Skip to main content

Lords Chamber

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2023

House of Lords

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Durham.

Introduction: The Lord Bishop of Winchester

Philip Ian, Lord Bishop of Winchester, was introduced and took the oath, supported by the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Durham, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

European Political Community Summit


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what preparations they are making for the fourth European Political Community Summit, to be held in the United Kingdom in spring 2024.

My Lords, I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary refer to the European Political Community as one of the important fora for the UK. I ask the Minister—

I thank the noble Lord for sharing the second part of his Question; it is always good for a Minister to get early warning. The UK values the European Political Community as an important platform for co-ordination on European issues. The EPC enables European leaders to come together to tackle shared challenges, from the war in Ukraine to achieving energy security to tackling illegal migration. The UK has attended all three summits so far at Prime Minister level. We are continuing to consult partners about the UK EPC summit and will make an announcement in due course.

My Lords, I presume we are chairing this meeting as we are the host. Does that give us particular influence over the agenda? Does it imply that our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary will be visiting some of our major partners in Europe in the coming months to ensure that the meeting goes well? If it is in May or June and it looks as if the Republicans are ahead in the US election campaign, this will clearly be one of the main multilateral fora for British foreign policy. What preparations to involve the country and inform the public will there also be beforehand?

My Lords, I think that many countries will be seized with elections next year—about 60 regional and national elections are planned. I can assure the noble Lord that both my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who attended the last summit, are focused on strengthening our partnerships on important issues including the war on our continent in Ukraine. The EPC has shown a strong ability to co-ordinate and to be very vocal in our unity of purpose and action on such important issues.

My Lords, the noble Lord stressed the importance of security in discussions at the summit. With the war in Europe, it is even more vital that we discuss those issues. As the noble Lord knows, I have asked this question before. Are the Government prepared to use this summit to propose a new UK-EU security pact, as advocated by Labour, to complement the work of NATO to ensure that we properly address those security issues with our nearest partner?

There are several issues the noble Lord has now caveated when asking me questions by saying “as advocated by Labour”.

Well, it is always good to be prepared, but do not count your chickens before they are hatched. To quote a former Baroness, “We fight on, we fight to win”. We will continue to be resolute.

In all seriousness, the EPC is an informal gathering of leaders, as the noble Lord knows. We remain very much focused. The agenda is important. It is not just on security. The noble Lord will be aware that previous EPC summits have discussed important issues of security, particularly energy security. I think that the whole of Europe, and indeed the world, is seized of the importance of energy security for the medium and long term.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be aware of the discussions about collaboration and co-operation with the EU on defence and security matters, known as PESCO, which have been ongoing for over 12 months. There have been concerns about openness and transparency in respect of that agreement. Is the Minister satisfied that there will be sufficient scrutiny and oversight by Parliament during the ongoing discussions and on the final agreement that is reached?

One of the points my noble friend has raised—my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been clear on this, as have other members of the Cabinet—is the importance of the sovereignty of the British Parliament on a range of issues. While we value strengthened co-operation and engagement on a raft of issues, including those we have with the EU when it comes to European multilateral co-operation, it is important that the sovereignty of Parliament is always prioritised.

My Lords, Russia and Belarus will not be participating, which is right, because a thread within the three EPCs has been human rights and the consistent message to support the European Court of Human Rights and re-embolden the Convention on Human Rights. The Minister will recall that the first topic in the first EPC was immigration. Will the Foreign Office be advising our European friends that, in response to immigration challenges, they should bring forward legislation on whose front page the Minister responsible cannot certify that it is consistent with the obligations that we have to the convention?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will be watching the debate in the other place with great attention and, of course, immigration is very much the remit of my colleagues in the Home Office. The United Kingdom has stood steadfast on the issue of human rights, and it is important that we continue to do so and that the legislation brought forward rightly gets tested by our own legal system. I think the Government’s record has also shown that even where we disagree with decisions taken by our courts, we adhere to them. That adherence to the rule of law is an important strength of our United Kingdom.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the first three EPCs have been great successes and that that success has largely been born not of what is on the agenda at the EPC but in the fact that leaders of the 47 countries now concerned are able to meet to discuss matters even on a bilateral basis? Can he confirm that, because it is very important for people to hear it around the place? Secondly, do we have any plans for developing the EPC beyond where the first three got to?

On the noble Earl’s second point, this is a new organisation which was put forward by the French President and we supported it. I agree with him on his first point as well: that we have seen the convening of leaders. It is not just the formal agenda—if there is such a thing—because this is an informal meeting. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, alluded to illegal migration, and at the last summit Prime Minister Sunak and Prime Minister Meloni were able to meet to tackle some of the key issues that impact not just our country but Europe as a whole.

To follow up the question just asked by the noble Earl, will the Prime Minister be conducting a series of bilateral conversations and, if he is doing that, will he include at the top of the list the new Prime Minister of Poland?

My Lords, I am not the diary manager for the Prime Minister—but you never know with the extension of mandates, roles and briefs. In all seriousness, I can speak quite specifically, as I know that my noble friend the Foreign Secretary is very seized of the importance of strengthening our relationship with our key European partners, and I am sure he will be focused on the agenda issues of artificial intelligence and the war in Ukraine. These are important issues not for our country alone, not just for Europe but for the world as a whole.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned migration, as did other noble Lords. Can the Minister indicate what tangible result has come from the discussions on migration at these summits?

My Lords, they provide an opportunity for agreements to be put in place, such as the UK’s agreements with Albania. Practical suggestions can be shared, and it can be ascertained how successes can be reflected across Europe. It is important when we look at illegal migration to note that there are two sides to the coin. The first is stopping illegal migration, but we also recognise that people migrate to countries for a variety of reasons, including bettering their lives, and some are fleeing persecution. The country that I represent on the world stage has a long tradition of standing up for the rights of the persecuted and that is really where we should be focused. Parties of different colours and different political persuasions have always stood up for that right and it is a proud tradition of our country.

Further to the supplementary question from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, when the Prime Minister meets other member states, will he discuss concerns that others have about the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights? Will he do so particularly with the French Government, who have announced that they will disregard such rulings and have already begun to do so by sending an Uzbek asylum seeker back to Uzbekistan even though the European Court of Human Rights said that he would stand at risk torture and death? Can he also ask why they get away with it, but it causes a great rumpus here but no concern to the Lib Dems?

It has often been said that I have an ever-widening brief, and I am now being asked to speak for the French Government.

I shall not take up my noble friend’s offer, but I assure him of two things. First, we do point out the importance of adhering to agreements. Indeed, the United Kingdom is at the top of the league for adherence to the European Court of Human Rights’ decisions. Notwithstanding the criticisms we often get, the action demonstrably shows that the United Kingdom remains a proud holder of the international obligations that we have signed up to.

Adult Social Care: Staffing


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the report of the National Audit Office Reforming adult social care in England published on 10 November (HC 184), how much of the £265 million allocated to reforming social care staffing between 2022–23 and 2024–25 has been spent so far, and what problems they have encountered in spending the allocated money.

The Government have made up to £8.1 billion available this and next year to strengthen adult social care provision. Specifically, we have invested over £15 million so far this year in supporting our workforce reform programme. The Government remain committed to our 10-year vision to put people at the heart of care and make long-term sustainable investment to future-proof the sector. Further announcements of support will be made shortly.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that the NAO’s report said that only £19 million of the very welcome £265 million that was originally allocated has thus far been spent. Even if the Minister does not agree that this is an utterly inadequate response to the crisis in social care, as the King’s Fund has said, he must admit that the slowness of progress is somewhat frustrating. Is it because there are not enough staff in the DHSC to distribute the money? I understand there are about 100 vacancies. Alternatively, is it because there have been many ministerial changes in his department, or because—as many in your Lordships’ House will suspect—social care is simply not a priority for this Government and, once again, millions of unpaid carers will be left to prop up a crumbling system?

I share the noble Baroness’s concern about the speed of deployment. At the same time, it is fair to say that we are developing a whole new set of social care qualifications, which we think we can all agree are key to this. We are also developing a whole new payment mechanism, because there are 17,000 independent providers and we need a mechanism to allow payment. It is a complex programme, but I agree that we need to do everything we can to speed it up.

My Lords, a key part of the equation for long-term social care sustainability is charging reform, yet the National Audit Office report points out that the Government have scrapped their charging reform programme board and have no overarching social care programme in place. Can the Minister confirm where responsibility for charging reform now sits, and whether we can expect any progress in this critical area in 2024?

Charging reform is still part of the Government’s commitment. At the same time, I think we all recognise that, largely as a result of the pandemic, we had to stabilise the social care situation first. That is what the £8.1 billion in funding has been all about and what the investment and recruitment have been for—so that we can stabilise first. I am glad to say that we are reaching a more stable footing. For the first time, staffing went up over last year and, likewise, the number of people in social care went up. We have to stabilise before we move on to the reform. I think we would all agree that the speed of reform needs to be a bit quicker, but it is sensible that we stabilise the situation first.

My Lords, in the Government’s search for long-term sustainable funding for adult social care, what assessment have they made of the successful models that operate in Germany and Japan, for instance?

The shorthand for the German system is the “double doughnut”, which tries to give wraparound care. We can learn many things from that system, which is why a part 2 reform needs to happen here. I accept that we are clearly not there yet.

My Lords, is not the truth of the matter that the Government have just shuffled off responsibility on to local authorities? Can the Minister tell the House what percentage of expenditure by local councils is now being spent on social care to fill the gap, at the expense of vital local services?

My noble friend is correct: on average, it is about 74% or 75% of a local authority budget. I think we would all agree that that is not a good situation, because obviously a local authority has a number of matters it needs to deal with. This is one of the issues around long-term reform that we will need to consider.

My Lords, we are very familiar with the pressure on the social care workforce. As the Minister pointed out, we have seen vacancies fall within the social care sector, which is very welcome, but that is supported by the recruitment of 70,000 staff from overseas. I am glad that the health and care sector is exempt from the new visa charges, because we are clearly reliant on assistance from overseas. However, given that they are no longer able to bring dependents on their visa, have the Government considered the impact that this will have on recruiting workers from overseas into the social care sector?

We have tried to adopt a balanced approach here. While we all understand the necessity in the healthcare sector, I think most of us would agree that 750,000 net migration is a very high number. The balance we have struck is to protect this sector. Our figures generally show that we will be able to keep the recruitment coming. We are now moving on to part 2 of the reform, through the other things we are doing, particularly around qualifications—we know that people who are qualified are far more likely to stay in a social care setting. That is what the whole investment is about. It will be rolled out next year and will fund hundreds of thousands of places. I think it will make a real difference to the motivation, recruitment and retention of staff.

My Lords, to respond to the right reverend Prelate’s question, if I may, the Migration Advisory Committee has said that the reason we recruit so many people from overseas is poor terms and conditions in social care. The Government set the market for social care, through their poor funding of local authorities. When will they grasp the nettle and realise that we actually have to give care workers decent pay and conditions?

It is absolutely understood that, to have a highly motivated workforce, you need to look at everything—pay and conditions, and training and motivation. We see that while, on average, staff turnover is almost 30%—which is way too high—about 20% of care home providers have a turnover of less than 10%. Why is that? It is because they are investing in their staff and they have a training programme. That is why we are trying to do a similar thing. The national care certificate that we are putting in place will take time; for it to be valuable, we will need to put the right things in order, including the digital platform to pay the 17,000 providers. These are all parts of the reform, which will make a difference.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many delayed transfers of care from hospital are associated with difficulty in getting social care in people’s own homes? In rural areas, we are still not paying for time spent travelling. Surely there is something we could do much more quickly, before the training certificate, to employ local people in a fair way to provide care in people’s homes, particularly in rural areas.

The noble Baroness is correct about that; it is a key pillar of this reform. This is why we have tried to learn one of the main lessons from last year, by putting the £600 million discharge fund out early, so we can get those sorts of measures in place. That is why we have expanded the virtual care ward network to 10,000 beds, with the idea that people can be cared for in their own home but with support from the staff there. That is absolutely the direction we are moving in.

My Lords, the Minister said a moment ago that three-quarters of local government spending is on adult social care. I would ask him just to check that figure, because if we add to it children’s social care, it basically means that every local authority will, before long, be issuing Section 114 notices. It is very important to get the facts absolutely clear here. What the Minister said demonstrates that local authorities are seriously underfunded for adult and children’s social care, and are cutting other public services as a consequence.

I will absolutely clarify the number to the noble Lord in writing. It is of course a range, according to different local authorities, but I think we would all agree that it is a level that, as a percentage, is too high.

The Nuffield Trust has called the NAO findings a

“damning indictment of the Government’s progress towards delivering social care change”.

To follow on from my noble friend’s question, the NAO points out that only 7.5% of the much vaunted £265 million allocated by the Government to addressing social care staff shortages and recruitment for 2023-35 has actually been spent, heavily impacted by the DHSC’s staff recruitment freeze. What specific actions are the Government taking to address this and ensure that the money they say is there is actually paid out?

There were five parts to the programme of reforms mentioned and the £265 million. There was international recruitment, which we have done; it has worked well, and we need to continue doing that. The second part was a volunteer programme, which, again, we have done and it is working well. Thirdly, there were digital skills passports, so that staff could swap from place to place and take their qualifications with them; we have done that. The two other things will take longer. The care workforce pathway is out for consultation. It will mean that people can have a long- term qualification that can get them into other professions as well, such as nursing. Lastly, there is the care certificate qualification. That takes time. Everyone knows that, for that qualification to be meaningful, it will take time to set it up. That is the key expense item. The digital platform is going to be launched next June, so it will be rolling out from there.

Bovine Tuberculosis


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards identifying a vaccine for eradicating bovine tuberculosis.

My Lords, I declare my farming and land management interests as set out in the register. A candidate vaccine, CattleBCG, has been identified. The Animal and Plant Health Agency, APHA, has also developed a companion candidate test to detect infections among vaccinated animals. This represents a major scientific breakthrough. Field trials are ongoing and, if successful, will move us closer to being able to vaccinate cattle in England against this insidious disease. Deploying a vaccine against TB in cattle remains a top government priority, but I am pleased to say that vaccinating badgers against TB is already a reality.

I thank my noble friend for his positive and most encouraging reply. Bovine TB devastates both emotionally and financially those farmers who find that their herds contain positive reactors. It also hangs a Damocles sword over those neighbours who fear infection contagion, as we are experiencing with the current ever-expanding TB cluster in Kent. I ask my noble friend to agree with me that, given that deer are carriers of TB and the national deer herd is at a historical high and still increasing, we must accelerate all preventive measures at pace across all possible carriers, whether by way of the vaccine he has described for cattle or the contraceptive feed that has proved so successful with American white-tailed deer.

My noble friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of other species that carry bovine TB. Deer are not a protected species so, if evidence emerges that deer are involved in the spread of TB in a particular location, measures can be taken to control the population. In Great Britain, deer are generally considered to be spillover hosts of TB—that is, they are unlikely to sustain the infection within their own population in the absence of infected cattle or a wildlife reservoir.

I declare my interest as a farmer in Cheshire. Badger controls are an emotive issue. Does the Minister agree that where a policy based on science is found to work in practice, care should be taken before abandoning it? Over the four culling years between 2016 and 2023, across three subregions in Cheshire a reduction just short of 51% of herds under restriction was achieved. This is not to be dismissed lightly, when there is in fact little evidence in England of the effectiveness of a vaccine that has operational difficulties. Does it not make sense to allow all areas of England to undertake a cull to control disease in cattle, disease in badgers and stress in rural communities before introducing vaccination?

The noble Lord is absolutely right on the 56% reduction in incidence in cattle; that was one of the statistics I had prepared for the Dispatch Box. With our culling strategy, we will continue to follow the science. Culling will remain part of our toolkit for tackling this insidious disease for as long as necessary. However, we are moving to the next phase of our long- term strategy, which will also focus on wider-scale badger vaccination as the primary TB control measure in badgers.

My Lords, a cattle vaccine will be a very valuable tool in controlling bovine tuberculosis, but it is likely to be several years before it is rolled out. In the hotspots of TB in the south-west of England, there is mounting evidence that outbreaks and breakdowns in herds are being linked to the continuing presence of infected cattle in those herds that are not detected by the current statutory tests. Will His Majesty’s Government urgently support the introduction, as a mandatory requirement, of additional diagnostic tests, which exist and are well proven, to aid the detection of such carrier cattle and their removal from herds? That would expediate the eradication of this terrible disease.

My Lords, I defer to the far greater knowledge and experience of the noble Lord, Lord Trees, in this area than my own. No diagnostic test for TB or other diseases is 100% accurate. The causes of recurrent cattle TB breakdowns in areas of endemic bovine tuberculosis are complex and manifold. The skin test is useful as a primary screening test and is supplemented by approved, ancillary tests where needed, based on stringent risk assessments. Defra supports the development of new diagnostic tests for TB and encourages test providers to seek World Organisation for Animal Health validation for UK regulatory approval.

My Lords, Scotland has maintained its status as free of bovine TB, despite minor outbreaks. It also has a population of badgers and deer. In the past, one Welsh farmer lost 500 cattle to the disease. An outbreak of bovine TB can have a devastating effect on a dairy farmer. Given the density of dairy cattle in the south-west, is it not time for the Government to take a much stronger line on preventing the disease spreading by speeding up the vaccination programme so that farmers can protect their herds and livelihoods?

I take on board what the noble Baroness said and agree with much of it. As we all saw from the pandemic, diseases and viruses do not respect borders. The Welsh Government are pursuing a different strategy and seeing the incidence of bovine tuberculosis increase in Wales; that goes completely against what we are doing. For cross-border livestock trading, this is incredibly worrying—I say that as someone who comes from Oswestry, a market town.

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. I really appreciated the thoughtful contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, on alternatives to a cull; that has to be the way forward. How does the Minister anticipate that the government Bill to ban live exports, particularly given the exceptions that it includes, will tie in to the need to review existing trade standards for exports of vaccinated animals?

Defra is engaging with WOAH, the European Commission and international trading partners. On completion of field trials of the vaccine and the new DIVA test, we will submit a formal application to WOAH as part of the process of gaining international recognition. Many countries worldwide battle with bovine TB and will be interested in developments in England, but I cannot make specific mention of anything that will be included in a future Bill.

My Lords, farmers will appreciate what my noble friend the Minister said: the cull will continue, as scientific evidence shows it to be working very well. Can he also comment on the reported increase of ground-nesting birds in areas where the cull has been effected? It has increased biodiversity in those areas.

My noble friend is right to raise this: biodiversity net gain is a key Defra priority. Badger culling has been linked with positive effects in some bird species, although recent studies by the British Trust for Ornithology, looking at the effect of badger culling, have not found consistent evidence for effects of the badger cull on breeding bird populations. Badgers are known to predate bumble bee nests, which is increasingly worrying. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is currently conducting research to investigate the impact of badger culling on bumble bee density.

My Lords, is it not about time that we put badgers more on the basis of deer—permissible culling throughout the country? People see deer old and diseased, and everybody realises what the problem is. With badgers, they have no idea of the cruelty going on underground with sick badgers, old badgers, badgers without teeth and badgers with broken legs. That is where that love of badgers leads. If we culled them generally, we would know where TB really was in the badger population, instead of just taking it out in these super-big culls.

My Lords, as I explained earlier, we are moving to the next phase, a targeted approach to badger culling.

Guyana: Sovereign Territory


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what support they are providing to Guyana in response to the threat of illegal annexation of parts of its sovereign territory by Venezuela.

My Lords, the UK is fully engaged at senior levels following the recent steps taken by Venezuela with respect to the Essequibo region of Guyana. The actions of Venezuela are unjustified and should cease. We are clear that the border was settled in 1899 through international arbitration. My noble friend the Foreign Secretary made clear our position in a recent meeting and subsequent calls with President Ali of Guyana. We will continue to work with allies and partners in the region and through international bodies such as the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and the Organization of American States to ensure that the territorial integrity of Guyana is fully protected and respected.

I thank the Minister for his Answer and declare an interest as president of the Caribbean Council, which has sent three missions to Guyana in the last year, hosted President Ali as a guest of honour in this House, and organised seminars on trade and investment with Guyana. This provocative move by President Maduro—backed by President Putin, of course—reviving a dispute settled, as the Minister said, in 1899, is a blatant attempt to distract attention from his unpopularity at home. The claim is being reviewed by the International Court of Justice, which has urged no action by Venezuela, but the President of Venezuela has said he does not recognise the court—which is standard practice, of course, for dictators and authoritarian regimes. They threaten the free world. What can the Government do, apart from what the Minister said, with Americans, the Commonwealth and any other institutions to ensure that this aggression does not lead to conflict, that Guyana’s territory is protected, and that it has the full support of Britain and the Commonwealth?

My Lords, I recognise the important work that the noble Lord does with respect to the Caribbean. As he said, we are working through multilateral institutions as well. There was a UN meeting on 8 December. There was also a Commonwealth meeting of Ministers convened yesterday. Again, there was a strong statement from all Commonwealth countries in support of Guyana’s position. I know that, over the years, meetings have been called at the UN on Guyana’s territorial sovereignty and integrity and the UK’s position has been very clear. We have called for immediate de-escalation. This rhetoric cannot be allowed to continue. Another meeting is being convened by Caribbean and Latin American countries later this week, as the noble Lord will know, to which both leaders have been invited, but the UK is very clear. That is why my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged extensively, with Irfaan Ali directly. Indeed, he met him directly in the margins of COP and subsequently has made a number of calls to give that reassurance and strong support.

My Lords, given that the present Government of Venezuela have stated that they have always laid claim to this part of Guyana as part of their territory, can my noble friend say whether he or the FCDO has any record of such claims? I must say that it was news to me.

My Lords, recognising the important role of my noble friend over many years when it comes to the Caribbean and South America—indeed, we had an enlightened debate only last week on the very issue of South America—the UK’s position has been clear and that is why it is important that the UN restates it. Coming back to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, we should come together with multilateral organisations, particularly within the Commonwealth, to underline our strong support for Guyana’s position.

In that debate, the noble Lord mentioned the UNGA high-level panel meeting and his representations. At Friday’s Security Council meeting there was an opportunity to raise the issue. What further discussions has he had at the United Nations and what action is the United Kingdom going to press for at the UN? We need a clear pathway to ensure that this threatened action is stopped immediately.

The noble Lord will have noted our statement at the United Nations Security Council. I was not there but elsewhere; I cannot remember where I was on that date, but I was somewhere in the world. The United Kingdom is engaged extensively on the issue. Yesterday, the Minister for Development covered the meeting with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and my noble friend, when he travelled to the United States, had similar discussions with our partners and allies in Washington, together with Secretary Blinken, on this issue. It is important that we stand by Guyana at this time, and I know that His Majesty’s Opposition agree. The position has been agreed and that agreement is long-standing. In Venezuela, there is a lot of political rhetoric and an election next year. We know the status of Mr Maduro. The United Kingdom does not engage with him directly and recognises that he is desperately in trouble in Venezuela. This may well all be rhetoric, but we must be mindful of that to ensure that any action taken gets a unified response diplomatically from across the world.

Having been in the Essequibo region earlier in the year, I think it right that Guyana pursues this matter through diplomatic routes—the ICJ, the UN and other forums. But the fact is that the Venezuelan military is much stronger. It has tanks, jets and naval assets sourced from Russia, Iran and elsewhere. In addition to the support that the US Southern Command and the Brazilians reinforcing the border are providing, are the British Government willing to commit that Guyana will get defence support from this country should Guyana seek it to deter Venezuelan military aggression?

My Lords, we have supported Guyana over a number of years. The noble Lord raises a valid point. I assure him that we are very much seized of the issues of protecting the sovereignty of Guyana. I do not want to go into what may happen. The United Kingdom, including its military assets, is engaged around the world but, for now, we are very much focused on the diplomatic channels. We are urging all partners with leverage over Venezuela and its Administration to ensure this does not escalate, and that is where our focus is.

My Lords, is this not a rather chilling example of what happens when big countries start bullying small countries when the rule of law is disregarded generally and people feel that they can grab what they like out of the international order? Will my noble friend accept that this kind of unfolding anarchy is precisely why we obviously should stand firm with our friends in Ukraine? We should leave no doubt at all that these kinds of illegal acts must be stopped, because each one allowed through will produce a dozen more.

My Lords, Nelson’s favourite defence negotiators in Europe were a squadron of British battleships. Unfortunately, we do not have as many military assets as we used to. Does the Minster agree that this sort of aggression, or what looks as if it will become aggression, should be stood up to? We cannot allow Ukraine and now this from these Putin-like people, but we need military forces for that. Does the Minister not think that we ought to put a little more money into our military forces?

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Minto has taken note of the noble Lord’s final point. I agree that we are proud of our military, which has stood by countries such as Ukraine. As I said in response to an earlier question, we have assets around the world that we deploy for life-saving missions for humanitarian causes and to ensure that the security of the rules-based order that we adhere to is sustained, maintained and strengthened.

My Lords, Guyana is the only Commonwealth member in South America. I read the Commonwealth ministerial group communiqué, to which the Minister referred; it endorses the position of the UK as a member of that group. However, if the Commonwealth is to be relevant for its only member in South America, what practical next steps can it take with regard to the follow-up from the CMG meeting yesterday?

My Lords, I have answered that in question in part. It is important to recognise the role of our Caribbean partners. The meeting being convened is reflective of the unity between Latin American, South American and Caribbean countries, as is the fact that it is being hosted as it is. The noble Lord will be aware of the role of Barbados in looking more to the long term and internally on Venezuela and the situation there. Stability and security in Venezuela are key to ensuring stability and security in the wider region.

The meeting will convene on Thursday in St Vincent—at which, we hope, the presidents of Venezuela and Guyana will be present. Can my noble friend give any indication as to whether the Commonwealth Secretary-General will also attend that meeting?

I seem to be taking on the role of diary secretary for a number of people at Questions today. The short answer is that I am sure she is considering the important role of the Commonwealth. The convening power of the Commonwealth is in the incredible 50-plus nations that come together, but this meeting is taking place within the context of co-operation between Latin America and the Caribbean nations. I am not aware of the Secretary-General’s attendance but, if I hear that it is confirmed, I will share it with my noble friend.

Business of the House


My Lords, we now come to three repeats of Urgent Questions asked in the other place. It may be opportune for me to draw your Lordships’ attention to paragraph 6.11 of our Companion as to procedures on such Questions. It is a matter for the usual channels whether the initial response or statement is repeated; obviously, it is available in the Hansard of the other place if the repeat comes on a following day.

The important thing is that these are Questions, not Statements. If I may say so, I have noticed one or two recent experiences where there have been quite prolix interventions, not only from the other side but from the Government Benches behind me. It is to the advantage of the House if we can get as many interventions as possible from noble Lords—for example, nine or 10—in the 10 minutes allowed for these Urgent Question repeats. In a recent instance, only five Peers got in. This business is under Question procedure, not Statement procedure.

My Lords, I fully endorse the comments of the Leader of the House. These are called Urgent Questions—the clue is in the title.

Former Afghan Special Forces: Deportation

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 11 December.

I thank the shadow Minister for asking this Urgent Question.

The Afghan relocations and assistance policy is far more generous in design than predecessor schemes such as the ex-gratia scheme. None the less, ARAP is a specific scheme intended to support those who worked for, with or alongside the UK Armed Forces in support of the UK mission or national security objectives in Afghanistan. While we are acutely aware of the difficult circumstances in which many Afghans find themselves, not everyone will be eligible even if they worked for the Afghanistan security forces. Many Afghans have worked in proximity to UK Armed Forces, but this may have been in service of the Afghan Government, in a nation-building capacity, or though working directly with other nations.

CF333 and ATF444, known as the Triples, were Afghan-led taskforces set up to counter drug trafficking and organised crime and they reported into the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs. They are therefore a component of the Afghan national security forces and are not automatically in scope for relocation under ARAP. Regrettably, we cannot relocate all former members of the Afghan national security forces under the ARAP scheme. That means that some Afghans, whose bravery and heroism are in no doubt whatever—indeed, I served alongside many of them myself—such as certain members of the CF333 and ATF444 taskforces, will not be eligible for relocation under ARAP. Each ARAP application is assessed on a case-by-case basis. All applications, including those from former members of the Triples, are scrutinised on their own merits and in line with our published policy and eligibility criteria, available on the Government website, and in line with the Immigration Rules. All applicants, irrespective of job role, will be eligible only if they individually meet these criteria outlined in the published policy.

I must emphasise this point for the record: any suggestion that we are making blanket decisions—eligible or ineligible —for any cohort of applicant, or that we have any preconceived position on any application to the scheme, is simply untrue. That is not the approach that Defence takes on processing applications as a matter of policy. The MoD consults the evidence provided from each applicant and our own internal records and engages with internal stakeholders and other departments when determining eligibility in line with the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Immigration Rules.

My Lords, 200 special forces are unable to leave Pakistan or are under threat of being returned there. They fought alongside our troops. Why have we let them down, and why are they facing deportation back to face the Taliban? Why can they not come to this country under the safe passage they were promised?

His Majesty’s Government are fully aware of their responsibilities under both the ARAP and the ACRS. They are implementing both schemes to the agreed guidelines at pace, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and here in the UK.

My Lords, the UK has a responsibility to relocate these soldiers, otherwise it is likely that they will either die or spend their lives in prison. Will the Minister make it possible for these soldiers to pursue an expedited application process through either the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme or the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, so that they can reside safely in the UK?

CF333 and ATF444, known as the Triples, were Afghan-led task forces set up to counter drug trafficking and organised crime, and they reported to the Ministry of Interior Affairs. They are therefore a component of the Afghan national security forces and are not automatically in scope for relocation.

My Lords, answers to questions on this issue tend to be full of bureaucratic detail and process. This hardly seems appropriate for people who are facing rapid expulsion from Pakistan and almost equally rapid assassination by the Taliban. Why will the Government not set up a mechanism to pursue this issue proactively and urgently, in order to sort it out? If the Minister needs any advice, perhaps he could turn to the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, who has a lot of experience in this area and could point him in the right direction.

I do not disagree with quite a lot of what the noble and gallant Lord said. However, perhaps I may just take a moment to advise noble Lords of the scale of the challenge. There have been 142,000 applications under the ARAP scheme, 95,000 of which are unique—in other words, there are a certain number of repetitions. From April 2023 until the end of August 2023, the bureaucracy coped with 75,000 of those applications. To date, we have settled nearly 14,000 Afghans in this country, and we are hoping to settle another 2,800 by the end of December. There are 2,500 people with approval currently in Pakistan, with whom we have very good relations, and they all have the document which allows them to leave. In fact, 500 were approved last week. While I am not saying that we are on top of it, we are very close to getting there.

I thank my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup for probably setting me up to fail. I had the privilege of working with some of these Triples during my own service in Afghanistan and was very involved during my time as Minister for the Armed Forces. I accept that this is not straightforward, but I must add my voice to those saying that we owe an absolute duty to these people and we must sort this out. That said, there are many applications, and a lot of false ones. From our perspective, the biggest challenge seems to be our lack of paperwork and documentation, which is causing the delay. While I encourage my noble friend, as others have done, to do everything he can to support these armed forces personnel, please can we learn the lesson from this episode and ensure that we keep the right documentation in future?

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why it is no longer possible to provide a breakdown of the jobs of people applying for relocation under ARAP? It is impossible for us now to tell what the success or failure rate is among members of the Triples, or those who do any other job. After all, for the past 10 years or so and until recently, I have been able to find out exactly how many Afghan interpreters have been relocated. Why is the data not now collected on how many applicants are soldiers, interpreters or anything else?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. The accuracy of the data held on large numbers of people requires double- checking and checking again. At the heart of approval under ARAP is the accuracy of exactly what these individuals did.

My Lords, in responding to a question about specific individuals in the other place, the Armed Forces Minister told the House that His Majesty’s Government

“do not have the employment records of the Afghan special forces”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/12/23; col. 631.]

Today, I was informed by a very reliable source that, until at least August 2021, our embassy in Kabul held nominal records for members of CF333 and ATF444, for the purposes of their “top-up pay”. They were in our employment and, until at least August 2021, His Majesty’s Government held their employment records. Surely, they still exist?

My Lords, I am not certain that the word “pay” is accurate. I think expense recompense is more appropriate, which is different: you gift something and get something back. If the records are there, we will follow them down. I was not aware that they were held.

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House whether HMG are in direct contact with the Pakistan Government and authorities specifically on this issue, now?

My Lords, I assure the House that His Majesty’s Government are in direct contact with the Pakistan Government at the very highest level. They are being extremely co-operative about not returning to Afghanistan people who may be at threat as a result of the recent conflict.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that it is important to follow guidelines to make sure that applicants fall within them. If there are applicants who do not fall within the guidelines but whose lives are clearly in danger, will the Government make exceptions for them?

My Lords, ARAP has got to the stage where things are considered case by case. There is opportunity to be flexible within that.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of Reset, as laid out in the register. The British population have a lot of sympathy with these Afghans. What work has been done to learn the lessons from Ukraine and see what levels of community sponsorship might be offered to such Afghans who qualify under these schemes, and to welcome them here? I recognise that this is a Home Office question, so I understand if the Minister needs to write.

The right reverend Prelate makes a very good point. Since Pakistan changed its method of treatment of its illegal immigrants, we have managed to bring several hundred people back directly from Pakistan. In fact, another 181 are arriving today or tomorrow. They will go into transitional accommodation before they get into their proper accommodation, as was the case before 17 October. We are certainly on the right route with this.

My Lords, I do not recall the part of the Companion that says that bishops have pre-emptive rights, but never mind. As well as being brief, answers should actually answer the questions put. May I now give the Minister the opportunity to answer the question put by my noble friend Lord Coaker?

My Lords, we absolutely respect that these individuals were brave, fought alongside us and gave support when necessary. Guidelines obviously need to be adhered to, because we are not in a position to offer resettlement to every member of the Afghan national forces. There must be limits, and the way in for these particular fighters and their support staff is through ARAP.

Refurbishing Trains: Contracts

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 7 December.

“I thank the honourable Member for his Question, which I will answer on behalf of the Secretary of State. The department works closely with rolling stock owners and train operators to understand when new and refurbished trains are likely to be required, and to ensure a regular flow of work for train manufacturing companies. Trains are major assets, with a lifetime of 35 to 40 years, so there will naturally be peaks and troughs in procurement cycles. The average age of the current fleet is 17 years.

The department has overseen the procurement of more than 8,000 new vehicles for the Great British mainline railway since 2012. Some of those are still being produced, including Alstom trains for South Western and West Midlands trains. Passenger travel habits have changed over the past three years, and while numbers are showing signs of improvement, we are still seeing reduced passenger revenue on the railways. We are aware that Alstom is facing difficult trading conditions. It is consulting its unions and employees on possible job losses. While it must be a commercial decision for Alstom, the Government have been working with the company to explore options to enable it to continue manufacturing at its Derby site. Officials from my department and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport have held regular meetings with senior management at Alstom. We have also convened a cross-Whitehall group to advise on ways to support continued production at Derby and how best to support those workers who could lose their jobs.

The fact remains that the market for passenger trains is competitive. The department cannot guarantee orders for individual manufacturers. None the less, we expect substantial continued demand for new trains. Last month, LNER confirmed an order of 10 new tri-mode trains for the east coast main line, and on Monday, a tender for new trains for the TransPennine Express route was launched. Contract awards are also expected between late 2024 and early 2025 for major orders for Southeastern, Northern and Chiltern. In the meantime, the Government will continue to work with Alstom and other UK manufacturers to ensure a strong and sustainable future for the rail industry”.

Alstom’s Litchurch Lane factory in Derby has provided high-skilled jobs for generations, but uncertainty over the UK rail industry and the lack of long-term strategy means that those workers are now in jeopardy. The workers are a national asset. People are one of the scarcest assets in this country; an asset that must be looked after to preserve the capability to lead to long-term growth.

Last Thursday, the Rail Minister in the other place, Huw Merriman, said:

“We will be doing everything we can to assist Alstom in keeping that plant open”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/23; col. 486.]

That is a very hard, precise commitment. Can the Minister tell us what action the Government have taken in the light of that promise?

My Lords, we have been actively involved in discussions with Alstom for several weeks on this matter and have held frequent meetings with the company to look at options around its production gap. We will continue to work with Alstom. A cross-departmental task force has been established and officials are meeting Alstom regularly to discuss how best to support employees at risk of redundancy.

My Lords, in the past, when a major long-standing employer such as Alstom hit a crisis, the Government used to blame the shackles of EU competition law. Well, we are not bound by that any more, so who will the Government blame now? The truth of the matter surely is that the Government need to provide certainty on the new orders required.

The managing director of Alstom, in evidence to the Transport Committee in the other place, made it clear that one of its immediate problems is uncertainty over whether the Government will pursue the £2 billion contract for all the 54 HS2 trains they have ordered. Can the Minister tell us, here and now, whether that is the case? Will the full order still be required?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. What I can say to noble Lords that manufacturers are ultimately responsible for sourcing work for their assembly plants. There are upcoming procurements in the market being run by Northern, Southeastern, TransPennine and Chiltern. It is a competition process that is open to all manufacturers to bid, including Alstom in Derby. The department is also working with the Treasury to set out a pipeline for expected rolling stock orders, to provide the sector with further clarity over the near term.

Regarding HS2, Alstom are part of a contract with Hitachi to design, build and maintain HS2 trains for phase 1 only.

My Lords, may I wish the Government all the best in ensuring a future for Alstom? Who is responsible for ensuring that the overhead electricity wires are fit for purpose? We have seen three outages in two different parts of the country, one of which lasted three days and caused absolute havoc on the east coast main line. This cannot be sustainable. Will the Minister assure us that there is a rolling programme of improvements and refurbishment of the overhead lines, particularly on the east coast main line?

Well, we have been subject to adverse weather, of course. I can, however, assure my noble friend that Network Rail is responsible for overhead lines. I will take her comments back to the department.

My Lords, I do not think the Minister answered properly the question about HS2. It was, in my view, a disastrous decision made by the Government to cancel the Derby and Manchester links, so can he tell us how many trains were required, had those links still been about to be built, and how many trains are now required, so we can work out the deficit for ourselves? While he is about it, will he please answer a question which his department has repeatedly been unable to answer for me as a Written Question: precisely how much money has been lost—wasted—as a result of the cancellations to which I have referred?

The noble Lord asks two very fair questions. I do not have those details to hand, but I will ensure that he gets them in written form.

My Lords, last week in the other place the Department for Transport said that the contract tenders for refurbishing existing trains would be brought forward very soon. Time is short for Alstom, the only end-to-end manufacturing facility in the UK. Can the Minister give any assurances about how soon these contracts will be brought forward, because the days are now being counted down?

I cannot give any specifics in terms of days, but the department is certainly aware of this and will bring it on as soon as possible. I assure the right reverend Prelate that, if I can ascertain exactly how many days, I will write to him with the information.

My Lords, it may be my fault, but I have not actually understood whether the current HS2 contract with the company is or is not going to go forward.

My Lords, the Minister says that there will be investment in the railways. We know that there is money being kept safe from the cancellation of High Speed 2; how much of that is going to be transferred to northern schemes, because it looks quite clear that the Government are transferring money intended for the north down to the south?

My Lords, having had a small passion around railways and networks—in fact, the last time we ordered some new rolling stock for London, I was with the then mayor as we brought the S stock trains into London—I have looked at the timelines and supply chains, especially with manufacturers in and across the UK. Does the Department for Transport have a view on what rolling stock may be part of the ordering book when we look at network north plans, and also for plans for the London Underground, which seem to be going a bit slower than they should be?

Well, the department is always talking with rail operators and manufacturers. Of course, rail manufacturers play an important role in growing the UK economy, and there is a strong pipeline for future orders for UK rail manufacturers. As I perhaps alluded to earlier, there are upcoming procurements in the market being run by Northern, Chiltern, TransPennine and Southeastern; this competition process is open to all manufacturers to bid, including Alstom. As I said earlier, the department is also working with HM Treasury to set out a pipeline for expected rolling stock orders, to provide the sector with further clarity over the near term.

My Lords, it is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, is not here for this, because he is the guilty man, as he was the Minister who privatised the railways in such a chaotic way. As well as the overhead lines and the rails being run by one company, and the actual services by other companies, the LNER reminded me recently that it does not actually own its trains—it only rents them. It is total chaos. I seem to remember that this Government—on their last legs now, but nevertheless—suggested some kind of “Great British Rail” set-up, to try to improve the position. What has happened to that?

It has been the case for many years that train companies lease their rolling stock, and that still is the case.

My Lords, could the Minister unpack the statement he has made, which sounds so very reassuring, that the Government will abide by the contract for the purchase of trains for phase 1 of HS2? Surely, the train manufacturer invested and provided facilities for the HS2 project overall. The same trains of course would run beyond Manchester when the line was extended and, therefore, you cannot mix and match two different sets of trains. Has he looked at the economics of the decision that has been made and understood what the consequences are for the manufacturer with which he is contracted?

I say, in answer to the noble Baroness’s question, that Alstom is part of a contract with Hitachi to design, build and maintain HS2 trains for phase 1 only. Phase 1 of HS2 between Birmingham and London will continue, with a rescoped Euston station. We expect Alstom’s contractual obligations to be honoured with HS2 Ltd.

Israel-Hamas War: Diplomacy

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 11 December.

“I thank the right honourable Gentleman for his Question. The Government are undertaking extensive and global diplomatic engagement to get much greater aid into Gaza, support British nationals and the safe return of hostages, and prevent dangerous regional escalation. Days after Hamas’s brutal attack, the then Foreign Secretary was in Israel to see for himself the devastation wrought by this heinous act of terrorism, and his successor visited in late November to continue dialogue with Israeli leaders. Last week the Prime Minister discussed the latest efforts to free hostages with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and stressed the need to take greater care to protect civilians in Gaza. Two days later, the Foreign Secretary discussed the future of the Middle East peace process with the US Secretary of State in Washington.

The situation in Gaza cannot continue, and we are deploying all our diplomatic resources, including in the United Nations, to help to find a viable solution. The scale of civilian deaths and displacement in Gaza is shocking. Although Israel has the right to defend itself against terror, restore its security and bring the hostages home, it must abide by international law and take all possible measures to protect civilians. We have called for further and longer humanitarian pauses. It is imperative that we increase the flow of aid into Gaza, but as we have said at the UN, calling for a ceasefire ignores the fact that Hamas has committed acts of terror and continues to hold civilian hostages.

We remain committed to making progress towards a two-state solution. Britain’s long-standing position on the Middle East peace process is clear: we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state”.

My Lords, we are all agreed: a cessation of hostilities to give space and time to get food, water, electricity and medicine into Gaza is essential. Although Israel has the right to defend itself against terror and bring back the hostages, it must act within international and humanitarian law. Andrew Mitchell said yesterday:

“We continue to identify and look for mechanisms for ensuring that there can be no impunity”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/12/23; cols. 618-19.]

Does the Minister recognise that the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to address the conduct of all parties in Gaza? As he knows, I have asked before about whether the Government will match the US and impose travel bans on illegal settlers involved in attacks, serious criminal activity and fostering hatred in the West Bank. Andrew Mitchell also said yesterday that the UK was

“seeking that those responsible should be not just arrested but prosecuted and punished”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/12/23; col. 614.]

Did the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, discuss travel bans with his US counterparts last week? When can we anticipate an announcement that we will follow suit?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second question, my noble friend Lord Cameron was in Washington and, as I said last week, there were discussions on a wide range of issues including the situation in the Middle East. The noble Lord will know that I cannot speculate at this time, but I assure him that we are fully seized of the actions the US has taken and are reflecting on what further actions we can take on settler violence. Again, we are very much at one on this. The Government’s position and the Opposition’s is that settler violence must be stopped, but as my noble friend the Foreign Secretary said when he visited Israel and the OPTs, it is not just about stopping the violence; it is also about holding perpetrators to account.

On the issue of the ICC, the UK remains a strong supporter. As a state party to the Geneva conventions, it is also important that Israel recognises its accountability and responsibility. As a democratic Government and a democratic state, I am sure it will adhere to that. On the wider issues of humanitarian routes and access, the noble Lord knows that both my noble friend Lord Cameron and I have been fully engaged. I returned from Doha only last night. One of the key areas we were focused on is the importance of releasing the hostages and getting humanitarian relief into Gaza. We welcome the announcement from Israel on the checking facility at Kerem Shalom. The UK was the first to raise this and we hope that we can restore the full operational capacity and capability of Kerem Shalom to get vital, life-saving aid into Gaza.

My Lords, as the Minister is aware, I too have just returned from Doha, this lunchtime. During my visit, I met separately with the Prime Minister, the assistant Foreign Minister and the Minister of State, as well as the Jordanian Foreign Minister. All those discussions covered the need for opening up and providing immediate life-saving humanitarian assistance. From these Benches we stress our repeated call for an immediate bilateral ceasefire to stop the air attacks from the Israeli Government, as well as a period in which all hostages would be returned. That would signal day one of a much-needed political track. It needs to involve moderate Israeli leaders, as well as a reconstruction of a Palestinian entity. What support are the UK Government giving to that much-needed political track, as part of an enduring ceasefire?

My Lords, we are working extensively on those very points. As I have said before, as friends and allies of Israel we understand its security issues—but, equally, people within Israel and in the wider region understand that for the medium and long term this means security, justice and stability for Israelis and Palestinians alike. We are very much engaged on a range of diplomatic tracks. Together with my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, we have been engaging directly in the region; the Prime Minister has also visited a number of times. This week we will have some inward visits from Ministers within the region. What really needs to happen is what we have talked about before: a revitalised contact route that ensures we understand the current realities on the ground. Both Israel and the Palestinian leadership need to be part of that.

I further assure the noble Lord, on the diplomatic track and ensuring some sustainable agreements, that we welcome—as all noble Lords did—what happened in the pause. That cessation allowed for hostages to be returned. I also agree with him that the release of the hostages is the vital first step to ensuring that we see lasting and sustainable peace in the Middle East.

My Lords, should Hamas release all the hostages and lay down its weapons, and should the terrorists who perpetrated the appalling atrocities on 7 October flee to the Gulf to live in luxury hotels with their leaders, would there not be an immediate ceasefire? Peace might be able to come. We could then decide some long-term political future for the Palestinians and the Israelis.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that as a first step, as I have said, the hostages must be released. It is a no-brainer, as far as I am concerned. Those people were taken, so that will be a vital first step. The other issue to recognise is that we have proscribed Hamas as a terrorist group. It is for Hamas to choose its pathway. Does it want to put down weapons and talk peace? Then say so and put that offer on the table. I alluded earlier to being in Qatar. We are seized of ensuring that, in every country, we deliver the vital messages to those who have influence over Hamas. Given the priority of releasing the hostages and bringing a cessation to the violence we are seeing, Hamas needs to lay down its weapons and say that it no longer wishes to continue to attack Israeli interests.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that following the widespread breaches of human rights by both Israel and Palestine over quite a period, it has now become urgent for the international community to bring pressure to bear on them both to replace their leaders with those who genuinely respect the human rights of both communities? Only with such leaders on both sides—it will not do if it is simply on one side —will Israel and Palestine have hope to live in peace in the future.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Baroness agrees that it is for Israelis and Palestinians to choose who leads them, but I agree with the sentiments that she expresses. It is important that we have people who recognise, as difficult as peace is, how a sustainable peace can be possible. That is why we have committed ourselves to revitalising and energising the peace process that leads to the delivery, in practical terms, of the two-state solution—not just one in which Israel and a Palestinian state live side by side in peace and security but one in which there is a recognition that real strength comes from the inter- dependency of people and communities.

My Lords, have the Government considered, in conjunction with our friends, sending hospital ships to the region to provide emergency medical help to people in Gaza who are not getting it in their own hospitals?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise that. Our discussions with key Gulf partners and directly with Israel are about opening land routes, which are the most effective routes. That is why I alluded earlier, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, to Kerem Shalom. These are six lanes instead of the one lane from Rafah, and we will continue to implore that. I assure the noble Lord that we are looking at all routes, including maritime routes, to provide support and aid into Gaza. We also recognise that where we can provide support we should, whether through supporting countries that have field hospitals in Gaza or through a specific idea that the French have had and that we are exploring, involving vessels that we have currently deployed for humanitarian support and the flexibility to provide support in the way the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, this tragic situation is also caught up in the complexity of the religious faiths of the region. In what way are faith leaders involved in the diplomatic conversations to seek to bring peace?

My Lords, to me that is fundamental. There is a unifying factor, which from the Muslim perspective was the prophet Abraham, and we all recognise that. Faith leaders have an important role: they can bring people together as an important part of track 2 diplomacy. I am engaging directly with faith leaders because I believe to my core that faith is about bringing people together, not dividing us.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly my interests relating to friendship with Israel. Was my noble friend as shocked as I was this morning to see videos of much-needed aid going into Gaza being hijacked at gunpoint by Hamas in front of Palestinian citizens? Given this callous disregard for the interests of Palestinians within Gaza, has my noble friend received any indication from the bloodstained, child-murdering rapists of the terrorist group Hamas that they have even the slightest interest in abiding by any diplomatic initiative?

My Lords, I have not seen those specific videos but I have seen earlier videos about the atrocities and the abhorrent attacks of Hamas. I have already said that we regard Hamas as a proscribed group. It has shown by its actions, and continues to demonstrate, that the welfare of the people of Gaza—the Palestinians and the civilians who are suffering—is not a priority for it. We want to see unhindered access, which is why we are working with Israel and other key partners, including Egypt, to ensure that can happen. We are also working with key partners that have influence over Hamas because it is important to ensure that there is a reality check. This will not stop until it does the right thing. There are the wider issues of the Middle East peace process, which we are also working on, but as a first step it must release the hostages. Let us have a cessation of hostilities. We want to allow unhindered access for aid to reach the most vulnerable, and that is needed now.

National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) Bill

Second Reading

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee

Moved by

My Lords, the past few years have been a somewhat unhappy lesson in living through history, be that the impact of a once-in-a-generation pandemic or the shock waves of the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. Covid and Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine have forced this Government to take tough decisions to protect the public purse. Thankfully, the choices we have made are paying off: inflation is falling, this year’s growth is more resilient than expected and debt is forecast to reduce. This makes it possible to pay back working people while ensuring that public money remains sound.

Thanks to this Government’s long-term plan, this Bill will slash taxes for 29 million working people. It has three measures: the reduction of the national insurance contributions—or NICs—class 1 primary main rate; the reduction of the NICs class 4 main rate; and the removal of the requirement to pay class 2 NICs. The measures all fundamentally deliver on a core priority for this Government: allowing working people to hold on to their hard-earned cash. I shall explain each of the measures in more detail.

First, the Government’s changes to the employee class 1 NICs main rate will reduce it by two percentage points to 10% on earnings between £12,570 and £50,270, from 6 January 2024. This is a change that puts working people first. For example, the average worker on £35,400 will see and feel an annual improvement of £450 to their payslip at the start of the new year. An average full-time nurse will see an annual gain of over £520. Families with two earners on the average income will be £900 better off, because this Government believe that hard work should be rewarded.

Our remaining two measures focus on NICs for the self-employed. The Chancellor highlighted the importance of the self-employed in his Autumn Statement speech, commenting that:

“These are the people who literally kept our country running during the pandemic: the plumbers who fixed our boilers in lockdowns, the delivery drivers who brought us our shopping and the farmers who kept food on our plates”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/11/23; col. 333.]

This fantastic workforce also deserves to be recognised. Of course, to be self-employed you need to be organised, efficient and responsible, and the Government should not get in the way of that. The self-employed want to stand on their own two feet, and the Chancellor stands ready to support this with two tailored interventions. The first is a cut in the class 4 rate by one percentage point, from 9% to 8%. The second removes the requirement for the self-employed with annual profits above the income tax personal allowance to pay class 2 NICs. Those who wish to pay voluntarily will still be able to do so. Both measures will be in force from 6 April 2024.

These changes simplify the system for self-employed taxpayers, bringing it closer to the system for employees. These measures mean that a typical self-employed plumber will gain £410 a year. The Government intend to fully abolish class 2 NICs, reducing needless complexity and freeing up valuable time. Further detail about this reform will be set out next year. As a result of changes in the Bill, a self-employed person who is currently required to pay class 2 NICs every week will save at least £192 per year. Taken together with the cut to class 4 NICs, this will benefit around 2 million people. Importantly, those with profits under the small profits threshold of £6,725, and others who pay class 2 voluntarily to get access to contributory benefits, including the state pension, will continue to be able to do so. No low-income, self-employed people who pay voluntary NICs will be asked to pay more.

The Government are committed to tax cuts that reward and incentivise work, and which grow the economy in a sustainable way. The tax cuts in this Bill will be worth over £9 billion a year—the largest ever cut to employee and self-employed national insurance. These measures will give 29 million working people an average yearly saving of over £450. That is fair and that is right. Nor will these measures benefit only those already in work. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, these reductions in tax will lead to an additional 28,000 people entering work, because ensuring that work pays will encourage more people to seek employment. Be in no doubt that we are doing the right thing by standing with the hard-working people of this country and ensuring that their contributions are recognised and fairly rewarded.

My Lords, in the era of never-ending real wage cuts, high inflation, high taxes, high interest rates and the cost of living crisis, any help for hard-pressed households is welcome, but that cannot hide the Government’s sleight of hand. Let us remember that last year the Government were prepared to increase the national insurance contribution rate for employees from 12% to 13.25%. They did not really feel that there was any need to help the poorest then. Now that they are doing incredibly badly in the opinion polls, some bribes are obviously coming out and this 2p cut is just one example.

Of course, people will not be fooled by the bribes; they will remember what the Government have done to them. Since March 2021, the income tax personal allowance and thresholds have been frozen and will remain frozen until 2027-28 or maybe even beyond. In 2022, the UK had a tax-to-GDP ratio of 35.3% compared to the OECD average of 34%, and it is going to get worse because of fiscal drag: millions more people are going to be paying income tax and national insurance contributions because of that.

Since March 2022, the threshold for national insurance contributions has also been frozen. Due to the impact of inflation on VAT, higher duties, income tax and national insurance, the additional tax yield is expected to be around £57 billion in 2027-28. This shows that the Government’s claim that they are handing things back to the people is really a work of fiction. The cut in the main rate of national insurance for employees from 12% to 10% and changes in rates for the self-employed will hand back, according to the OBR, £2.2 billion in 2023-24 and £9.4 billion in 2024-25, rising to £10 billion in £2028-29. That is a total of nearly £50 billion.

What are the Government going to collect through national insurance contributions for the same period? According to the OBR, despite the cut in the rate, they will collect £62 billion—£12 billion more than the cut they are handing back. That is all because of fiscal drag. Can the Minister explain why the cut in the national insurance contribution rate does not fully wipe out the increase in revenues from the contributions? Whichever way anyone looks at it, this cut is part of an impression management exercise. It is a small part of the additional taxes that the Government have already collected and will continue to collect.

In line with their usual practice, the Government are handing a lower amount of the national insurance cut to the less well-off and more to the rich. The annual median wage for an employee is £29,669, so a median-wage earner will get a cut of just £341 a year. Those earning more will collect far more. The median earners will still pay a higher proportion of their income in national insurance contributions than wealthier individuals: the Resolution Foundation concluded that the Budget favoured the richest 20% of earners. It will be interesting to see whether the Minister wants to deny that.

As people in London and the south-east of England tend to have higher wages, they will collect a bigger national insurance cut compared to the rest of the country. Due to the Government’s failure to address regional disparities, inequalities will now be widened. In the last tax year, 21 million adults had a taxable income of less than £12,570 and, as a result, were not liable to pay any national insurance contributions. Due to fiscal drag, that number is now around 19 million. The national insurance cut delivers zero benefit to 19 million adults, the majority of whom are women. This includes families who have been robbed of nearly £3,000 a year by the Government’s two-child benefit cap. As usual, the poorest are invisible to the Government. Can the Minister please explain the impact of the national insurance cut on regional and gender inequalities?

The national insurance cut provides little comfort to most families. Savings for median earners are immediately wiped out by the higher price of food, energy, transport, interest rates, mortgage payments, rents and council tax—there is no benefit. The Resolution Foundation estimates that, due to sluggish economic growth, persistent inflation and higher taxes, the average household will be £1,900 a year poorer by January 2025, compared to December 2019—that is a real legacy of the Government. There is no redistribution or levelling up; nothing in the Bill matches that.

The Government could have helped the 19 million adults receiving zero benefit from the national insurance cut by abolishing VAT on domestic fuel, or by cutting the standard rate of VAT, but they chose not to do that. The cost could have been met by clawing back the benefit of the 2% national insurance cut from the richest individuals—for example, by making the national insurance contribution rate more progressive for individuals on higher incomes. Patriotic Millionaires have urged the Government to tax them more, but the Government do not even want to do what the rich are urging them to—possibly because those rich people are not in the Conservative Party.

In case the Minister is tempted to say that the Government have helped the poor by increasing benefits, I remind her that the real value of benefits has fallen since 2010. The Government could have addressed the anomalies in the national insurance contribution laws. For example, there is no economic or moral reason for exempting capital gains, dividends and investment income from national insurance payments. The individuals enjoying exemptions use the National Health Service and social care system, but do not pay anything towards them. If a rich person with capital gains has an accident, a taxpayer-funded ambulance and the NHS would come to the rescue, so why do they not pay national insurance contributions? What is the moral and economic justification? The Government could have raised billions of pounds by eliminating that anomaly.

The Government could also have hit the tax avoidance industry. I know many accountants who are busy converting incomes to capital gains so that certain individuals not only pay tax at a lower rate but dodge national insurance contributions. The Government have done absolutely nothing to deal with that. Of course, getting rid of the tax avoidance industry helps with economic efficiency as well, but again the Government are oblivious to that. Can the Minister explain why investment income in the hands of comparatively few people continues to be exempt from national insurance payments? What is the justification for this? If she wishes, I would be delighted to participate in any debate that she might wish to call on this.

My Lords, I will make a short intervention in this debate to ask the Minister a few questions about the allocation from the National Insurance Fund to the NHS following the introductions of the measures in the Bill.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 19% of the National Insurance Fund is paid directly to the NHS. My first question to the Minister is, will she confirm that that percentage is correct? When Governments quote figures going to the NHS, they always talk in cash terms, but when we see a reduction in funding for the National Insurance Fund, it is good to know exactly what we are talking about. Will the Minister confirm the percentage allocated to the National Health Service from the National Insurance Fund?

Secondly, will the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that the cash value currently paid in funding to the NHS from the National Insurance Fund will not be reduced as a result of these measures? Would she be good enough, after this debate, to provide the forecast figures for both the percentage and the cash terms of the money paid from the National Insurance Fund to the NHS? Should there be any shortfall, will she give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that that reduction—that loss of funding—will be made good by the Government from general taxation: that it will be earmarked not as extra funding but as replacement funding, should there be any reduction as a result of the measures in the Bill?

I absolutely appreciate that national insurance Bills are incredibly complicated, having dealt with them in the past in another place, so if the Minister does not have that information at her fingertips, which I would entirely understand, I would be more than happy for her to write to me and the relevant spokespersons in the House with those figures. While reducing national insurance has the implications that the Minister has rightly identified, it also has a potential downside, and we need to know what that is. Will the funding of the National Health Service be protected?

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, because the point she raised is one I think we did not raise in our discussion of the Autumn Statement and perhaps did not have the front of our minds as this Bill went through. The link between national insurance contributions and funding of the NHS is critical. In thinking about it, I am astonished that an impact statement did not discuss those consequences, and I do not remember them being raised by the OBR or in other discussion papers. The issue the noble Baroness has raised is critical, and I thank her very much for asking that we all share in the Minister’s reply. Again, I have sympathy for the Minister: I doubt very much whether she has these numbers at her fingertips.

The Liberal Democrat Benches are obviously not opposing the Bill, but I would like to set a bit of context. I shall refer to the work of the Resolution Foundation, quoted extensively by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, which last week published the third and final phase of its report Ending Stagnation and provided us with updated numbers that graphically expose the price that UK households are paying for that economic stagnation. If real pay growth had continued to follow the trend from before the 2008 financial crisis, the average British worker would be £10,700 a year better off—a really significant figure. There are almost 9 million younger Brits who have never worked in an economy that has sustained rising wages. As a consequence of that impact on wages, the UK is now Europe’s most unequal large economy. That used not to be true. Our poorer families are now a staggering 27% worse off than their French and German counterparts. That is a measure we rarely look at, but it is critical. Obviously, when ordinary families are trying to cope with stagnant wages and a cost of living crisis, it is particularly unacceptable for a Government to dress up a rise in taxes as tax cutting.

By 2028-29, the freezing of the national income tax thresholds adds £45 billion a year—not over that time, but a year—to taxpayers’ annual tax bills, offset by the rate cuts we are discussing today only to the tune of £10 billion annually. If this Government were a private company, I suspect that trading standards would have a very dim view of an entity that presented an annual increase in charges of £35 billion as a cut. The public will be none too impressed when they find out the hard way, as I said in the Autumn Statement debate, that a typical earner will pay £400 more next year in tax and NICs after these measures, and a middle-income earner will pay £1,200 more. Like the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, I used that debate to point out the inequality of the distribution of the rate cut, with five times as much going to the top fifth of earners, compared with the bottom fifth. That distribution is a choice. Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs—who is not in his place today, perfectly understandably—described himself in that debate as a struggling self-employed person. When the Government decided that they needed to look most closely at and give most support to the top fifth of earners, perhaps they had the noble Lord in mind.

I note that the NIC rate cuts offer some relief to self-employed workers. This is a group that particularly lost out during Covid. The sector is, frankly, also suffering from HMRC’s harsh and shambolic loan charge regime, which is doing little to stop promoters mis-selling tax products, but is continuing to drive to breakdown and even suicide individuals who got caught up in the loan charge because they followed advice in good faith. To date, as the Minister will know, HMRC has referred 10 suicides to the IOPC, and three more are contested.

We have to change the way we deal with the self-employed sector. I very much hope that the Government will—as they often promise but never actually do—follow through on the 2017 Taylor review, which called for and fashioned principles for the update of working relationships, taking them from the past into today’s world of business. In that, there is new opportunity for the self-employed.

My Lords, the Labour Party supports this Bill, and we welcome the cuts in national insurance that it contains. We have long argued that taxes on working people are too high, and that we want them to be lower.

We have been consistent in this view. We opposed the manifesto-breaking increase in national insurance that the Prime Minister tried to implement last year, when he was Chancellor. When he introduced his 1.25% increase in national insurance contributions for employees and employers—his so-called health and social care levy—we described it at the time as

“a new tax on working people and their jobs”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/9/21; col 845.]

When it became clear to him that the Labour Party was correct to say that this was the worst possible tax rise at the worst possible time, he attempted a partial U-turn, and then, eventually, the increase in national insurance was rightly reversed.

Unfortunately for working people, this reprieve to their living standards was short-lived, as it was quickly followed by the Government’s disastrous mini-Budget, which crashed the economy and sent interest rates and mortgage rates soaring. Interest rates have now risen 14 times to a 15-year high of 5.25%, while the average two-year fixed-rate mortgage at one point rose from 2.6% to over 6%. As a result, families re-mortgaging since July have seen their mortgage payments rise by an average of £220 per month. Some 1.6 million families have seen their mortgage deals end this year. Next year, a further 1.5 million families will face a similar fate.

According to the Resolution Foundation, this Parliament is now on course to be the first ever in which real household incomes fall. We are now seeing the biggest ever fall in living standards since records began. The cut in national insurance that the Bill contains is not the full story on tax, nor does it represent the reality that many British people now face.

Despite what the Government would like us to believe, and in contrast to the claim the Minister made in her opening speech that the Government are paying back working people, the reality—as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation and the House of Commons Library have all made clear—is that taxes are going up, not down. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, implied, it is important that we are all honest about that point. The truth is that the tax burden will now rise every single year for the next five years, rising to its highest ever level and making this the biggest tax-raising Parliament ever. Indeed, new data published just this week by the OECD showed that the UK’s tax burden has now increased to its highest rate ever on record.

Prior to the Autumn Statement that announced the cut in national insurance we are debating today, the Government had already put in place 25 tax rises amounting to £90 billion and the equivalent of a 10p increase in national insurance. This 2p cut does not remotely compensate for the tax increases already announced. As my noble friend Lord Sikka pointed out, the Resolution Foundation has calculated that, even after this cut to national insurance, households will still be £1,900 worse off.

These cuts to personal taxation are more than eclipsed by increases in taxes that the Government have previously announced. For example, the freezing of national insurance and income tax thresholds for six years is now expected to cost taxpayers £45 billion. This fiscal drag means that nearly 4 million more people will pay income tax and 3 million more people will pay the higher rate. The combined effect is an average tax rise of £1,200 per household.

According to Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the cut in national insurance rates

“pales into … insignificance alongside the … increase in personal taxes created by the six year freeze in allowances and thresholds”.

The IFS has calculated that, extraordinarily, almost every single person in the UK liable for income tax or national insurance will now be paying higher taxes overall. As a result, the tax burden will now reach 37.7% of GDP by the end of the forecast period, an increase equivalent to an astonishing £4,300 of additional tax for every household in the country. This is a tax- raising Government.

The actual lived experience of the British people is not that their taxes are going down; it is that their taxes are going up. The reality that working people face is not that they will be better off; it is that they will be worse off. We should all be honest about that fact. We should be honest, too, about the reasons why: taxes are so high in this country because growth is so low. The UK’s growth record over the past 13 years has been poor by international standards. We have languished in the bottom third of OECD countries, with 27 OECD economies growing faster than us since 2010. Over the next two years, no fewer than 177 countries are forecast by the IMF to grow faster than the UK. For this year and next, we will be 35th out of 38 OECD countries for growth.

The latest outturn figures for GDP show that there was no growth at all in the third quarter of this year. In the Autumn Statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility downgraded its forecast for growth in each of the next three years, so that growth in 2024 is now forecast to be just 0.7%—more than half the 1.8% predicted as recently as the Budget in March. The Bank of England’s view is that even that is too optimistic; its latest forecast shows no growth at all in any of the next three years—no growth this year, next year or in 2025.

That is the economic reality faced by the British people—the reality of 13 years of failure. Growth and living standards are down; mortgage rates and taxes are up. The tax burden will now rise every single year for the next five years, rising to its highest ever level and making this the biggest tax-raising Parliament ever, with an average tax rise of £1,200 per household. While the cut to national insurance is welcome, the British people will conclude that it is simply too little, too late.

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this relatively short debate. As your Lordships might expect, I did not agree with all the points, statistics and bits of data that were shared, and I will obviously have my own, but I will try to stick within my wheelhouse and stay within the realms of national insurance today.

However, I want to comment on the general thrust from the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Livermore, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. It was just extraordinary. I feel really pleased that everybody has now come round to the Conservatives’ way of thinking that taxes are too high, and we need to think about reducing them and we must do so responsibly. I am grateful for that vindication of the Conservatives’ policy when it comes to personal taxes. We agree that they are too high, but of course many of the tax rises that are forecast to come into place—I absolutely accept that taxes will go up, although this national insurance cut reduces them—are already announced and baked into the figures.

I did not hear many noble Lords recognising the reasons why we needed to put taxes up—

I was very tactful not to point out that the Minister, as with all Conservatives— I think they have probably signed an oath somewhere—did not mention Brexit and the economic damage it has done, which is a fundamental part of all this. In giving the history of the things that have gone wrong, it is best not to lecture the House when the Government are deliberately leaving out one of the key culprits.

My Lords, I definitely was not lecturing the House—far be it from me to do so. However, it would obviously not be a debate without a Liberal Democrat mentioning Brexit.

I am going to move on from that general observation that I am pleased that there is this political groundswell now back behind the Conservatives for lower taxes, which is excellent—

My Lords, I apologise for intervening, but just to back up the Liberal Democrats, it is not just Brexit. As the Minister will know, since 2010, between £450 billion and £1,500 billion of taxes have not been collected due to avoidance, evasion, fraud and error. If only a fraction of that had been collected, the Minister can imagine how the whole country would have been transformed. If the Minister is looking to expand the debate, here is a point to talk about.

The Minister is definitely not looking to expand the debate but is trying to make progress. I hear what the noble Lord says, and if he has read the Autumn Statement, which I am sure he has, he will have seen the announcements made in it about tax avoidance.

Moving on to comments made by noble Lords, I think it is probably not worth rehearsing and rehashing the elements around fiscal drag. Again, I want to put some numbers on record, because there is an opportunity to do so. Thanks to the cut in employee national insurance contributions announced at the Autumn Statement and to above-average increases to starting thresholds since 2010, an average worker in 2024-25 will pay more than £1,000 less in personal taxes than they would otherwise have done. That statement has attracted some interest, and I reassure noble Lords that the calculations underlying this statistic are based on public information, including a published estimate of average earnings. They are robust and could be replicated by an external analyst. This goes back to what I was trying to say about data. Lots of people will do calculations on different bases, but at the end of the day, from the Government’s perspective, we want taxes to come down—this is a start—but of course we will do it only in a responsible manner. However, personal taxes for somebody on an average salary of £35,400 have come down since 2010.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked about distribution analysis, and the national insurance cuts will of course benefit everybody who pays national insurance. That includes 2.4 million people in Scotland, 1.2 million in Wales, 800,000 in Northern Ireland, et cetera. The latest published HMRC data for 2021 shows that the largest proportion of income tax payers reside in the south-east, followed by London. It will be the case when one has a tax cut that those who pay the largest amount, and the numbers of people who pay tax if they are located in certain areas, are therefore going to see the largest reductions.

However, we have also looked at the impact on women—again, an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. NIC charges apply regardless of personal circumstances or protected characteristics. The equalities impact will reflect the composition of the NIC-paying population. Of course, that feeds into whether we would like women to be paid more. Of course we would. That is why rewarding work will see 28,000 people come into jobs—and I very much hope that they will be well- paid jobs and will be taken up by women.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, talked about better-off households. Distribution analysis published at the Autumn Statement shows that a typical household at any income level will see a net benefit in 2023-24 and 2024-25, following government decisions made from the Autumn Statement 2022 onwards. Low-income households will see the largest benefit as a percentage of income. Furthermore, looking across all tax, welfare and spending decisions since the 2019 spending round, the impact of government action continues to be progressive, with the poorest households receiving the largest benefit as a percentage of income in 2024-25. I know that the noble Lord feels that we do not focus on those on the lowest incomes, but he is not correct in that regard.

You cannot eat a percentage of income. Going out and buying a loaf of bread costs you just the same whether you are a high earner or a low earner. So, using the percentage of income comparator to understand the cost of living pressures that people are living under and who is getting the most benefit is not the appropriate measure. If you use the cash number, you realise how much purchasing power arrives for people at the bottom end and how much more purchasing power arrives for people at the top end. That is the appropriate benchmark.

I absolutely accept that the noble Baroness is right to say that you can look at it in a different fashion but, in terms of whether what the Government are doing is progressive, it is fair to say that people on lower incomes are benefiting, as a proportion, to a greater degree. Of course, the Government have intervened when it comes to cost of living. That has been cash and that is not about percentage of income. It is all around our energy price guarantee, increases to the national living wage and looking at the uprating of benefits, which will rise by much more than inflation is forecast to be next year. So there are lots of different factors to take into account and sometimes one can be quite blunt when dealing with a tax cut that is, frankly, going to benefit 29 million people.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked why national insurance contributions do not apply on unearned income. National insurance contributions are part of the UK social security system, which is based on a long-standing contributory principle centred on paid employment and self-employment. ‘Twas ever thus. Of course, a future Government may make substantial changes to that which would again increase the tax burden—but this Government are content that we will maintain the contributory principle.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I hear what she says, but people who have what the Minister calls unearned income—some people may call it “rentier income”, which is perhaps a clearer expression—can still use the National Health Service. If there was an accident, an ambulance would arrive, even though they had not paid any national insurance. If the need arises, they can still get social care. So why are they not required to pay? They simply are free riders. If they paid, the Government could have made an even bigger cut in national insurance.

This potentially leads on to the next question from the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, about the percentage of mixed receipts that goes to the NHS. It is about 20%; 80% comes from elsewhere. Those people who pay taxes on their unearned income will, of course, pay into the general fund.

As the Minister knows, the taxes levied on dividends and capital gains are lower than the taxes on wages. If she wants her point to stand, can she explain why capital gains and dividends are taxed at a lower rate than wages? What is the justification for that?

I suspect that we are now moving into an area of debate where is not appropriate to go today, because there is business still to come in the House; I know that my noble friend is desperately waiting to get up.

I go back to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo. Obviously, the balance of the national insurance fund is monitored closely. The most recent report from the Government Actuary’s Department—GAD—forecast that the fund will be able to self-finance for at least the next five years. But, of course, the Treasury has the ability to top up the NIF from the consolidated fund when needed. Indeed, this has been done in the past—it was routinely done in the 1990s—so it is not right to say that the cut in NICs puts any pressure at all on any payment to the NHS or otherwise; that is set independently from the national insurance fund.

I do not wish to detain the House but, frankly, that is not the question I was asking. I was asking the Minister about something that she has confirmed: 20% of the 100% that the NHS gets comes from the national insurance fund and it is equated to a cash value. If there is less in the national insurance fund, less cash goes to the NHS. The simple question I asked was not about whether the NHS will still get the 100%; it was about whether the 80% will become 81% or 82%. It is quite a techy point and I do not want to delay the House, but it makes quite a difference to the cash that the NHS receives. I was just asking the Minister to confirm and clarify that; I am not seeking to score any points off her.

I am grateful to be able to clarify that it is not set on a percentage basis at all. The amount of money that goes to the NHS is set in actual terms; for example, it is £160 billion in 2023-24 and will be £162.5 billion in 2024-25. It has nothing to do with the percentage of anything.

I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, on the Taylor review and everything that she raised. That would probably be the most appropriate thing to do.

For the time being, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

My Lords, now that we have concluded Second Reading, Members have a further hour to table amendments to this Bill. Members wishing to table amendments should contact the Public Bill Office. We will resume proceedings on the Bill at the point shown on the annunciator after the Statement and the debate on the overseas electors regulations.

BBC Funding


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 7 December.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the BBC.

The BBC is a great British institution and plays a vital role in our culture and creative economy. It broadcasts our values and identities all over the world, reaching hundreds of millions of people every day. In January 2022, the Government and BBC agreed a six-year funding settlement, which froze the licence fee at £159 for two years. The two-year freeze has already saved every fee payer £17 over 2022 and 2023. That settlement provided vital support for households when inflation was at its highest, while giving the BBC the funding it needed to deliver on its remit.

Under the terms of the settlement, the licence fee must now increase annually in line with the consumer prices index, with the first increase due in April 2024. The Government are committed to supporting families as much as possible during these difficult times. We recognise that bill rises are never welcome and family budgets remain under pressure.

Today, I am announcing that we will use the annual rate of CPI in September to calculate the increase of the BBC licence fee in April 2024. This is the same way the Government calculate inflation-linked increases to state pensions and benefits. The decision means next year’s licence fee increase will be kept as low as possible. In April, the licence fee will rise by 6.7%, to £169.50 annually. That will minimise the rise for households, keeping it to £10.50 over the year, or 88p per month, rather than a rise of £14.50 that would have happened under the previous CPI measure.

While we recognise that household budgets remain under pressure, the decision, alongside the two-year freeze, will save individual licence fee payers over £37 by the end of 2024. These interventions support households, while providing the BBC with £3.8 billion to produce its world-leading content. The Government engaged with both the BBC and S4C to understand the impacts on the finances of both broadcasters. The decision will ensure that S4C, which is also funded from the licence fee, can maintain its unique role in promoting the Welsh language and supporting our public service broadcasting landscape.

Although we have taken steps to ensure that the uplift is kept as low as possible, we recognise that a £10.50 increase will still be felt by licence fee payers. The number of licence fee payers is also declining, with an increasingly competitive media landscape. We need to make sure that the cost of the BBC does not rise exponentially, and that it is not borne by a smaller number of fee payers. We are already seeing an increasing number of households choosing not to hold a TV licence. The number of households holding TV licences fell by 400,000 last year, and has declined by around 1.7 million since 2017-18. That is placing increasing pressure on the BBC’s licence fee income.

We are also seeing a rapidly changing media landscape, with more ways for audiences to watch content. The reach and viewing of broadcast TV fell significantly in 2022, with weekly reach falling from 83% in 2021 to 79% in 2022. As this trend continues, linking the TV licence to watching live TV will become increasingly anachronistic, as audience viewing habits continue to move to digital and on-demand media.

We know that if we want the BBC to succeed, we cannot freeze its income, but at the same time we cannot ask households to pay more to support the BBC indefinitely. We are already supporting the BBC to realise commercial opportunities that will make it more financially sustainable, and will continue to explore them provisionally with the BBC.

The situation clearly shows the need to consider the BBC’s funding arrangements to make sure they are fair for the public and sustainable for the BBC. Therefore, I am also announcing that today the Government are launching a review of the BBC’s funding model. The review will look at how we can ensure the funding model is fair for the public, sustainable for the long term, and supports the BBC’s vital role in growing our creative industries.

The review will be led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and supported by an expert panel. It will assess a range of options for funding the BBC. We are clear that we want the BBC to succeed. The review will include looking at how the BBC can increase its commercial revenues to reduce the burden on licence fee payers. Given pressure on household incomes, I can explicitly rule out this review looking at creating any new taxes. The findings of the review will support the Government to make an informed choice on whether to consult the public on moving to alternative funding models. That would take place as part of the charter review process, in which any final decision on reforming the BBC’s funding model would be taken.

The BBC is a great national institution. We want to ensure that it is fit for the present and whatever the future holds, while keeping costs down for the public. That means ensuring that the BBC is supported by a funding model that is fair to audiences, supports the creative industries, and is sustainable in the age of digital and on-demand media. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, we on these Benches are clear that the BBC must continue as a universal, publicly owned and publicly funded public service broadcaster, with funding that is both sufficient and sustainable. After flirting with the privatisation of Channel 4, the Government’s somewhat chop and change approach to BBC funding is creating significant uncertainty for our valuable public service broadcasters and the wider creative ecosystem. Have the Government undertaken an assessment of the likely impact of the additional pressure being placed on BBC budgets? Is this likely to lead to more journalist job cuts, disruption to commissions and supply chains, or harm to the organisation’s soft power across the world? If an assessment has been undertaken, will it be published?

The BBC has already scaled back some of its public service output in response to the licence fee freeze. This has seen, for example, local radio services streamlined. From my time as an MP in the other place, I recall how local communities had the greatest trust in local TV and radio stations as a source of news and information. Does the Minister agree with the continuing importance of local provision of news and information at a time when fake news proliferates, particularly online, and when many local newspapers are scaling back their operations? To turn to the national sphere, most recently, the format of “Newsnight” has changed, with its important investigative journalism scaled back and moved elsewhere.

The Government’s desire to focus on the cost of living is understood, but it is their actions which have stretched household budgets to breaking point. Does the Minister accept that this change in how the licence fee is calculated will have a negligible impact on working people’s finances, through a saving of just £4 a year, while having a far bigger impact on the BBC’s ability to fulfil its public service duty and role?

We also understand the desire of the Secretary of State to launch the future funding review. She is, after all, not the first person to have had that idea, but many lack confidence that the process is about getting the right result for the BBC. What steps will be taken to shore up confidence in the review among stakeholders, staff and the public?

We have learned so much from the past few years about what it means to be a resilient society, not least because of the pandemic, when the BBC really came into its own, not just as a broadcaster but as an educator, a trusted source of information and a connector. The Government’s resilience framework promises a direction of travel which incorporates prevention, preparedness, response and recovery, no matter what the disaster. Can the Minister indicate whether there has been consideration of the impact of the BBC’s funding on all these aspects of resilience?

Our great broadcasting institutions, their employees and the wider creative sectors that they do so much to sustain deserve far better than they are getting currently. Labour, on the other hand, will work with, rather than against, the BBC and other public service broadcasters to grow our creative industries and ensure that all parts of the UK benefit from their output. That is the essence of public service broadcasting.

My Lords, in 2022, the Government made a firm commitment that, after two years of freezing the licence fee, they would allow it to rise for the following four years according to the rate of inflation. The BBC kept its side of the bargain, despite having to make heavy cuts. The Statement repeated here today makes it clear that the Government have not. The Government’s excuse—that their below-inflation settlement is about helping with the cost of living—will not wash. The difference between an inflation- linked settlement and the actual one is 45p per month, yet this will deprive the BBC of £400 million over the next four years, causing enormous damage to an institution already reeling under successive cuts by this Government. There are more direct ways to help those who are trying to deal with the burden of inflation and increased energy bills.

What does this mean? It means less investment in the nation’s creative industries, fewer jobs created nationwide, more job cuts at the BBC and, almost certainly, fewer journalists dedicated to checking facts and reporting impartially, which is so important in the world of the internet. The BBC feeds into the Government’s levelling-up agenda, making programmes across the country while boosting local economies and utilising local skills—except that cuts to BBC local radio, already in train, mean that the spotlight on the local level is increasingly dim and will grow dimmer, thanks to today’s Statement.

As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, another casualty is investigative journalism. I used to work on “Newsnight”; we criss-crossed the UK and the world seeking out stories and telling them in depth, not just reacting. Now, it is another current affairs programme shunted off to an existence solely in the studio. As my former colleague Michael Crick—he may not be the favourite person of some of your Lordships, but he is one of mine—noted:

“If I were a dodgy politician or a crooked businessman or a lazy civil servant, I would rest a bit easier in my bed”.

I mentioned the world. International reporting is already shrinking, and believe me it will shrink further. Just look at how the terrible events in the Middle East have led to Ukraine virtually disappearing from the airwaves. Major events have been occurring in Afghanistan, Sudan, Myanmar and Latin America: we hear nothing. Bringing the world to domestic audiences is so important. As a consequence, we are more equipped to understand, connect and empathise with what is going on beyond UK borders. Ignorance is not a good idea. It is fed by the echo chamber of the internet. Does the Minister not agree?

Of course, the BBC is not just about journalism, important as that is. It is the backbone of our world-beating creative industries and the single largest investor in original UK content operating in the UK. Innovation is often overlooked. It was the BBC that came up with the idea of television. My noble friend—if I may call him that—Lord Birt was behind BBC Online and the BBC has continued to lead, with the likes of the iPlayer and BBC Sounds. It led on rolling out the digital switchover and created two consumer platforms to help make online TV available to all UK audiences. Every £1 of BBC R&D spend alone contributes to £9 in value beyond. Can the Minister explain why this is not something to support?

Then there is soft power. Through the World Service and the programmes the BBC exports, it is central to promoting the UK around the world and is the envy of the world. The Government’s integrated review, published this year, boasted correctly that the BBC is

“the most trusted broadcaster worldwide”.

Considering all these positives, have the Government assessed the impact of these unexpected cuts on the BBC? Can the Minister say where he sees them coming from and what he would be happy to do without?

Finally, on the announced review of the BBC’s funding model, it is of course appropriate that the funding model for the BBC should be investigated, but does the Minister think it is right for the Government to do so without any public consultation and in the space of a few months? Who will be on the expert panel and how will they be chosen? These Benches have long proposed that the funding process, as well as the appointment of the BBC chair, should be taken out of government control and handed to a genuinely independent body. As David Attenborough said:

“The basic principle of public service broadcasting is profoundly important. If we lose that we really lose a very valuable thing”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Baronesses for their questions. I was not clear from the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, whether the Labour Benches are closed-minded to the future funding model of the BBC and wedded to the licence fee model. Nor was I clear from the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, whether the Liberal Democrat Benches think the rise for licence fee payers ought to be higher.

What we have done this year and since the beginning of 2022 is, initially in 2022, agree a funding settlement with the BBC, which froze the licence fee at £159 for two years. That has already saved households £17 over this year and last. Under the terms of the settlement, the licence fee must now increase annually in line with CPI but, because of the decision we have taken to calculate this using the annual rate of CPI in September, rather than a rolling six-month period, the increase will be kept as low as possible.

In April the licence fee will therefore rise by 6.7% to £169.50 annually. That is an increase of just 88p per month, as opposed to a rise of £14.50, which would have happened under the previous way of measuring CPI using an average of the 12 months preceding September. We have done this because we recognise that household budgets remain under pressure. This decision, alongside the two-year freeze, will save individual licence fee payers more than £37 by the end of 2024. It will also ensure that the BBC is provided with more than £3.8 billion to continue to produce the world-leading content for which it is rightly renowned across this country and the world. That is a fair deal which provides value for money for the licence fee payer, while ensuring that the BBC can continue its important work and play its important role in our national life.

The BBC has made a statement about the impact of the decisions as it sees them—the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asked about that. It is of course for the BBC to make its decisions about how it spends this £3.8 billion, but we are providing it with a significant cash uplift that will support the corporation in delivering its mission and public purpose and continue to deliver for licence fee payers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, was right to highlight the work that the BBC does across the country reporting on the lives and interests of people across these islands, as well as the important work done by the BBC World Service across the globe. That is the world’s largest international broadcaster and plays a hugely important role providing accurate and impartial news, analysis and discussion in more than 40 languages to more than 360 million people around the world every week. The Government strongly support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality impartial news to global audiences, particularly in places where free speech and the freedom of journalists is limited. We will consider how the topics that the future funding review will explore apply to the funding arrangements of the BBC World Service and to the important work that the BBC does in broadcasting in minority languages here at home in the United Kingdom.

The next steps of the funding review will include appointing an expert panel, engaging with interested parties and commissioning research. The review will aim to report to the Secretary of State by next autumn. The findings will inform the charter review, which is where any final decisions on changing the BBC’s funding model will be made by His Majesty’s Government. Given the commercial sensitivities, the findings of the review will remain confidential until the review has concluded. Decisions about the membership of the panel will be made by Ministers, but we will ensure that the panel incorporates a broad range of views. Its role will be to provide advice and external challenge to the review, so that we can consider the best way to equip the BBC with the income it needs to continue the important work that it has done for more than a century, and that we look forward to it continuing to do in an increasingly complex media landscape. It is vital that it is able to continue doing that for the reasons the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, highlighted about the contested news sources we see and have debated many times in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I quote the current Secretary of State: the BBC

“needs to live in the real world”,


“We can’t keep putting prices up for the licence fee”.

What is actually happening in the real world? In the last three years, while the licence fee has been frozen, the price of Netflix has risen by 50%, Disney+ by 83%, Apple TV by 40%, and spend on the NHS, excluding Covid costs, has risen in the same period by around 12%. In the period 2010-20, the BBC had to cut spending by 30%. After two years flat, there is a further drop in real terms of something like 12%. Against that backdrop, frankly, this new settlement will be but a drop in the ocean.

It is recognised the world over that the century-old BBC is one of the greatest creations of our times. No other country in the world has so effectively captured its national experience, cultural expression and national dialogue, viz: the exquisite “Planet Earth”, “Horizon”, “Dad’s Army”, “Fleabag”, “Little Dorrit”, “Happy Valley”, “Gardeners’ Question Time”, and the Proms— I could go on and on. The BBC still makes wonderful programmes, but—

My Lords, the Companion is very clear that, in the Back-Bench portion of Questions on a Statement, noble Lords are encouraged to make their point and ask a question.

I hope noble Lords will allow me to come to a conclusion. I can see all too clearly how much the BBC has diminished in every area of programming since my time as director-general. Last year, the previous Secretary of State tweeted:

“It’s over for the BBC as they know it”.

Let us name the game; the BBC is a victim of the culture wars and, as a result, we are witnessing the long, slow, painful, diminution of this great institution. Will this continue?

I must disagree with the noble Lord. We want to ensure that the BBC continues to be able to do its work over the next hundred years just as brilliantly as it has over the past century. That is why we are trying to find a settlement that is fair for licence fee payers, who bear the cost at the moment, but which is also good for the BBC, sustainable for the long term, and supports the BBC in its important work.

The noble Lord drew attention to the rising cost of other service providers. He is right to do so; it highlights what a good deal people get when they pay their licence fee and get to enjoy the work of the BBC. Of course, the number of households holding a TV licence fell by 400,000 last year, and has declined by around 1.7 million since 2017. We want to ensure that the costs are not borne by an increasingly small number of people. Of course, people are consuming television, including on the BBC, in different ways. That is why it is right to look at the future funding model, to make sure that the BBC can continue to do its important work in a very different media landscape over the decades to come.

My Lords, we are regularly told that the licence fee is not a tax, but on the other hand it walks like a tax and quacks like a tax. Of course it is a very flat tax, in that it impacts enormously on people who cannot easily afford it. As the noble Lord, Lord Birt, has referred to, the BBC is coming under enormous competition from many other forms of media. Surely this settlement is quite generous, looked at in those terms.

I agree with my noble friend. We want to strike a balance that is fair to licence fee payers, who are, of course, facing pressures on the cost of living. We want to show that the BBC, like them, is having to make decisions about how it spends its money in the current climate, but also highlight the brilliant way it spends it, the important work it does and the important role it plays with the output it produces.

My Lords, I find the Minister and the Government’s position quite confusing. I declare an interest as a former deputy chair of the BBC, and commend the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, and the noble Lord, Lord Birt, for their exposition of the real, parlous state that the BBC finds itself in.

The Minister is saying that he is supportive of the BBC’s role. We have a unique thing in the BBC; it is a jewel in the crown internationally and it provides a huge range of behind-the-scenes and in-front-of-camera services to this nation. Yet the position of this Government has been, consistently since 2010, to squeeze and squeeze the BBC harder. This is at a time when 81% of the households in this country subscribe to multiple streaming services, costing them up to £400 a year, when they are getting a bargain, even with a properly inflated licence fee payment, with the BBC.

I will ask the Minister just one question. When this review of the basis of the funding of the BBC is taking place, is the objective to make sure that the BBC will have adequate funds to do the thing that it really needs to do? That is to help reshape its already changing offering to be relevant in the modern world, both nationally and internationally, and to ensure this jewel in the crown that we have is not destroyed inadvertently by a fruitless debate about the licence fee basis of payment.

The review aims to ensure that the BBC’s funding model is fair to licence fee payers, sustainable for the long term and supports the BBC in the vital work it does, including its important role in growing our thriving creative industries. We know that, if we want the BBC to continue to succeed, we cannot freeze its income but, at the same time, we cannot ask households to pay more to support the BBC indefinitely. So, the review will look at a range of options for funding the corporation, including looking at how the BBC can increase its commercial revenues to reduce the burden on licence fee payers.

My Lords, I am not against a review of the funding model, but that is a completely different matter entirely from the long-term squeezing of funds available to the BBC—which is surely, as has just been said, the central problem. One problem should not be used as an excuse not to solve the other problem.

As we know from previous exchanges, there is the immediate decision about licence fee increases and the settlement that the Government reached with the BBC at the beginning of 2022—which saw the two-year freeze to help house- holds at the time—and the longer-term questions which are right to ask to make sure that we are funding the BBC in a sustainable way, so that it can continue to do important work in the decades to come, which are going to look very different from the BBC’s first century.

My Lords, many of us despair at the way in which the Government praise the BBC and yet constantly undermine it. In terms of future funding, is the Minister aware that your Lordships’ Select Committee looked at this and rejected a straightforward advertising funding model on the grounds that it would not provide enough funding for the BBC and would damage other public service broadcasters. It also ruled out a sponsorship funding scheme as well. Will the Government rule out those two options and accept that guaranteeing the universality of the BBC will always require some form of public funding?

I do not agree that providing the BBC with more than £3.8 billion is undermining it. That is a large amount of money for the BBC to do its important work. The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the work of your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee. I know that my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston would have liked to be here for this exchange, but the committee is on an external visit today. We will, of course, engage with her and the ideas and work of the committee. As I say, the future funding review will look at such matters as we weigh all that up and make decisions about the best way to provide the BBC with the sustainable income it needs.

My Lords, the BBC is a thriving part of a much wider creative industries sector. That sector has transformed in recent years and continues to transform. The McKinsey report on the arts sector, which came out last month, described the creative industries as now having reached a £126 billion contribution to GVA, which is exactly equivalent to the entire construction sector, with 2.5 million jobs. This is the universe in which the BBC is now swimming. The expert panel will be looking at a funding model, but is it not slightly strange to have a funding model in search of a strategy? Should not that expert panel also consider what we want the BBC to provide as a public service broadcaster, whether on news—local, regional and international—education, children’s programming and so on? I hope that the expert panel will think more on that as well, so that we do not just have £3.8 billion looking for something to do.

My noble friend is right to draw your Lordships’ attention to the excellent report done by McKinsey and published recently, which highlights the successes of our creative industries. They were growing nearly twice as quickly as the rest of the economy before the pandemic. As he knows, the Government are determined, through our Creative Industries Sector Vision, to continue to help the sector grow and thrive. He is also right that the BBC and our other public service broadcasters play an important role in the success of the creative industries. That is why, as I have said, we want to take that into account as we look at the best way to fund the BBC in the decades to come. We want the BBC to continue to succeed as a public service broadcaster long into the future, providing high-quality public service content and supporting our thriving and growing creative industries.

Will the review look at what the BBC generates for the nation, as well as what goes in? Arguably, it generates far more money than the £3.8 billion, but this cannot be reduced to just an economic debate. Will what the BBC generates in good will around the world and our standing as a nation, because of what it does, be taken into consideration?

I hope the right reverend Prelate can tell from what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in another place that we do appreciate the huge value that the BBC brings to viewers and listeners across the country, as it has done for more than a century. It is because we value it that we want to ensure that it is able to survive in decades to come. We are also looking at how we can support the BBC in that fast-changing broadcasting landscape. We have more than doubled the borrowing limit of the BBC’s commercial arm to enable it to access private finance, so that it can pursue an ambitious commercial growth strategy of its own, which of course will have an important impact on boosting investment in the creative economy of the whole UK.

The Minister has explained that at the centre of the financial arrangements which he has described is the concept of fairness. If we consider fairness in respect of licence fee payers and in respect of the BBC, we are really talking about apples and pears. Could the Minister explain how the Government balance fairness to the licence fee payer with fairness to the BBC? It seems that there may be a bit of a risk that we end up with a solution that is rather fairer to one side than the other.

That thorny question is one for the future funding review, but it is important. We want to ensure that the BBC has a sustainable income, but also that the sources of that are fair. I have pointed already to the declining number of people who are paying for a licence fee and the declining number who watch television live. Funding models which are predicated on some of those conceptions of the past will look increasingly anachronistic as we move into the BBC’s next century. We have also seen licence fee evasion rising, so it is right that we look at this to make sure that we are coming up with a good answer to the difficult question that the noble Lord poses.

My Lords, have the Government looked at models of public service broadcasting in comparable countries in terms of both international and domestic activities? In the United States, France and Germany the international dimension of Voice of America and so on is publicly funded, but here the international dimension of the BBC has been financially squeezed by the Government in recent years, which is a disaster for British foreign policy.

In France, Germany and the Netherlands the domestic side is also substantially publicly funded, while in the US it is not; it is given over to commercial interests. The Minister will be as painfully aware as the rest of us of the destructive impact that has had on maintaining a national dialogue at the centre of democratic politics in the US; instead, it encourages culture wars. There are powerful commercial interests in this country—the Murdoch press more than anything else—that would very much like to see that happening here, and it is not at all clear that all members of the Conservative Government are still committed to the principle of public service broadcasting.

Can the Minister, as a One Nation Tory and not a member of any of the “five families” on the right, say that he, at least, is committed to the principle of public service broadcasting, which implies a broadcaster that one can trust—the BBC comes out high on public trust in all public opinion polls—and a substantial chunk of public funding?

The whole of the Government are committed to the BBC’s important role as a public service broadcaster. My right honourable friend in her Statement in another place rightly called the BBC “a great British institution” that

“plays a vital role in our culture and creative economy”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/23; col. 514.]

As we look at future funding options, we will look at how public service broadcasting is delivered in other countries, both the ways in which that is done and the pros and cons of those models.

The noble Lord is right to highlight that the BBC plays its role in a globally exceptional way. I have already talked about the more than 360 million people who tune into and rely on the BBC World Service for impartial news and analysis. We should be very proud that it is our national broadcaster that people across the world tune into, and we want to ensure that it is sustainably funded for many decades to come.

When considering the financing of the BBC, will my noble friend clearly bear in mind all the issues that have been raised by noble Lords across the House concerning its importance worldwide and its contribution to society in general? However, what concerns me is that the BBC has not looked deeply into other areas to see what can be brought under control. I have typed “apple crumble recipes” on my phone. The first four entries come from the BBC. Why on earth, when the BBC should be providing services worldwide in multilingual circumstances, are we confronted by an organisation that provides food recipes to anyone who wants them and who can get them for free from other sites as well?

I did not know there were so many ways to make an apple crumble, but I am sure my noble friend’s was delicious, however he made it. He is right. The BBC is getting more than £3.8 billion, which is a large amount of money, for it to continue to do the important work that it does. It is up to the BBC to decide how it spends its money, but it is right that it makes sure that it is doing so in a way that would delight all licence fee payers.

My Lords, I hate to intervene twice—I know it is against the rules and the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, will tell me that I cannot—but I think I am right in saying, and the noble Lord, Lord Birt, will be able to confirm this, that the BBC’s recipes are an entirely commercial venture and are no longer funded from the licence fee.

I have indeed pointed to the extra freedom that the Government have given the BBC to pursue its commercial income, so that it can continue to do its excellent work and be funded in a sustainable way that is fair to licence fee payers, viewers, listeners and indeed bakers.

Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 23 October be approved.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, in our manifesto, the Government committed to removing the 15-year limit on voting rights for overseas electors and we are delivering on that promise. Last year, Parliament passed the Elections Act, resolving to extend the franchise to all British citizens, including eligible Irish citizens, living overseas who were either previously registered to vote in the UK or were previously resident in the UK. The two statutory instruments we are debating flow from that Act.

If approved by Parliament, together, these instruments will make necessary changes, as well as improvements, to electoral registration processes across the UK from 16 January 2024 to coincide with the commencement of the franchise change. To ensure the registration processes are workable for applicants and for administrators, we have worked closely with delivery partners and stakeholders across the electoral sector and have engaged with representatives of British citizens overseas on the design of the process. We have created a process that ensures that our democracy remains secure, fair, modern and transparent.

I will start by outlining the changes these instruments make to the registration application process to enable overseas electors to apply, and to enable electoral registration officers in Great Britain and the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland to determine their eligibility under these new criteria. These instruments ensure that there are robust processes to verify an applicant’s identity and establish their eligibility to register at their qualifying UK address.

The Elections Act 2022 established two conditions for registering to vote as an overseas elector. Going forward, an individual can apply under the previous registration condition or, if never registered, the previous residence condition. Applicants who have previously registered to vote in the UK should apply in respect of the address where they were last registered, under the previous registration condition. For the first time, applicants previously resident in the UK, but who never registered to vote, can apply in respect of the address where they were last resident, under the previous residence condition. Applicants will, as now, be required to complete a declaration as part of their application. These instruments update the declaration requirements to reflect the new eligibility criteria. When determining an application, electoral registration officers must check and be satisfied of the applicant’s identity and connection to their qualifying previous UK address.

To check the applicant’s identity, as now, the applicant’s national insurance number will be data-matched by DWP. Digital improvements mean that this process will be quicker than the current identity checks. Where an applicant cannot provide a national insurance number, or this cannot be matched, they will be able to provide documentary evidence. This new step, introduced by the instrument for Great Britain, brings the process into alignment with existing practice, maintains integrity and eases the administrative burden on applicants and administrators by reducing recourse to attestations. As now, an attestation from a qualified elector—that is, a statement from a UK-registered elector who is not a close relative—may be used to verify an applicant’s identity where verification by documentary evidence is not possible. To verify an applicant’s connection to their qualifying address, as now, in most cases, electoral registration officers will be able to rely on checks against previous electoral registers. Registers are typically held for 15 years, and we expect they will be retained for longer in future.

Where register checks are not possible, this instrument enables several ways to verify an applicant’s connection to their qualifying address. This includes a DWP data match, checks against local records where available and the power for a registration officer to request several types of documentary evidence, originating from reputable sources—such as the UK Government, local authorities and banks—from the applicant. We have considered stakeholder feedback on documentary evidence available to overseas applicants and have provided flexibility in these measures while ensuring they retain integrity. An attestation from a qualified elector can also be used for qualifying address verification where documentary evidence is not possible. This is in close alignment with the process for verifying the identity of both overseas and domestic electors.

I turn now to the renewal process and absent voting arrangements. Currently, to stay registered, an overseas elector must reapply every year. This instrument implements a new fixed-point renewal process, which enables overseas electors to remain registered for up to three years. In Great Britain, overseas electors’ absent vote arrangements will also be tied to the registration renewal process, meaning that an overseas elector will be able to renew their registration and their absent vote arrangement at the same time. These changes will benefit the elector. Enabling an elector to maintain their registration and absent vote in this way means that, when a parliamentary election is called, the elector’s absent vote can be issued without delay.

This improved process will also support administrators to maintain the accuracy of registers, minimise time-consuming processes and reduce their workload in the run-up to an election. Registered overseas electors will be able to renew their declaration within the last six months of their current registration period. The instruments will ensure that overseas electors are made aware in good time when they need to renew. Electoral registration officers will be required to send a first renewal reminder after 1 July during the year in which an elector’s current registration period is due to expire, with a second reminder to follow a reasonable time thereafter, enabling registration officers to manage the process alongside their other responsibilities.

The instrument applying to Northern Ireland does not amend absent voting arrangements, as electors registered in Northern Ireland are automatically entitled to use proxy votes as part of the existing process.

These instruments maintain the integrity of registration processes, ensuring that electoral registration officers continue to register applicants only when satisfied as to their eligibility. We are setting strengthened requirements for attestors and applying a new limit to the number of individuals an attestor can attest. Within an electoral year, an attestor may in future provide identity attestations only for a maximum of two individuals and, separately, address attestations for up to two individuals. We believe this to be a necessary and proportionate measure that maintains integrity while ensuring accessibility for overseas applicants who can now be attested by any UK-registered elector, not just an overseas elector.

In addition to the changes I have just outlined, these instruments make further improvements to the registration process, making it easier and quicker for eligible overseas applicants by enabling electronic submission of information, including copies of documentary evidence. In some cases, these can be provided at the point of application to speed up the process. Overseas electors registering in Great Britain are also now able to apply for a postal or proxy vote online, following the introduction of the new online application services on 31 October 2023.

We continue to work closely with the sector, including the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Commission, in preparation for implementation; we will provide funding for additional costs incurred in line with the new burdens doctrine. We are also working closely with the Electoral Commission, which has the statutory responsibility to promote democratic engagement. The commission is undertaking a targeted communications campaign both to engage with British citizens overseas and to promote awareness through their friends and families. My department will work alongside other government departments, including the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to facilitate the commission’s plans for awareness raising and to amplify its activity through government communication channels where value can be added.

I will address the regret amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley. The Government strongly disagree with the notion that the draft measures for consideration today will weaken the existing robust system of checks that surrounds all political donations. UK electoral law already sets out a robust regime of donations controls to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make political donations. The rules are very clear: political parties and other campaigners are required by law to undertake all reasonable steps to verify the permissibility of a donation within 30 days of receiving it, and prior to its acceptance. Donations that do not meet the established permissibility tests must be returned and reported to the Electoral Commission. There are also already provisions that explicitly prohibit money being funnelled through permissible donors on behalf of impermissible donors.

The Government absolutely recognise that, despite this, there is a risk that some people, whether they live in the UK or overseas, will try to evade the rules. That is why we recently strengthened those rules by creating specific offences for foreign interference in elections in the National Security Act 2023. The Government have given the Electoral Commission more information-sharing powers to access Companies House information, under the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023.

Overseas electors are important participants in our democracy, and it is only right that they should be able to make donations to political parties in Great Britain in the same way as other citizens registered on the electoral roll in Great Britain. The rules are the same for all electors. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

At end insert “but that this House regrets that the draft Regulations could dangerously weaken the restrictions on overseas political donations and allow foreign money to enter British democracy”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction. These regulations implement the provisions of the Elections Act to remove restrictions on overseas electors. Overseas voting provides an important link for British citizens across the world. On these Benches, we are clear that those who have a strong connection to this country and their community should still have a say in how they are run. We do not oppose the principle of overseas voting and giving citizens who still have a strong connection to the UK a voice in our elections. That includes people who still have a strong connection to our local services and communities. But we need to consider this carefully and look at the potential impact on our democracy.

By repealing the 15-year residency limit, former residents who are now living abroad will be able to vote regardless of how long ago they left the UK. I am proud to have represented the community and region I grew up in as a Member of the European Parliament. Like many honourable Members in the other place, I know how important it is that those who live in our area, pay their taxes and are part of the community feel represented. As much as we support the rights of overseas voters, it would be wrong if people with little connection to this country—who may have moved a long time ago and not used any services or paid any taxes in decades—diminished the voices of constituents across the United Kingdom. We must consider how we strike a balance in our rules. There are voters who still feel a connection to the UK despite moving away 30, 40 or more years ago. But the policy of removing the cap on this important principle will undermine the balance between enfranchising those people and maintaining integrity in our democracy.

Although we do not think that there is a moral disagreement about some of the issues with votes for life, I fear that the risk of abuse of the system proposed by the Government is far too great. The registration rules proposed mean that some overseas voters require only the attestation of the identity and past location of another overseas voter. We understand that it may be difficult for legitimate overseas voters to verify their identity, but there seems to be a risk of manipulation of the system to allow those eligible for the scheme to have their pick of which seats they want to vote in.

As Florence Eshalomi MP outlined in the other place, some 30 seats were decided by fewer than 1,000 votes at the last general election. While I am sure that very few will attempt to abuse the system in that way, it could have a large impact on marginal seats when votes are added up around the world. Can the Minister assure me that there will be additional safeguards to prevent fraud? I understand that there is a tight limit on attestation and that those attesting for another voter will need to sign a declaration of their truthfulness, which is right—but those measures may not be enough to prevent people trying to abuse the system in a way that could impact the next general election.

Can the Minister stipulate what robust processes will be in place to verify an applicant’s identity and establish their eligibility to register at their qualifying United Kingdom address? What support are the Government putting in place to enable electoral registration officers in Great Britain and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to determine their eligibility under these new criteria? The Government should also be more open about how much this change will cost, given that they confirmed to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that there will be additional funding to cover the costs of registering new electors.

The new rules create a huge loophole in our donation laws. The current rules on UK donations mean that those who donate more than £500 must be on the electoral register. We must be honest and say that we cannot pretend that the current system is perfect, but it is an important safeguard against money flooding into our political system from foreign and hostile states. The Labour Front Bench first raised these concerns during the passage of the Elections Act, when my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock pointed out that the removal of the 15-year limit could create a loophole in donation law.

Furthermore, during debates on the National Security Bill, my noble friend Lord Coaker called for greater restrictions on political donations from overseas. In our current system, those on the register have a clear and recent link to the UK. We think that opening the electoral register as widely as the Government are doing today goes far beyond what our current donation rules were set up to do. It will allow those with tenuous links to the UK, who have spent most of their lives in states that may even be openly hostile to our aims, the right to massively influence our system. The reality is that it will be impossible to ensure that the huge numbers of potential donors in our system are not vulnerable to manipulation by hostile actors. There is already clear evidence of attempts by these actors to influence UK democracy, as we have seen in recent days. It will also make enforcement of our rules much harder, given the difficulties that we may face in challenging those who fall foul of donation laws while living in another jurisdiction. The Government know the risks that those hostile actors pose to the UK and our allies. Just this year, we saw the attack on Britain’s Electoral Commission. Has the Minister met with it following this incident?

This Government should instead look to proposals made by the Electoral Commission, which recommended introducing new duties on parties to enhance due diligence and the risk assessment of donations. Louise Edwards, a director at the Electoral Commission, recently commented that the current levels of transparency around donations are “not enough”. The Electoral Commission has called for more laws to help protect parties from those who seek to evade the law, as well as more checks on the identity of donors. It is beyond belief that the Government are seeking to risk opening our system at such a critical time for our world. What would a political party do if, for instance, it were offered a donation of £50,000 by somebody who lives and works in Moscow today? Will the Government introduce a new requirement on political parties to do proper checks on the source of funds?

Changes to the Electoral Commission’s powers under the Elections Act 2022 have left the UK without any body responsible for criminal enforcement of election finance laws. I particularly press the Minister on the fact that no one agency now has enforcement powers over electoral law. Do the Government consider it appropriate for the National Crime Agency to take these powers? If so, will they implement that without further delay? If not, is a department fulfilling this role?

I know that there are British citizens who still feel a connection to the UK, and they will welcome this rule change, but it will also be welcomed by those who want to undermine our democracy and funnel money into our politics. We must not allow that to happen. We must strike the right balance to empower voters without enabling undue influence, but I am afraid that these regulations go nowhere near far enough to do that. Unfortunately, the Government have refused to implement any effective safeguards and have instead brought forward these regulations. I further probe the Minister on how the Government propose to monitor the impact of these new rules. Will they publish regular reviews or statements on the number of new overseas voters? If so, will this include how many have used the attestation route to register? How will we get notified of the number and value of donations made by overseas voters?

The ability to make political donations is dependent on the right to vote, so the change would allow substantially more overseas donations, particularly where the attestation of identity is open to more abuse. We express concern that the changes could dangerously weaken the restrictions on overseas political donations and allow foreign money to enter British democracy. We have therefore tabled this amendment to register our concerns, as this entirely unnecessary risk creates problems for our elections and our democracy. At a time of global instability and significant evidence of hostile states seeking to interfere in UK politics, as well as a lack of public confidence in our political institutions, now is the time to enhance our safeguards, not dismantle them. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, and the department will think again, and that all noble Lords will support our amendment to the Motion today. I beg to move.

My Lords, there are real concerns about these measures. They include the security of our electoral processes, the risk of undermining confidence in them and, above all, our elections being bought by dark money and illegitimate foreign interference. That is why we support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley.

All parties agree on the principle of UK citizens living overseas being able to vote for representatives in our Parliament, but these statutory instruments do not do much to help them. In the absence of a fixed-term Parliament, there is a very short timescale in our system for conducting a general election. It is really too short to enable many people living overseas to be able to return postal votes. We could have better addressed the issue of UK citizens living overseas through the creation of overseas constituencies, dedicated to representing their interests. They do this in many other countries, including France, Italy and Portugal. Countries such as the US and Australia allow a longer period, of up to a fortnight after polling stations have closed, for postal votes to be returned, enabling many more of their citizens living overseas to participate in their elections. When I raised such issues during the passage of the Elections Bill, the Government lacked interest. This failure means, for example, that members of our Armed Forces serving overseas, or British diplomats working in our embassies, will often remain unable to cast their votes in general elections.

What the Government are interested in is allowing many more donations to come from abroad, without any organisation in this country having any real capacity to verify the original sources of those donations. The absence of any cap on the size of donations will no doubt encourage more donations of, say, £5 million-plus to come from people whose real interests are not in this country. Why should a billionaire tax exile be able to fund a political party in the UK, and who knows where their money really comes from? The Government have clipped the wings of the previously independent Electoral Commission and made criminal enforcement of election finance laws significantly harder. I wonder why. I think perhaps we should be told.

Political parties themselves have very little capacity to scrutinise overseas bank accounts, or to inspect the accounts of companies operating overseas, even if they want to. Earlier this year, the Government rejected an amendment to the then National Security Bill which would have insisted on greater scrutiny of the original sources of donations to parties. I wonder why. The chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Julian Lewis, supported such an amendment, saying that

“the UK has clearly welcomed Russian money, including in the political sphere … We must protect against covert, foreign state-backed financial donations if we are to defend our democratic institutions from harmful interference and influence”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/5/23; col. 132.]

But this Government did not want our democracy to have that protection. I wonder why. I think perhaps we should be told.

As the organisation Spotlight On Corruption says, we need the involvement of the National Crime Agency, with its broad national-level powers, specialist legal tools for tackling national security risks and money laundering, extensive overseas law enforcement network and close working relationship with MI5. The NCA has the ability to co-ordinate and lead criminal enforcement of the UK’s electoral laws, but it appears to have taken a back seat on the enforcement of electoral law breaches. I wonder why. I think we should be told.

We have to conclude that the overseas electors legislation is more about big donations from abroad than enabling UK citizens living overseas to cast a vote. Last month, the Government suddenly announced an increase in national party spending limits of 80%, allowing a party to spend up to £35 million in a general election year, even though no previous Government have seen the need to increase the national party limit at all, and Boris Johnson’s Government spent just £16 million in 2019. The reason for the new limits must in part be to allow for major new donations from abroad.

The statutory instruments before us expose serious inconsistencies in our approach to elections and to making them fair. They will allow overseas electors to have their identity vouched for by a currently registered voter when they sign up to vote. Voters living here can also register in this way, though the process is very rarely used in the UK. In theory, someone could have lived abroad for 50 years, with little evidence of where they used to vote, and a friend could vouch that they were telling the truth about their eligibility to cast their vote in a marginal seat and to make unlimited donations to a political party.

We are constantly applying double standards in our election laws, as the Government constantly change the rules in their favour. Since May this year, we have required very specific forms of photo ID at polling stations. This is simply a crude form of voter suppression, as Jacob Rees-Mogg recently admitted. In studying the effects of the photo ID rules, the Electoral Commission reported that:

“Around 4% of all non-voters said they didn’t vote because of the voter ID requirement”.

This barrier to voting could have been reduced significantly if, for example, a voter with the requisite photo ID was able to attest that another voter was who they say they are. This system works well in Canada, and the Electoral Commission recommended it here, but this Government will not have it. I wonder why. I think we should be told.

The Government will allow attestation when an overseas elector wants to register to vote, and unlike with people living in the UK, this may become quite common practice. However, such a system is not allowed when UK citizens living in the UK want to cast a vote at a polling station. Perhaps the Minister will explain this inconsistency, and let us know why the Government will not follow the advice of the Electoral Commission on this issue and why they have ruled out the principle of attestation at polling stations if it is good enough to get on the voting register. Democracy requires a level playing field, but this Government do not seem to believe in it.

My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Khan of Burnley, following his excellent speech. I have just one additional point to add to this discussion. The argument is that these are British citizens and they should be entitled to vote. The thing about the way the rules will work in practice is that they will tend to be older voters, many of whom may even be past retirement age.

The issue I want to raise is frozen pensions. I am particularly pleased to see in his place the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, who is the relevant Minister. We have discussed these issues before. We have a Government who seem to think it appropriate for these people to have a vote, but who do not think it appropriate for them to have the pension increases they have paid for. It is a total lottery. If they live in the US, they get pension increases; if they live in Canada, they do not. If they live in New Zealand, they get increases; if they live in Australia, they do not.

The whole system is irrational—as rational as if the noble Viscount came to this House and tried to persuade us not to pay pension increases to people who live in Yorkshire. They are all British citizens; that is the basis of this proposal. My question for the Minister is, what logic is there in giving many British citizens who live abroad a vote if you are not going to give them their pension increases?

My Lords, we were, I think, discussing the statutory instruments that relate to overseas voters and their registration, rather than a range of other matters. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, took us down a series of other paths. I will pick up on two or three of them very quickly. On voter ID, a resolution was passed by this House, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in a previous debate, whereby that process would be reviewed. Equally, the noble Lord made reference to a process that applies in the statutory instrument which is rarely used in this country but is already in law. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that this application should be extended elsewhere.

The noble Lord referred to postal votes in Australia and other parts of the world arriving after the actual polling date. I think I am correct in saying that in many of those domains, such votes have to be date stamped before or on the actual election day, so there is no extension to the election period by that application.

Returning to the SIs themselves, in any process of trying to extend the entitlement to vote, there is a risk that you reduce the level of security of voting. That is inevitable. Whether it is postal votes, an extended period of voting, votes abroad or whatever it may be, there is an increased risk. The question is, how do you find that balance between extension and security of the ballot? These SIs apply the process that was established under the Elections Act a few months ago. Therefore, I do not see a particular issue with them.

On the question of trying to achieve some form of financial largesse, I wish that the noble Lords, Lord Khan and Lord Rennard, had been present—as I think my noble friend Lord Mott and other noble Lords will have been—at meetings of overseas Conservatives, who were certainly not promising vast quantities of