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Grand Committee

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024

Grand Committee

Tuesday 30 January 2024

Arrangement of Business


My Lords, as your Lordships know, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

General Aviation (Persons on Board, Flight Information and Civil Penalties) Regulations 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the General Aviation (Persons on Board, Flight Information and Civil Penalties) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, the purpose of these regulations, laid under paragraphs 27BA and 27BB(6) of Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 and Section 32B(6)(b) of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, is to require owners, agents or captains of international general aviation flights to submit information about the flight and the persons on board online and in advance of the flight. General aviation flights are those that do not operate to schedule. They include large commercially operated business jets, air taxis and private pilots in light aircraft. The regulations also amend the Passenger, Crew and Service Information (Civil Penalties) Regulations 2015 and make a failure to comply with the requirements of the new regulations liable to a civil penalty of up to £10,000.

The safety and security of our citizens is the Government’s top priority. We are committed to implementing resilient border security processes for all modes of international transport for counterterrorism, policing and immigration purposes. A key part of our border strategy is the ability to know who is travelling or intending to travel to and from the UK’s border before they arrive or depart. Through the provision of advance passenger information, known as API, our border officers can quickly determine who does and does not pose a threat to the UK or to UK interests and, importantly, can prevent travel in accordance with the authority to carry scheme 2023.

All airlines making scheduled commercial international flights to and from the UK, other than for some flights within the common travel area, are required to provide API for all individuals on board their aircraft. Additionally, all passengers arriving on scheduled international flights are subject to full passport control checks at the border. Individuals arriving in the UK or leaving the UK on international general aviation flights are not all subject to the same checks. Many international general aviation flights operate out of private airfields and landing strips where there is no permanent border control or police presence. This means that a requirement to provide API forms a key part of our approach to managing international general aviation flights and individuals on board.

Those operating international general aviation flights are currently required to provide data in advance of departure for customs purposes, and on some routes for security purposes, but they are not currently required to provide the information electronically in a way that enables law enforcement to process it efficiently. In order to effectively assess the risk posed by individuals on board international general aviation flights, our border control authorities need not only to know who is intending to travel in advance of their journey to or from the UK commencing but to receive the information in a way that supports effective processing to clear individuals posing no concerns and to focus on subjects of interest.

Submission of flight information, online and in advance, will allow Border Force and other law enforcement authorities to analyse and quantify the extent of the potential threat and level of risk. It will enhance automated checking and intelligence-led decision-making to improve the effectiveness with which resources are deployed to meet flights.

Last April, the Home Office undertook an eight-week consultation, targeted at the general aviation sector, on regulations to require information about general aviation flights and persons on board to be submitted electronically in a manner that enables automated watchlisting. Respondents to the consultation understood the reasons for doing this, and most were supportive of the introduction of the regulations.

To be clear, these regulations will not require the provision of new information over and above what is already required. They simply specify the manner in which the information must be supplied: it must be provided online. More than 50% of submissions are already made electronically and the regulations will have no impact on them. There will be a small impact for pilots and operators who submit their flight information via email or even fax. Border Force has a free-to-use web service, known as “Submit a GAR”, hosted on GOV.UK, which general aviation owners, agents or captains can use to comply with these regulations. For individuals arriving and departing in private aircraft, these requirements reflect and support the Government’s intention for a fully digitised border system providing greater ability to know and have control over who is travelling to, entering and leaving the UK.

We recognise the significant economic benefit the general aviation sector provides to the country and that the majority of owners, agents and captains are making information available to the border authorities and the police about their international flights and the persons on board. The Government believe that these changes are sufficiently balanced with the needs of border security and law enforcement. It is of paramount importance that information about persons on board is received in a way that enables automated border checks and pre-departure action to be taken. Therefore, I commend the regulations to the Committee. I beg to move.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a private pilot and an aircraft owner and operator. I welcome the regulations that the Minister has outlined. Looking at the consultation response document that was published, it seems that very few issues caused any sort of concern, and that this comes under “common sense”. I emphasise that the general aviation sector is acutely aware of the privileges that it enjoys and hence is a highly law-abiding section of the community that is keen to play its role in the policing of our borders.

There is broad support for the regulations, which are not hugely different from those currently in force, as far as I can see. Pilots are used to completing a general aviation declaration, which has not caused any problems. The systems that are used are so much better than they were previously. Technology has really helped. Commercially available applications have a strong interface with flight planning systems. I trust that the Minister can reassure the Committee that this will be the case for the new general aviation declaration format—that commercially available apps will be able to interact successfully and seamlessly.

I have only one substantive question for the Minister and I am sure I know the answer, but none the less it would be reassuring to have it from him. The regulations are cast, as they should be, around the expected arrival location. As we know, aviation, particularly general aviation, can be affected by weather, and we do not want to put in place any regulations that create a perverse incentive to carry on—not to turn back or divert to alternative fields. There can also be technical problems with the aircraft. I would like my noble friend the Minister’s reassurance that nothing in these regulations will affect the ability of the pilot or captain of the aircraft to divert for genuine safety-related reasons, and that we are not baking in any perverse incentive. I know that the Government have consulted widely, and I am quite sure that it will not be the case. None the less, this is a good opportunity for the Minister to make that point.

My Lords, these are sensible regulations, but they raise a significant number of questions, including one that the Minister talked about at the outset: moving online from fax. I wonder, do we still have people doing this on the telephone or even by post? Moving into the modern age seems critical to me.

My first question is about the form, which I have just printed out. It is substantially more information than I would give as a passport holder on a regular airline when I go outside the United Kingdom. I presume, but perhaps the Minister can clarify, that that is because of the ability of major airlines to get instant information back from the system. I wonder whether the level of information now available to anybody online is still available to people in this sector, in which case it would shorten the whole form-filling regime.

I will come back to form-filling in just a moment, but the real question that struck me in reading the regulations and information provided to the general aviation sector was the relationship between Border Force’s work and that of the CAA. It is clear to me that flights can be detected and are being tracked by those who control our airspace. I am not certain whether that is because every major airline has transponders, which then indicate exactly where those aircraft are. I do not think that is the case with the general aviation sector but, where it is, that will enable the Civil Aviation Authority to know where these aeroplanes are in the sky and will help detection of flights not designed to land in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the Minister can tell us a little about the relationship between the two.

The second issue is about awareness raising in the sector. I went online to see whether I could join an event, simply to find out whether and how it was taking place. It said on the Home Office website that 20,000 people had been hosted for an awareness event. That sounds to me an extremely high number. If that is the case, that is really quite substantial, but there may perhaps be a fault in the way this information is recorded. So how many people have engaged in the events that have taken place to raise awareness of this change, where presumably they are advised not to use post, fax, telephone or emails but to use the online system?

Paragraph 7.9 of the Explanatory Memorandum talks about 10% of non-compliant people. Can the Minister give a figure for that? That would help me with the first figure about awareness raising and give a sense of the size of the sector we are talking about.

Clearly, these regulations are simply changing the method by which this information is provided, but you have to provide it when you leave and when you come back. Presumably, for the other way around, people in this sector in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and so on are having to do exactly the same thing for us. Are we matching their requirements? In other words, it would seem sensible that, if I were required to provide this information to the UK, I would need to provide that information to France as well. Sharing the data, which I am coming to, would make life a lot easier for people if there were simplification of those procedures.

Finally, I have two technical questions. I note that ICAO or IATA-designated airports or airstrips are permitted to use only the online version. If I have that wrong, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me, but why is that the case? If it is the case, as I read it in the information pack, it seems to me that we are not capturing all the small airstrips in this country.

My final question is about the requirement to record passport information if you fly to the Republic of Ireland. I have gone across to Ireland, our next-door neighbour, quite frequently, and I often use my parliamentary pass to get across the Irish Sea both ways. If I cannot use it to go to Ireland in the general aviation sector, I would like to know why. As I understand it, that applies to the whole of the common travel area.

I would be grateful if the Minister could answer those questions, but in general terms these regulations seem sensible.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Goschen about the importance of this SI. Unlike him, I am not a pilot but, like him, I am a former Transport Minister. I will raise two issues, both touched on tangentially by the noble Lord, Lord German.

The first is the general issue of penalties and enforcement. After yesterday’s long debate, there is increased emphasis on security of the borders and, with all parties agreed that we need to do something about the boats, I think there will be an incentive to look to general aviation to bring more illegal immigrants into the country. Some 400 airfields have no police, customs and excise or immigration presence, so there is a general issue about enforcement and penalties.

The civil penalty for non-compliance under paragraph 2.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum is £10,000. I assume that there are also other penalties available for someone who illegally brings in somebody, so on what basis has that figure been arrived at? Has the existing figure simply been carried forward, or does it line up with some other measurement?

Secondly, on Northern Ireland, Regulation 2 says:

“This regulation applies to an aircraft which … is expected to arrive in the United Kingdom, or … is expected to leave the United Kingdom”.

I assume that internal flights are excluded, as paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to “124,000 international GA flights”, so I assume that there is some other legislation that qualifies Regulation 2 and that the regulation applies only to an aircraft that is arriving in the UK from outside the UK.

Like the noble Lord, Lord German, I downloaded the latest guidance, General Aviation Guidance—January 2024, and came across this under paragraph 6 on customs requirements when travelling to the UK:

“Personal Allowances … If you’re travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, you do not need to declare your goods if both of the following apply … you’re a UK resident … you have already paid both VAT and excise duty … on the goods in Great Britain”.

However, it goes on:

“You may need to declare your goods if any of the following apply … you’re not a UK resident … you have alcohol or tobacco over your allowances … you have goods worth more than £390”.

As I understand it, someone who arrives in this country from America, for example, and then goes to Northern Ireland has to declare his goods because he is not a UK resident. However, the next paragraph says:

“If you’re travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain … you do not have to declare any goods”.

There seems to be a bit of a mismatch in the requirements of what you have to do if travelling from here to Northern Ireland or coming back the other way.

I do not expect my noble friend to have the answer at his fingertips, but it is worth posing the question. If I am a pilot taking an American citizen on general aviation to Northern Ireland, what is my obligation to cross-question him about what he has in his luggage, and what penalties will I be exposed to if, by any chance, I get it wrong?

My Lords, these are generally sensible regulations. There have been some very interesting points. The contribution from the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, about being sensible—he flies in and out of these sorts of airfields—is useful to our consideration. There were also some interesting points from the noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord German, particularly on Northern Ireland, which is always a complicating factor with respect to regulations, not least because people could land in Dublin and because of the interaction with the common travel area, et cetera. There are some interesting questions for the Minister.

It is worth placing on record for people who read our deliberations quite how serious an issue this is and how welcome it is that the Government are seeking to tighten it up. The noble Lord, Lord Young, alluded to that. Some 400 airfields currently operate 124,000 general aviation flights. That is a huge number of flights. I appreciate that many will be individuals, but it is still a significant number. Although we hear that the majority conform with the Government’s current regulations, 10% do not. It is welcome that the Government say quite categorically that none of these various airfields can be policed routinely—I think that is the word the Government used—by Border Force officials or police officers. Again, you do not have to be an intelligence expert to realise that there is potentially a real problem here, so the Government’s attempt to tighten this up through the requirement for people to submit information online is a welcome step forward.

The Minister very helpfully answered a couple of questions for me prior to this debate. I know it is not the subject of the SI, but I wonder whether the Government are considering this issue with respect to seaports. I take the point about Dover or Holyhead, but international shipping must come in and out of numerous other ports. If we are talking about the necessity of borders, I wonder whether the Government are giving any consideration to whether any changes are needed with respect to that. I appreciate that is outside the scope of these regulations, but I wanted to ask the Minister that. Perhaps he could answer by letter.

There is clearly a major issue here that the Government need to deal with. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Young, is especially pertinent: how will all this new information be monitored and enforced? How can we be sure that the Government will be able to do this effectively? If this information is coming into Border Force, it is really important that it can be collected and utilised. If I have read the regulations right, the information has to be provided not 48 hours before the flight but up to two hours before. How were those figures arrived at? I ask because if, two hours before, something arrives into Border Force and it is a problem, is that sufficient time to respond? I do not know. It clearly has not been plucked out of thin air, so I wondered whether the Minister could say something about how the figures of 48 and two were arrived at.

On the territorial extent, if this is obvious then I apologise, but I think it is worth putting on record that the regulations talk about the United Kingdom. Are the Channel Islands are added on, or not? Are Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, subject to these regulations, or not?

Lastly, without repeating the questions from the noble Lords, Lord German and Lord Young, and the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, military flights are clearly excluded under Regulation 3. Military personnel are exempted; I understand that and obviously agree with it. Can the Minister say something about what that means for intelligence services and for diplomats flying in and out? If there is an exemption for military personnel, I wonder whether the Minister can say anything —he may be constrained on this—around intelligence and/or diplomatic flights coming in and out.

As I say, the integrity and policing of our borders is obviously a really important matter. This instrument will help in a proportionate way and, subject to the answers to a couple of those questions, which will help inform discussions when it goes to the other place, these regulations are generally to be welcomed.

As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, some interesting questions have certainly been thrown up. This has been a useful and helpful conversation and it has been interesting to hear not just the concerns and issues raised but some of the direct experience that your Lordships have in using this method of travel. I will briefly set out the overall position, further to what I said in my opening remarks, but also try to answer some of the many questions that I received.

As I set out, these regulations intend to provide Border Force and other law enforcement partners with greater visibility of who intends to travel to and from the UK on international general aviation flights, and enable them to better use that information. While we have considered the impact on the general aviation sector, this must be viewed against the wider border security benefits that these regulations will provide.

As I said, more than 50% of those in the general aviation sector already submit their information using online methods. For these, there will be no change or impact as they are already complying. Yes, for those who submit via email and other means there will be a change, but we consider it to be a small change in behaviour and have provided a free-to-use web service through which to do this. The impact will be felt most by those who do not comply, and it is these persistent offenders who will be subject to the civil penalty regime.

I understand that there may be concerns about the operation of Border Force and the underpinning civil penalty regime where general aviation owners, agents or captains who breach a requirement of the regulations may be subject to a penalty of up to £10,000. We recognise this, of course, and I assure your Lordships that the civil penalty regime, while being robust, will also be fair. Our approach is one of collaborative working but, where a serious breach of the regulations occurs or Border Force has to deal with persistent non-compliance, it is only right and proper that we should penalise the general aviation owner, agent or captain. The Home Office has drafted guidance for Border Force and the general aviation sector, which will be published in advance of these regulations entering into force. This will give the sector adequate time to understand its obligations and the penalties should some fail to comply.

I will try to address some of the points raised, particularly by my noble friend Lord Goschen. There obviously may be occasions when, due to a technical issue during a flight, the aircraft cannot land at its intended destination or has to be redirected to an alternative aerodrome. In such circumstances, I understand that there is guidance available on GOV.UK setting out the process that should be followed on arrival. I assure your Lordships that there is no suggestion that safety should be put at risk to comply with the information that has been submitted.

Where changes in weather mean that a flight has to divert at short notice, that change should be notified to Border Force where possible. In the event that it is not possible for the information to be supplied online, in accordance with the proposed regulations, it should be supplied to the relevant Border Force region by telephone at the earliest opportunity. I understand that the detail of this is also set out on GOV.UK.

I thought it would also be worth setting out some of our engagement with other government departments that have an interest in this sector. The Home Office works in close partnership with colleagues from other government departments and law enforcement bodies, in particular HMRC, the Department for Transport, counterterrorism border policing and the National Crime Agency. Home Office officials hold regular meetings with their HMRC and DfT counterparts. All government departments and law enforcement partners, as well as the devolved Administrations, were invited to respond to the consultation last summer; I believe that the Home Office responded to each response received in order to address their specific concerns.

I turn to some of the other concerns that have been raised today on whether we can be tougher in our approach and whether we have looked at the risks. Let me be clear: acquiring and processing information about these flights online and in advance is the primary element of our approach to managing the risk posed by general aviation. Working with HMRC, the Home Office has reduced the number of airfields into which an international GA flight can arrive from more than 3,000 to 400. This is a result of the UK’s departure from the EU, which meant that, to continue receiving international flights, airfields had to apply for a certificate of agreement. This was another significant step taken to manage the risks posed by GA flights.

As a result of these regulations, all crew and passengers arriving on international flights have their details checked before departure and arrival. Border Force, the security services and the police use intelligence to address a series of security, policing, immigration and customs matters then determine an appropriate operational response. That combination of intelligence assessment, expert judgment and spot checks means we can provide an appropriate operational response.

As I have said, security is paramount and we are absolutely alert to the risk that general aviation could be used to evade detection or smuggle goods; that is why these regulations assist Border Force to better manage the data that we have and our response. Equally, general aviation is often seen as the preserve of those who are wealthy enough to own or hire private aircraft and may feel that these regulations do not apply to them. Let me be clear: this will not be tolerated. The underpinning civil penalty regime will enable front-line officers to take immediate and swift action in the event of non-compliance. Further, general aviation owners, agents or captains who persistently fail to comply will see the amount by which they are penalised increase up to £10,000. The Home Office will closely monitor compliance should it become apparent that there are still persistent offenders for whom the maximum penalty is an insufficient deterrent. We will have no qualms in seeking to amend the regulations further to make the penalty more significant in due course.

A number of other issues were raised. The noble Lord, Lord German, asked about the awareness events. My understanding is that, for these regulations, 80 people attended. Obviously, there was also an online facility with the consultation; just short of 200 responses were received through that.

My noble friend Lord Young asked a number of questions about how this will impact on internal flights. These regulations apply only to international flights and do not cover domestic flights. He and the noble Lord, Lord German, also asked about a related issue. The requirement for passport information on flights between Ireland and Great Britain does not apply to British and Irish nationals as they will now not be required to hold their passport. All other nationalities are required to do so; as I said, these regulations apply only to international flights, not domestic ones.

My noble friend Lord Young asked about the penalty of £10,000. I understand that this corresponds with the penalty for operators of scheduled flights.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about ports. As he said, they are not covered by this instrument, but I assure him that I will write on this. Obviously, there are some related issues. He also asked about the figures of 48 and two hours. My understanding is that in 2017 Border Force conducted a study analysing the time needed for a Border Force officer to deploy to any location. It was found that most locations could be reached within the two hours; as a result, we have had to maintain two hours prior to departure as the latest point at which the information must be submitted. We are confident that the checks can be done within that two-hour period.

The noble Lord also asked about exemptions and military flights. Military personnel are exempt on military flights. Everyone else will have to go through this regime.

Can I just emphasise that point so that people who read our proceedings are clear? Any diplomat, of whatever rank, leaving or coming into this country who seeks to come in outside of a scheduled flight has to notify Border Force that they are coming in or leaving. Is that right?

Yes, I confirm that. I sought that clarity for myself. You are correct; it is only military personnel on military flights who will be exempt.

Could my noble friend write to me on the issue I raised about the anomaly between travelling from England to Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland back to England?

Yes, I appreciate that. I absolutely will.

To conclude, adopting these regulations will deliver significant border security benefits to Border Force and other law enforcement partners, ensuring that we have a greater awareness of all individuals intending to travel to or from the UK and that we can prevent the travel of certain individuals where it is in the public interest to do so. Therefore, I commend the regulations to the Committee once more.

Motion agreed.

National Crime Agency (Directed Tasking) Order 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

My Lords, the impact of serious and organised crime on the United Kingdom is significant and growing. It poses a threat to our national security and prosperity. In partnership with law enforcement and industry, the Government are taking significant steps to tackle the increasingly complex threat posed by economic crime, fraud, bribery and corruption. These crimes severely harm the economy and cause significant suffering. We must do more to keep pace with the evolving threat. A whole-system response is critically important.

To this end, the Government announced, as part of the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy 2023, our intention to amend Section 5(5) of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. This amendment would allow the director-general of the National Crime Agency to direct the director of the Serious Fraud Office on matters relating to the investigation of suspected incidents of serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption.

With the addition of the Serious Fraud Office to the list of agencies that can be subject to directed tasking, this measure will strengthen the ability of the National Crime Agency to co-ordinate a national effort against serious and organised crime. This will support strong ongoing collaboration between the National Crime Agency and the Serious Fraud Office, enabling the director-general of the National Crime Agency to direct the director of the Serious Fraud Office where the National Crime Agency requires the assistance, skills and expertise of the Serious Fraud Office, but where satisfactory arrangements cannot be made under the existing voluntary tasking arrangement.

It will also place the National Crime Agency’s relationship with the Serious Fraud Office on the same footing as that which the agency has with police forces in England and Wales and the British Transport Police.

The Government’s aim is to reduce serious and organised crime in the UK. We will do this by disrupting and dismantling organised crime groups operating in and against the UK. The social and economic cost of serious and organised crime to the UK is eyewatering, running to at least £47 billion a year. But, vast as that figure is, it does not begin to tell the whole story—a story of lives destroyed and of unimaginable suffering caused by heinous criminality such as sexual exploitation, drug abuse and human trafficking.

Beyond the enormous financial and human costs, serious and organised crime threatens the legitimacy of the state. It damages our national security and prosperity. That is why the Home Secretary recently published a new serious and organised crime strategy. Our mission is to reduce the impact of serious and organised crime on the country in all its forms. This includes reducing fraud.

The threat from fraud has increased in volume over recent years. The Government are implementing the fraud strategy, including launching a national fraud squad, blocking frauds at source and empowering the public to respond. This includes committing £100 million as part of a wider £400 million to tackle economic crime and improve the law enforcement response to fraud. We have also set ourselves the target to reduce fraud by 10% from December 2019 levels by the end of this Parliament.

The National Crime Agency is crucial to our response. The agency leads and co-ordinates the UK law enforcement response to serious and organised crime. We have strengthened the agency’s ability to combat organised criminals, increasing its budget by 21% to £860 million in 2023/24.

The Serious Fraud Office is a critical partner in the fraud system. In the last five years alone, it has recovered over £150 million in proceeds of crime, put 26 executives behind bars and forced big business to pay more than £1 billion in fines.

To summarise, this order gives effect to an element of the Government’s approach to tackling economic crime, an issue that causes significant direct and indirect harm to the country. Subject to proper safeguards, it brings the investigative capability of the Serious Fraud Office’s work within scope for direction by the director-general of the National Crime Agency, akin to what already exists in relation to police forces in England and Wales, as I said.

The addition of the directed tasking power is intended to enhance collaboration between the National Crime Agency and the Serious Fraud Office and assist in the sharing of tools and expertise to fight serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption. I beg to move.

My Lords, we are happy to support this SI. We welcome any increase in the effort to combat economic crime, in particular serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption. The SI seems straightforward; it simply adds the SFO to the list of organisations that may be directly tasked by the NCA to investigate serious or complex economic crime that falls within the SFO’s remit.

However, one element of the SI would benefit from further explanation. Paragraph 4.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum says:

“The territorial application of this instrument … is England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

It defines the territorial application as being

“where the instrument produces a practical effect”.

The police services of Northern Ireland and Scotland are not listed in Section 5(5) of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 as organisations that the NCA may direct, unlike the police services of England and Wales. The NCA seems to have a kind of jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. The Explanatory Memorandum says that special provisions apply to Northern Ireland and that the memorandum of understanding between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the NCA

“will be reviewed and amended as necessary, to reflect the extension of the directed tasking powers in this Order”.

Can the Minister tell us when this review is likely to take place and when any amendments are likely to be published?

What happens in Scotland is less clear. The SFO does not have jurisdiction there, and Police Scotland does not feature in Section 5(5) of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Scotland does not feature in this SI, except in the assertion of territorial application that I mentioned a moment ago. What difference does this SI make in Scotland? What practical effect does it bring about? In the absence of explicit power to direct, how does the NCA operate in Scotland? What is the formal relationship between the NCA and the procurator fiscal service? I would be grateful if the Minister could address those questions when he replies.

My Lords, we also welcome the general direction that the Government are taking in this SI. It goes without saying that we all agree that financial and economic crime and fraud are very serious issues and that we must do all we can to tackle them. Obviously, there is no disagreement between us at all.

I start where the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, finished. There is a bit of confusion. It is necessary for the Minister to clarify some of the territorial applications between the various powers outlined in the order. I highlight paragraph 6.3 of the EM, which says:

“Section 5(5) of the 2013 Act makes provision for the Director General of the NCA to direct chief officers of an England and Wales police force or the Chief Constable of the British Transport Police”.

Clearly, that does not apply to direct tasking in Scotland and Northern Ireland, yet this order applies to the whole of the UK. How do the NCA’s powers, as directed under this SI, and the Serious Fraud Office’s powers relate to each other? It is about understanding that and having some clarity around the legislation with respect to that issue; this would also give clarity to the NCA, the Serious Fraud Office and the chief officers of the police of all four parts of the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, is quite right to raise this; indeed, it is one of the issues that I was going to raise.

I want to ask the Minister about a couple of other things. Can he say why the change is needed? Presumably, the co-operation is good. If it is, why does it need to be legislated for? Have there been occasions when there has been a refusal by the SFO director to do something that the NCA’s director-general has asked them to do, leading the Government to think that we need some clarity there? What problems have emerged in the current arrangements to necessitate the Government deciding that they need to take this action?

Also, can the Minister explain what direct tasking actually is? Is it a compulsory demand that the SFO does this or that? Is there a level of seriousness that must be met, or is it a subjective judgment on the part of the NCA’s director-general—that is, this is what they would like the SFO to do and can require them to do? The other thing that emerges from this is the fact that, presumably, there is no way in which the SFO’s director can refuse? Otherwise, there would be no point to this legislation. Some clarity around direct tasking and the problems or difficulties that have come up, including what this SI seeks to overcome and in what circumstances it may be used, is needed.

Clearly, we all support this attempt to do more about economic and financial crime and fraud. The Government think that this order will help. I think that a little more explanation of how it will help, rather than an assertion that it will, would be helpful in our deliberations.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments and their support for this order. I will begin with some brief remarks that should answer a number of the points raised and then try to tackle any specific outstanding ones.

As we have discussed, this order would amend the Crime and Courts Act 2013 to grant the National Crime Agency direct tasking power over the Serious Fraud Office in relation to combating fraud, bribery and corruption. The use of this power would be at the discretion of the director-general of the National Crime Agency. It will be used when it is deemed that such tasking would assist the agency in its role of investigating and reducing crime and, in particular, tackling serious and complex fraud, including bribery and corruption, as well as when satisfactory voluntary arrangements cannot be made, or cannot be made in time.

Through the extension of these tasking powers to the Serious Fraud Office, we align the arrangement between this office and the National Crime Agency, as I have said, with those for police forces in England and Wales and the British Transport Police. In doing so, we are strengthening the mechanisms for co-operation and a system-wide response. The agency has previously used its power to task to great effect: taking weapons off our streets; identifying and bringing to justice the highest-harm drug gangs we face; searching for and tackling prolific child sexual abusers; and combating fraudsters and seizing the proceeds of crime.

Further to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, ideally this mechanism would not need to be used because of the already very good co-operation and relationship between the National Crime Agency and the Serious Fraud Office. However, it is important to have it in place to ensure a joined-up response to serious or complex fraud, including bribery and corruption, when and if needed. This step is part of the response set out in the Government’s serious and organised crime strategy. As we have discussed, this new strategy, which the Home Secretary published last year, makes clear the challenges we face from serious and organised crime. Its mission is to reduce serious and organised crime in the UK by disrupting and dismantling the organised crime groups operating in and against the UK. The strategy has five lines of action for reducing serious and organised crime: in-country, at the border, international, technology and capabilities, and a multiagency response. The package of measures announced as part of the strategy also included new powers in the Criminal Justice Bill that will clamp down on organised criminal gangs. As I have said, there is also a further £5 million for the police to disrupt organised immigration crime and £24 million allocated to the modern slavery fund to address the serious root causes of modern slavery and human trafficking.

To be clear, this power is intended to strengthen the ability of the NCA to lead the system in tackling serious and organised crime. The Serious Fraud Office will remain a strong and independent body. The wider reform agenda being delivered by Director Ephgrave is strengthening its capacity to deliver more effective investigations into the most complex cases. It has had several notable successes over the past few years, including deferred prosecution agreements, which have contributed almost £1.3 billion to the public purse since 2017. This attests to its capacity and capability to investigate the most serious, complex and harmful fraud cases and prosecute those responsible.

I will now try to address the points raised—with the emphasis on “try”. The devolved Administrations have been consulted on this and, before any application, we will have further discussions with them. They have been consulted in advance, but we will continue to do so. The SFO may need to use its powers to investigate crime within its jurisdictions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, asked when there would be a review of the MoU. This is a consultative process, and we will check on requirements to update the MoU—but I reiterate that this is consultative and collaborative, and that is the crucial part.

I was also asked about examples. I think the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked whether there have been refusals. As it stands, there have not been any. A lot of it is just streamlining the process to ensure that it is there. I am informed that when different agencies talk it may not be possible for the NCA to raise a specific issue, so in effect it is a power that it has in its back pocket.

On how it might be used, decisions on voluntary and directed tasking are taken following discussions with the national strategic tasking and co-ordination group where it is assessed that improving the intelligence picture or operational delivery to tackle a threat is required as a priority. Obviously, there are discussions between a number of parties at official and senior level in advance of those discussions. Directing tasking will occur only where a voluntary arrangement cannot be made or made in time.

The territorial complexities of that may need to be teased out a little more between now and discussion in the other place. To be fair, there is still a little confusion in my mind about the inter- relationship between all that. I leave that on the table for the Minister to consider. That would be helpful; I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, agrees.

Before we move on, the main point I want to make on this direct tasking is that there clearly is an issue where the National Crime Agency wants to be able to direct the Serious Fraud Office to do certain things that the NCA is worried the SFO is not going to do. Is that a fair interpretation? In other words, the Home Office wants to strengthen the response to financial and economic crime, it is worried about whether the Serious Fraud Office will take the same priorities as the National Crime Agency, and this is a way of saying, “If you don’t, we’ll direct task you to do it”.

I thank the noble Lord for those two points. I will certainly write to both noble Lords on the devolved nations and any other outstanding issues. I completely appreciate the points made.

Forgive me if I have not been clear. Given that this has not been used in other circumstances, my understanding is that this has always been the intent for some time. It is not in response to anything in particular but an important part of a broader strategy to tackle crime. I am assured, having spoken to officials in those bodies, that there is a very good working relationship at senior level. My understanding is that this is just a backstop, just in case, should that relationship not work. If I am not correct on that I will write to both noble Lords, but I will also reiterate the point if it is correct.

To conclude, this measure represents a positive step forward, in our view. It is part of a larger effort and a wider package of measures to strengthen our collective ability to identify and investigate the most harmful and complex criminal cases, and prosecute those responsible.

I am no wiser, really, about Scotland. I do not know, from listening to the Minister or reading the material, how this SI has any effect in Scotland, if at all, and I do not know how the NCA will operate. I have asked the questions anyway—I will not repeat them in detail here—but I would like an assurance from the Minister that he will write to us to answer those questions and that he will do so before this instrument reaches the other place.

I am very sorry not to have answered that sufficiently. I assure the noble Lord that I will write, and I will do so as fast as I possibly can. Forgive me for not answering it in the first place.

Motion agreed.

Maternity Leave, Adoption Leave and Shared Parental Leave (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Maternity Leave, Adoption Leave and Shared Parental Leave (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, these regulations were laid in draft before the House on 11 December 2023. They are being introduced using powers inserted into the Employment Rights Act 1996 by the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023. I was pleased to note that the latter, as a Private Member’s Bill, attracted support from all sides both here and in the other place. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, and Dan Jarvis MP for bringing that important Act forward.

According to research published in 2016 by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one in nine mothers reported that they were dismissed or made compulsorily redundant where others in their workplaces were not, or treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job. If scaled up to the general population, that could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year. Although that data is from some time ago, we know that the problem persists.

Under the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999, which we call MAPLE for short, redundancy protections are already in place for a mother on maternity leave. These regulations put a mother on maternity leave in a preferential position in a redundancy situation. There are parallel negotiations that have the same effect for parents taking adoption leave or shared parental leave. Under MAPLE, before making an employee who is on maternity leave redundant, employers have an obligation to offer them a suitable alternative vacancy if one is available, not just to invite them to apply for one.

The regulations we are debating will extend that existing redundancy protection so that it is available during pregnancy and for a period after returning to work from relevant parental leave. That is maternity, adoption and shared parental leave. This will help to address the issues that the research identified. We hope it will alleviate some of the anxiety about job security that a pregnant woman or new parent may face.

The new regulations will amend the existing regulations covering relevant parental care. This means that MAPLE-type protections could be in place from the point when a woman tells her employer she is pregnant and continue for 18 months after the birth of the child, which will include the period of relevant parental leave.

The 18-month protection period has two main purposes. First, it ensures that a mother returning from 12 months of maternity leave will receive six months’ additional redundancy protection when she goes back to work. This meets the commitment that the Government made in the consultation response. Secondly, a single, consistent and clear period of protection is a simple way of accommodating the flexibility of shared parental leave, as well as the interaction between it and other types of parental leave. Creating a bespoke approach for these and other scenarios would have introduced considerable complexity into the regulations, which is why we have opted for the simplicity and clarity of a single period of protection.

The period of protection from redundancy on return to work is activated immediately when someone returns to the workplace following a period of maternity or adoption leave. However, the regulations introduce a minimum qualifying period for those taking shared parental leave alone; by “alone”, I mean that they would have previously not taken a period of maternity or adoption leave. This is to avoid the situation where a parent who has taken just a few weeks of shared parental leave receives 18 months’ additional protection in a redundancy situation.

When we spoke with the stakeholders, they considered that it would be disproportionate to extend this level of protection to someone who had taken only a short period of shared parental leave. For this reason, the regulations require a parent to have taken a minimum period of six continuous weeks of shared parental leave to activate the additional redundancy protection once they have returned to work.

These measures will provide valuable support and protection for pregnant women and parents after parental leave. The Government are pleased to have supported the Private Member’s Bill and have delivered these regulations.

My Lords, I rise briefly in an unusual situation. We Greens in your Lordships’ House are sometimes accused of not giving the Government credit where it is due, but I want to congratulate the Government on this statutory instrument and applaud the progress that is made in it.

We should also applaud the fact that behind this has been a huge amount of campaigning of public concern. I note that the charity and campaigning group, Pregnant Then Screwed, which took four awards at the Third Sector Awards last year, has been campaigning on these issues for a very long time and is making real progress. This is a real demonstration that campaigning works; we have seen something happen here, so I can only congratulate the campaigners and the Government on this.

I want to put a couple of questions to the Minister. What are the Government going to do to ensure that employers and employees know about this change in the law? What kind of publicity campaign will there be? The Minister referred in his introduction to the fact that the figures that the Government were relying on were quite old. Are there plans to update and take assessment both of the current situation and of what happens in the months and years after this statutory instrument comes into effect? What reporting back will there be to the House and the other place so that we can continue to monitor this important area, given that it is important to individuals and households, but also important to ensure that people are able to remain in the workplace?

My Lords, this is the second time that we are meeting across the Dispatch Box. If it continues, people will start talking. I thank the Minister for the overview and explanation of this statutory instrument, which builds on the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023. I fondly remember the debate on this Bill last spring. It was the first time I had the honour of speaking from the Front Bench in the main Chamber. Not only did the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, praise the work of the TUC in the development of this legislation but we agreed to have a massive group hug.

Pleasingly, almost exactly nine months after this group hug, are now delivering additional legislation through this statutory instrument. It provides similar rights in a redundancy situation to pregnant women and new parents who have recently returned from a period of maternity, adoption or shared parental leave lasting six weeks or more. Additionally, the protection will now start when the employee tells the employer about the pregnancy.

This legislation is supported by my friends and colleagues in the trade union movement. In fact, some of these measures were discussed in the preparation of the Bill last year, which, at the risk of disrupting this very collegiate atmosphere, I remind noble Lords was a Private Member’s Bill from my friend, the honourable Member for Barnsley Central.

As supportive as we are of this change, it does not come without implications for employers, especially those who may be considering restructuring shortly after the instrument comes into effect on 6 April, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. What steps are the Government taking to make sure employees are prepared? Additionally, is there any additional monitoring for the implementation period where employees may not be abreast of the new law?

Among other possible difficulties with implementation, women may now feel under pressure to inform their employer of their pregnancy very early if there is an impending redundancy exercise. What consideration have the Government given to this likelihood and potential steps to help protect women from this? Another potential difficulty comes from the notification requirements and record keeping. The regulations are not clear as to the form of the notification required. Can the Minister shed any light, or would this be a matter for the courts? Would oral notification suffice, and what would then happen if accounts varied?

Since 2019, we have been promised more than 20 times an employment Bill that will

“protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work”.

Will the Minister finally accept that this long-promised Bill is a mirage and will not be delivered? I look forward to his responses to our various questions. Other than that, we are very supportive of these regulations.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their contributions.

I come first to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. I appreciate her support on this matter. I know that she is close to the campaigning charities; it is good to be able to report that their campaigning results in meaningful change in legislation. That should be noted. I agree that the big issue now is communication. On many of these matters, it is now all about how we work closely to get the message out. We will work closely with the Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Advisory Board on the guidance and on basic ITJ promotion. We will also work with the board to work out how best to monitor and measure a more up-to-date labour workforce in this area. We expect to see great improvement in this area with the legislation passed, but it will be down to the communication.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Leong. I welcome his support for the regulations, which shows that we can work together when we have common interests. It shows that more unites us than divides us, especially when it comes to helping the more vulnerable members of our society. Clearly, there are philosophical differences between the two sides of this place when it comes to employment matters and the employment Bill, which was referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Leong.

We think that employment law in this country is in good shape, as proven by the fact that we now have 33 million people, out of a population of 65 million, in work—a record number—and by the protections that they have cascading down while they are employees. From the self-employed through to parallel workers, all now have legislation affecting and contributing to their safety and rights. We would therefore say that the focus for our Government should be to help the 5 million people who are economically inactive, have fallen out of the workplace and need a pathway back to work. We need to focus our efforts on helping that cohort back to work, because we know that there is a lot of talent in that cohort that is currently being wasted.

Putting those philosophical differences aside, I believe that we have consensus on this matter. The Government are pleased to be able to deliver these stronger redundancy protections for pregnant women and those returning from parental leave. We want to see these regulations succeed, because we have an opportunity here today to make a real difference to the lives of those who may rely on this protection in future. Supporting these measures is in line with our ongoing commitment to supporting workers and building a highly skilled, high-productivity and high-wage economy.

Motion agreed.

Post Office Network Subsidy Scheme (Amendment) Order 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Post Office Network Subsidy Scheme (Amendment) Order 2024.

Relevant document: 8th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, under Section 103 of the Postal Services Act 2000, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade has the power to make payments to support the provision of the Post Office network. This power is subject to conditions, one of which includes a cap on the total amount of funding that can be given to the Post Office in any given financial year. The current cap, set in 2011, is £500 million, and we are proposing to increase this to £750 million per annum.

Raising the legislative cap on funding that can be provided to the Post Office does not reflect a funding commitment but is simply an enabling power to allow the Government to provide appropriate funding to the Post Office when needed. The rationale for the increased cap is simple: we must avoid a situation where the Government cannot legally provide the funding that the Post Office needs for its essential activities.

As all noble Lords will be aware, the Government currently provide funding support to the Post Office in a number of important areas, enabling it to maintain its delivery of key services across the UK.

First, funding is provided for compensating victims of the Horizon scandal. The scandal was one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in living history, and the victims must get the justice that they deserve. As part of this, it is essential that impacted postmasters are compensated fairly and as quickly as possible. The Government are contributing funding for a number of compensation schemes, as well as funding associated with delivering the compensation schemes. It is essential that this process is not held up at any stage of the process.

Secondly, the Government provide significant and vital funding to support the Post Office network. Post offices are the beating heart of communities. Through its network of over 11,500 branches, the Post Office delivers essential services across the United Kingdom. There are currently over 6,000 rural branches, representing 54% of the total network. Over 3,000 of these are described as being the last shop in the village, providing vital retail, mail and banking services together in one space and helping to sustain thousands of rural economies. These services are highly valuable to both individuals and SMEs in urban and rural areas across the UK. It will come as no surprise that, in the Association of Convenience Stores’ recently published annual local shop report, Post Offices were identified as the type of service considered by the public to have the most positive impact on a local area.

The Government have provided significant financial support to sustain the nationwide network: over £2.5 billion in funding in the past decade alone. The Government remain steadfast in their support for the network and have committed to maintaining the annual £50 million subsidy to safeguard services in the uncommercial parts of the network until 2025. Without that funding, most of these Post Office branches would be unsustainable.

The Government provide targeted investment funding to the company. The retail sector is facing challenging conditions. It is still feeling the effects of changing consumer behaviours arising from Covid-19 and the impact of cost of living pressures on consumer confidence arising from a range of factors including inflation and high energy and supply chain costs. As such, the Post Office is experiencing pressures as the business attempts to operate within this challenging commercial environment, while meeting the costs to right the wrongs of the past.

Further pressures have also arisen through the work to replace the outdated Horizon IT system. Although this is a Post Office-led programme, it is essential for the future of the company and the network, and the Government have already committed to providing £103 million to support the development of the replacement system and to ensure that the Horizon system is maintained before the replacement is rolled out. We have provided funding to meet the company’s immediate needs for this programme, and we are working closely with the Post Office to understand what funding may be required beyond that.

These three areas are critical to the future of the Post Office, and the current legislative cap risks the Government not being able to provide the Post Office with the funding it needs for essential activities. Having taken into account the current forecasts and inflationary context since the previous cap was set in 2011, the Government consider a new cap of £750 million to be reasonable, sensible and proportionate. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for outlining this SI. It is one of the shortest statutory instruments that I have had to deal with. I aim to give it a bit of colour. We on these Benches will not oppose it, but it raises a number of questions, which I will run through, giving the civil servants in the Box a bit of time to answer them and to help the Minister if needed.

A cap has been set at £500 million since 2011—so for quite some time now—and has not risen with inflation over the years. Pre the scandal and having to pay and settle some of the problems—let us deal with the scandal completely separately—has the money from the Government to the Post Office come close to that cap over the last four or five years?

The only question to the DBT from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in paragraph 54 of its eighth report, was not really answered. If this £750 million is not enough, will the DBT come back to Parliament with another SI to uplift it? That is purely in the context of the scandal, because in normal times £750 million should be adequate. It is an uplift of 50% from the previous cap limit, so my expectation is that the cap was never hit. However, the department did not answer the SLSC’s question about whether the Government would return to it. I think the department’s answer was that it was confident that £750 million would be enough. It is worth asking whether, if there is a need to come back for more, the Government would seek to do so.

In dealing with the scandal and the payments from it, is there a gross figure that the Government are expecting or looking to pay across all the compensation schemes? We have individual sums—there is the £600,000, and bits and pieces across different schemes—but is there an expected overall compensation figure on the back of the Horizon scandal?

Also, if I remember correctly, one of the senior executives at Fujitsu commented at Davos that, as a business, Fujitsu would be looking to make some recompense. Do we know what level of financial recompense it is looking to make towards the scandal? Would that money be paid to Post Office Ltd or to the Government, since they are basically underwriting any and all of the compensation payments?

A number of questions have arisen on the back of this very short SI. This will come back to the Floor of the House through Oral Questions and Statements or via Written Questions, so I am more than happy for the department to write to me or put a letter in the Library on some of the detail of my questions, if the Minister does not have them to hand.

I thank the noble Lord for those questions, all of which are perfectly reasonable.

The first question was about the £500 million limit from 2011. Of course, up until 2022 we did not have inflation, so it has not been an inflationary environment. Part of the increase is recognising the inflationary hike that we have had and part of it is recognising that significant compensation has to be paid out. I do not know the precise amount of spend against that £500 million; it has not been above it.

To give some idea of this number, we know that, for example, in the last 10 years we have spent £2.5 billion just supporting the network. If you divide that by 10—although it has not been £250 million a year—you get the idea that that is over or under as a scale. Some £50 million has also been given to support the loss-making branches that we want to keep open, of which there are 3,000 in rural areas. There have also been the IT costs: another £100 million to build the new IT system to replace Horizon.

All of that has been within and is manageable within the £500 million, but now we move to the new world of compensation. So far, £153 million has been paid out. That has, therefore, been within the £500 million cap. On the question of how much will ultimately be paid out, guidance has been given that this could, shockingly, end up being £1 billion, but that would be over a number of years. We expect that to be accommodated within the increase to £750 million. That is how it has been budgeted.

Fujitsu has expressed that it has a “moral obligation”. That has not yet been tested as to amount and recipient. That will now be negotiated. I can see a situation where the Williams inquiry establishes the facts and a lot of repercussions come out of that, as we have said in the Chamber. One of those will be a discussion with Fujitsu about the right amount that it needs to contribute. My ministerial colleague in the other place has been very clear that it should not just be the taxpayer who has to foot this bill. Therefore, Fujitsu will need to off-set that. Quite how that will happen and where it will go is not yet decided, but that will be a significant part of that off-set.

I hope that answers in the main the noble Lord’s questions. Clearly, we all knew the Post Office to be a valuable asset in our own communities, but our awareness of this issue has been raised considerably following the TV series. Therefore, this is effectively a mechanism to ensure that the Post Office is in funds to allow the compensation to be made quickly, as we have indicated many times. We need to right the wrongs of the past in this Horizon scandal. This is an important part of that. This order therefore ensures that the Government can provide appropriate levels of funding to the company over the coming years. I urge noble Lords to support it.

Motion agreed.

Combined Authorities (Mayors) Filling of Vacancies Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Combined Authorities (Mayors) Filling of Vacancies Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, in moving this Motion, I will also speak to the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

These draft regulations were laid before the House on 11 December 2023. If approved and made, they will amend the existing legislation to provide the rules for the conduct of elections for directly elected mayors of combined county authorities and the rules by which mayoral vacancies in such authorities are to be declared, as well as the procedure for filling them through by- elections. The mayoral elections regulations are essential to enable the first election of a combined county authority mayor—in the east Midlands—to take place as planned in May 2024. It is highly desirable that the filling of vacancies regulations are made before the possibility of a vacancy in the post of combined county authority mayor arises.

The two sets of regulations that we are considering, if approved and made, will mark a milestone in implementing the east Midlands devolution deal and pave the way for further mayoral combined county authorities. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government agreed an historic devolution deal with Derbyshire County Council, Derby City Council, Nottinghamshire County Council and Nottingham City Council in August 2022. This deal, if the necessary secondary legislation is approved by Parliament, will see significant powers and budgets conferred on the East Midlands Combined County Authority.

This authority, if approved by Parliament, will be the first of its kind to be established under the new powers in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023. Its directly elected mayor, agreed and consented to by the four councils concerned, will provide an essential single point of accountability for such major powers. The draft mayoral elections regulations are necessary to conduct an election of the east Midlands mayor and, indeed, to conduct elections for any future combined county authority mayors. The draft filling of vacancies regulations provide the rules for filling any mid-term vacancies in the office of mayor for a combined county authority.

Turning to the specifics, the draft mayoral elections regulations make detailed provision about the conduct of the elections for mayors of combined county authorities. They do this by extending the application of the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 to elections for combined county authority mayors. They also apply the Voter Identification Regulations 2022 to combined county authority mayoral elections in order to maintain consistency with other local government elections, and ensure that transitional provisions for EU citizens standing as candidates in other local elections in May 2024 apply to combined county authority mayoral elections.

The Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 largely replicated the rules for elections for local authority mayors and police and crime commissioners. This procedural consistency is the hallmark of local government electoral law and ensures the smooth running of polls, particularly where they are held in combination. However, I will mention certain specific provisions that we are making for combined county authority mayors, reflecting the constitutional arrangements for these authorities.

We are creating a new role—the combined county authority returning officer—to oversee the whole of the election of a combined county authority mayor. This important role mirrors the role of the combined authority returning officer. The combined county authority returning officer, like the combined authority returning officer, will be personally responsible for publishing the notice of elections, administering the nomination process, ensuring that candidates comply with the requirements regarding the content of their election addresses, collating and calculating the number of votes given for each candidate, and calculating and declaring the result.

The draft regulations also clarify that the returning officer for the district council in a two-tier area of a combined county authority is to be responsible for running the mayoral election within that council’s area. This is because the procedural expertise and experience, as well as the responsibility for the electoral register, sits with these councils. This is the approach generally taken in polls run on different geographies to that of the district council including, for example, county council and police and crime commissioner elections.

In addition, the regulations also contain two provisions that apply to both combined authority and combined county authority mayoral elections. First, we have included provision enabling the appointment of a combined authority returning officer, or a combined county authority returning officer, before the respective authority is established. This will help ensure the smooth running of the first mayoral election where the statutory instrument establishing the new authority is made only relatively shortly before the date of the mayoral election provided for in that secondary legislation.

For combined authorities, commencement of this provision is delayed until 1 July 2024. This is because the order to establish the new north-east mayoral combined authority, which we expect to lay before Parliament shortly, includes an area-specific provision for the first mayoral election in May 2024, reflecting the unique circumstances of that authority. This delay in the commencement provision avoids the risk of two alternative sets of provision being in play at the election on 2 May 2024.

Secondly, we have set the figures in the formula for the calculation of candidate spending limits at combined county authority mayoral elections at £3,040 per constituent council and 8p per elector. We have consulted the Electoral Commission on this as statute requires and, on the basis that these figures align with the candidate spending limits for combined authority mayors, the commission recommended this approach. These regulations also establish new spending limits for combined authority mayors by uprating in line with inflation the limits that were set in 2017. To do this, we have used the powers given by Parliament to the Secretary of State to make such upratings in line with inflation, for which no further recommendation is required from the Electoral Commission. Parity is therefore maintained between combined county authority elections and combined authority elections.

Turning to the filling of vacancies regulations, these smaller regulations also extend the scope of existing provision for combined authorities to include combined county authorities. They are necessary to establish the rules by which vacancies are to be declared in the office of a combined county authority mayor and the procedures for filling these vacancies through by-elections. These provisions need to be in place in advance of any combined county authority mayor being elected to ensure that any subsequent vacancy can be appropriately and consistently dealt with.

On consultation, the Government undertook extensive consultation ahead of the 2017 electoral provisions for combined authorities. The regulations before us today replicate the 2017 provisions and apply them to combined county authorities, reflecting the parity between the two types of authority. We have undertaken statutory consultation with the Electoral Commission on the provision in the draft mayoral elections regulations about expense limits for candidates for combined county authority mayoral elections and combined authority elections. The regulations reflect the commission’s recommendation with regard to the setting of the new combined county authority mayoral spending limit.

In addition, we shared informally with the commission a draft of the filling of vacancies regulations. We also engaged with officers of the constituent councils of the East Midlands; I want to say at this time that we are grateful for their input as we have developed the drafts of this legislation.

In conclusion, these draft regulations set out a robust legal framework for the election of combined county authority mayors. They provide the necessary clarity to those tasked with running these elections and ensure that local electors can have confidence in the fair conduct of these elections. I commend both sets of draft regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her introduction to these two SIs. I understand entirely the need for speed on them both. I should declare an interest as an elector in the North East Combined Authority. I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the arrangements for the next few months regarding the processes being put in place. It is appropriate that combined county authorities and mayoral combined authorities have the same regulations as each other; that is the right thing to do. It is also right and appropriate to uprate expenditure limits in line with inflation.

The Minister mentioned voter ID. I suggest to her that more attention be paid to the concerns around that. There has been a consultation with the Electoral Commission, which made clear its concerns about some of the requirements on voter ID that certainly seem to make it more difficult for younger people to vote. More generally, it is our view that the voter ID requirements need urgent reform. The Minister mentioned that voter ID regulations are to be the same for both kinds of authorities. Perhaps the Government should be more proactive about addressing the need for change.

There are some issues behind both these statutory instruments, which result, in part, from the passing of the levelling-up Act. I have grave concerns about the electoral system being used in these elections, first past the post, because the mayoral combined authority model is highly centralist. It does not engage fully with the general public or, indeed, most elected councillors; only council leaders will be engaged. There is an issue of legitimacy for those elected on very low turnouts with a very low share of the poll. It is entirely possible that, in a first past the post system, the person being elected on a 30% to 35% turnout may have only 30% support on first preferences. That is not adequate when the powers of a mayor are so great. I repeat my concern about the legitimacy of the electoral system, given that difficult, complex and challenging decisions will have to be made by the mayoral combined authorities of whatever kind.

The second issue is the role of district councils, which the Minister mentioned when she talked about managing the electoral process. During the passage of the levelling-up Act, we raised the issue of their rights to full membership of combined county authorities. They are the planning authority, not just the manager of the electoral processes. Can the Minister give us any update about whether district councils are now satisfied with the roles the Government are planning? I should say, in passing, that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I also have a concern, which I raised during the passing of the levelling-up Act, about scrutiny, audit and risk. I take these issues extremely seriously, and I just hope that the Government have ensured that every mayoral combined authority and every combined county authority has adequate risk, audit and scrutiny systems in place, given the huge sums of public money that they will be spending through that very centralised, top-down system.

Finally, I remind the Minister—this may be a matter for after the general election—that we now have a patchwork of devolved structures, which in most cases are not devolved because the finances are in the control of the Treasury. There are so many differences, and I hope that the Government are planning to review all of them, so that it is not just a question of a local area getting together to establish a combined authority that will have a certain number of powers that the area asks to be devolved, but, rather, that we look at the overall structure across England and try to build on best practice —what we have learned that works well—so that we get a more certain system of devolved powers.

Having said all that, I understand the need for speed on these SIs. We shall not stand in their way.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for introducing these statutory instruments. I concur with many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in relation to district councils and their role in administrating elections, which I will come to shortly.

These regulations provide the rules for declaring a combined county mayoral vacancy, the procedure for by-elections and the rules governing a mayoral election. They do this simply by extending the existing rules for combined authority mayoral elections or by-elections to cover the new combined county authority mayors. We on these Benches supported the passage of the original orders in 2017, and we support these instruments today.

These regulations are required in advance of the first planned combined county authority mayoral election in May 2024 in the East Midlands, as the Minister mentioned, and we on these Benches want to focus on a particular point. While we are discussing the combined county authorities, I will take this opportunity to raise the importance of ensuring that all constituent councils get the opportunity to have their say. We hope that the mayors duly elected under the regulations we are discussing will take heed of the importance of that very local representation and expertise in parish, district and town councils.

As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned, the Minister talked about a two-tier system where there is a county and a district council. She referred to how the district council presiding officers will have the responsibility to administer the election process. My concern is that, as the noble Lord mentioned, there is a lot of confusion about the financial resources to support the administration of these elections. We all know that local councils are already so stretched, and there is a lot of discussion about certain councils not having enough funds to deliver statutory services. What extra financial support or resources are the Government giving to district councils in light of the new responsibilities created by these statutory instruments?

Can I press the Minister further in relation to consultation? She mentioned a number of organisations. I have seen this repeatedly in numerous statutory instruments. What is the consultation in relation to working with the Local Government Association, and what is the overall focus with regard to the district, parish and town councils? What discussions and deliberations are there with these councils in the light of these statutory instruments being introduced? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank both noble Lords for taking an interest in this debate and for their contributions. Once again, these regulations are essential in providing the rules by which all county combined authority mayors will be elected, including in May, as well as the mayor of the East Midlands if Parliament approves this new authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about voter ID. Yes, that is understood. We have heard him loud and clear throughout many debates on voter ID. Obviously, we went through reviews on that, as did the Electoral Commission. I have been away, and have not been so close to it, but I will write to the noble Lord to say what the next moves are. I think we all have to agree that the first use of voter ID—I know it was in a smaller area—was successful, but we should never be complacent. We need to keep listening and learning from it.

On first past the post, which is another thing that the noble Lord often brings up, there is not going to be a change. The Government are very clear that the first past the post system is the most straightforward way of electing representatives. It is well understood by the electorate of this country. It makes it so much easier for the public to express a clear preference and reduces a lot of the complexity that we have seen recently in police and crime commissioner elections. There is no plan to change or relook at that; we had that discussion again on the recent Bill on elections, and we will not be looking back at it.

The patchwork of differences across the country is an interesting issue. The problem is that the whole of local government in this country is complex anyway, and reflects the different areas: cities, rural areas, and towns with rural areas around them. Government is trying to reflect that and give local people some choices about how they look in a bigger and more overall way at their area, rather than at small—down even to county —areas. As things change in this country, we are seeing bigger areas of economic development. We need to look at where the work patterns and travel-to-work patterns are. We need to look at all those things as well as at the traditional districts and counties that we have seen in the past.

I think it is up to local people. They have choice through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act—they now have choices on how to plan for the future—but we in government have no further plan to look at the overall structure across the whole country.

On district councils, I will come back to the noble Lord. As far as I know, there has been nothing further since the Act came into force, but I will go back and see what discussions have been had with the district councils. That links to something brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Khan: do we talk to the district councils? Yes, we do. We talk to the LGA, the District Councils’ Network and the County Councils Network. They are part of the team that looks at these things, and part of our top stakeholder group, but I do not know what the latest conversations with particularly the district councils are.

As far as audit, risk and scrutiny are concerned—all important parts of local government—as we get bigger and there is more money to spend, people expect that money to be accounted for and to be accounted for quite publicly. In the new combined county authorities, while it is the upper tier that is doing it, the same audit requirements will be there as for other councils as they exist now. There must be scrutiny committees and audit committees, and they must have a risk register. I do not think it is any different but, in my opinion, we need to continue to challenge local authorities and to make sure that they are accessible to local people to know what their money is being spent on.

Quite rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Khan, talked about consulting with local people about any changes. I have been through that consultation; it is tough at times, but it is important. It will always be part of our process that local people are consulted in those early stages of changing their council structures, if that is what local people want. It is up to local elected representatives, whether district, county, borough or wherever they come from, to listen to local people before any changes are made. We expect that to happen.

In conclusion, these regulations are essential— as I said—to progress the devolution powers and to enable the election of combined county authority mayors. I commend both sets of draft regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.41 pm.