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Lords Chamber

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 13 February 2024

House of Lords

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

Combating Disinformation: Freedom of Expression


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect freedom of expression in the course of their work on combating disinformation.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my role as chair of Big Brother Watch and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Preserving individuals’ rights to freedom of expression underpins all the Government’s work on tackling disinformation. This right is upheld by the Online Safety Act, which protects freedom of expression by addressing only the most egregious forms of disinformation, ensuring that people can engage in free debate and discussion online. Under the Act, when putting in place safety measures to fulfil their duties, companies are also required to consider and implement safeguards for freedom of expression.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Last year, Big Brother Watch exposed worrying overreach by the Counter Disinformation Unit in its attempts to prevent legitimate criticism of the Government by MPs, journalists and academics. Following the Government’s apology, could the Minister tell the House what, if anything, has changed, apart from the unit’s name? Could he please explain why the Government refuse to allow the Intelligence and Security Committee to oversee the work of what is now called the National Security Online Information Team?

First, the Counter Disinformation Unit has indeed changed its name to the National Security Online Information Team, to better reflect its role. I am not aware of the apology to which the noble Lord refers, but I will look into it. I have not heard of it. The NSOIT, as it is now called, does not target individuals, particularly not politicians or journalists. It does not even go after individual pieces of content but looks for trends across all items of content online. I will look into this case for an apology, but I am surprised by it because I am not aware of it.

My Lords, the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, requires a little further interrogation, because that report by Big Brother Watch suggested that during the pandemic, politicians, journalists and civil society campaigners from across the political spectrum were personally targeted for critiquing the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Given that report and these legitimate concerns, it would be very kind if the Minister and his colleagues would look into this further and write to the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, and, indeed, to anyone else affected.

Yes, I am very happy to write any such letter. I confirm now in front of the House that the function of the NSOIT, formerly the Counter Disinformation Unit, is to analyse attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment for purposes of national security. It is not its function—and never has been its function, regardless of its name—to go after individuals, whether they are politicians, journalists, or anybody else. It looks for at-scale attempts to manipulate the information environment.

My Lords, it is clear we need to be assured that the rather concerning activities reported about the CDU treating political criticism as disinformation are no longer practised by NSOIT. Can the Minister explain where we can find a copy of NSOIT’s policies? Can he confirm whether it has a policy to prohibit it from flagging lawful domestic speech for terms of service violations to social media companies?

Information on NSOIT is posted on GOV.UK, and I am happy to share that location with the noble Lord. I can confirm not only that it is not the role of NSOIT or the CDU to go after any individuals, regardless of their political belief, but that it never has been. NSOIT looks for large-scale attempts to pollute the information environment, generally as a result of threats from foreign states. I am happy to say in front of the House that the idea that its purpose is also to go after, in some ways, those who disagree politically with the Government is categorically false.

My Lords, the issue is much more complex than that. I am concerned that the unit to which the Minister referred seems to be concerned only about security issues now. In December, I asked the Minister about the rise of political deepfakes, which often originate from overseas and have the potential to undermine trust in political leaders and our wider democratic processes. With the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill currently before the House already containing measures on what the Government call “democratic engagement”, can I tempt the Minister to bring forward new anti-deepfake provisions to help preserve the integrity of our upcoming general election—and not just our election in a year of big elections?

Indeed. It is worth reminding the House that close to 2 billion people will go to the polls over this calendar year. A great many of those elections in which they participate will come under attack from malign foreign influences. Therefore, we have implemented the Defending Democracy Taskforce, chaired by the Security Minister, which set up a new unit last year specifically dedicated to safeguarding our coming election, whenever it may be. It continues to engage with various committees of Parliament and with the Electoral Commission. We will look carefully at any proposals on deepfake provisions in the DPDI Bill. Deepfakes are already illegal today if they violate either the foreign interference offence or the false communications offence.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Strasburger asked about the parliamentary scrutiny of the unit. Does the Minister understand that, if there were to be proper scrutiny of the unit, some of the words that he uses to try to placate your Lordships’ House would have deeper resonance? Can he tell us why the ISC is not scrutinising the unit?

NSOIT is indeed scrutinised by Ministers; it sits within DSIT and then Ministers, as we see, come before this House to explain matters. As a national security team, I dare say that we would have some concerns about a standing report to Parliament about its activities, but I can continue to reassure the House on its role.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister explain how this very interesting unit is comprised? Who are the members of the unit and from where do they come?

The unit comprises civil servants who sit within DSIT, and it occasionally makes use of external consulting services. It adjusts its size and membership from within the DSIT team according to the nature of the threat at any given moment.

My Lords, on transparency: we would not know about the Counter Disinformation Unit if it was not for Big Brother Watch, which we owe great thanks for its service on that. The Minister seems to know what disinformation is. Can the Government tell us how they identify what is to be labelled as disinformation? Who checks the fact checkers? For example, BBC Verify seems keen to expose everybody else’s disinformation but seems blind to its own egregious examples of inaccurate information.

Well, the Government are clear, as is NSOIT, that disinformation refers to the deliberate attempt to mislead by placing falsehoods into the information environment. As part of the Civil Service, NSOIT would have robust internal measures to verify and check its own work, and indeed it reports regularly across government and to Ministers.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister explain what guidance is given to the unit to distinguish between disinformation and difference of opinion?

Disinformation is a deliberate falsehood. A difference of opinion is generally something of democratic importance or of journalistic or pluralistic importance, which it is very important to protect and which the Online Safety Act took very considerable measures to safeguard over its passage.

My Lords, if this unit consists of civil servants and external advisers, why is it impermissible for its work to be supervised by a parliamentary committee composed of privy counsellors?

It was set up as an internal part of DSIT. It reports to Ministers and Ministers provide the oversight. I take the point, but it is a national security institution and, as such, the Government have a strong preference for not allowing it openly to share national security information for fear of benefiting those who wish us harm.

Recycled Plastics


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that a global oversupply of petrochemicals has led to recycled plastics failing to compete with new, and whether they plan to take any action in response.

My Lords, we are aware of the oversupply of petrochemicals in the global market, but this is a matter for industry to lead on. It is estimated that businesses which are members of the UK Plastics Pact have, on average, increased the recycling content of their packaging from 8.5% in 2018 to 24.1% in 2023. The Government will continue to readdress the balance through measures such as the coalition and packaging reforms and the plastic packaging tax.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. However, there was, for example, three times as much ethylene produced last year as there was demand for it. As with fossil fuels used for energy, is it not time to look seriously on a global scale at restrictions on production, not just working on the demand side, particularly given that we are all bearing the externalised costs imposed environmentally and financially in terms of waste disposal and the companies are taking away profits for unnecessary products?

The noble Baroness raises a very good point. Domestically, we are seeking to increase the supply of recycled plastics and reduce the demand, through regulation and tax, for virgin plastics, but we recognise that whatever we do domestically will not help to solve this global problem. That is why we are a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution. At the United Nations Environment Assembly in March, we drove through, with Rwanda and Peru, a commitment to see an end to plastic pollution by 2042.

My Lords, the Birmingham expert commission on plastics and the environment, which I chaired, recommended the introduction of a sliding-scale tax on plastic packaging. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will introduce such a sliding-scale tax, which would greatly benefit the environment?

We are looking at all sorts of reforms to our measures. The plastic packaging tax increases with inflation and has gone up to £217 per tonne this year. We are continuing to look at extended producer responsibility reforms and to see whether the work that the noble Baroness has talked about has an application in terms of how we deliver these regulations.

My Lords, we need to use less plastic and actually recycle what we do use. There is enough floating around the planet already; there is no good reason to produce more. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are going to introduce the deposit return scheme in this Parliament, and when they expect the global plastics treaty to be agreed?

On the deposit return scheme, we have a date for implementation of October 2025. Our social research found that 74% of respondents supported it and 83% of our consultation responses supported its implementation. We think that there are 3,000 to 4,000 jobs if we get this right. On the international agreement, as I said, the UK is a founder member of the high ambition coalition, we are driving it forward and we need other countries to do it as well. Some 90% of the pollution in our oceans that comes from rivers comes from just 10 rivers—eight of them in Asia and two in Africa. That is an indication of the global problem that we are facing.

My Lords, there are growing reports of the detrimental impact of microplastics in the food and water supplies, which can indirectly impact on our health. What are the Government doing to further research this problem and educate the public on this risk, and what measures are being taken to mitigate it?

There are human health issues related to plastics pollution and huge environmental damage done. At a recent Ospar convention, I saw a fulmar having its guts opened up for us to look at, and you can see the plastics in its guts system and its gizzard. It just gives you an idea of how many thousands—millions, even—of birds around the world are dying because of plastics pollution. We need to have a greater understanding of the impact on human health, and that is why our One Health agenda is really important in this field.

My Lords, the Minister talked about the deposit return scheme, and said that it would be coming in in October 2025. Why has it taken so long? People are incredibly frustrated about this; they want it introduced as quickly as possible. Is the delay partly because the Government are reconsidering its scope?

No, we want this to be a United Kingdom scheme. The noble Baroness will be aware of complications in Scotland, and we want to make sure that we are introducing this in conjunction, so that we do not have booze cruises from Scotland to England to buy drinks that will not fall within that scheme. We now think that we can work with this. In the context of the whole piece, with our plastics packaging tax, and recycling increasing dramatically over the last decade, we are now requiring households right across the country, uniform across the local authorities, to recycle all six waste streams by 2027. With the bag charge, which has seen a 98% reduction in the use of those, and the introduction of the banning of single-use plastic straws and a whole range of other single-use plastics, I think even the noble Baroness would admit that we are doing our best.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be aware that Wales led the way in introducing a charge for single-use plastic bags. It was so successful that it was followed in short order by Northern Ireland, Scotland and then England. However, in respect of the ban on single-use plastics, on which, again, Wales is trying to lead the way, I am not quite so sure of the evidence. Will the Minister say what his opinion is of what the effect of banning single-use plastics might be?

Our restrictions on straws, stirrers and cotton buds have had a big impact. These items used to appear on the top-10 littered items lists but no longer do so. According to estimates in our impact assessment, England used 1.1 billion single-use plates and 4.25 billion items of single-use cutlery per year, most of which were plastic but only 10% were recycled, so banning these items will have a significant impact on reducing plastic waste.

My Lords, the Minister referred to strong public support for recycled plastics rather than virgin plastics, yet it is clear that the market mechanisms are simply not delivering the products that people can buy. Individual action will not work here. Do we not need to go much further and faster to ensure that we get to the circular economy that the Government stand for, and, indeed, the position where the polluter pays, which is the Government’s position?

Absolutely. The Government’s 25-year environment plan sets out our ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. The resources and waste strategy, which was published in 2018, sets out how we are going to achieve that ambition, mainly by creating precisely what the noble Baroness said—a circular economy. We are not the single repository of good ideas here so, if the noble Baroness has a suggestion that works with business and the end-user, particularly households, we would be glad to hear it.

My Lords, in response to the question from my noble friend on the Front Bench, the Minister said something about Scotland being different and that being a problem. Could he explain to noble Lords who are ignorant about these things what the problem is and what the solution might be?

I do not want to rake over the Scottish National Party’s grief, but it sought to have a different scheme from the rest of the United Kingdom—for whatever reason we can only conjecture. It is important to have one system across the whole United Kingdom. Many businesses and individuals were fiercely opposed to what was proposed to be introduced in Scotland, and we are glad that the Scottish Government pulled it. We can now move forward with one scheme that is effective across the United Kingdom and can really deliver. Those of us who can remember how deposit schemes worked in the past can see how it can work in the future. What was created in Scotland through certain applications of that scheme would have proved disastrous. We want to make sure that this happens properly across these islands.

My Lords, I understand that some local authorities require seven different recycling bins, which threatens chaos. Does the Minister believe that the answer to our recycling challenge is to increase the number of recycling bins for us all or to make central recycling facilities work much more effectively?

The noble Lord will know that different local authorities have different ways of doing this. There are technologies now that can separate plastics and other recyclable waste, but one undoubtedly needs a separate receptacle for food and various other wastes. I do not see how our proposal would lead to seven different recycling bins; it would just not work in those circumstances.

Ofsted: Pupil Absence Rates


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to empower Ofsted to review pupil absence rates as part of their school inspections.

My Lords, improving attendance is a top priority for this Government, because it is vital for children’s learning, well-being and long-term development. As part of its existing framework, Ofsted expects schools to do all they reasonably can to achieve the highest possible attendance. Inspectors will check that schools have a clear understanding of the causes of absence in their school and that the necessary strategies are in place to improve attendance.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. She knows that a child is deemed to be persistently absent if they have missed 10% or more of lessons. Across the two school terms prior to the current one, around one in five children were persistently absent from primary and secondary schools, which is more than double the figure five years ago. So there is an existential crisis and a safeguarding issue, because the link between absenteeism—children missing from school—and children taken into home education is strong. Ofsted and the Children’s Commissioner want to see a register of children not in schools, which the Government have said they support, so why was that measure not included in the King’s Speech, which was not exactly overloaded with legislation?

The Government remain committed to legislating to set up a register of children not in school. The noble Lord may be aware that the honourable Member for Meon Valley has introduced a Private Member’s Bill, and we will be working hard with her as she progresses that.

My Lords, when children of 14 decide to leave their school and go to a university technical college, their absence rate falls dramatically compared to that at their previous school. They like going to a UTC because they can work in workshops as well as classrooms, they can learn by their hands as well as their brains, and they visit companies looking for jobs. I assure your Lordships that, unless that sort of education is deeply embedded, the absence rates of disadvantaged students will not fall, because they are told all the time by the Department for Education that they must study eight academic subjects. We need a curriculum fitted to this century.

My noble friend needs to consider also the patterns of attendance before the pandemic. The curriculum was the same before the pandemic as post-pandemic, but attendance rates are very different. Linking absence entirely to the curriculum may require further consideration.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that in the Children’s Commissioner’s latest report, on absenteeism, she says:

“For some, the pandemic has led to disengagement. Schools and families have said that they feel like the social contract between parents and schools has been broken”.

Could we be assured that an Ofsted report will consider also the positive and creative engagement of parents in school life?

The noble Lord makes a good point. We need not wait just for Ofsted in order to look at the positive engagement of parents. Many of the schools I visit are focused substantially on that and on making sure that parents get positive feedback about their children in school—not just a call when their child is not there.

My Lords, what are the Government doing about people who attend unregistered —effectively illegal—schools, often of a very dubious religious nature? What are they doing to eradicate this and to make sure that children receive an education that enables them to stand on their own two feet outside closed communities?

The noble Lord will be aware that Ofsted has been involved in a number of prosecutions of illegal schools. We remain very concerned about those—indeed, the Private Member’s Bill to which I referred earlier will go some way to addressing this issue.

My Lords, I express gratitude to the Minister for the way in which the data has been produced; I understand that more is to come, and that will be examined in great detail. As an unrepentant pedant, though, I am as interested in the adverbs as the nouns—in how the data is to be applied. How do we get more children across the line in terms of the culture of school? Some years ago, the Children’s Society’s Young Commissioners looked deeply into child poverty in school and how children are identified as those, for instance, receiving free school meals or who are not able to purchase the very expensive school uniforms from the agreed seller. How is school culture being encouraged by government further to change in order to get children across the line? How, indeed, do we expect Ofsted to become the “office of encouragement”?

As the right reverend Prelate knows, Ofsted is about to start its Big Listen exercise, so maybe that is one of the questions that could be asked. He asks an important question about how the data will be used. There is more we can do within the department on analysing and breaking down the data into more actionable insight for schools, and we will start engaging with trusts and local authorities on that very shortly. We need to be careful to make sure that children who really have major barriers to coming to school and whose attendance is very poor are not conflated with those who are in school nine or nine and a half days out of 10. It is about how we get those ones, too, over the line.

We have a crisis of attendance in our schools. Research from the Centre for Social Justice reveals that more than one in four parents think that school is not essential every day. It is essential. What can the Government do to repair the relationship between schools and families, which has deteriorated greatly in recent years?

Again, we have to be very careful not to make sweeping generalisations. We are seeing lots of green shoots in terms of attendance and higher-level attendance, particularly in transition year groups such as year seven, when children go from primary to secondary school. There are important things we can build on, such as having open, honest, regular communication with parents, pointing out if a child has not been coming into school and trying to understand why. But more importantly, celebrating with a parent a child’s attendance or performance in school is to be encouraged.

My Lords, it is absolutely right to tackle school absence, but as we approach Rare Disease Day, I draw attention to the huge pressures faced by children and families with rare and undiagnosed conditions in trying to remain in education. The lack of specialist resources and awareness act as barriers. Understandably, in these complex situations it is not always possible to avoid absence. Will the Minister meet with charities and family representatives to see how we can design these policies without increasing the pressures on those families?

I would be delighted to meet with the charities and families to which my noble friend refers. She makes an important point, and it goes back to the point made earlier by the noble Baroness—that parents need to feel that the response they are getting from their school is about their child. To every parent, their child is very special.

My Lords, we know that children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, physical disabilities and social, emotional and mental health special educational primary needs have the highest rates of school absence. In spring 2023, 384,202 children with some form of identified special educational need were persistently absent. Given what we know about the link between persistent absenteeism and life chances, does the Minister agree that this risks widening the gap between the more advantaged and the less advantaged in our society? What are the Government doing to support children with special educational needs and disabilities to succeed in school?

The Government are doing a great deal, starting with their investment in a dramatic increase in the number of specialist places for children with the kinds of special needs and disabilities the noble Baroness refers to, through our attendance hubs programme in particular. I met a group of chief executives of specialist multi-academy trusts which are working with children with special educational needs and those in alternative provision. We are seeking to identify best practice and making sure it is a shared peer to peer.

AI: “Nudify” Apps


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to prohibit “nudify” apps which create intimate images of other people using artificial intelligence without their consent.

My Lords, the Online Safety Act introduced new offences which criminalised the sharing of, or threatening to share, intimate images, including deepfakes, without consent. Where individuals create these images using any kind of technology and share or threaten to share them online, they may be committing an offence. The Act will additionally give online platforms new duties to tackle this content by removing it, including where it has been created via AI apps.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his Answer. There has been a huge increase in the use of nudify apps and the creation of deepfake porn since the Law Commission stated that it was less sure that the level of harm caused by the making of these images and videos was serious enough to criminalise. Does my noble friend agree that the making of these images and videos without a person’s consent does in fact cause serious harm, regardless of whether a person is aware of it, and that, if allowed to continue, represents a very real threat to all women?

I start by acknowledging that the creation of intimate image deepfakes using AI or other means is abusive and deeply distressing to anyone concerned and very disturbing to all of us. The Law Commission consulted widely on this, looking at the process of taking, making, possessing and sharing deepfakes, and its conclusion was that the focus of legislative effort ought to be on sharing, which it now is. That said, this is a fast-moving space. The capabilities of these tools are growing rapidly and, sadly, the number of users is growing rapidly, so we will continue to monitor that.

My Lords, the applications referred to in the excellent Question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Owen, represent a dangerous and overwhelmingly misogynistic trend of non-consensual deepfake pornography. They are able to be developed and distributed only because of advances in AI, and sit alongside the use of deepfakes for political disinformation and fraud. Polling suggests public ambivalence towards AI but near unanimity around deepfakes, with 80% of people supporting a ban, according to a recent YouGov survey. Cloud computing and services hosting AI models are essential for deepfake creation, and the fact that all major cloud suppliers have a presence in the UK empowers our Government uniquely to enforce best practice. Does the Minister agree that our regulatory system should not merely ban deepfakes but go further, imposing upon the developers a duty to show how and in what way they are applying existing techniques and restrictions that could prevent their creation in the first place?

An outright ban on the creation of any deepfake material presents a number of challenges, but obviously I applaud the sentiment behind the question. With respect particularly to deepfakes involved in intimate image abuse, we are clearly putting in place the offence of sharing, whether as part of the new intimate image abuse offences in the Online Safety Act that commenced two weeks ago, as part of the Criminal Justice Bill shortly to come before your Lordships’ House, or indeed under the existing child sexual exploitation and abuse offences. There are severe penalties for the sharing of intimate image abuse deepfakes, but it is a fast-moving space and we have to continue to monitor it.

My Lords, it is quite clear that simply banning the sharing of these deepfakes is not sufficient. This is an issue that concerns us all, whether in relation to sexual images, fraud or misinformation. Can the Government not overcome their reluctance to regulate AI? What evidence would persuade them to go further and make sure that the creators of these deepfakes are liable?

As regards the overall regulation of AI, I hope that noble Lords have had a chance to peruse the Government’s response to the AI White Paper consultation. It makes the argument very clearly that there will come a time when it is right to legislate to create binding rules on all creators of AI. When that time comes, due to the policies that we are putting in place, we will have an agreed risk register informing us. We will have set up monitoring and evaluation techniques, again gathering evidence. We will have working relationships with the AI labs, defined procedures for the creation of AI, and regulators trained to regulate AI within their own sectors. That means that, when we do regulate AI, it will be done in a targeted and sophisticated way, on the basis of evidence.

My Lords, the Government have been far too complacent on this issue. During the passage of the then Online Safety Bill, we warned a number of times that, given that this is a fast-moving technology, as the Minister says, the Government needed to get ahead of the game. Given the proliferation of these ghastly images and the appalling impact this has on people’s lives, does the Minister now agree that neither the emergence of these apps nor their misuse is surprising? If that is the case, why did the Government not broaden the scope of their amendments when they had the opportunity to do so? Will the Minister now look for ways in which we can plug the gaps that are clearly emerging?

As the noble Lord said, it is a fast-moving space, and that requires an adaptive, agile response in legislating for it. That is the approach that we are taking. As to the argument that we can now see that it is not working, I am not sure that that is the case. The intimate image abuse offences commenced on 31 January—two weeks ago. I am pleased to see that, yesterday, we had our first cyberflashing conviction under those provisions. Using an evidence base, looking forward, we will have to consider carefully what is working before we go ahead and implement further bans.

My Lords, during the last Assembly election in Northern Ireland, two female candidates from either side of the community in Northern Ireland were targeted with deepfake porn, which was solely designed to damage their chances in that election. We know the number of people who will be going to the polls in the next year. Surely the Minister and the Government need to work with the Electoral Commission to raise this issue, because it is a very important issue in democracy for female candidates.

I absolutely agree, and the instance that the noble Baroness described is deplorable. I am pleased to say two things very briefly. First, the sharing she describes now carries, as a base offence, up to six months in prison; if, as in the case the noble Baroness put forward, the sharing is designed for the purposes of malice or gaining sexual gratification, that sentence goes up to two years. That regime is now live. On elections, we have set up the Defending Democracy Taskforce, with a new unit implemented last year specifically dedicated to safeguarding the election against such threats.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Owen, asked a Question that was forensic, specific, nimble and agile—all adjectives that the Minister keeps using: “Why not ban these nudify apps?”. Why not ban the tools of the wicked trade, rather than waiting for individuals to misuse them? What is the positive use of this? Is it that big tech is now so deep in our politics that we do not dare regulate this technology to make sure that it is not used for ill?

The reason the making is not banned is that the sharing is banned, and the reason we did that is that Law Commission—as set out very clearly in its document—made the argument that this was the most appropriate way to have a coherent and effective body of law preventing this deplorable misuse of technologies.

My Lords, it would be very helpful if the Minister could explain. If I heard him correctly, he said that sharing has a six month ban but for malicious sharing it could be up to two years. Could he explain what non-malicious use would be?

There is a base offence in the law of sharing intimate images without consent or the reasonable belief of consent. That can extend to two years if the intent is to cause alarm, distress or humiliation, or if the purpose is to gain sexual gratification. Crucially, there is an offence of threatening to share these materials which also carries a two-year penalty.

Developing World: Debt Reduction


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what recent discussions he has had with international counterparts on a strategy to reduce debt in the developing world.

My Lords, we set out our commitments on developing countries’ debt in our international development White Paper. The Treasury and FCDO regularly engage with international partners to address rising debt vulnerabilities in developing countries. The UK also co-ordinates with other official creditors to provide debt restructurings where needed, both at the Paris Club and via the G20 common framework.

My Lords, after Covid, we had the common framework from the international community. Sadly, only four countries have applied. Certainly, the situation is getting worse, and not better, in terms of debt. Does the noble Lord accept that a huge step forward would be to agree with global partners on a workable definition of debt sustainability to provide countries in debt distress a more level playing field?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. We are happy to accept the IMF definition of debt sustainability and to use it as a baseline. We are happy to look at other ideas but, given the IMF’s role, that makes sense. I completely accept what lies behind the noble Lord’s question: 58% of low-income countries are now either in debt distress or at risk of it, so he raises an important point. However, I think the definition is done by the IMF.

My Lords, climate change is already hitting the poorest the worst and the most, often in indebted countries. Although it is welcome that a loss and damage fund was agreed at the last COP, does the Foreign Secretary agree that what has been pledged so far—including, I am afraid, by the UK—is totally inadequate? Does he further agree that it is not only right to scale this up but in our interest, as we seek to reduce the conflict and migration that are likely to be caused by climate change, which will be much more costly?

We have doubled our commitments to climate finance. One of the successes of COP was that the climate finance funds are now considerable, running into many billions. I identify the problem more as small countries, particularly island and developing states, not being able to access that money because they do not have the expertise, the lawyers, the bankers, the officials and so on. That is a problem that my officials are trying to solve. In the area of debt itself, the climate resilience debt clauses that we are now writing into debt, which give states a holiday from debt repayments if they suffer a climate disaster or some other unforeseen event, can be a big part of the future too.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, through China’s belt and road programme, developing nations are estimated to be indebted to China to the tune of more than $1 trillion? Does he share the view of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee that it would be naive not to see how such punitive debt in countries such as Sri Lanka—which is $47 billion dollars in debt, half to China—can be used by China to buy support in the UN, to expand its military presence and for leverage in domestic and international institutions? How are we countering this?

One of the most important ways to counter it is by offering an alternative, so that when countries are developing there are other offers on the table. That is why the expansion of British International Investment—what used to be the Commonwealth Development Corporation—is so important. We are also countering it through the expansion of the multilateral development banks, and in our White Paper we demonstrate how we can expand their balance sheets and get them to lend more. However, the noble Lord makes a very good point: if we look back 10, 15 or 20 years, when we were running debt forgiveness programmes to help highly indebted countries, we see that it was mostly Paris Club countries such as France, Germany, Britain and America that were responsible for the debt, so if we wanted to write it off then we could. Now that so much of the debt owed is to China, which does not believe in debt write-offs, we have to find other ways of delivering restructurings to help those countries which have got into trouble.

My Lords, if we write off the debt of these developing countries, what is to stop them running up more debt in future?

As ever, my noble friend makes a very good point. If we look back at the successful programmes that there were, such as the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, we see that they helped, but many of those countries have gone back into debt—although the situation is not as bad as it was before: the debt-to-GDP ratios in very indebted countries is some 60%, whereas it had got to 100%. One of the best things we can do for those countries is to help them to have better fiscal systems so they can raise their own taxes. I know that noble Lords like a Rwanda update: we have been working with that country since the 1990s and helped it to increase its tax revenue tenfold, and its ratio of tax to GDP has doubled from 8% to 16%, the highest in the region. That is a better thing to do in many instances than lending those countries money.

My Lords, a major reason for the indebtedness of developing countries is that too many multinational corporations operating in them dodge taxes by shifting profits to low-tax or no-tax jurisdictions. The IMF estimates that around $213 billion of taxes are lost each year. An earlier Prime Minister introduced the Finance Act 2016 and promised that companies would publish a public form of country-by-country reporting so that there would be some visibility of the profits shifted by UK companies, but later Governments never honoured that commitment. Could the Foreign Secretary have a word with the current leaders of the Government and try to revive that commitment?

I think that the noble Lord refers to what was agreed at the G8 in Northern Ireland in 2013, where a whole series of steps forward were made to make sure that companies were not doing what is known as base erosion and profit shifting and not paying their taxes in countries where they should. To be fair to the former Prime Minister, who is now the Foreign Secretary, we did make some progress, and I think the OECD would say that it has made a lot of progress, but I will certainly check up on the noble Lord’s point.

On the question of Sri Lanka, will my noble friend recognise the way in which Her Majesty’s Government, to whom I give particular thanks, through the IMF, were very firm to the Government of Sri Lanka about what they should do? The Sri Lankan Government responded, which means that the people of Sri Lanka can now move forward. I believe that that is as good a case history as we will find in recent times.

My noble friend is absolutely right that Sri Lanka is in debt distress; it has been working through a programme with the IMF. We wish the new Government in Sri Lanka well as they go through this and try to make sure that they can build a brighter future for that country.

My Lords, in introducing the White Paper, Andrew Mitchell said that it cannot be right for individuals in this country to borrow money at 4% or 5%, while for developing countries that are addressing such huge issues, the cost of borrowing is so high. What discussions have the noble Lord’s officials had regarding private creditors holding low-income country debt? Does he agree that a fairer system is needed between private creditors and countries in debt distress?

First, I congratulate the noble Lord on joining a club of which I am a member, in being personally sanctioned by Vladimir Putin. It is a badge I wear with honour, and I am sure he will too.

The noble Lord is in very good company—I follow these things very closely.

The noble Lord is absolutely right about the importance of making sure that we do not have so many private sector holdbacks that hold up the vital debt restructuring of countries that get into trouble. We are trying to use things such as collective action clauses that work on bond issues—so they cannot hold out against repayment —as well as the majority voting provisions in new debt issuances so that private sector lenders are not stopping a country getting the debt restructuring they need.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary about increasing the capacity of Governments’ treasuries and their finance ministries to collect their own revenues, as well as trade facilitation, so that those trade ministries have greater capacity to trade out of poverty. I declare an interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Group on Trade out of Poverty. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that it was a mistake by some of his predecessors to cut UK support for exactly those processes? Since he is now passionate about this, and I agree with him, will he restore that funding?

One of the great things that was done while I was out of government is one of the Government’s best-kept secrets, the developing countries trade system, which is more generous to the poorest countries in the world than the EU or the US. It is one of the most generous systems in the world, so in terms of helping countries to trade out of poverty, this Government have an excellent record.

Further to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, surely we now need to double down on opportunities to sign bilateral trade treaties with different countries, in sub-Saharan Africa in particular. If they can increase their wealth through trade, obviously they will be able to pay off their debt in the future. Can my noble friend say something about those bilateral trade treaties that we are now able to sign post leaving the EU?

My noble friend asks an important question about how we prioritise the trade deals that we are trying to do. For the poorest countries, the DCTS—the Developing Countries Trading Scheme—is there. Our priorities in terms of trade deals are with India and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which are very complex and need a lot of work. I think that is the right way round.

Children in Gaza


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what his Department is doing to ensure the lives and security of the children of Gaza.

My Lords, the best way to address the humanitarian situation is by ending the fighting as soon as possible. That is why I have repeatedly said that an immediate pause in fighting is necessary. UK aid is saving children’s lives. We are doing everything we can to get more aid into Gaza and have trebled our aid commitment to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This includes targeted support for children through our £5.75 million contribution to UNICEF. Children are also benefiting from life-saving food, shelter and health support that we are providing through partnerships with other UN agencies, NGOs and the Red Crescent societies.

I thank the noble Lord, but surely a pause in fighting is not enough. We need a permanent ceasefire now. Specifically, I am sure he is aware of the awful fate of six year-old Hind Rajab, calling for help in the midst of the bodies of her dead relatives, who appears to have died with two would-be rescuers from the Red Crescent. Have the Government demanded answers from the Israeli Government—or will they—about what happened to Hind, her family and the rescuers? Are the Government challenging the Israeli Government on the risks to hundreds of thousands of children in Rafah who are now in the path of the Israeli offensive? Surely it is time to stop all arms shipments to Israel, as a Dutch court has demanded that the Netherlands does, and implement targeted sanctions against members of the Israeli leadership, particularly those calling for new settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank.

The noble Baroness asks a number of questions. The case she raises is completely tragic, and what is happening in Gaza is tragic. We want an end to this suffering and killing. Let me make this point: we want to turn the pause we are calling for into a ceasefire, by making sure the conditions are right for getting a stop in the fighting to mean a permanent ceasefire. The way to do that is by fulfilling a number of conditions. In our view, you have to get the Hamas leaders out of Gaza—otherwise, any ceasefire will not last because the problem will still be there. You have to dismantle the operation of terrorist attacks. You have to have a new Palestinian Authority Government in place. You have to give the Palestinian people a political horizon to a better future and a two-state solution. Crucially, you have to release all the hostages—and do that very quickly.

The noble Baroness asks whether we challenge the Israeli Government over individual episodes. Yes, we absolutely do. I have done that personally with them, for instance, over a building that was bombed that had UK medics and other charities in it. We will continue to do that as part of the very important process that we go through to judge whether they are in compliance with international humanitarian law.

Is my noble friend aware of any moves by Hamas to protect the children of Gaza, for instance by releasing all the hostages, as he just mentioned, or stopping attacks on Israel and the leaders fleeing to the Gulf? Is he aware of any such moves? I agree with everything he said.

My noble friend makes a very good point. It is worth remembering that on 7 October, 29 children were killed by Hamas and 39 children were taken hostage and remain hostages today. It is right that we in this House keep asking what else Israel should do, but at the very same time we should also say what Hamas should do, which is to lay down its weapons and stop right now. It could stop this fight immediately.

Is the noble Lord aware that the IDF has suggested that it is in no rush to enter into Rafah and will delay, possibly until after Ramadan? Meanwhile, the negotiations in Cairo can continue. That gives a chance for Hamas to release the hostages and for the conflict to stop.

That is absolutely right. I believe those discussions are under way, and it is a great pity that they did not reach that conclusion the last time they were under way. As I said, the best outcome we could seek is an immediate stop in the fighting. Let us hope that the stop is for as long as possible. I think that Israel was content to offer a month or six weeks as a pause. Then we need the momentum to turn that pause into a permanent ceasefire, without a return to the fighting. That should be our goal but, crucially, the pause is necessary to get the aid in and the hostages out.

My Lords, there is plenty of time. We will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, followed by the noble Lord, Lord Green.

I am grateful to the Chief Whip. UNICEF has said today that 600,000 displaced children are in Rafah in Gaza. That is comparable to the entire under-12 population of Scotland being displaced to one postcode area. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that for any belligerent in a conflict to advise children and civilians to relocate, on the pretext of their safety, to an area where there is no shelter, water or medicine, and where there are no security guarantees, is a war crime?

I say to the noble Lord what I said yesterday in Scotland: many of the people in Rafah have already moved three, four or five times. It is not possible for them to move again. They cannot go north because they would be going back to homes that have been destroyed. They cannot go south because that would involve going into Egypt, which none of us wants to see and the Egyptians do not want. That is why it is so important that the Israelis stop and think before going ahead with any operations in Rafah.

My Lords, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the huge number of civilian casualties in Gaza is deeply damaging to the reputation of Israel? Will he therefore take action to promote a change of strategy by the Israelis, as well as the other measures he has mentioned? Thousands of civilians are being killed; that has to stop.

Our view from the start has been that, while Israel has a right to defend itself and the attacks on 7 October were an appalling attack on Israel—it is worth remembering that it was the biggest pogrom since the Holocaust in terms of the loss of life of Jewish people; we should not forget that—and a tragedy that it had every right to respond to and try to prevent happening again, Israel must obey international humanitarian law. Let us be clear: not only does that involve what the IDF does in terms of the way it prosecutes this war but, as Israel is the occupying power in Gaza, it has to make sure that humanitarian aid—food, water and shelter—is available to people in Gaza. If Israel does not do that, it would be a breach of international humanitarian law as well.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary is right; the priority has to be securing an immediate, extended pause in fighting to ensure that we can get aid in and the remaining hostages out, and create room for a long-term, sustainable ceasefire, followed by an even longer-term resolution. There are currently almost 1.5 million displaced Palestinians in Rafah and it is the main route for humanitarian aid. Any further Israeli offensive in Rafah will be catastrophic. The situation is getting more urgent by the hour. I know the noble Lord has been working to establish a contact group of regional and international leaders who would influence both sides. Is he able to offer any progress on that group or its ability currently to influence events?

At the Munich Security Conference on Friday, there will be a meeting of the key European countries that help to fund the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the key Arab and Gulf states working to help support a future Palestinian Authority. We very much hope that the Secretary of State of the United States will be there as well. This is not yet the formation of a contact group—a number of countries, particularly in the Arab world, are understandably nervous about meeting in advance of a proper ceasefire and a plan towards a cessation of hostilities—but I think we are on the way to getting this group, which the noble Baroness has long called for, up and running.

It is important, because there are lots of things that we need to start talking about now—what happens the day after a pause; a reconstituted Palestinian Authority; the question of how to offer a political horizon to people in the Palestinian territories; or indeed how to deal with Israel’s very real security concerns. If there is a pause and then a ceasefire, how do you make sure that the people responsible for 7 October cannot remain in Gaza and that the infrastructure of terror is taken down?

My Lords, alongside medical aid on the ground, one practical step the Government could take with an immediate impact would be to support medical care for children injured in Gaza on a temporary basis in the United Kingdom. I know that my noble friend and his department have been looking at this possibility. I would be grateful if he could update us on progress.

I thank my noble friend. It is called Project Pure Hope. We are looking very closely at whether it is possible to take the people in greatest need and bring them to British hospitals, as we have done in the past. The early work we have done shows that there is much we can do in the region, and we should probably do that first—for example, helping in the field hospitals that have been established, helping to send medical teams to referral hospitals in the region and supporting organisations such as Medical Aid for Palestinians. If that work leads to the identification of specific cases in which someone would be better off taking the long journey to Britain and going to Great Ormond Street or elsewhere, we certainly do not rule that out. We will continue to look at this.

AUKUS Security Partnership


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what progress His Majesty’s Government has made in implementing the AUKUS security partnership between the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States of America.

My Lords, AUKUS is an unprecedented partnership that is central to delivering security and prosperity for the UK and our partners in the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic. We are making significant progress to deliver nuclear-powered submarines for the UK and Australia and are deepening co-operation on cutting-edge military technologies. We are breaking down barriers to defence trade and delivering benefits at home, securing £4 billion of contracts for British companies and generating thousands of jobs including in Derby and, I am pleased to say, Barrow-in-Furness.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. As he rightly says, this is a landmark security partnership that requires a sustained commitment from multiple Governments over years, indeed decades. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to ensure that the focus of his department and of the whole Government can remain on this despite the ongoing crises in other areas? In particular, how can he prioritise the diplomatic work needed to ensure that the US can make progress on ITAR reform that can enable the technological and industrial co-operation necessary to deter our common adversary?

On how the Government co-ordinate this at a time where there are many distractions, I can say that the National Security Council is playing a role at bringing together all the ways that we can support Team Barrow to make sure that there is support for education, skills, housing, transport and all that will be needed to scale up this production effort as we go from 11,000 people employed building submarines to 17,000. On ITAR, which has been a troubling issue that British Governments have had to deal with for decades with American Governments, it is essential that AUKUS partners can trade freely between each other in defence equipment. I am pleased to say that we have made some real progress: I met Secretary Blinken in early December and on 22 December President Biden signed the US National Defense Authorization Act, which enables licence-free trade between the AUKUS countries, and we are working with the State Department on the technical details to make sure that really happens.

My Lords, are any other countries applying to join the AUKUS partnership? Are we thinking of applying to join the Quad—that is Australia, Japan, India and the United States? Will the UK attend the Perth conference on Indian Ocean security and defence, where all these issues tend to come together and will be discussed this summer?

On the last point, I think I am right in saying that one of my ministerial colleagues will attend the Perth conference because it is very important. As my noble friend will know, AUKUS has two pillars. Pillar 1 is about the nuclear-powered submarines of Britain, Australia and America, and I do not think there will be additional partners in that. However, pillar 2 looks at advanced military technology for the future, and there we are open to the idea of other countries—possibly Canada, as people have mentioned, or Japan—which might want to join it because it is about defence equipment for the future. The point he makes about the Quad is very important. We would say that this is complementary to that activity.

My Lords, when AUKUS was first announced, the suggestion, at least from the MoD, seemed to be that somehow the United Kingdom had just slipped into an agreement with Australia over the nuclear submarines but clearly, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, there is also the wider aspect of AUKUS. Do His Majesty’s Government have a strategic approach to this? Are we simply waiting to see whether other countries such as Canada wish to join or are we actually planning what we want to do? Similarly, we have a trilateral agreement with Japan and Italy over fighter jets. Are we just being ad hoc or is there a real strategy here for our security?

This is a deeply strategic approach. First, it fits into a tilt to the Indo-Pacific. Noble Lords can see we have signed the Hiroshima accord with Japan; we have a new status at ASEAN; we have very strong partnerships with India; and now we have AUKUS, which is a defence stature that puts us in with Australia and America in a very strategic way. In terms of the partners for pillar 2, we would welcome others to come but on each occasion we will have to ask, “What will they bring, is it the right thing, is it the right country and is it the right fit?” The strategic move of AUKUS is incredibly powerful.

My Lords, speaking as another member of the club of those on Mr Putin’s blacklist, I welcome the AUKUS agreement but ask whether the Minister will accept that the handling of the French was pretty catastrophic? Does he accept that France is a major Indo-Pacific power and that now, when those bruises have perhaps healed somewhat, there is time to work with the French as well in the Indo-Pacific area, where they have a great deal to contribute?

The noble Lord makes a good point, which is that, ultimately, Britain and France should co-operate as closely as we can, because we are similar-sized powers with similar-sized militaries and global ambitions. That is what the Lancaster House agreement that he did so much to bring about was all about. What I would say to French partners now looking at this is that what AUKUS does for UK capacity is make sure that we replace the Astute submarines, which are incredibly high-tech and successful, with a new-generation AUKUS submarine—so the funding and the capacity are in place for that. We are assuring our future, and that is good for France because we can then talk with it about how it will secure the future of its submarine programme.

My Lords, nobody has yet mentioned China, so allow me to do so. Will my noble friend agree that it is important that we continue to talk with China and find as many areas, and expand on as many areas, of agreement as possible? But, in all this discussion, is it not possible to focus too narrowly on the threat of China? Should we not do more to embrace the democracies in Asia, such as Japan, India, Malaysia and South Korea? They are already more populous than China, are growing economically much faster than China and, in a few years’ time, will be far more economically powerful than China.

I very much agree with my noble friend. You can do both those things. It is important that we have a relationship with China. We have many disagreements, and it is an “epoch-defining challenge”, as the integrated review puts it, but, where we can find areas to progress discussions, we should. However, my noble friend is completely right to focus on the emerging democracies of the Far East, which is why I note not just AUKUS but the Hiroshima accord, the ASEAN relationship and the ministerial connections we have in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. I think I was the first ever serving Prime Minister to visit Vietnam, and I hope to go back soon.

My Lords, this security agreement is incredibly exciting. Without it, we would not be able to develop and get a sufficient number of nuclear submarines to replace the Astute class. For that reason, it is very important. Although the timescale looks long, we should pull teams together now in terms of how we will design and build that submarine because, if we do not, we will not do so in time. Also, because the Australians will have the Virginia class, the Americans will probably start doing a design instead.

The noble Lord is completely right that we have to get on with it, which is why there is Team Barrow to bring together the town council, BAE Systems and the Government. A lot of money is being put in—£25 billion from the Government and a further £16 million of levelling-up money—to make sure we have not just the defence capacity but the physical capacity in the town and the people to do this. I am confident we can get this done. The Virginia-class submarines are being sold by the Americans to the Australians to help prevent them from having a gap. It is up to us to make sure we do not have a gap and that there is no break between our excellent Astute-class submarines—I am proud that most of them were built during my time in office as Prime Minister—and the AUKUS submarines that will follow.

My Lords, it was said by the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place that South Korea and Japan should be

“invited to join an AUKUS technological defence cooperation agreement”—

or pillar 2, which the noble Lord referred to in his initial reply. This was not just waiting on events; it urged us to invite them to join AUKUS, and I wondered whether he would give that recommendation further consideration. I will pursue the point made by his noble friend a moment ago. Bloomberg estimated that, if there were a blockade of the Taiwan Strait, it would cost the world economy some $10 trillion. Above and beyond AUKUS, what are we doing to deter the Communist Party of China?

One of the things we are doing more generally is stressing the importance of freedom of navigation. That lies behind the action we are taking in the Red Sea and I hope to hold discussions with Chinese counterparts in days to come where we will ask them, given the importance of trade to China, to be as fully supportive of freedom of navigation as we are, because that matters wherever you are in the world, including the Taiwan Strait.

Superficially, this sounds like very good news and I welcome it, but were there no voices at the National Security Council that spoke to caution at all in respect of risk and affordability? In terms of affordability, Team Barrow sounds quite expensive. Is this again going to be at the expense of the conventional programme of UK defence? In terms of risk, is there not a risk of leakage of our very small supply of very highly qualified people, who would rather follow their career paths in Fremantle than in Barrow?

I do not believe that the noble and gallant Lord’s concerns are right. The money going into Barrow is a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of one submarine: as he well knows, these things come out at about £1 billion each. We need to make sure that Barrow, which has incredible manufacturing expertise, is fit to do this extra work that is going to be required as it scales up to 17,000 jobs. Are we going to benefit as a country? I would say absolutely yes. Rolls-Royce in Derby is going to be providing the nuclear reactors for these submarines—not just for the ones we use but also the ones Australia uses. This is good for our defence, good for our international relations and good for our industrial base.

Palestinian State: UK Recognition


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what discussions he had with the government of the United States before his announcement on 1 February that the United Kingdom should recognise a Palestinian state in advance of the conclusion of any future bilateral talks between Israel and representatives of the Palestinian people.

My Lords, this Government have always supported a two-state solution, and that remains the case. Clearly, recognising a Palestinian state at the right time is part of that policy. My noble friend asked about consulting our allies. Of course, we discuss all issues relating to the conflict in Gaza, and Israel-Palestine relations, but I am pleased to tell him that ultimately the UK has a sovereign and independent foreign policy set by a British Prime Minister and a British Foreign Secretary in the British Parliament.

I welcome that Answer. Hamas is a genocidal terror group: for the benefit of the BBC, they are not militants. The Palestinian Authority has lost control of large cities in the West Bank to Iranian-backed terror groups, openly pays salaries to convicted terrorists, and is deeply corrupt and repressive. Palestinian statehood is, I trust, something all of us in this House wish to see, but does my noble friend share my very grave concerns that premature, unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state now risks rewarding Hamas, playing into Iran’s hands, and perhaps jeopardising the chances for a long-term, sustainable peace?

I absolutely understand where my noble friend is coming from. I just say to him that of course it is not rewarding Hamas. Hamas does not believe in a two-state solution: it believes in the destruction of Israel. My point is that the whole point of a two-state solution is to create long-term, sustainable peace. I think the last 30 years have shown that we will not solve this problem without a solution that gives dignity and security to the Palestinian people as well as vital security to Israel. I say, as a strong friend of Israel, that this is the right approach and we should pursue it.

My Lords, I welcome very strongly the continued emphasis by the Secretary of State on the two-state solution, and his condemnation of the Hamas terrorist group and his call for the liberation of hostages, as was echoed in a statement this morning from the Bishops. But it is not only in Gaza that we are seeing tragedy; we are seeing it in the West Bank, where it is almost forgotten that very large numbers of Palestinians have been killed by people who live in illegal settlements. One of the countries most affected by that is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. First, what support are His Majesty’s Government giving to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, given its vulnerability and its significant responsibility as guardian of the holy places? If it comes under significant pressure, that would widen the conflict appallingly and dramatically. Secondly, what are the practicalities for Jordan in preparing for or aiding a two-state solution, where the flow of refugees towards it—and it has taken something like half its population in refugees—would be a very threatening process for its destabilisation?

I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for his question. First, he is absolutely right to say that we should focus on what is happening in the West Bank as well as Gaza. It is a chilling statistic that since 7 October, 96 Palestinian children have been killed in the West Bank. There have been a series of very worrying developments and disturbances. That is why the Government are focused on this. Only yesterday, we announced for the first time some sanctions against violent settlers who are carrying out criminal acts in the West Bank.

The most reverend Primate also asked, rightly, about what we are doing to help Jordan. First, in terms of the incredible work Jordan does in looking after refugees, we have given a huge amount of aid and assistance to help it with the job that it has done. As he says, the crucial thing is to work with the Jordanians, as we are, towards the two-state solution, in which they can play a very big part. A crucial thing that needs to be sorted out is how you move from the current Palestinian Authority, which has a number of issues and difficulties, to a new technocratic Government who would work across the Palestinian territories. The Jordanians can play a big role in helping to bring that about.

My Lords, there are 200 land-based conflicts in the world, half a million dead in Syria, the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and millions slaughtered in Africa—yet the only conflict people in the UK seem to want to protest about is Israel defending itself against the racist, genocidal Islamists of Hamas. What does the Foreign Secretary think explains this irrational obsession with the world’s only Jewish state?

The noble Lord makes a very important point. If you look across the world and ask yourself, “Where’s the biggest refugee crisis?”, it is not in Israel or in the Palestinian territories; it is either in Sudan, where about 9 million people have moved into Egypt, or you could argue that it is in Myanmar, where Bangladeshis are looking after millions of Rohingyas in very difficult conditions. It is important that we try to keep a focus on what is happening around the world and look at the numbers. That said, the reason people are focused on Gaza right now is the level of death and destruction, and people want to bring that to an end, as do I. This is why we have made this proposal for the immediate pause, moving to the ceasefire, with the five conditions we need to put in place to help to bring that about and work towards a political solution.

My Lords, after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas was elected to power. Having been elected to power, it proceeded to terrorise and then murder its political opponents. Hamas remains very popular in Gaza and in the West Bank. How can we prevent an independent Palestinian state from being governed by Hamas, maintaining its policy of seeking to attack Israel and to murder, rape and abduct as many Israeli citizens as possible?

The noble Lord asks an extremely good question. We have to try to help to separate the Palestinian people from Hamas. One of the best ways of doing that, apart from making sure that, as I have said, our conditions should include the Hamas leadership leaving Gaza and the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure, is to offer the Palestinian people—not Hamas, because it is not interested in a two-state solution—a route to better governance, with a reformed Palestinian Authority and the long-term horizon of a two-state solution to give them the dignity and security that they crave and that would help to bring about peace in the region.

My Lords, when the Foreign Secretary made the original statement, he was very clear that we need to show irreversible progress towards a two-state solution—something that both sides of this House have talked about for a long time. My right honourable friend David Lammy welcomed the Foreign Secretary’s comments, arguing that recognition should not wait for the final status agreement but should be part of efforts to achieve one. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, the day after those comments, what we are doing to translate the Foreign Secretary’s desire into discussions with our allies, particularly at the United Nations, and how we give that hope a sense of reality.

What my noble friend Lord Ahmad and I are doing—we are virtually joined at the hip when we are not travelling separately to the region—is talking to all the partners in the region about how we work towards making that a reality. Recognition is obviously part of a two-state solution, and it should help with the momentum. The point that I have been making is that it should not be the first thing we do, as that would take the pressure off the Palestinians to reform and to do the things that need to happen in the Palestinian Authority. But just because it does not happen at the beginning does not mean that it must wait right until the end. One of the things that is beginning to change and that I think is hopeful is the American posture, which, until now, has been that recognition can come only when Israel and Palestine agree on the creation of a Palestinian state. Doing that would give Israel a veto, in effect, over a Palestinian state, which is the opposite of creating the sort of unstoppable momentum towards a two-state solution that we all want to see.

My Lords, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments on the flexibility of recognising the state of Palestine before there is a full agreement with the State of Israel. I declare that I will travel to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah from tomorrow night. What message can the Foreign Secretary share with these Benches that I can take to those I will meet that he has persuaded like-minded countries and our allies, who have a long-standing view that recognising the state of Palestine before any long-term agreement is the best platform to get an agreement with Israel?

After I made my statement, which is absolutely in line with our long-standing policy that recognition should come when it gives the maximum impetus and input to a solution, the Americans announced that they were re-examining their policy and looking at options to see how recognition could best play a part in bringing about a two-state solution.

Business of the House

Motion on Standing Orders

Moved by

That Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Wednesday 21 February to allow the Finance Bill to be taken through its remaining stages that day.

Motion agreed.

Protest Measures


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 8 February.

“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall make a Statement on new government measures to tackle unacceptable behaviour at protests.

In the aftermath of the horrific attacks on 7 October, many people took to the streets to make their views heard. Many did so peacefully and respectfully. I had the great privilege of marching alongside many people, including some in this House, against anti-Semitism on the streets of both Manchester and London. Sadly, those protests do not tell the whole story.

Over the past few months, we have all seen disturbing and distressing examples of hateful abuse, of serious damage, and of law-abiding citizens being intimidated and prevented from going about their daily life. The right to protest is fundamental to our democracy, but when we see people hurling racist abuse, desecrating national memorials of great significance to our country, or taking flares to marches to cause disruption and fear, the only reasonable response is outrage and disgust. Tolerating these actions would be radicalising in itself. This Government will not stand by and allow a small minority to incite hatred and commit crimes, undermining our proud tradition of peaceful protest.

Today, the Government have announced a package of measures to put a stop to this criminality for good. Protesters have for too long been able to claim in law that protest is a ‘reasonable excuse’ for criminal behaviour. Blocking roads, preventing ambulances from getting through and stopping people from getting to work or visiting loved ones are breathtakingly selfish acts. The British public certainly do not see an acceptable justification for that level of disruption to their life. That is why we are removing that defence for relevant crimes. Protesters will no longer be able to cite the right to protest as a reasonable excuse to get away with disruptive offences, such as blocking roads.

Through the package that we are announcing today, we will crack down on those who climb on war memorials. In recent months, we have seen cases where individuals have broken away from large protests and scaled national monuments. War memorials belong to all of us. They are the altars of our national grief, and it is clearly not acceptable to disrespect them in that way; it is an assault on the memory of so many who gave their life for our freedom and to defend our nation. Attacking our national memorials goes beyond the legitimate exercise of free speech. We must not give those who commit criminal acts at protests the ability to get away with it by simply hiding their identity.

Once the legislation comes into force, the police will have new powers to arrest protesters at certain protests who wear face coverings to conceal their identity. Those who shout racist abuse and extremist rhetoric will no longer be able to hide from justice. We are also protecting the public by putting an end to people bringing flares on marches. Flares have been used during large-scale protests, and have been fired at police officers, posing significant risk of injury. A new offence will ban the possession of flares, fireworks and any other pyrotechnics at protests. Anyone who flouts the new rules will face serious consequences, including up to three months in jail and a £1,000 fine for those who climb on war memorials.

The changes that we have announced today build on the legislation that we introduced last year to help the police tackle disruption from protests. We criminalised interfering with key national infrastructure through Section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023. Since we passed the Act last year, the Metropolitan Police have made more than 600 arrests to minimise the disruption caused by Just Stop Oil. On Tuesday, the Home Secretary met policing leaders to thank them for their work, and to encourage the use of all existing powers at their disposal, as well as these new measures, to maintain order at protests. I am very grateful to front-line officers across the country for their efforts and successes in keeping the British people safe during an immensely challenging period. I know that policing these events on a regular basis is both complex and demanding. It takes officers away from crucial work preventing crime and protecting vulnerable people in our communities.

As I have made clear, freedom of expression is vital to our democracy, and this House champions it every day. People must be able to speak without fear, and have their right to peaceful protest protected, but those freedoms and rights are not absolute, for very good reason. There is no freedom to commit violence or intimidation, or to harass others. This country has laws against vocally supporting terror organisations for a very good reason, and last month, the Government proscribed Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organisation. That group actively celebrated the 7 October terrorist attacks in Israel that led to the rape and murder of many, many people. It is an organisation that has poisoned minds for far too long.

We must, and we will, continue to stand with communities who feel threatened, and ensure their safety wherever they live and work. The Government are sticking to the plan to give police the powers that they need to crack down on crime and keep our streets safe. We will never tolerate hateful, dangerous or intimidating behaviour. We will always put the decent, law-abiding majority first. We will do what is right and fair. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for this debate on last week’s Government Statement on protest measures. It is important to start my comments on such a Statement by thanking the police for all the work they are doing to maintain public order across the country. We know that many officers are having to give up rest days to police protests, and those demands are growing. Can the Minister start by outlining how resources are being allocated to meet that demand and what the impact has been on neighbourhood policing? Protest is a fundamental freedom in a democracy, and that right must be protected. If that freedom is abused and used to intimidate, harass or harm others, safeguards are clearly needed.

This is yet another suite of measures to tackle issues arising at protests. Can the Minister confirm that all these additional measures have been requested by the police across the UK as well as in London, and that they will be included in the Criminal Justice Bill to allow proper scrutiny of the accompanying guidelines?

On the issue of face coverings and the power to arrest those seeking to conceal their identity, is this an automatic offence decided by an individual officer, or is it triggered by a set of circumstances then to be authorised by a senior officer? We all understand that there is legitimate concern about the use of face coverings to conceal identity, but what about Chinese dissidents protesting outside the Chinese Embassy, or Iranian dissidents demonstrating outside the Iranian Embassy? Will they still be able to cover their faces, which they may well wish to do to protect families at home from intimidation or worse? We have a proud tradition of giving safe haven to dissidents opposing oppressive regimes.

We support the measures relating to flares and fireworks, which have been used to fuel public disorder and intimidate the police. Can the Minister say how they will be enforced in protests, which sometimes involve thousands? Our war memorials rightly hold a special place in the collective affection and respect of our nation. They remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the very freedoms which a very small number of people seek to desecrate. This has sparked understandable outrage across the country, including from me personally. My uncle, whom I am named after, was killed on D-day. His name is proudly remembered on a war memorial near his home village of Cheldon in Devon, close to both the town of Chulmleigh and the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Swire. To think of this and other war memorials being under threat or defaced is unthinkable. Can the Minister outline how the new measure in the forthcoming Bill is expected to work in practice?

Also raised was the issue of the definition of “hateful extremism”. The Government are looking at this, and work is ongoing. Can the Minister update us on what progress has been made, and when can we expect a Statement? The police of course need the necessary laws to police protests and, importantly, the confidence to use them. The Minister in the other place raised the issue of the proscription of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Are other groups under consideration for proscription, and have the Government assessed their involvement in any of the protests that we have seen? What action, if any, are the Government seeking to take?

Above all, in our proud democracy there is the right to peacefully protest. That is a fundamental freedom in our country of which we all are proud. It must not be abused but it must not be curbed unnecessarily either. The right balance must be struck between safeguarding that right to protest and the important duty to safeguard the public.

My Lords, I appreciate that the Government are trying to strike a balance among competing priorities—maintaining the right to peaceful protest, restraining incitement to racial and religious hatred, and keeping the country moving, free from disruptive events. It is right that police use all available powers to arrest those who go beyond what is acceptable for a peaceful protest, not least when their actions are motivated by hate. Protest should not be used as a shield to allow anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other type of hatred to fester with impunity.

However, we must ensure that the tactics employed by a minority do not undermine the ability of others to protest peacefully. I have a number of concerns, and it would be helpful if the Minister could address them when he responds. The provisions announced to prevent the use of facial coverings plainly bear a relationship to the increased use of facial recognition technology in policing. The Policing Minister is on record as saying that he is already encouraging police forces to search all available databases, including the passport database, to identify people using facial recognition technology for crime generally.

Clause 27 of the Criminal Justice Bill creates a very wide power to access driver licence records for this purpose, but there has been little public debate on this or on the parameters of the accelerated use of such technology. Given the potential freedoms that this could infringe, is a legal protest the correct context for technology to be used? Should the faces of people engaged in lawful and peaceful protest systematically be recorded and added to databases? Would there be a temptation to create lists of people who attend such protests, with the justification that these are people who are not in favour of the status quo and might, at some future date, cause trouble?

Police already collect information on political activists. However, attending a protest should not qualify as criminal activism. The fact that facial recognition is being introduced into policing without the debate or openness that is needed is a cause for concern. Since the Government are proposing amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill, will the Minister commit to setting out in that Bill the circumstances in which this technology should be used? Will he commit specifically to addressing the many concerns that the systems can be particularly bad at recognising black female faces? This is powerful technology, but it is not infallible by any means.

As things stand, its use enjoys public support, but that support may diminish if it is deployed disproportionately, causing problems for minority groups or being used for minor offences. It is surely in the interests of all of us who want to continue to see policing by consent for this to be avoided.

Finally, I want to raise the question of police resources. The Home Affairs Committee recently expressed concern about the effect that the increasing number of protests is having on the number of rest days being cancelled for police officers. Last year the Metropolitan Police had to cancel 4,000 rest days to police protests at a cost of nearly £19 million. Can the Minister say what the Home Office is doing to ensure that police forces are reimbursed for the cost of these cancelled days? When I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, we had a dreadful job trying to get the money back from the Home Office. I suspect that things have not changed very much. What is being done to support officers’ well-being when large numbers of rest days have to be cancelled?

Will police officers receive the necessary resources and training to identify and prevent hate crimes, including threats and incitements to violence on social media? According to the official figures, between October and December last year there were more than 1,000 protests and vigils and 600 arrests, accounting for 26,000 police officer shifts. This issue is not going away. The duty of care that we owe police officers needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

These are among the issues that we on these Benches will want to raise during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill. I look forward to the Minister giving us his early indications of his views.

My Lords, I thank both the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, for their generally supportive remarks. Like the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I join in congratulating, thanking and praising the police for their strenuous efforts to keep us all safe during the recent heightened protest activity.

Both noble Lords asked me about the questions raised in response to the original Statement, regarding the Home Affairs Select Committee pointing out that 4,000 rest days had been lost, coming at a cost of about £18 million or £19 million. Obviously, that is very concerning, but I have to say that the police uplift programme has helped many forces around the country significantly with their numbers. That helps to minimise the number of rest days lost. Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Police in London did not manage to fulfil its police uplift numbers, and that has financial consequences as well as a consequence for the rest of the officers employed. It is regrettable, but I am afraid it is very much for the Metropolitan Police to up its recruitment to sort out that particular problem. That is not the same as saying that we do not care about it or are not keeping a very close eye on it. We do.

I should also point out that the police have arrested more than 600 people over the course of the protests, and some 30-plus were related to Terrorism Act offences. Once again, I thank the police for their efforts.

On the question about whether these laws were requested by the police, the police have a comprehensive suite of powers to maintain public order and to keep the public safe. However, we keep their powers under constant review and, when gaps are identified, by whomever, we seek to legislate for them. I am not precisely sure how many of these powers were asked for by the police; I know that the bulk of them were, but not precisely which ones. When we come across gaps in the legislation, we seek to make these types of changes.

Those were very good questions on face coverings, particularly as regards the legitimate wearing of face coverings in protests. It is not difficult to come up with a number of scenarios that would classify themselves as legitimate. This was addressed in detail by my right honourable friend the Security Minister. The guidelines in the legislation that we are setting out will cover this, because police officers will have discretion to give an order requiring a face covering to be removed, but those commanding the policing of protests will have discretion over when they ask for that instruction to be carried out.

Under Section 60AA, the new criminal offence of concealing an identity will apply only when there is a particular authorisation on a protest, and those authorisations come only when there is a risk of serious violence or crime. Just as a reminder to the House, Section 60 offences can be ordered only by those of the rank of inspector or above and for a period of 24 hours, which is extendable for a further 24 hours. So they apply only to protests and only where an authorisation is in place. I hope that answers and assuages noble Lords’ concerns to some extent. I will come back to facial recognition towards the end of my remarks.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me about pyrotechnics, flares and disorder. The current legislation on the use of fireworks in public places does not consistently prohibit the possession of pyrotechnic articles during a protest but limits it to specific circumstances, such as the use of fireworks in public places and possession of explosives other than for a lawful purpose. It is not already an offence to be in the possession of such articles at certain musical events and football matches, for example, but this extends it to processions and protests. The new measures do not provide police with new stop and search powers, but they do allow the police to make an arrest when an individual is holding or lighting a flare at a protest.

I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on war memorials. I am also delighted that this is taking place, for all sorts of reasons. I do not have a huge amount more to say on this subject; I think we have all been offended by the antics of certain protesters who have clambered all over war memorials. The Security Minister in the other place described them as

“altars of our national grief”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/23; col. 379.]

That description could be extended, but it is very appropriate none the less and sums up all our feelings.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, also asked me about hateful extremism. He is quite right that there is some thinking about that at the moment. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is working on a definition of extremism alongside the Attorney-General. Of course, this is an extremely complex subject and conversation, so I will update the House when I have more, but I am afraid I cannot at the moment.

The noble Lord will know what I am about to say on proscription. The Government do not comment on groups that are potentially about to be proscribed or are under consideration. This will come under the Criminal Justice Bill.

I do not think facial recognition is entirely aligned with the subject of the measures that are being taken today. However, I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns and this subject will have to be further debated. It is a philosophical discussion about freedoms, rights and proportionality, and I have no doubt that we will revisit it in due course.

These measures are proportionate and carefully thought through. We will be discussing them at greater length, and I thank noble Lords for their support.

My Lords, I hope my noble friend will be cautious about invoking criminal law unless there are clear mischiefs to be addressed. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about face coverings and was much reassured by what my noble friend said, but I am much less happy about war memorials. Clearly, clambering over a war memorial is an unattractive and distasteful business, but I am far from clear that it is such a mischief that we should invoke the criminal law and impose criminal penalties. Many years ago, when my wife was 20, we were clambering over the lions in Trafalgar Square. I do not want to be told that we were defiling the memory of Lord Nelson.

I take my noble friend’s point, though I must admit that I did not realise that he had quite such a colourful past. I am afraid that, on this, the Government disagree, and think that this is a proportionate measure.

My Lords, not for the first time in the last 24 hours, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. Why was this announcement made by vague press release on a Wednesday evening, rather than in the House of Commons? While I am grateful to the Minister, as always, for that lengthy answer, I do not quite understand the gaps in the present law. We have all these stop and search powers, for example, including specific and blanket powers in relation to protest. Why do we need additional face covering removal powers—are they not a form of stop and search? I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, on the huge relevance of facial recognition technology to why people are concerned about uncovering their faces. At the moment, it is for the police, totally unregulated by statute, to decide who goes on the watchlist, what kind of technology is used, and the trigger for stop and search on the basis of being on this watchlist. The noble Baroness is quite right: if we are going down this path in relation to face coverings, we should be regulating the use of facial recognition technology as well.

I do not entirely disagree with the noble Baroness, but I do not think this is the particular forum for that discussion. It is clearly a philosophical discussion, as much as a legal and operational one, that is required around the appropriate extent of facial recognition technology. I am sure that is a debate we will return to. These particular powers are very specific and can happen only under certain circumstances, so in this context they are proportionate.

My Lords, like others, I entirely share the views about war memorials and their desecration, and fireworks and flares—there is a lot that is sensible in this. On face coverings, what concerns me is the law which we often do not often think about—the law of unintended consequences. To those dissidents, I would add religious minorities to the list of those who may be concerned about this. I wonder whether the effect of this will be that more people will wear face coverings, not fewer, because they are concerned about facial recognition. I find it hard to understand why this should be a matter for the law. If somebody commits a criminal offence while on a march, we already have the powers to deal with them. If somebody on a peaceful protest chooses to wear a face covering, I find it hard to understand why that, in and of itself, is a problem. The Minister has explained that this will be used only under certain circumstances, but if I have heard him correctly it is around the “risk” of criminal activity and violence. We do not arrest people because we think that they might be doing something. If the protest is peaceful, why should somebody not wear a face mask? I am struggling to understand why this has become such an issue, and I am concerned about minority groups who could be adversely affected by this.

The current legislation gives police the power to direct people to remove face coverings in designated areas and to seize face coverings, but there is a loophole, in that an individual could follow the direction of an officer to remove their face covering but then move to a new area and redeploy the face covering. We are trying to close that loophole. I take the most reverend Primate’s point about minorities and so on, but, as I have tried to explain, this is being applied to protests only where there is an authorisation in place, so it is time-limited and very specific.

My Lords, I welcome this package, a number of measures in which I recommended in my role as the Government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption. Can the Minister say more about how the Government intend to mitigate the Ziegler judgment, which is a very welcome commitment on the part of the Government to make it clear that protest is not sufficient justification for criminal acts such as vandalism and disruption of highways?

The noble Lord asks a very good question, because this is about, effectively, reasonable excuse. The Ziegler judgment held that obstructive protests that intentionally cause disruption can be protected by Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR. That means that those who purposefully disrupt the daily lives of others can escape justice under the guise of protest. Our amendments will mitigate the impact of this judgment and ensure that those who deliberately disrupt others by obstructing the highway cannot rely on protest before the court as a reasonable excuse using the definitions defined under the PCSC Act.

My Lords, most of us have witnessed and been involved in protests, and even though some have been quite violent and very disturbing, what we have seen over the past four months with the pro-Palestinian marches and protests in London has been on a completely different level. The police have had their hands tied behind their backs, not least because they have been unable to identify so many of those involved who have been wearing face coverings, and with huge crowds the police have been unable to see exactly who they are. Notwithstanding that the police have made some arrests and have charged and prosecuted certain individuals, the numbers involved are limited and small. Month on month, people have been allowed to protest, calling for the death and destruction of Jews and Israel, and to show Nazi symbols, with Islamic extremists who have been involved with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Permitting them to carry on like this is not acceptable. I fully support this proceeding to make sure those individuals are dealt with properly.

My noble friend raises some very good points. She is right that the simple fact of the matter is that recent protests have upped the temperature of protest. However, we have to remain proportionate, and I think this strikes the right balance.

My Lords, I want to put it on record that I am appalled at the behaviour of the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, in climbing on the lions in Trafalgar Square. I think that is unacceptable. I have been on a lot of protests and I have never climbed on a war memorial or a lion. However, I agree with him in asking why on earth we are making this a criminal offence. All the officers I have spoken to—admittedly a small sample—have said that they do not need these powers and that they have enough powers. What these extra powers do is take away the discretion that they have in dealing with people, which is something they value because they do not want to be tied up in having to go off to the police station with loads of arrested people. Most of these measures are totally unnecessary. I completely support the firework ban; they are so environmentally polluting. But the Government cannot ban everything that they do not like; that is a mistake that some Governments get into, and that way lies a loss of democracy. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the Minister said that facial recognition is for another day and it is not quite covered now. I argue that oversight of this is urgent, so in good time is not enough. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, said months back that this is a horse that has bolted out of its stable. We really have to find some way of making sure that the information is not passed out by the police, which it is in some cases now. Will the Minister think about bringing this in or discussing it urgently?

On the noble Baroness’s latter point, those discussions are ongoing and will continue within the Home Office. I certainly raise the subject regularly, not least because I too am concerned about proportionality; I think it entirely right. I am of course aware that the Government cannot ban everything they do not like, much as it might sometimes be fun to do so. On war graves, cemeteries, war memorials and so on, the public outrage was fairly significant, and noted. It was clear that this offended a great many people from all parts of the community. I do not know which officers the noble Baroness spoke to, but they should have spoken to their boss, because he asked for these powers.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. As the Minister would expect, I looked at this quite carefully in the context of Article 11 of the ECHR. He is right, and I accept fully, that Article 11.2 gives the state the right to bring in public order laws and a whole of host of other things. I would say to colleagues who are feeling uncomfortable about this that they need to look at the wording of Article 11.2. However, my question to the Minister is slightly different. It relates to the Aarhus Convention, which the United Kingdom signed in 2002, and which is there to defend the rights of environmental protesters. The Special Rapporteur on the Aarhus convention recently visited the United Kingdom. He has since sent a letter of complaint to the United Kingdom Government concerning environmental protesters. Is the Minister minded to reply to that letter and to publish the reply?

I am afraid that this is the first I have heard of this, so I cannot comment further, but I will of course look into it. These changes are compatible with the ECHR and do not prevent individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Many of the offences affected, including public nuisance, which involve serious harm to or obstruction of the public’s rights, are highly likely to fall outside of the protections of ECHR rights or within the state’s margin of appreciation. On the rights of environmental protesters, I do not think we should elevate any particular set of protesters’ rights above any other.

Will my noble friend the Minister congratulate my noble friend Lord Hailsham on his ability to climb one of those large animals in Trafalgar Square? At the same time, does he accept that what my noble friend said is a salutary reminder? We are becoming too concerned about restriction and not concerned enough about freedom. I am very concerned that the normal habits of proper protest—particularly at a time when parliamentary democracy is under very considerable pressure—are being undermined by the constant provision of yet more new things that the police want in order to control. I would like to see a real understanding of the importance of protest. I very much agreed with the most reverend Primate when he said that he could not quite see why people who were not doing anything illegal should be told to remove their face coverings. For the Iranians and the Chinese, face coverings are essential if there is to be protest.

I am very happy to join in the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Hailsham on his lion-climbing expertise, but I am afraid that I disagree with my noble friend when it comes to climbing war memorials as a normal part of protest. What is normal about climbing a war memorial?

My Lords, if ever there was an example of the slow attrition of our democratic freedoms, it is this. First, experience tells us that, once a law is on the statute books, it will in future, merely as a convenience, be abused to exert control. Secondly, why on earth would wearing a face covering be made a criminal offence, if not to prepare to punish someone who has committed no crime whatsoever as yet?

My Lords, I have already largely answered that question on face masks, but, for the avoidance of doubt, I will say it again: we are creating a new criminal offence of wearing a face covering for the purpose of concealing identity when the police place a particular authorisation on a protest. The particular authorisation point is surely the key.

My Lords, the Minister says that live facial recognition is irrelevant to this. I see a very clear intersection with these issues. I agree with him that there are philosophical aspects—I would say ethical aspects—but there are practical ones as well. The public looks at it in both those contexts. I was until recently chair of your Lordships’ Justice and Home Affairs Committee, and the Minister may have seen a letter that we wrote to the Home Secretary very recently on the subject of live facial recognition. I base my questions on that. First, on the issue of how live facial recognition is applied, one police force said to us—we have not been able to obtain any backing from that force for this comment—that the watchlist is made up of people known to have committed offences, or wanted for offences, who may have an intent to commit an offence. So how will a watchlist be made up for the use of live facial recognition of a protest? In particular, will images obtained during a protest or previous protests be used to make up a watchlist for a subsequent protest?

First, I did not say that it was irrelevant. I said that this is a very specific set of circumstances and I accept that there is a whole separate debate about facial recognition that we need to have in the near future—I accept that it is a matter of urgency. I cannot honestly recall seeing the noble Baroness’s letter to the Home Secretary. I will track it down and, if I may, I will come back in writing on that question because I genuinely do not know the answer.

My Lords, one of the reasons why there is this problem is that the police appear over a period of time to have been confused about what is a criminal act or not, sending messages on social media defining jihad in the most peculiar way, as some kind of inner struggle, or more recently saying, “We have looked at that flag, checked it out, and it is not a threat”, even though it is being used by ISIS. This makes the public more inclined to think that the criminal law might be needed, rather than the enforcement of existing laws.

Does the Minister concede that we have a deeper problem than climbing on statues? We earlier discussed the horrors that children in Gaza are enduring—weaponised by demonstrators walking around with dolls covered in blood, shouting “Blood on your hands” at our fellow Jewish citizens. We talked about disinformation earlier and we now know that conspiracy theories are mainstreamed to political parties—no facemasks required. Would the Minister concede that maybe we should enforce the laws we have, but avoid criminalising other behaviour? There is the bigger problem of a growth of anti-Semitism in society, which really needs to be challenged as much as any other racism that is a scourge.

I agree entirely with the remarks of the noble Baroness about anti-Semitism which I find personally disgusting, as do the Government, as she will know. On police confusion, it would be unwise for me to comment on the matters the noble Baroness describes, not least—as we frequently say from the Dispatch Box—because of the operational independence of the police, which I am very happy to defend. As for glorification, which she effectively talks about, the UK has a strong counterterrorism framework —one of the strongest in the world. It is important to recognise that. It is an offence to encourage an act of terrorism, and that includes glorifying—including by praising or celebrating—action in committing or preparing acts of terrorism where others may be encouraged to emulate that action, and that offence can be committed recklessly. As I said earlier in answering the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, some 30 people have been arrested since the start of these protests for offences under the Terrorism Act. The police are not confused when it comes to policing those sorts of marches; the statistics prove otherwise. These measures are proportionate to the sorts of activities we are describing.

Victims and Prisoners Bill

Committee (5th Day)

Relevant documents: 7th Report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and 1st Report from the Constitution Committee. Welsh Legislative Consent sought.

Amendment 122

Moved by

122: After Clause 28, insert the following new clause—

“Code for victims of major incidents(1) The Secretary of State must issue a code of practice as to the services to be provided to victims of major incidents by persons having functions relating to—(a) victims of major incidents, or(b) official inquiries and investigations following a major incident.(2) In this Part, the “code for victims of major incidents” means the code of practice issued under this section.(3) The code for victims of major incidents must make provision for services which reflect the principles that victims should—(a) be provided with information to help them understand the investigatory process following the major incident of which they are a victim;(b) be able to access services which support them (including, where appropriate, specialist services);(c) have the opportunity to make their views heard in the investigatory process following the major incident of which they are a victim;(d) be able to challenge decisions which have a direct impact on them.(7) The code for victims of major incidents may make different provision for different purposes, including different provision for—(a) victims of different descriptions;(b) persons who have different functions of a kind mentioned in subsection (1).”

My Lords, in moving Amendment 122, I shall also speak to Amendment 123. I thank Justice and Inquest for the briefings they have given us about this issue. I hope the noble and learned Lord the Minister will be back with us at some point as the Bill proceeds, although the duo who have taken his place are doing a great job.

These amendments follow on from our debate at the end of the proceedings last week about victims of major incidents and how they should be treated. The amendments are about the fact that bereaved people and survivors in inquests and inquiries will have suffered serious harm but do not receive the same recognition from the Government as victims of crime, so are not entitled to the minimum level of support and services. Instead they are often expected to navigate complex legal processes, with little recognition of the harm they have suffered or the trauma they have faced.

Under Clause 2, the victims’ code in the criminal justice context would reflect the principles that victims

“(a) should be provided with information … (b) should be able to access services which support them … (c) should have the opportunity to make their views heard … (d) should be able to challenge decisions which have a direct impact on them”.

Applying these principles to the victims of major incidents and interested persons at inquests would have a significant, practical and symbolic benefit, consistent with the Government’s pledge to place victims at the heart of their response to public tragedies.

Extending the provisions of the victims’ code could be achieved by introducing a requirement in the Bill for the Secretary of State to issue a separate victims’ code relating specifically to victims in the context of inquests and inquiries. Such a code could be guided by the same principles and have the same weight and legal status as its criminal justice counterpart. Before drafting the code, the Secretary of State should be required to consult the survivors of major incidents and the bereaved. Further consultations should be required before any changes were made to the victims’ code or its provisions relating to victims in the inquests and inquiries context.

The Government could be invited to suggest their own way of achieving the proper support for victims of major incidents. These are probing amendments about the best way forward, and this may not be it. Inquest contends that

“affording victims of major incidents and Interested Persons entitlements under the Victims Code would represent a recognition of their status as victims of significant, and often wrongful, harm who should be treated in a manner that is dignified and promotes participation”.

I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for tabling these important amendments creating a code for victims of major incidents and the processes by which it should be laid before Parliament. At Second Reading, a number of noble Lords raised the problem in the Bill that faces victims who are not victims of a type of crime listed in Schedule 1 and relating only to the first part of the Bill. It is self-evident that the victims of major incidents are not all covered by crime, or sometimes criminality may not be evident for a long period after the incident. However, the consequences of these incidents are often life-changing and require the same sort of support that victims of serious crimes do.

It would be iniquitous if the victims of aircraft accidents, flooding disasters, stadium collapses and many others were not able to access the support of the relevant services via an advocate and agencies that they need. That is why amendments debated last week, as well as those today, make strong arguments for provision. The advocates also need to know what rights these victims have in major non-criminal incidents and which services to refer them to.

The Government announced nearly a year ago that they would provide better support for bereaved families and eyewitnesses of homicide and major incidents, and specifically quoted the Manchester bombings as an example. In the statement, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk KC, said:

“The Homicide Service provides vital support to the families of victims under the worst of circumstances—ensuring they have the emotional and practical help they need to cope with their loss … By expanding the service to include eyewitnesses and bereaved families of major incidents across England and Wales thousands more people will be able to access the support they need as early as possible”.

Further on in the announcement, Edward Argar MP, then victims Minister, specified:

“This expansion of the Homicide Service, and additional new funding, will help ensure that more people bereaved through homicides and major criminal incidents across England and Wales, and eyewitnesses to those events, know they have somewhere to turn for help, where they can get the support they need”.

I commend the Government for that announcement.

However, victims and families of the Hillsborough tragedy, the Grenfell Tower fire and the Shoreham air disaster, for example, would not come under the enhanced service and would find it distressingly difficult to navigate in the days, months and years after the incident. Will the Minister say why the decision was taken to exclude those victims of major incidents that were not very serious criminal incidents, not obviously criminal incidents or definitely not criminal incidents under the rights of the victims’ code? I support both amendments.

My Lords, there is obvious scope for confusion on the part of—I try not to use the word “victim”, because I do not want to cause confusion—people who are caught up in incidents which may or may not be criminal. We could be in danger of causing resentment among people who are caught up in non-criminal incidents because what is available to them is insufficient. That is thrown into clarity when looked at against the victims’ code. The legislation needs something like the amendment and clarity on the part of everyone who is operating as to what applies. Points were made throughout many of the previous debate about the need for signposting, and I see that very much in the context which the noble Baronesses have referred to.

My Lords, I support both amendments. I shall refer to a different group; the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned several incidents that would cause the amendments to kick in. However, there is another category, and that is victims of state wrongdoing. For example, the “spy cops” scandal shows what goes wrong when a police unit goes rogue and the state compounds the abuse of power by doing all it can to minimise and cover up. Those cover-ups leave victims powerless and alone and are the reason we need this victims’ code to apply to them as well.

There are famous cases such as Hillsborough and the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. There is also a long history of Met police officers—those of us who were on the London Assembly or the London police authorities saw this many times—being accused of crimes and allowed quietly to retire early.

There is the emerging scandal of sexual and domestic abuse being systematically ignored within the police service when the accusations are directed at police officers by women who are their partners or even fellow officers. We heard this week of examples in Devon, with officers accused but still promoted to units specialising in domestic violence. These are not one-offs or rotten apples; this is a systemic failure to protect women and ensure that they get justice. The victims’ code would help to redress that.

Many such victims have to crowdfund if they are to have any hope of engaging with the legal process to find justice. I have worked with many victims seeking justice through inquests and public inquiries, and it is a very disorienting process for them. I very much hope that these two amendments will encompass that group: those who are victims of state wrongdoing.

My Lords, these are probing amendments, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, explained, and they would substantially increase the range of the Bill in relation to major incidents. That is all to the good. Part 1 of the Bill, as we know, is concerned with victims of criminal conduct and, because of the provisions concerning the new code, is relatively comprehensive. However, Part 2, in connection with victims of major incidents, is not.

Part 2 as presently drafted is concerned entirely with advocates for victims of major incidents. The introduction of the scheme for the appointment of standing advocates and other advocates is a welcome reform, but there are many other areas where victims of major incidents need more support than they currently receive. My noble friend Lady Brinton gave a number of examples. We heard of a further example last Wednesday: the argument about permitting victims’ relatives to register the death of those victims. That is an important issue—one which has received far too little attention before—but is only one of a very large number of issues facing victims of incidents that the Bill simply does not cover.

There are issues concerning the operation and impact of the coronial system more generally, for example, or the availability, establishment, conduct and reporting of public inquiries, as well as representation at those inquiries. There is also the implementation of recommendations of inquiries and investigations, and the monitoring of that implementation; the provision of information to victims and their families; the provision of practical and financial support to victims after major incidents; comprehensive signposting, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hamwee; and ensuring that at times of disaster there is a dedicated support system available to victims and their families.

Much of this has been called for by Victim Support and others over some years. The Government’s response has been helpful in providing for local resilience forums. These work well in some areas, but the evidence we have seen shows that they work far less well in others. Victim Support and other charities of course do a great deal to co-ordinate and supply support services, but they are charities and limited by funding restraints in what they can do.

Victim Support recommended in 2020 that local resilience forums should be under a duty to produce civil contingency plans to a minimum standard. I suggest that a new, separate code for victims of major incidents would be a sensible and practical way to achieve a number of worthwhile ends. Primarily, it would set out the services and responses that victims of major incidents would be entitled to expect from public authorities and others. Secondly, it would give victims comprehensive information on how to access the services they need. Thirdly, it would enable local resilience forums to understand what services they needed to provide and so ensure more comparability across the piece. Fourthly, it would establish a standard of good practice, to enable local resilience forums and all responders to know what is needed and expected. A feature of the code I would applaud is that it could be regularly updated to reflect best practice to ensure that unnecessary shortcomings in some areas could be addressed.

These are, as we have said, probing amendments and it is not for now to attempt to draft what should go into such a code. What is needed is a commitment to devote resources to drafting such a code, thinking carefully about it and to consulting on what is needed, with a view to such a code being ultimately incorporated in statute in the same way as we seek to incorporate the victims’ code in this Bill.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for Amendment 122. This amendment would require the Secretary of State to prepare and issue a new code of practice for victims of major incidents. I will focus my response on the content of Amendment 122, as Amendment 123 is consequential on the former. While I understand the intentions of the amendments, I do not believe they are necessary, because existing codes and related commitments are already in place to achieve their aims.

First, the purpose of establishing an independent public advocate is exactly as the noble Baroness has outlined. It is to ensure that victims understand the processes and actions of public authorities and how their views may be taken into account; to provide information concerning other sources of support and advice; and to communicate with public authorities on behalf of victims in relation to the incident, especially in situations where the victims have raised concerns. Through the advocate’s ability to act as a conduit between victims and the Government, victims will have the opportunity to make their views known and have their voices heard to effect change in real time.

Secondly, it is likely that in most circumstances in which a major incident is declared and an advocate is appointed the victims will have been a victim of a crime. In such instances, they are already covered under the victims’ code, which sets out the services and support that victims of crime can expect to receive from criminal justice agencies. An additional code for victims of a major incident may therefore be duplicative, and as such may be counterproductive.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton, Lady Brinton, Lady Hamwee and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, have argued powerfully that non-criminal major incidents may need to be addressed. Victims of non-criminal major incidents will have an advocate appointed to help them access support services, navigate the processes—

I wonder whether the code would cover the Hillsborough situation. It seems that the definition the noble Lord has just given would not cover that situation—one in which people may think that a crime was committed but nobody has ever been charged with a crime, and there were definitely a very large number of victims.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. The other point he has raised about the type of—if I can call it this— “victimhood” completely ignores the experience of the victim, the journey they have to make, and the services, which are so vital to the victims’ code. How can he explain that victims of major incidents that are not deemed to be a crime at the time would be able access those services in the same way? They are no less victims.

I understand the points made by both noble Baronesses. I have had extensive dialogue with the department on this point today and I will try to give the best answers I can. We can follow up further beyond that.

As cases of non-criminal major incidents do not go through the criminal justice system, the measures in the Bill and code are not appropriate for this cohort. If a major incident subsequently becomes criminal, victims will be entitled to services under the code. The majority of measures under the code help those going through the criminal justice system, so would not be appropriate for those who are not.

In relation to support services under the code and broadening access, expanding these to those incidents where no crime has been committed could impact access to support services designed for victims of crime, but that does not prevent separate provision designed to meet the needs of those who have experienced a major incident.

I am really sorry to intervene again and am very grateful to the noble Lord. The amendment does not say that it is the same victims’ code as under Part 1 of the Bill; this is a different victims’ code. Can he explain to your Lordships’ Committee why a separate code, often with references to different services and agencies, would impact on the other one?

As I have already said, I believe that most victims will be victims of crime; most major incidents will involve criminal behaviour of some description, or a criminal investigation. We believe it is a subset, but nevertheless a very important subset, of victims who need to have their needs addressed. We completely agree with that.

The Minister has accepted that there is a subset and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has demonstrated, it is a very important subset of victims who are not victims of crime but of tragic accidents or incidents. I am not sure that his answers so far and his speech so far have taken in the real difference, which is that victims of crime are involved in process that leads to—and is at least partially resolved by—a criminal trial, where there is to be such a trial, or a criminal investigation where it does not lead to a trial.

The Minister has accepted that the existing victims’ code is directed to that set of circumstances. Victims of a tragedy that is a major incident which does not involve crime—or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, pointed out, may or may not involve crime but does not lead to a criminal process—have a whole different set of needs that arise from tragedy rather than crime. I cannot understand from the Minister’s answers why a separate victims’ code is inappropriate in those circumstances. There may, of course, be areas of overlap but why is there no separate code to deal with this very real issue?

The additional point is that I would suggest—and the Minister has not suggested otherwise—that all of this cannot be addressed simply by the provision of an independent public advocate, however worthy that is, and it is.

While the Minister is still sitting down, I agree with everything that has just been said but also the victims I was talking about—the victims of state wrongdoing—have not been treated as victims of crime so they would come under the original code, except they have not had access to all the information, and so on. It is worth understanding that the current code is not enough. Plus, I am “Jones of Moulsecoomb”, not “Jones of Whitchurch”—no offence.

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for a much more eloquent summing up of what I was trying to say than I was capable of doing.

The Government acknowledge that there is a subset of victims of major incidents where a crime does not occur who are not being addressed because the victims’ code addresses principally the victims of major incidents where crime does occur. The Government believe that the independent public advocate will be a significant step forward in helping all victims of major incidents to have their needs met during this very difficult time.

The Government’s view is that the charter and the proposed code for victims of major incidents bear many similarities and it may be duplicative to implement both. The Government are also not convinced at this time of the necessity of placing these codes and charters which aim to change culture on a statutory footing, but we are happy to consult all Ministers, given the strength of feeling about how best to address the needs of victims of major incidents where crime is not involved. As I say, we have had dialogue today on exactly this matter and I am conscious that I am not giving noble Lords a very good answer but I think it is best if we agree to consult on that, if that is acceptable.

In answer to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, about cases where the victims’ code is not followed and where, potentially, victims are victims of state actions or some other incident, the victims can direct complaints to the organisation itself. It will have internal complaints-handling processes in place; I accept that in this particular instance that may not be much use. But if they feel that their complaint has not been resolved, they can escalate it to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, who will investigate further.

Through the Bill, we are making it easier for complaints to go to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman where the complaint relates to the complainant’s experience as a victim of crime. It may also be open to victims to challenge a failure to deliver the entitlement set out in the code by way of judicial review. This will depend on the circumstances and standard public law principles will apply. As the most senior governance—

I apologise for intervening again, but this is Committee and I am trying to understand. I am grateful to the Minister for outlining possible alternative routes, but he is suggesting two, three or four possible routes that a victim of a major incident, who may never have had any encounter with any of the services and agencies, has to know and understand. It is very complex. Is the Minister happy to meet between Committee and Report to discuss this? I do not want to detain the Committee with a couple of possible examples, but, thinking about other major incidents, I already have examples I would like to put to the Minister and his officials to try to understand how the system he is proposing would work. At the moment, it seems more of a muddle than the current system.

I am of course happy to commit to meeting to discuss this matter, but we are not leaving the victims defenceless in this situation: they will have an independent public advocate, who will help to guide them through all these processes. But I completely agree that we should meet and consult further on this matter.

My Lords, during the debate on the victims’ code, we discussed the problem that victims are often advised not to undergo any counselling or therapy because that might damage how their evidence is characterised by the defendant’s counsel. I have no idea whether this issue has arisen in connection with major, possibly non-criminal incidents, but I can see that this could become something that makes its way into people’s thinking: “Don’t go for therapy because you might have to give evidence to a public inquiry, and how would that be perceived?” I just throw that in as another consideration. There may be similar points, not about what victims should do but about things they should not.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for throwing that in. The Minister will know that this is a discursive process and this is a probing amendment. Although we will press him on all the different things, I am grateful for the commitment to talk and to continue the dialogue about how we deal with this particular group in the code. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 122 withdrawn.

Amendment 123 not moved.

Clause 29: Appointment of standing advocate

Amendment 123A

Moved by

123A: Clause 29, page 30, line 8, at beginning insert “Within one month of the passing of this Act,”

My Lords, this group of amendments addresses the appointments, functions and processes for the independent public advocate in different ways. They are all designed to secure the greater independence and effectiveness of the advocate.

Given that it has been almost seven years since the creation of an independent public advocate featured in the 2017 Queen’s Speech, Amendment 123A simply removes any further possibility for the Government to unnecessarily delay the implementation of this post. Amendment 123B ensures that Parliament fulfils its function of scrutiny in respect of the appointment of the independent public advocate. Sadly, as many of your Lordships will be well aware, Ministers cannot always be relied upon to act benignly when scrutiny of their Government’s actions is involved. It is therefore crucial that they be held to account by Parliament in these matters and that Parliament retains a role in the appointment of the independent public advocate.

As the Minister will be aware, the Treasury Select Committee, the Public Accounts Select Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee already fulfil this function of approval for some key public appointments, and for good reason. That good reason must surely apply in the case of the independent public advocate. It must be essential that the public and those who need the services of the independent public advocate can have complete faith in the integrity and independence of the advocate, and a parliamentary confirmatory hearing will help to secure that.

Amendment 123C provides an alternative route for the appointment of the independent public advocate and a trigger mechanism for the retrospective appointment of the advocate. Clearly, this would become applicable only in the event that the Secretary of State decided not to appoint an independent public advocate. I am aware of the Government’s concerns about fettering the freedom of the Secretary of State’s action over the appointment of an advocate and the scope of their powers. In that context, I stress that this amendment creates no statutory fetter on the Secretary of State’s freedom of action. However, it does entrench a parliamentary role for the operation of this position and provides an additional safeguard for the interests of victims.

I spoke on the previous day in Committee about the need for retrospection. As I said then, it seems perverse to exclude from the support of the advocate those to whom the original damage was caused before the passage of the Bill but who have still to secure justice for it and who still suffer the consequence of it, such as those postmasters whose lives were wrecked by the Horizon scandal, and those whose lives were devastated by the transfusion of contaminated blood in the 1970s and 1980s or by nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. This amendment provides a trigger mechanism for such an appointment of the independent public advocate, as it were in retrospection. I envisage that it might come into effect, for example, when the relevant Select Committee had investigated a particular “major incident”, in the language of the Bill, and concluded that victims still suffering the consequences would benefit from the assistance of the independent public advocate. Again, I stress that this would not impose a statutory fetter on the Secretary of State, but it might spur them on to action if they had not already taken it. However, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to justify their decision to Parliament and render them subject to scrutiny of their decision to reject such a recommendation. I hope that the Government might recognise that it is in the interests of victims that any decisions by the Secretary of State in this area should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. After all, we remain a parliamentary democracy—despite some recent attempts to subvert it.

Amendment 124A is perhaps the most important of this group of amendments that I have tabled, because it entrenches the timely achievement of transparency as a key task of the independent public advocate. The amendment avoids being overly prescriptive about what powers the independent public advocate might require to establish an effective fact-finding inquiry to secure timely transparency for the victims, the bereaved and the wider public, because obviously the circumstances of every major incident will be different. However, this might well include placing the advocate in the position of data controllers, so they would be enabled to see all the relevant documentation and report on it without necessarily being able, under data protection regulations, to publish all the data.

In his letter to Peers, the Minister—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy—set out the reasons for the Government resisting such powers, and they are worth quoting, because to me they exemplify many of the problems with the Government’s approach. He said that

“a new and competing investigative body would be disruptive, duplicative and risk undermining or prejudicing other investigations which are seeking to establish the truth or assign liability”.

I am afraid these assertions are not borne out by evidence. The role need not compete with other investigations under the terms of this amendment. If the Secretary of State believes that such power would not be in the public interest, nothing in this amendment would force them to grant it. It remains at the Secretary of State’s discretion. However, this amendment forces the Secretary of State to justify such a decision, in respect of the fact that they made it with regard to timeliness, cost, transparency, and the emotional and financial interests of the victims.

It is unclear to me why the Government should resist the obligation to justify their actions with respect to these crucial concerns. The experience of the Hillsborough Independent Panel demonstrates all the advantages of such a process, acting in effect as a triage for other forms of inquiry. It does not mean it is acting in competition with them; it is acting as part of an overall process.

Turning to the detail of the problems of the Government’s approach, I start with the interest of the taxpayer, which I hope is never far from any Government’s mind. I hope I do not need to remind the noble Earl the Minister of the cost of the public inquiries that the Government seem to favour. The Grenfell inquiry has so far cost £170 million. The infected blood inquiry has so far cost £130 million. The Post Office Horizon inquiry has so far cost £22 million. In contrast, the Hillsborough Independent Panel—the replication of which the Government seem determined to resist and which has nevertheless been universally recognised as an exemplarily thorough piece of work—cost a fraction of these sums. The House of Lords Library has struggled to find a precise figure, but it seems clear that it was under £5 million. A cost-effective triage, such as the Hillsborough Independent Panel, could save many millions of pounds down the line.

Even more importantly, there are the interests of victims, those who have been let down and betrayed by the state. I remind the Minister of how long these public inquiries can take. The Grenfell inquiry has so far taken nearly seven years. The infected blood inquiry has so far taken over six years. The Post Office Horizon inquiry has so far taken nearly three years. There is no obvious end in sight for any of these inquiries. In contrast, the Hillsborough Independent Panel took two and a half years from starting work to the publication of its report. That was about events that had taken place over two decades previously, with all the consequent difficulties of research and assessment.

The Minister will be familiar with the adage that justice delayed is justice denied, yet the Government seem determined to resist an obvious way to comply with it in the circumstances. I ask the Minister to consider the plight of those victims, on whose behalf the position of the independent public advocate is being set up. They have suffered directly or indirectly from the loss of loved ones because, in some way, the state that was meant to serve and protect them failed them. They could never have expected that to happen, yet that same state makes them wait not weeks, not months, but years, and sometimes decades, to find out what has happened. This lack of timeliness—with interminable delays—compounds their grief and suffering and makes any kind of closure even harder than it already is.

I also remind the Minister that, for all their costs to the taxpayer, the length of time they take and the damage that that time does to victi