it was proposed at one point that seven stations on the Elizabeth line would be denied disabled access for cost-cutting reasons. This was reversed after an outcry but, of all the things to cut, what a telling reaction it was that slashing disabled access was top of the list.

Lifts at stations are very often out of action, sometimes with a casual apology notice stuck on. I wonder if Network Rail and the train companies understand the devastation that can be caused by a broken lift. It means either a horrible struggle up the stairs with great difficulty, maybe with a suitcase, or simply being unable to travel. Breakdowns need fixing in a maximum of hours, not days—let alone weeks.

My worst experience with my late husband was on our last holiday abroad, in May 2019, to Amsterdam on a direct Eurostar train. It was ruined, despite Eurostar’s promise in its website’s “special assistance” section that:

“If you’re travelling with a disability or reduced mobility, free special assistance is there to help you get to and from the train. At many of our stations, you’ll be helped by our Eurostar Assist team; at some of our stations, you’ll be helped by the local team. Although some local teams provide a slightly different service, we work closely with them to make sure everything goes smoothly”.

When he arranged the service, my husband was not told that the Amsterdam station’s “slightly different service” meant no loan wheelchair to meet him off the train, such as was provided at St Pancras to get on it. It provided a ramp only to passengers travelling in their own wheelchairs. Eurostar later claimed that we should somehow have known that

“free special assistance … to help you get to and from the train”

did not include a wheelchair loan at Amsterdam, as it did at St Pancras, since we were reliant on a Dutch railway service. I pointed out that our contract was with Eurostar, not NS, the Dutch railways.

The train manager on the Brussels-Amsterdam section of the outward trip came to find us to say, “I know you are registered for assistance but there is in fact no wheelchair loan at Amsterdam”. He clearly understood that we would not know about that and would be hearing it for the first time. We had been allocated seats in the end carriage of the outward train, which I had not thought was a problem, given that we were going to get a wheelchair to the door of the train. When we did not, my husband had the longest possible walk to the lift, which was a physical challenge for him with his prosthetic leg and distressing for me to observe. Even the memory of it distresses me. This was anything but the promised smooth experience.

I will spare you the details of the ruined weekend, with me making phone calls all over the shop to Eurostar and, when the company told me to, to SNCB, Thalys and goodness knows what—even though it was Eurostar’s responsibility. I have recounted this tale at some length for the snapshot it gives of not only poor service and lack of communication but poor co-ordination between providers, disingenuous explanations and attempts to wriggle out of responsibility. That is common to all modes of travel. I expect the Government and/or regulators to stop all this.

I am sorry; I have gone on. The fact is that we have an ageing society where the demand for assistance from those with either disability or reduced mobility can only grow, so the urgent need is for all those access and assistance promises to finally be fulfilled.

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Brinton for bringing us the opportunity for such an important debate. She has recounted some very sobering experiences. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, spoke, I recalled the apparent progress that we made during the 2012 Olympics in developing public understanding, appreciation and awareness of disability issues. Paralympic athletes such as the noble Baroness became our national heroes. My thought was: have we forgotten so soon? Has our society moved to ignoring these problems and issues again?

Of course, a change has occurred. Statistics show that requests for assistance for disabled passengers have doubled for airlines in the past two or three years. Those requests, as people decided to go on holiday and travel again after years of Covid restrictions, were being lodged at a time when the aviation industry had huge problems with recruitment, but some of the problems are not just transitory. They are endemic in the system.

When I was preparing for this debate, I was trying to analyse the source of the problems. Meeting these needs is a combination of provision by the airport and provision by the airline. One thing that is very useful indeed is the CAA’s annual survey and report on the record of individual airports. I am sure that the Minister will refer to this in this response. The CAA’s report shows that there have been improvements since what can be regarded only as the complete nadir in 2022—things have improved somewhat.

That report is important for two reasons. First, it incentivises the airports to improve their achievements and service, because they are named and shamed. Secondly, it is a source of information for people using wheelchairs who wish to travel, because you can pick out a better airport. It used to be that you avoided Luton at all costs but it has improved lately. What gives me real concern is that Heathrow seems to have a consistently poor record. That is our premier airport; it has the numbers to be able to provide a regular service and I cannot see why it does not consistently do well.

The other part of the jigsaw is the airlines. International lists of good airlines dealing with passengers with disabilities do not feature British-based airlines very much and that is a matter of concern to me.

My noble friend Lady Ludford talked about her Eurostar experience. I have never tried to board a plane in a wheelchair, but I needed a wheelchair last year, soon after my heart operation, when I got on the Eurostar. I have to say that I was treated brilliantly; the staff were absolutely lovely. The whole process was smooth—but I was not, of course, using my own wheelchair. I was using Eurostar’s and I could, with assistance, walk up a step, so it was not parallel to my noble friend’s experience with her husband. I hope the fact that I was treated so well suggests that, over the couple of years since the incident she recounted, things might have improved.

One problem is that this is partly an international issue, and we can control the British end better than we can control the further end of the journey. I also want to draw attention to the fact that airport services are remarkably fragmented: ground handling, luggage, catering, retail, security and passport control, bus transfers and the flight itself are all provided by different companies, and the co-ordination of those is a massive task. I am not trying today to reorganise the aviation industry but I wonder whether there might be a better way of co-ordinating it.

This debate has been overwhelmingly about aviation, but I suggest that a similar story could and should be told about railway services. On a weekly basis, on the trains that I travel on, I watch people in their wheelchairs—there are always people in wheelchairs on intercity services—who are worrying. You can see that they are not sure about the provision of services, and on a couple of occasions I have had to come to someone’s rescue by shouting at a member of staff further down the platform to make the point that there is someone waiting to get off. There is still a long way to ago.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Gascoigne, in his place fulfilling his duties as a Government Whip, having so recently been introduced to the House. We look forward to seeing much more of him.

What we are talking about here is a fundamental issue of equality and we clearly have to do something about it. I shall not speak for long on the issue; we have heard moving contributions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton, Lady Grey-Thompson and Lady Ludford. The question is: what are the Government doing about it?

In the case of air travel, this is obviously primarily an international issue, so there is the difficult question of how one enforces standards across the EU, with the US and across the world as a whole, but there is no excuse for the poor treatment of people with disabilities on public transport in our own country. We have to do better than we are at present. The numerous reports of problems are really unanswerable.

What are the Government doing to monitor compliance with the relevant domestic legislation? In the case of airlines, is this something that they regard as the CAA’s responsibility and therefore the department does not have to do much, or is the department itself taking these questions seriously? If it is, what in the near future is it planning to do about it?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for asking this important question and all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. Aviation passengers’ rights remain a priority and the Government are committed to ensuring that air travel is accessible for all. I am extremely sorry to hear of the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the other shocking experiences that have been unfolded in Grand Committee today. For what it is worth, in my role as a Minister I am responsible for maritime accessibility, so I take this very seriously.

My responses today relate to contributions made by all noble Lords. I will start by talking about the rights of disabled passengers and the Government’s position. We have been clear with industry that passengers should be provided with the best service possible, including providing services and support to disabled and less mobile passengers so that they can travel with ease and dignity. Failure in this area is totally unacceptable.

In the Civil Aviation Authority’s latest aviation consumer survey, 21% of respondents identified as having a disability or health condition. Out of these people, 58% stated that they had difficulty in accessing or using airports or flying, and 70% required assistance when flying. The Government are committed to tackling the barriers affecting disabled and less mobile passengers while flying. The department has consulted formally on accessibility and regularly engages with disability experts and people with lived experience to further understand the issues. The department is committed to continuing to work collaboratively to bring about positive changes in aviation accessibility. To help bolster understanding and drive improvements, the department works closely with the government-appointed Disability and Access Ambassador for Aviation, Ann Frye OBE, and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee to ensure that disabled passengers’ voices are represented.

I recognise and take on board the notion that this is a global issue and must be addressed accordingly. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, is quite correct to point out that this is a matter of equality. The Government are working actively with other countries at a European level through the ECAC and internationally with the ICAO.

Following consultation, the Government have committed to a range of legislative reforms, when parliamentary time allows, and non-legislative measures to improve air passenger rights for all passengers, first to remove the compensation cap for damaged wheelchairs on domestic UK flights through legislation. The Government will also work with industry to encourage voluntary waiving of this cap on international flights. It is important that when industry is in breach of its obligations to consumers, there are means of addressing this. Therefore, the department will take forward legislation to give the CAA additional enforcement powers: for example, the power to issue fines. Additionally, alternative dispute resolution membership for all airlines operating to, from and within the United Kingdom will be mandatory, so that all passengers can escalate complaints no matter who they choose to fly with. The right training is vital for the sector to understand the needs of disabled and less-mobile passengers. That is why the department launched a new training module for industry on handling powered wheelchairs to help mitigate damage to these vitally important items.

On stakeholder engagement, my noble friend Lady Vere of Norbiton, the previous Aviation Minister, hosted a round table with accessibility experts in June 2023. This focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the barriers faced by disabled and less-mobile passengers and what more could be done to address these. The round table was invaluable in identifying key areas that could be reformed. The department is now taking forward discussions with industry to drive forward improvements in the sector focusing on these key issues, including, for example, training, data sharing, complaint handling and infrastructure. The department is committed to continuing its engagement with industry and stakeholders to make air travel enjoyable and comfortable for everyone. To help drive improvements, the Government work closely with the government-appointed Disability and Access Ambassador for Aviation whom I mentioned earlier, and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, to ensure that disabled passengers’ voices are represented.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, talked about the Civil Aviation Authority’s role. We have a regulatory framework that sets out the rights of disabled and less mobile passengers when flying, which is enforced by the CAA. The recent public body review of the CAA looked at the efficiency, effectiveness, governance and accountability of the CAA as a whole, including the use of its current consumer protection enforcement powers. The independent review reported that the CAA is a highly effective regulator. The CAA is committed to its role to consumers, which is evident from several key initiatives, including the release of a recent airport accessibility performance report, the ongoing consultation on introducing a similar airline performance framework, the assessment of airline website accessibility and the publication of a new consumer strategy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned staff training. Training is key to ensuring that staff across the aviation sector understand the needs of disabled passengers. The ministerial round table with disability experts in June 2023 raised staff training as one of the key barriers to disabled people’s confidence to fly. UK law obliges all staff to receive appropriate disability awareness training. The department will work with industry to understand what issues or gaps, if any, exist and will consider ways to address these. The department published a free online disability awareness and equality training package for all transport mode operators, including aviation, in November 2020. The REAL training programme was created to improve the sector’s confidence and skills in delivering inclusive journeys for disabled passengers. The department launched a new module as part of the REAL programme in June for handling powered wheelchairs; the training focuses on the importance of careful handling and the impact that any damage has on the passenger.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, also talked about seating on board aircraft. We strongly believe that everyone should have equal access to air travel. Under UK law, airlines are required to make all reasonable efforts to arrange seating to meet a disabled passenger’s needs, including seating a travelling companion next to the passenger. While there is no legal requirement for airlines to offer free or discounted seats to an accompanying person, it is the CAA’s view that it is best practice for airlines to do so where they require a disabled or less mobile passenger to travel with an accompanying person. Airlines are allowed to request an accompanying person only due to safety concerns: for example, if a passenger could not evacuate the aircraft in an emergency.

On non-visible disabilities, providing accessible aviation to all passengers is a government priority. As I mentioned earlier, the CAA has published guidance for both airlines and airports on providing assistance to passengers with non-visible disabilities. In fact, the Government’s Disability and Access Ambassador ran an excellent session with industry and experts on a new UK standard for the built environment and neurodiversity, called “Design for the Mind”. The session considered how the airport environment can be better designed and managed to be an enjoyable environment for neurodiverse people. The Government are working with experts following this session to understand what practical steps can be taken.

On accessible toilets on board aircraft, there is already guidance on accessibility requirements under UK law that airlines are expected to follow, including guidance on accessible toilets on different aircraft types. The CAA has recently reinforced, in its consultation on an airline accessibility performance framework, that airlines must meet the requirements set out in the guidance, including providing assistance to and from the toilet via an on-board wheelchair in order to meet their legal obligations.

Airport security screening was mentioned. As I said, the Government are committed to ensuring that flying is enjoyable and accessible for everyone, and the department is engaging with industry to identify ways that this can be achieved for the entire passenger journey. All passengers must be screened effectively, and, as far as possible, disabled and less mobile passengers will be screened to the same standard and in the same way as other passengers. Where passengers are not able to be screened in the usual way, an alternative method will be used that may take slightly longer. Security officers are expected to make reasonable adjustments when screening or searching passengers with a disability.

The reports we have seen in recent years about the mistreatment of disabled and less mobile passengers travelling by air are, as I said earlier, completely unacceptable. The department is committed to making aviation accessible and enjoyable for everyone, and there are plans in place, both legislative and non-legislative, to drive this forward. There is legislation in place to protect the rights of passengers, and the CAA will take enforcement action, where necessary, to protect the rights of consumers. The industry has made some real changes over the last year to improve the service it provides to consumers, including disabled and less mobile passengers, and this is evident in the CAA’s most recent report on airport accessibility performance. However, there is more to do, and the department and the CAA will continue to work collaboratively with industry to focus on improving the accessibility of aviation and the service provided to passengers.

The Government are clear that all passengers must be treated with respect and dignity while travelling by air. It is vital that government, the CAA, industry and accessibility stakeholders continue to work together to making flying an enjoyable, safe and comfortable experience. I thank noble Lords for their input on this important issue.

Sitting suspended.

Educational Technology

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role of educational technology (ed tech) being used in schools in relation to (1) the educational outcomes, (2) the social development, and (3) the privacy of schoolchildren.

My Lords, I declare my interests, particularly that of chair of the Digital Futures Commission, which published the Blueprint for Educational Data in 2022, as chair of 5Rights Foundation and adviser to the Institute for Ethics in AI in Oxford.

School is a place of learning and an environment where children build relationships, life choices are made and futures initiated. For most children, school is compulsory, so while they are there, the school is in loco parentis. I welcome the use of technology, whether for learning or management, but it is uniquely important that it meets the school’s multiple responsibilities for the children in its care.

The debate this afternoon asks us to consider the impact of edtech on learning, privacy and the social development of children. Each could fill a debate on its own, but in touching on all three, I wish to make the point that we need standards and oversight of all.

For more than a decade, Silicon Valley, with its ecosystem of industry-financed NGOs, academics and think tanks, has promised that edtech would transform education, claiming that personalised learning would supercharge children’s achievements and learning data would empower teachers, and even that tech might in some places replace teachers or reach students who might otherwise not be taught.

Meanwhile, many teachers and academics worry that the sector has provided little evidence for these claims. A recent review by the UCL’s Centre for Education Policy found that, of 25 of the most popular maths apps for children aged five, only one had been empirically evaluated for positive impacts on maths outcomes. Half of them did not include features known to support learning, such as feedback loops, and six of the 25 contained no mathematical content at all. If the UCL finding was extrapolated across the half a million apps labelled “education apps” in the app store, 480,000 would not be evaluated, a quarter of a million would provide no learning support and 120,000 would have no educational content at all. The lack of quality standards is not restricted to apps but is widely spread across all forms of edtech. Of course we should have tech in school, but it must be educationally sound.

Covid supercharged the adoption of edtech and, while we must not conflate remote learning with edtech in the classroom, the Covid moment offers two important insights. First, as forensically set out in the UNESCO publication An Ed-Tech Tragedy, the “unprecedented” dependence on technology worsened disparities and learning loss across the world—including in Kenya, Brazil, the United States and Britain. Unsurprisingly, in each country the privileged children with space, connectivity, their own device and an engaged adult had better outcomes than their peers. A more surprising finding was that, where there was no remote learning at all but children were supplied with printouts or teaching via TV or radio, the majority of students did better. The exact reasons are complex but, in short, teaching prepared by teachers for students whom they know, unmediated by the values and normative engineering practices of Silicon Valley, had better outcomes. UNESCO calls on us to ensure that the promises of edtech are supported by evidence.

Secondly, Covid embedded edtech in our schools. Sixty-four per cent of schools introduced, increased or upgraded their technology with no corresponding focus on pupil privacy. In 2021, LSE Professor Sonia Livingstone and barrister Louise Hooper for the Digital Futures Commission mapped the journey of pupil data on Google Classroom and Class Dojo. Their report showed children’s data leaking from school and homework assignments into the commercial world at eye-watering scale, readily available to advertisers and commercial players without children, parents or teachers even knowing.

It is worth noting that, in 2021, the Netherlands negotiated a contract that restricted the data that Google’s education products could share. In 2022, Helsingør in Denmark banned Google Workspace and Chromebooks altogether—the same year the French Ministry of Education urged schools to stop using free versions of both Google and Microsoft.

Children’s privacy is non-trivial. Data may include school attendance, visits to the nurse, immigration status, test results, disciplinary record, aptitude and personality tests, mental health records, biometric data, or the granular detail of how a child interacted with an educational product—whether they hesitated or misspelled. Between management platforms, multiple connected devices and programmes used for teaching, the data that can be collected on a child is almost infinite and the data protection breathtakingly poor. Pupil data has been made available to gambling firms and advertisers, and even been found to track their use of mental health services.

I turn briefly to the impact on social development. Child development is a multifaceted affair, in which not only the tech itself but the opportunity cost—that is, what the child is not doing—is of equal import. I was in Manchester last week, where a programme to bring professional dancers to nursery schools is being developed because children were arriving unable to play, look each other in the eye or move confidently. Although schools are not to blame if children come in overstimulated and undersocialised, in part because of the sedentary screen time of early years, it is absolutely crucial that school remains a place of movement, singing, playing, drawing, reading and class teaching, supported by tech but not replaced by it, not only in a handful of Manchester nurseries but throughout the school system, and, very importantly, during the teenage years. Decisions about edtech should be in the light of and in response to not simply learning but the whole child and their development needs.

In my final minutes, I will speak briefly about safety tech. Here, I record my gratitude to Ministers and officials in the Department for Education, past and present, who have made very significant progress on this issue this year.

Frankie Thomas was 15 when she accessed a story that promoted suicide on a school iPad that had not been connected to the school filtering system. Subsequently, she took her own life exactly as she had seen online. Since that time, her parents, Judy and Andy, have campaigned tirelessly to bring the governance of safety tech to our notice. They deserve much credit for the advances that have been made. However, we still do not have standards for safety tech in schools. Schools can buy, and are buying, in good faith, systems that fail to search for self-harm or have illegal content filters switched off and so on. Secondarily, while we have excellent new guidance, Ofsted inspections do not explicitly ask whether schools are reviewing and checking that their online safety systems are working, meaning that thousands of schools have not properly engaged with that guidance.

I gave the Minister notice of my questions and very much look forward to her response. Will the department introduce quality control for edtech, including peer review and certification that evidences that it is suitable to meet children’s educational and development needs? Will the department use the upcoming Data Protection and Digital Information Bill to introduce a data protection regime for schools, which is so urgently needed? Will the department introduce standard procurement contracts, such as the Netherlands has, recognising that a single school cannot negotiate performance and privacy standards with global companies? Will the department bring forward a requirement for minimum standards of filtering and monitoring so that safety systems are fit for purpose, and simultaneously ensure that Ofsted’s inspecting schools handbook explicitly requires an inspector to ask whether a school is regularly checking its safety tech?

I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords who have chosen to speak and look forward to their contributions. Education is an extremely precious contribution to child development and widely regarded as a public good. It must not be undermined by allowing an unregulated market to develop without regard for the learning, privacy and safety of children.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who has set out the parameters for today’s short debate so powerfully and with her customary expertise. It is a great pleasure to see a number of other noble Lords in the Chamber who I have spent quite a long time debating online safety issues with so far in 2023. I mention my honorary position as a member of the political advisers panel of AI in Education. I shall come back to that in a moment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, set out a very clear case for standards and oversight of tech in education. I know that this is not a new issue; it is something that my noble friend the Minister and the Department for Education have been looking at for quite some time. When I was Secretary of State for Education, quite a long time ago now, I remember being invited to a number of edtech conferences and events, where I was told how technology was going to revolutionise the classroom, make everybody’s lives so much easier and cut workloads. I still think that all those things are possible and that we should see both the risks and opportunities of technology in education. My former constituency of Loughborough experienced, many, many years ago, the Luddites, as they came through and smashed up the cotton frames. I do not think we want to be Luddites about technology in education or say that we need to put the genie back in the bottle. I will be very interested to hear from the Minister how much the department is already doing in this particular space.

Of course, it is not just about government. As with so many other things, government Ministers, officials, and advisory groups can do so much, but there are many other organisations. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about one; AI in Education, led by Sir Anthony Seldon, is another; the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who cannot be here today, has talked about the Institute for Ethical AI in Education. I very much hope that the department is calling on all those institutions, as well as many others in the space, to gather the best expertise, because I do not think that in this fast-moving world government can possibly be expected to solve the issues that today’s short debate will highlight on its own.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, this issue of tech in education has been only accelerated—as so many other things relating to technology were—by the pandemic. The Covid-19 Committee that this House set up in 2020, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, took evidence on the specific issue of technology in education during the pandemic. While, of course, there were issues—technology adopted very quickly, issues relating to privacy and other things thought about later than they should have been—I was also struck at the time by the evidence from parents and others working with, in particular, children with special needs, for whom the opportunity to learn online in a quieter environment had, for many, been something that they welcomed. I think it is fair to say that we all now live in a hybrid world. While there is no doubt that children learn best in a classroom—we all learn and communicate better face-to-face—there will still be times when the hybrid option is suitable.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about safety tech. The first message I urge my noble friend to take back to the department and others is that I really hope that we are not going to play catch-up on all these issues, as we have done with internet regulation. We now have the Online Safety Act, and are all now waiting for the regulator to do what it needs to do, but there is no doubt that we—and not just us but Governments around the world—have been playing catch-up with the growth of the internet. The issues relating to technology and education, and how we keep our young people safe, are not new; we need to think them through and try to keep as ahead as we possibly can of the challenges.

In the time available, I will make two points. One relates to the curriculum and the other relates to character education, my favourite subject. It seems to me that, over the course of the past nine years, since I had the fortune to become the Secretary for Education, which is a fantastic role, our curriculum has slipped behind somewhat in being relevant for the 21st century. Knowledge is very important, but the world has changed, along with the way that we all access that knowledge—that genie will not go back in the bottle. As the noble Baroness said, getting young people to understand the risks of sharing their data but also being confident about broader issues relating to data analysis and the use of statistics are things that our curriculum does not accurately teach now. A lot of the rest of us, who are not in school or college, could also benefit from lessons in these things, so a programme of adult education on these matters would not go amiss either.

I used to get a lot of lobbying about the taking of exams: why do we still ask young people to sit in rooms for three hours scribbling on a piece of paper? Again, the recall of knowledge is important, but there are ways of designing the use of technology in exam settings that would stop people accessing information on the internet to help them but also reflect the fact that, when you get out into the big wide world and the workplace, people will be using technology. I say this not as somebody whose handwriting is abysmal, but the fact is that I type every day and do not write that much anymore. We have to reflect that fact.

The other point is being sceptical about what young people are finding out from artificial intelligence and the internet. Again, all of us could benefit from lessons in that. But if young people and those who are teaching them are going to use artificial intelligence in education, let us work with them to make sure that they are confident in how they use it, how they check what it is and any underlying biases in the AI that they have been using.

My final point is on character. I firmly believe that our education system is for teaching not just knowledge but characteristics—values, virtues, things such as integrity, honesty, curiosity and the desire to constantly learn. That is more relevant than ever when you have the influence of technology in our classrooms. I would really welcome my noble friend’s comments on the need to update the curriculum to reflect the use of data and AI technology in the modern world, but also how schools will teach character skills to help young people to really use AI and technology in a way that benefits their education.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baronesses. I do not think that there was a word that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said that I did not agree with. I declare my interests at the outset: I, too, am a political adviser to AI in Education; I chair a multi-academy trust, E-ACT; I am a director of Suklaa, whose clients include Iris Software and Goodnotes; I am a director of Macat; and I chair the boards at Century Tech and EDUCATE Ventures Research. I am very proud that the last two are headed up by two great experts around AI and education, Professor Rose Luckin and Priya Lakhani.

I am a long-term evangelist for the use of technology in education, as well as change in education and our school system, but I recognise the efficacy problem that the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Morgan, talked about. I signed off, and was responsible as a Minister for, the harnessing technology grants—rather a lot of money was spent on rather a lot of whiteboards. I am not sure that they made a massive difference when we did not accompany that investment with the training of teachers to transform their pedagogy to go with it, and we need to learn from that.

It is also fair to reflect that, with the current orthodoxy of the curriculum—what we require of young people and how they take tests writing on paper with pens in large sports halls every summer—perhaps we do not need technology. It may well be that, given that that system has not really changed for the last 50 to 70 years, we know how to teach it. If we think that that is right and we should preserve the status quo for ever, then perhaps we do not need technology. But I happen to believe, particularly with the workforce crisis that we face in our schools, and the changing environment externally that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, talked about, that we need to change.

I am guided by the work back in the late 1990s of Professor Ruben Puentedura from Boston who talked about his SAMR model—that is, substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition. It is only when you get to the modification or redefinition of pedagogy that you achieve proper gains with the application of technology in education.

Currently we have a curriculum problem for the reasons outlined by the noble Baroness. We have an opportunity for change enabled by technology assisting teachers, and technology is making that change inevitable and essential. In order to realise that opportunity, we have to be mindful of some of the problems of safety, data and privacy, the digital divide—the divide around access to devices and data—and the confidence of teachers and learners to be able to use technology and of parents to be able to support their children during homework using technology. We have to be mindful of all those things, but they should not be an obstacle to progress.

There are alternative visions. There is a dystopian vision where technology replaces teachers and young people are isolated, learning on screens, cramming for tests of knowledge and ultimately falling behind machines because they leave school unable to compete with highly intelligent machines and their ability to regurgitate knowledge far more accurately than humans ever could. At the same time, in that dystopian world, we would have all the problems of data privacy and privatisation that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about.

The utopian vision is of technology as a co-pilot to teachers, keeping them informed about the differences in their class, the scaffolding gaps in the knowledge of their children and the skills that those children need as technology helps them to interpret how their children are doing. This vision includes the opportunity for flipped learning so that the instructional knowledge-based elements of the learning can be done at home using technology so that school is a human place of social interaction and group work with the application of knowledge in an exciting way that teachers at the moment are not equipped and trained to be able to do. With the application of technology, there is an opportunity to do that and to develop a more rounded curriculum powered by novel forms of assessment with portfolios as endpoint qualifications that can deliver higher education entrance in a way that is a transformation from where we are at the moment and, to my mind, hugely exciting.

Artificial intelligence represents an opportunity. There are opportunities for tools for workload and workflow and pedagogic tools around adaptive learning, formative assessment on the fly and being able to deliver project-based learning in a way that is currently practically really hard for teachers but could be made a lot easier, thereby engaging all learners with relevant knowledge and skills in a way that is currently inconceivable.

However, we have to be mindful of the risks. I am interested in data trusts for public services and in whether we can set up trusts in statute not only for the NHS but for education so that we can own and control the use of children’s data, navigate which commercial partners we might want to use and get some return on the AI that that data is being used to train so that we can use that to help to fund our education system if that intellectual property is then exploited overseas.

The Minister will not be surprised that I question why we are investing £2 million of public money in Oak National Academy without procurement for it to do AI development, rather than using the private sector and others or even going through any kind of procurement to see how we might do that. Generally, I would love to see Oak repurposed into a modern-day version of BECTA that could properly advise the system on the safety, efficacy and workload implications of technology and generate the best-value procurement possible.

Edtech is a great opportunity. The need for change is pressing. We should chase after the utopian vision, with technology for good being embedded in what we do our schools.

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Knight, who has just demonstrated his extraordinary depth of knowledge in both education and technology. In fact, it is rather daunting to speak after him and the two noble Baronesses. Rather than declare my interests, I feel I have to do the opposite and declare my lack of knowledge, as I am not an educationalist at all, other than being the mother of two teenage daughters. I speak solely from my experience in digital transformation and digital regulation in other sectors.

With that caveat, I will dare to say a few points. From other sectors, there are four things that we know, which I would like to pull out. The first is obvious: the huge opportunity coupled and paired with the risks that digital technology brings. The yin and the yang are visible in every single place that digital goes. The second thing we know is that you cannot stop it. As my noble friend describes, the Luddites failed, as has everyone else who has attempted to stop technology. Like water in a flood, it finds a way through. You cannot ban it; you also cannot ignore it. We know that from every other sector.

Thirdly, the problem is not the technology, but the people. In every sector, it is people who make technological change hard. While 98% of the population embrace technology in an open, whole-hearted, moral and legal way, there will always be those who use technology in other ways. Change, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, referred to, involves people changing. We know that from every sector that digital has touched, but it is hard in every sector.

Fourthly, every sector is learning that it has to lean in itself. It is not possible to do what my parents did, which was to abdicate responsibility for the DVD or video player to the younger generation to program, because they did not know how. With technology, it is hugely tempting to want to abdicate responsibility to the “experts”, to the CTO or the technology function. Every sector is learning that you cannot do that. Educationalists, just like politicians, cannot abdicate this to other people. We have to lean in and learn ourselves.

It is here already. As I tried to mug up a little bit on the edtech sector in advance of this debate, I was really struck by some statistics from an RM Technology research pamphlet, published in June 2023. It did some research on 1,000 secondary school students this summer: 67% of them already used chatbots such as ChatGPT—67%, just six months after it launched—and 48% said that excluding it would really hold them back. However, 38% said they felt guilty about using it. Teenagers are expressing the yin and yang already: the opportunity and the threat of that new technology.

Those of us who have worked together on online safety for many years know that we were far too slow to challenge the tech exceptionalism in child online safety. We were far too slow to win the argument that self-regulation was patently not going to be fine. I worry that there is a real risk of almost a double exceptionalism here: the tech exceptionalism, of “Don’t worry, self-regulation will be fine”, coupled with the “Education is different, it’s all a bit too complicated; we need to leave it to the educational establishment and teachers—don’t worry”. Through that double exceptionalism, I was shocked to discover that the age-appropriate design code does not apply to education technology. I do not know why. Can my noble friend the Minister say why would we not extend the age-appropriate design code to edtech? We know that safety by design is the way to build in the right checks and balances for opportunity and risk in digital. If that is not regulated, it does not happen—we have seen that time and again in social media. While it is easy for me to say, “Lean in”, we must really invest to lean in and learn about the technologies. Can my noble friend the Minister say what the Department for Education is doing to build its knowledge as these new technologies grow?

I sit on the Lords Communications and Digital Committee, which is currently doing an inquiry into large language models. We have asked a whole series of regulators how prepared they are to regulate AI. I am ashamed to say that I do not think we have asked anyone in education, so I will do so now. I am keen to understand what the department is doing to build its expertise in large language models, because we can see they are being used. How many AI experts and data scientists does the department have? Is it starting to put together a regulatory sandbox? These are all questions we are asking other regulators and I suggest that the Department for Education should look at them too.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Knight, I too want to highlight the importance of digital inclusion. It is all very well for us to discuss the opportunities and risks of all this wonderful technology, but the harsh reality is that far too many children are growing up in this country without access to it at all. According to Ofcom’s 2023 media use and attitudes report, 19% of 16 to 24 year-olds use only a smartphone to go online. Imagine trying to do your homework just with a smartphone—possibly one that is shared among the whole family. That is a huge disadvantage, which serves to exacerbate all the things that I know the department is working so hard to try to improve.

The report showed that 28% of 16 to 24 year-olds are only “narrow” internet users, which Ofcom defines as those who use the internet for only one to four activities out of a defined list of 13. These are not technical—buying things, streaming videos, looking for jobs or using it for research. That is a very large proportion of our young people without a broad range of basic digital skills. What are we doing in education to ensure that all pupils have basic digital skills and access to more than just a smartphone?

The opportunities are so great—I am a tech evangelist in so many ways—but the risks are also very real. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, standards and oversight need to be in every sector. Probably none is more important than education.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating this relevant and highly pertinent debate. I confess that tech is not my area of expertise, but I have received so many briefings and emails and so much helpful advice that I am now well aware of the importance of edtech in schools.

I was a teacher before technology. If we needed to duplicate, we had a jelly tray on which you put one sheet at a time. I seem to remember the print came out purple, for some reason. The advent of photocopiers was a revolution to teachers—the heady days of yesteryear—but, as we have heard, educational technology is on the rise and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said, we cannot halt it. However, we need to learn how to manage it so that it is our servant and not our master. Much of what I was going to say has been said, but of course I have not said it. I shall try not to be repetitive.

There is always the danger that students are likely to be one step ahead of teachers, as the young have grown up with technology whereas many teachers have had to learn it. As others have pointed out, there are dangers for the social development of pupils if they rely too much on technology and not enough on their own learning. There is also a danger of taking the personal interaction between teacher and pupil out of the picture.

My daughter was a primary teacher during Covid, working excessive hours to ensure that her four year-old pupils continued their education, albeit in a strange and unusual way. Her first task was always to ensure that they had access to a computer and to an adult who could use it, and then to construct relevant and interesting lessons to ensure that they did not lose out. We share concerns about the Oak National Academy, which was set up during Covid to support remote learning, which was new to pupils and teachers. Can the Minister say what the status of the Oak National Academy is now? AI was supposed to help teachers with lesson planning and other materials that would reduce their workload, but it is not at all certain that that was achieved.

We have heard from Jen Persson, the director of Defend Digital Me, who writes:

“To reduce the debate on edTech to questions of data processing or particular pros and cons of a single product is to misunderstand the socio-political and economic underpinning and goals of the edTech market”.

Jen raises concerns that

“the introduction of many common technology tools, apps and platforms into the school setting means the introduction of hundreds, often thousands, of strangers who influence a child’s life through interactions with companies and their affiliates in the digital world”.

Others have pointed this out. They say these platforms are by no means secure and can

“bypass the gatekeepers within the school system to deliver EdTech directly to young people, their families and lifelong learners”.

In other words, the privacy and safety of children may be compromised by these exciting new tools. The issue of the privacy and safety of children must surely be addressed, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others.

For teachers who are overworked and underpaid, there could be help in their workload if they are provided with a personalised AI lesson-planning assistant, but, once again, we need to know how secure these assistants will be. Schools may decide to use tools and platforms to help with management and administration, monitor the progress of students and communicate with other staff members and even with parents. There are copious uses of AI. However, we raise concerns about the cost of the equipment, such as interactive whiteboards, laptops or tablets. They do not come cheap and, as we know only too well, school budgets are stretched to the limit. So what priority will these have in the decisions of head teachers? If payment for those things means that schools go without other things, we have to address that carefully.

We are certainly well aware of the use of edtech for special educational needs. My colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who is dyslexic, has always relied heavily on devices to assist him. Many other students with different needs will find invaluable the use of adaptive technologies, such as braille machines and other pieces of equipment for blind students. Edtech can be transformational for students who otherwise would miss out on education.

Could technology also be used to ease teacher workload of lesson planning, marking and assessment? Our teachers provide an amazing service to pupils, parents and the country, and anything that helps to reduce workload has to be welcomed. However, once again, we need to be assured of confidentiality in relation to young people. AI might tackle some of the administrative tasks that might keep teachers from investing more time with their peers or students.

There are arguments that edtech could contribute to pastoral support, mental health and pupils’ well-being, but surely only up to a point. The personal touch of teachers and parents can never be sidelined. According to the Government, the UK’s edtech sector is the largest in Europe. They also report that UK schools already spend an estimated £900 million a year on educational technology. If that means that it improves learner engagement and progress, this has to be money well spent. We know that during Covid edtech was invaluable, but surely machines, however sophisticated, can never replace face-to-face teaching.

I will digress slightly by saying, particularly in response to the comment by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, that the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Aberdare, and I are on a committee looking at 11-16 education, and we have concluded that GCSEs have completely failed our young people. Our report will come out in December, and I urge noble Lords to look at it because the whole process of 11-16 education is deeply flawed at the moment.

I look forward to the Minister’s reply and hope that the country’s students will be able to benefit from dedicated teachers and world-class technology.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in promoting the interests of children in relation to AI and the need to put them at the heart of the debate on AI and online safety. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, I am not an expert in technology, so I feel slightly at a loss compared to some of the greater knowledge in the Room, but I have learned a huge amount this week and in this debate.

Every part of our lives is already being affected by AI, but there is a huge divide between those who understand how it works and how it affects us, and those who do not. However, all policy areas should have a renewed focus on the risks and opportunities of AI, and this should be at the front and centre of our work here in Parliament. As the Tony Blair Institute has said, this is a technology with

“a level of impact akin to the internal combustion engine, electricity and the internet, so incrementalism will not be enough”.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said, we cannot stop it.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that each part of the question could fill a debate on its own. She highlighted the global issues in inequality, which we should be concerned about. I will, however, focus on the UK in my remarks. Her examples of the need to ensure that children do not lose the opportunity to socialise and gain social development were powerful. Can the Minister provide reassurance on this and on the online safety issues and the need for safety tech? The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, noted the advantages to some pupils with special educational needs, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. This offers an immense opportunity. Is the Minister confident that this is being used effectively by schools and promoted effectively by the department?

My noble friend Lord Knight spoke about the need to redefine pedagogy to reflect tech change. This has to be a priority for all of us. I agree that we do not need to assume that we are going to have a dystopian future, but we need to have a balanced debate between this and the utopian vision. Sometimes, there is a big divide between those who see it as a dystopia and those who see it as a utopia. We need to find somewhere in the middle, otherwise we will not be able to embrace the potential, both for the children and for the country, and provide the safeguarding required.

Covid clearly fast-tracked technology in our schools. Technology clearly has the power to transform our education system. But we should not assume that technological advancements in our classrooms will automatically lead to educational advancements. Technology will not be the silver bullet that alone recruits, retains or replaces the teaching staff we desperately need. It will not rebuild our schools or bring a generation of persistently absent children back into classrooms—although there may be some ways in which it can help in terms of the administration of some of these issues.

As the pace of impact of educational technology threatens to outstrip our ability to respond to individual developments, we must work with schools, colleges, universities, employers and unions, as well as pupils and parents and others with parental responsibility to create an overriding strategy that can address the challenges, risks and opportunities that technology poses. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, that the curriculum needs to change. Her suggestion about education would perhaps ensure that policymakers better understand the tech as well. I would work on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and my noble friend Lord Knight raised points around Oak Academy. The recent announcement on the new role of AI on the platform warrants additional answers from the department. Concerns have already been raised about the operation, evaluation and assurance at Oak National Academy. AI only serves to amplify this. Could the Minister tell us how much public money is being spent on this and what exactly it will provide? Will it provide exactly what teachers want and need?

Labour knows that we must better prepare our children and young people for the coming digital future. They must be able to use new, emerging and future technology. They must also understand how to shape these technologies and understand their opportunities, risks and limitations. The questioning style and the critical skills we need to teach children in this emerging area are vital. We must ensure that all young people are equipped with both literacy and numeracy skills as well as analytical, critical thinking, problem-solving, creative and collaborative skills that will enable them not only to adapt to change but to lead it and understand what their roles and opportunities are within this new technological world. In this context, I welcome the work undertaken by the organisation AI in Education and note the work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and my noble friend Lord Knight. Could the Minister outline how the DfE is engaging with and learning from this group and ensuring its professional perspective and expertise? I was staggered by the number of people involved when I looked through the website. It is a huge resource. How is the DfE utilising this expertise and the expertise of other groups, including those that have been mentioned in this debate?

I want to finish on the third question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on privacy for children and online safety and also raise questions on the potential for bias in AI algorithms, which may end up causing issues within all settings and educational settings in particular.

Can the Minister outline how the Government intend to protect the interests of children, not least in relation to privacy? Are they exploring measures from the Netherlands and Denmark, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, highlighted? What advice are the Government providing to schools about the use of AI, and will they insist on safety by design, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, suggests? I will finish with a quote from the World Economic Forum:

“There is no doubt that artificial intelligence will change the way children interact with their surroundings including their learning, play and development environment. However, it is our responsibility to ensure that this change becomes a force for good”.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her work in establishing standards for online safety and privacy, and for securing this debate. Her speech highlighted many of the risks inherent in these technologies as well as some of the opportunities. My noble friend Lady Harding felt daunted after just a couple of your Lordships’ speeches, but I feel even more daunted coming at the end after such expertise and insight from your Lordships.

I am pleased to say in response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, about our work with AI in Education that we have been working and liaising with it, and I share the noble Baronesses’ respect. I also spent time on its website recently, and I was stunned at the range of resources that it has created. I was fortunate enough to be part of its conference yesterday, which was an incredibly vibrant event bringing together many teachers and educators from around the country.

My noble friend Lady Morgan suggested that the Government need to avoid playing catch-up; I am sure she will recognise that it feels particularly hard for government, which is perhaps not generally famed for its agility, to operate and not play catch-up in an area where the pace of change is so extraordinarily fast. The way I would try to characterise this for my noble friend is that we are looking at this through two lenses. The first is to stay very close to teachers and work closely with them to understand what their immediate needs and worries are in relation to these technologies, and make sure that we can respond to those where appropriate. However, this is also about working very hard on the medium and longer-term issues—I will touch a little more on that in my remarks, but I do not want to underestimate the scale of the task because I know my noble friend Lady Morgan does not either.

We want to create an environment where all schools and trusts can use technology to improve access to education and outcomes, reduce staff workload and run their operations more efficiently. Technology is certainly not an easy solution to all this, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, raised important questions on the role of government in protecting students from the harms of technology. She asked whether we will introduce a data protection regime design for school settings; we are developing the Education Privacy Assurance Scheme—or EPAS to its friends—to work with education settings to help them understand and deliver their obligations and responsibilities in relation to data protection legislation. However, I will look more closely at the points she raised about the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, and I will of course come back to the noble Baroness in writing with an update on that.

In relation to whether we will introduce standard procurement contracts, we are currently looking at the ways in which we can make the procurement of technology easier for schools. We have five ICT frameworks in place, which are accessible via the find a framework service, and we are looking at how we can support schools beyond the framework, such as providing support developing specifications.

In relation to the peer review of education technology, we have the same expectations for robust evidence for education technology as we do elsewhere in education. I think the House would acknowledge that we are genuinely world leading in our quality of our education research, and so only where there is robust evidence of the impact of technology will we go further in actively encouraging adoption of that technology in the classroom. We have provided £137 million to the Education Endowment Foundation. Its upcoming research trials will explore teaching approaches that use educational technology, including which features of the technology, and how they are used, may support academic attainment—or not, as the noble Baroness suggested.

In relation to filtering and monitoring, we have published standards to help schools understand their responsibilities and statutory duties to safeguard children online, and we have embedded these standards in our Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance. That update was launched in March of this year and the standards have had over 100,000 views, so this is clearly touching something that feels very relevant to schools. We have also provided useful links to training materials and guidance to support schools, including commissioning the UK Safer Internet Centre to create and run a series of webinars.

We have set technology standards on connectivity, cybersecurity, filtering and monitoring, use of the cloud, and servers and storage. We want all schools to meet these standards, which is one reason why we have provided £200 million of investment to upgrade schools that fall below our wifi standards. We are also piloting a digital service to help schools to benchmark their technology, identify areas of improvement and implement these recommendations. We are currently testing those in Blackpool and Portsmouth, and will open it up to more schools next year.

We know that technology evolves at pace and that adoption of generative AI is ever more widespread. We must work very closely with the whole education sector to provide support on how best to use the technology, maximising opportunity while minimising risk. My noble friend Lady Harding asked what the department is doing in relation to LLMs and some of the points she raised are certainly on our radar, or are things that we are actively working on. We began by launching a call for evidence on generative AI in education over the summer. We had 567 responses from practitioners, edtech companies and AI experts across all stages of education, and we will publish the responses this autumn.

In October, we began work with Faculty and the National Institute of Teaching to understand the possible uses of generative AI in education, in a safe setting, exploring the opportunities that this technology presents to reduce teacher workload; to improve outcomes, particularly and explicitly for children with special educational needs, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Morgan, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and to use the technology to run school operations more efficiently.

We have held our first hackathon, which was huge fun as well as very insightful. I hope that we can expand some of that work in the new year, and we will publish the findings in spring 2024.

I absolutely agree with the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, about AI becoming a co-pilot with teachers. There has perhaps been a focus on using technology to substitute things that teachers already do rather than using it to enhance what they could do.

We have worked closely with Ofqual, Ofsted, the Office for Students and the Education Endowment Foundation as we develop our thinking. We are exploring the role of the Government in relation to the aggregation and curation of content, which the noble Lord, Lord Knight, referred to. We are also exploring our regulatory approach, including the role of a regulatory sandbox for looking at the behaviour of individual products, helping us understand what our regulatory approach should be and, as also picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, looking at how we can maximise the value of our educational IP.

The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, talked about the importance of children socialising. There are rightly concerns about tools that are serving children directly but, as the Committee has heard, our initial focus has been more on working with teachers and looking at some of the back-office functions. There is a tension and a need to hold on to the short-term pressures that teachers face in relation to the risk of plagiarising, for example; the medium-term issues about curation of content and regulation; and the really big-picture philosophical issues about how we think a classroom will look in five, 10 or 15 years.

My noble friend Lady Morgan and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked about and challenged the current curriculum. I remind the Committee that our focus on numeracy and literacy and a knowledge-rich curriculum has helped us to be ranked the highest country in the western world for the reading ability of nine and 10 year-olds. We rank fourth out of 43 countries that assessed children at the same time for the PIRLS 2021 survey. Similarly, we have seen significant improvement in maths. I am happy to write to noble Lords with more detail on the digital content in our curriculum.

My noble friend Lady Harding asked about the exception from the age-appropriate design code. There are exemptions for low-risk services, which include those managed by education providers, that are already subject to regulatory frameworks such as the Keeping Children Safe in Education framework.

Finally, in the last minute—which I do not have—I turn to the questions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Garden and Lady Twycross, about the role of Oak. Oak has been established as an arm’s-length body and is working very collaboratively with the education system and with teachers across the country to develop free curriculum resources.

I end by crediting the hard work and tenacity shown by teachers and leaders up and down the country, and by reassuring the Committee that the Government remain committed not only to supporting schools and students to achieve the best possible results but to consulting and working closely with the sector as we develop our work on the technology that will touch every child and teacher.

Committee adjourned at 4.59 pm.