Skip to main content

Lords Chamber

Volume 837: debated on Monday 25 March 2024

House of Lords

Monday 25 March 2024

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Asylum Claims


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how many asylum claims are currently waiting to be determined.

My Lords, at the end of December 2023, there were 95,252 cases in the asylum system, 28% fewer than at the end of December 2022. Claims lodged on or after 28 June 2022 and before 7 March 2023, when the Illegal Migration Bill was introduced, are being prioritised now that the legacy backlog has been cleared. We continue to review and improve processes to accelerate decision-making while maintaining the integrity of the system.

My Lords, when do the Government expect to process the claims of the 55,000 or more people who arrived since March 2023, especially the 22,000 or so who arrived between March 2023 and July 2023, who are not covered by the possibility of being sent to Rwanda?

My Lords, those who arrive illegally and fall into scope of the Act will be banned from obtaining any form of lawful immigration status in the UK. So, since 7 March 2023, anyone who has arrived illegally may be unable to obtain settlement or citizenship or re-enter the UK using a lawful migration route. As we bring more of the powers of the Act into force, those who have arrived illegally will also be unable to obtain any form of temporary permission to stay in the UK, other than in very limited circumstances.

My Lords, in considering measures for sustainably managing waiting times for asylum claims, does my noble friend agree that a balanced approach, which effectively deters economic migrants while prioritising the timely processing of genuine asylum seekers, is essential for maintaining the integrity and efficiency of the asylum system?

My noble friend makes a very good point. On the subject of productivity and the processing of claims, the decision output has increased significantly over the past 24 months. In fact, it has more than tripled as we have worked to deliver commitments to process the legacy backlog. For example, in November 2023, the average per decision-maker was about 7.89 initial decisions. The year before, that number was more like 2.6—so efficiency is very much improving.

I cannot answer that question in its entirety, but I can say that the number of complex legacy cases that remain has declined from about 4,500 to 3,900. Some of those are still in the country, but I do not know precisely how many.

My Lords, the Oxford criminology department’s report, The Criminalisation of People Arriving to the UK on Small Boats, has said:

“There is no evidence that these prosecutions will have the ‘deterrent’ effect … Rather than minimising harm to people crossing the Channel, this report has highlighted the significant human impact of the current prosecution strategy”.

Will the Government review this report in light of what is happening at the moment?

Well, I will certainly commit to read it, but I wonder how on earth it can arrive at a conclusion that they will have no deterrent effect. The Bill has not been operationalised or indeed passed yet.

My Lords, the Minister will know about the concern expressed last week from all quarters of your Lordships’ House about the position of Afghans who had supported our servicemen or translators while they did honourable duty in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence said it was going to review their cases. Can the Minister give us any idea how long it is going to take for those to be resolved?

I have to say to the noble Lord that his question is best directed to the MoD, but he will know that it is also an ongoing discussion we are still having in the context of the Bill.

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on returns agreements with safe countries? In particular, I am thinking of Egypt, as well as other safe Middle Eastern countries.

Again, I am afraid that is rather outside this department’s remit, but I will endeavour to find out the current status and come back to the noble Lord.

Can my noble friend the Minister explain why British courts and tribunals grant asylum to 75% of those who make applications here on first application, whereas French courts grant asylum to only 25% of those making asylum applications on first application? Given that they are both applying the same international laws and agreements, are the French being unduly harsh or the British unduly lenient?

I suspect it is not a particularly binary answer. Obviously, some of the cases we are looking at will involve people from Afghanistan, as the noble Lord will be aware, and we probably had rather more involvement in that particular situation than the French did. I would imagine it depends very much on the circumstances before the courts, but I cannot really answer the question.

My Lords, the Minister claims some credit for starting to deal with the backlog. What have the Government been doing for 13 years to make that backlog?

The Minister does not claim any credit at all for removing the backlog, but I applaud the department for having done so. The situation, as the noble Lord will be aware, has changed very dramatically in the world over the last 13 years.

My Lords, the sacked chief inspector has expressed concern that clearing the legacy backlog at all costs has led to perverse outcomes. This includes a soaring in the number of claims deemed to have been withdrawn but counted as outcomes without proper quality assurance, which he declared was not acceptable. Will the Government now publish data showing the reasons for this big increase in the number of claims deemed to be withdrawn, as called for by the British Red Cross?

I remind the House that the previous inspector was let go because he broke the terms of his contract, so I would argue that he has been somewhat discredited. Withdrawals can happen for a number of reasons, for example where somebody has already left the UK before their claim was concluded or where they fail to comply with the asylum process. There is a large number of reasons why withdrawals are made.

My Lords, India was recently designated a safe country, along with Georgia, Albania and other countries. How many claims have been processed for India and what was the reason for designating India as a safe country?

We debated that at some length last week and I will not go over the reasons again. I am afraid that I do not have those statistics.

My Lords, how many of these asylum seekers are children and what happens to them if their claims fail?

My Lords, there were 3,412 asylum applications from unaccompanied children in the year ending December 2023. That was 41% fewer than in 2022. They make up about 5% of total asylum applications. Of those, 2,446 were aged 16 or 17. Noble Lords will be aware that there are commitments in the Bill going through the House, and in the treaty, that unaccompanied asylum seekers will not be removed to Rwanda.

My Lords, the National Audit Office published a report on 20 March expressing the view that government plans to relocate asylum seekers from hotels to larger sites are actually proving more expensive than the hotel accommodation. Is this affecting the Government’s long-term strategy for offering safe accommodation?

My Lords, the Government’s long-term strategy is a current subject of discussion via various other Bills. We will be closing all our hotels; we will have closed more than 100 by the end of March. Clearly, having hotels occupied by migrants is not optimal, and of course that goes to inform long-term strategic thinking.

What progress is being made on police co-operation across Europe to target people traffickers, not just at the point of the channel but across the entire continent?

My Lords, there has been a considerable amount of progress. In March 2023, we signed a deal with France which, as noble Lords will be aware, has more than doubled the number of French personnel deployed across northern France. Most recently, we signed a working agreement with Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. This long-term framework will provide the UK with access to new levers and intelligence to make our and the EU’s borders safer and more secure—as well as emphasising a shared commitment to close co-operation to tackle these organised crime gangs.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that possession of identity cards would make the handling of this situation a great deal easier?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord has asked that question before—and last time I got myself into a bit of hot water by sort of agreeing with him, so I will not do so again.

My Lords, a Member on the Benches opposite recently said that Rwanda was safe as long as one did not oppose the Government. Is that the way that this Government are going—so we are all safe as long as we do not oppose them?

I point the noble Baroness to Scotland, where of course the Green Party is propping up the SNP Government. Are we safe there?

Cabinet Manual


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when the revised version of the Cabinet Manual will be published.

My Lords, in 2022 the Government committed to updating the Cabinet Manual and continue to consider the approach and timescales. We will provide a full update to the Constitution Committee, which recommended that an update should be made, in due course.

My Lords, that is a disappointing reply, because the Government are not living up to their word. The Leader of the House described the Cabinet Manual as

“a document of fundamental importance … that sets out the rules, conventions and practices that affect the operation of government”.—[Official Report, 16/12/22; cols. 935-36.]

Since the last manual was published, major changes have taken place: the referendum in 2016 and our departure from the EU; developments in devolution; and the Prorogation of 2019 that was overturned unanimously by the Supreme Court. Does an updated draft exist? Has the Prime Minister seen and approved it? When will it be made available to not just the Constitution Committee in this House but PACAC in another place? Above all, will the Minister make a solemn promise to the House that the revised edition of the Cabinet Manual will be published before the launch of the coming general election?

My Lords, previous debates in this House on the Cabinet Manual, and indeed on other issues, have demonstrated the importance of the manual, as the noble Viscount suggests, both for those working in government and those outside seeking to get a better understanding. As I said in good faith the last time he asked me this Question, the Government are considering options on timing and content in the light of these debates, but ultimately, this is a matter for the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister of the day.

My Lords, my noble friend will know that key elements of the recent Budget appeared in the press long before the Chancellor addressed the other place. Was this because our journalists are fantastic mind-readers, or should we revisit paragraph 5.15 of the Cabinet Manual, which says:

“When Parliament is in session the most important announcements of government policy should, in the first instance, be made in Parliament”?

There have been different comments made about the Cabinet Manual, and I note the point that he made. We do try, in the main, to make announcements in the House. Indeed, we will be making an announcement on security later today.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for this important Question. I wrote a lot of this, and one of the things I say in the preface is that it needs updating periodically, for things such as Brexit, war powers—I could name a huge number. I urge Ministers, when they think about the new version, to take account of the excellent recommendations of the Constitution Committee of this House. If it does not appear before the next election, I urge whoever is Prime Minister to make it a high priority, because this is crucial. The Minister might want to talk to her colleague the Foreign Secretary, who in the preface actually says how important the Cabinet Manual is.

The Cabinet Manual also says a lot about conventions. We in this House need to think quite carefully about conventions, because sometimes they are discarded rather too freely. We will need to think carefully about Salisbury/Addison and others which affect this House a lot.

There are a lot of good quotations, both from my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and from the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, himself. The existing Cabinet Manual, although it needs changes, actually contains a lot of good and enduring material. We need to make sure that the new version is right: it needs to be accurate, up to date and authoritative, and work continues.

My Lords, in due course there will be an election. There are probably only four months more of parliamentary sitting before we reach the general election. In saying that these things will be done in due course, are the Government kicking the can down the road until the election reaches us, or do they actually want to ensure that the Cabinet Office contributes to the principle of good government for whichever Government come in after the coming election?

As far as the manual is concerned, the Government, as I have said, are considering options on timing and content in the light of the debates that have been had. As far as good government is concerned, we try every day to ensure that we are delivering the right things for the people of Britain and that hard work is rewarded.

My Lords, the Government made a specific promise about making sure that this was done by the end of the Parliament. With that in mind, and given the widespread view that this is an important piece of work that must be completed, will there be some chapters perhaps ready for view by our Constitution Committee very soon? We are all aware that the clock is now ticking.

I hear what the noble Baroness says. Indeed, we have made it clear that draft material will be made available to both the Constitution Committee and PACAC in the other place before the second version of the Cabinet Manual is finalised.

Our Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, in the same report in which we recommended the revision of the Cabinet Manual, also welcomed the promise by the Cabinet Secretary to rein in improper expenditure by the Scottish Government. That has still not been done. Will the Minister tell the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, that if he does not do it soon, I will find every opportunity to raise the issue again and again?

I will make two points. First, I told the noble Lord that we were looking at this issue and that we might issue guidance on the subject, because the Cabinet Manual is about bringing conventions and rules together, rather than creating them. Secondly, much of the Cabinet Manual is on matters specific to the UK Government and reserved matters. However, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary—to mention him again—has written to the First Minister of Scotland about the importance of a reserved area for foreign affairs and how that should be conducted.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, who pioneered the publication of the Cabinet Manual—it could never have happened in my day. The Minister will recall that the publication was extremely valuable in the lead-up to the 2010 election and in setting the rules if there was a hung Parliament. Are we to take it that the delay this time means that the Prime Minister does not anticipate a hung Parliament?

It is difficult to draw any conclusions of that kind. However, I share the noble Lord’s tribute to the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, in putting this together. There are many well-thumbed copies around the Civil Service.

My Lords, would the Minister care to revisit the answer she gave to her noble friend Lord Young of Cookham? Can she point the House to a single example in the recent past of a major piece of policy or a significant announcement that has not been extensively briefed out to the press before it was given to Parliament?

There is a tradition that some material in upcoming policy announcements is sometimes briefed out to engage the great British public, but the substantive announcements are nearly always made to this House while Parliament is sitting.

My Lords, the Minister has been good enough to tell us three times that the reason for this prolonged delay in publication is that the Government are “considering options”. Apart from the option to publish or not, can she outline what those serious options are that are causing the delay?

The content of the Cabinet Manual is, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, would agree, a matter for the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister of the day. The work being done is to look at everything that has been said, including in debates here and by the committees, and to decide on the content of the various chapters. As has already been said, there have been quite a number of changes—we have left the EU, we have got rid of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and we have even introduced maternity pay for female Ministers, which was a great step forward—and there are various different things that need to be done. A view needs to be taken on what we put in the Cabinet Manual and how we keep it simple and engaging. Indeed, a suggestion was made in the debate led by my noble friend the Leader of the House to do more online in this digital age.

Sodium Valproate and Pelvic Mesh


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what are the timescales for, and what progress has been made on, a response to the Patient Safety Commissioner’s report on options for redress for those harmed by sodium valproate and pelvic mesh, published on 7 February.

The Government commissioned the Patient Safety Commissioner to produce a report on redress for those affected by sodium valproate and pelvic mesh. We are grateful to the commissioner and her team for completing this report and our sympathies remain with those affected by sodium valproate and pelvic mesh. The Government are now carefully considering the PSC’s recommendations and will respond substantively, hopefully in the coming months.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reassuring reply. However, as it has been five months since the Government received the advice from the Patient Safety Commissioner in October 2023, how much more time do patients and families need to wait for the redress that they so desperately need?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her tireless work in this area. It is something which, in the Chancellor’s very own words—because it was the Chancellor who, as Health Secretary, first commissioned the report—remains a top priority to both him and the Government. That remains the case. I spoke to Minister Caulfield about it just this morning, and it is a complicated area, but it is something that we are very keen to redress in the next few months.

My Lords, I am really grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, for raising this issue. On previous occasions, I have raised my ongoing concerns about the use of sodium valproate, especially for patients with mental health issues incarcerated in hospital. Do the Government collect information on how many people have been prescribed this terrible medication in some cases, and whether it is being disproportionally applied, particularly to young men from minority communities in the mental health institutions?

I thank the noble Baroness. I will provide the precise figures, but the incidence has gone down by 34% in terms of the amount that has been prescribed. At the same time—and this is particularly fitting, as tomorrow is National Epilepsy Awareness Day—for some people, this is the only treatment for epilepsy that will work for them. It is therefore important to make sure that protocols are in place for prospective mothers and prospective fathers to make sure that, in those cases, they are not being prescribed sodium valproate, because in other cases it is often the only medicine that works.

My Lords, given that, sadly, errors and problems repeatedly occur in the NHS, how are the Government working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that a redress scheme is designed to be fit for the future as well as fit for the recognition of harm that has occurred? What will they do to ensure that trust in the NHS is maintained by an approach that encapsulates prospective monitoring and listening to patients and relatives for early detection of adverse events and avoids cumulative errors?

I thank the noble Baroness. I was actually speaking to Minister Caulfield about this just this morning, because she is in regular touch with the affected patient groups. They were talking precisely about some of the things around the Scotland NHS scheme in place in terms of redress. It is fair to say that there are some concerns in patient groups on some aspects of this, but underlying what the noble Baroness says is making sure that, whatever we do, we are trying to do it consistently across the UK because there should be one consistent approach. Likewise, we are learning lessons from these things as well.

My Lords, an ex-constituent of mine, after years of excruciating pain, the onset of returning cancer and no care plan, finally borrowed $47,000 to have the failed mesh implant removed in America. She now has her life back but is in deep debt. However, we learn that the Government will consider redress only in 2025. Can the Minister hazard a guess as to how many more mesh-induced deaths will have occurred by the time a single penny is paid out in compensation at this rate?

The 2025 date is the timetable that the Patient Safety Commissioner recommended in terms of financial redress. The point that the noble Baroness makes, quite rightly, is about the non-financial aspect: if you are suffering pain from it all, you want to be treated as quickly as possible. That is why we have set up these nine specialist centres to allow exactly that sort of redress to occur.

My Lords, can I remind the noble Lord that, of course, it was not a matter of months since this first recommendation came? The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, recommended a redress scheme some years ago. Why was it rejected in the first place, and why are we waiting many more months, as the Minister said, when, as the Patient Safety Commissioner has said, the intention is

“an initial, fixed sum in recognition of the avoidable harm they have suffered as a result of system-wide healthcare and regulatory failures”?

Why are the Government being so slow to respond?

That is precisely what I put to Minister Caulfield this morning. She commissioned the review because her feeling was that the period from when my noble friend’s initial report came in until when Maria Caulfield was in post was too long. So it was absolutely she who commissioned it last year, and it is absolutely she who very much said that she is determined that there should be a substantive reply from us in the next few months.

My Lords, at the launch of the Patient Safety Commissioner’s report the victims of the Primodos scandal expressed great distress as they felt that they had been airbrushed out. Of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, recommended that they should receive redress, and they were treated the same way in the report as the sodium valproate and vaginal mesh victims. Can the Minister tell me what will be done to provide redress and ensure that there is appropriate treatment for the victims of Primodos?

Again, these are difficult areas. My understanding is that we are working from the conclusions of the expert working group in 2017, and its review of all the evidence was that it could not find a causal link between Primodos and the impact it had during pregnancy. This was again reviewed by the MHRA when more information was brought up in the last year. So I am afraid that, as we stand today, the evidence is not there that suggests that causal link.

My Lords, the Patient Safety Commissioner’s report is all the more valuable because it is drawn from patients’ experiences, including physical, psychological and emotional impacts and their daily struggle with accessing health and other key services such as social security benefits and special educational needs support for the valproate-harmed children they are raising. What is being done to support mothers and families as they cope with the indecision and delay over the Government’s response to the commissioner and await the vital support they need?

We have completed four of the initial recommendations in the report of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, and another three are in process. The most important of those, to answer the noble Baroness’s question, is the setting up of these nine specialist centres which can provide the support needed, not just in terms of redress surgically or treatment-wise but in terms of the support that people need to help them cope with the issues.

My Lords, as important as this report and these findings are, this is part of a wider problem. Some 4,000 babies die due to pregnancy-specific conditions in the UK every year, but 73% of drugs given to pregnant women have no safety information. That is clearly unacceptable. The Minister knows that I have raised this issue with him before; please can he give an update on progress towards putting this right?

My noble friend is correct on this. Probably the best way to do that is to come back in detail in writing, because it is vitally important.

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the Minister said that Minister Caulfield had commissioned this report, but he misses out at least three years of work earlier. There was the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, and there was a long debate during the passage of the Health and Care Act when Nadine Dorries said she would look at commissioning something and then refused to do so. This is not recent history. Will the Minister please give this House a date on which the Government will come back to Parliament with a response?

The point I was making was that Minister Caulfield absolutely agreed with the point the noble Baroness makes that the delay had been too long, and so it was she who came forward and said that she wanted to commission the Patient Safety Commissioner to report exactly in this area. So that was her being proactive on all this. In the same way, she says that she is determined to get a response back in the next few months. I cannot give a specific date yet, because it is a complicated area which involves industry, many government departments and the devolved authorities. However, as the Chancellor said, this remains a top priority area for both the Chancellor personally and the Government.

Train Operating Company Contracts


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they are taking steps to change train operating company contracts to achieve planned improvements to rail services.

My Lords, in 2021, the Government began introducing national rail contracts, which have now replaced all the emergency contracts signed during the pandemic. These are flexible contracts, allowing services to be adjusted as passenger demand recovers. They include incentives on punctuality, reliability, service quality and customer satisfaction. Last autumn, we introduced a new incentive to drive recovery in demand and revenue. We are actively developing further improvements for inclusion in future contracts.

My Lords, I want to shine a light on Great Western Railway, at whose hands the Minister and I suffer on a regular basis. As well as cancellations and lateness, we have shortened trains, with 10 carriages frequently being reduced to five, and yet Great Western Railway’s notifications of disruption do not always cover this. Why are we not always told in advance about shortened trains? Is it because, as some people have assured me, the department has changed the contract with Great Western, specifically requiring it to run shorter trains for a certain proportion of its journeys? Does the Minister accept that it is important to have transparency on this? People need to know when they will be faced with a five-carriage train. He referred to recovering passenger numbers, and we frequently have intense overcrowding on Great Western trains.

I have to declare that I am a regular traveller on Great Western Railway services and appreciate much of what the noble Baroness says. Cancellations, especially those made close to the time of travel, can be very inconvenient, preventing passengers travelling with confidence. When trains are regularly cancelled, this can disrupt people’s lives. That is why the department holds operators to account for cancellations. The scrutiny and penalties depend on the reasons for these cancellations, as well as on how close they are to the planned time of travel and therefore how much they inconvenience passengers. However, I am not aware of any arrangement that the department has with GWR in relation to cancellations.

My Lords, last year, my wife and I spent a delightful three weeks in Japan visiting the ancient cities and gardens, travelling extensively by bullet, regional and local trains. We laughed increasingly loudly as every train, without exception, arrived on time, exactly to the minute. By contrast, almost every wait at a UK train station—including my journey here today—is punctuated by computer-generated announcements of delay and cancellation. In the last 12 months, 33% of UK trains have failed to arrive on time. One in 30 trains has been cancelled. Why can we not run a railway as well as the Japanese?

I take the noble Lord’s point. The Secretary of State visited Japan recently and looked closely at its operating systems. Let us hope that we see an improvement to the extent that we can operate our service equally well.

My Lords, it is almost six years now since the chaotic introduction of changed rail timetables demonstrated that the present system of train operating contracts is completely broken. Since then, we have had the Williams Rail Review, the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, and a lecture by the Secretary of State last year backing fully the case for reform. But all there is to show for this is a rather sketchy framework rail reform Bill, which the Government have put out for legislative scrutiny, despite the fact that the legislative programme is so light that the House of Commons is rising at 4 pm. What explains this dither and delay? I suggest to the Minister that the Government introduce this rail reform Bill into this House, where it could have lots of detailed scrutiny from informed people and be improved.

As the noble Lord knows, the rail reform Bill is being scrutinised by the Transport Committee. That was an agreement by the usual channels. From May 2021, national rail contracts were introduced to bridge the gap between Covid-19 emergency agreements and future competed contracts. The last two national rail contracts began in October 2023. Under the national rail contracts, the Government cover the operators’ reasonable costs, receive revenues and bear the financial risks. The national rail contracts are flexible by design, allowing service levels to be adjusted as passengers return to the railways.

If my noble friend the Minister is genuinely looking at improving customer experience on the railways, can I return again to the issue of the provision of wifi, which is variable on some railways and non-existent on others? Surely in 2024 the basic provision of wifi, which is technologically achievable, to encourage people to work—after all, we are trying to increase productivity—should be something we accept as the norm and not something we continually have to argue for? Increasingly, you can get wifi on aeroplanes in the middle of nowhere; surely you should be able to get it on the GWR from Exeter to London.

My noble friend is absolutely right, and I quite agree with him. It is very annoying; I suffer from it myself when I travel on GWR. I really do not understand, technically, why we should not be able to do it. It is something I will perhaps take a personal look at when I go back to the department.

My Lords, how are the Government addressing that, fearing the non-renewal of their contracts, companies seek to find ways and means of reducing investments as they near the end of their contracts?

My Lords, train operators are required to work to an annual business plan agreed with the department, allowing more agility for both parties to respond to change as it arises throughout the contract term. Train operators are incentivised to deliver for passengers by earning a fee based on their performance.

My Lords, in the light of the draft rail reform Bill, will His Majesty’s Government commit to primary legislation to deliver level boarding and accessible step-free station deadlines? By the Government’s own figures, it will take 100 years for stations to be step-free at the current rate of Access for All funding.

I accept what the noble Baroness says. We have discussed this outside the Chamber, and it is something that the Government are working hard to improve.

From this side, we might rename the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, Baroness Mystic Meg. We are talking about contracts and railways, and, out of the hat, two days ago, Avanti has now decided to pay overtime premiums of £600 a day for drivers. Clearly, this is a last desperate act of the Government and Avanti trains to keep the contract. Last week, Transport for the North—chaired by a Conservative Peer—unanimously agreed with Burnham and Rotheram, the mayors from the north, that that contract should be taken away. This is clearly unacceptable. We talk about the NHS, care workers, firefighters and the police, and, as a last desperate act, Avanti is offering £600 a shift for driving a train at weekends—it is absolutely scandalous.

I can only repeat what I have said before in the House to noble Lords. The decision to award a contract to First Trenitalia was contingent on the operator continuing to win back the confidence of passengers. The Minister with responsibility for rail and officials regularly meet with FirstGroup and Avanti senior management to understand the challenges and to hold them to account for issues within their control. However, I hear what the noble Lord says.

Victims and Prisoners Bill

Committee (8th Day)

Welsh Legislative Consent sought.

Clause 53: Parole Board rules

Debate on whether Clause 53 should stand part of the Bill.

My Lords, I speak having taken some advice from the Clerks—I am grateful to them. The first two items in this group are notices of my intention to oppose Clauses 53 and 54. We debated the amendments in both clauses in our previous Committee sitting on 12 March and the Minister, whom I have spoken to this afternoon before coming to Committee, gave certain undertakings following that debate about discussing further the issues raised with his fellow Minister, who sits by his side, and with the Ministry of Justice. In all the circumstances, I will not press the stand part notices in my name on either Clause 53 or Clause 54. That is why I have got to my feet at this stage.

Clause 53 agreed.

Clause 54: Parole Board membership

Amendments 170 and 171 not moved.

Clause 54 agreed.

Amendment 171A

Moved by

171A: After Clause 54, insert the following new Clause—

“Parole Board proceedings: enabling public scrutiny(1) The Secretary of State has a statutory duty to improve the openness and transparency of the work of the Parole Board and to facilitate a greater public understanding of its statutory framework, procedures and proceedings.(2) The Secretary of State must exercise their powers under section 239(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to require that Parole Board hearings should normally be open to the public unless there are exceptional circumstances for not doing so, as outlined in subsection (5).(3) The Secretary of State has the power to formally direct the Chair of the Parole Board to make arrangements for all Parole Board hearings to be heard in public, as set out in Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022 (SI 2022/717).(4) The Chair of the Parole Board may exercise their right to decline this request and direction from the Secretary of State and must outline their reasons for so doing in writing to the Secretary of State, within 28 days of a written direction being lodged with the Parole Board.(5) Such reasons in respect of subsection (4) must be evidence-based and include—(a) where the Chair of the Parole Board believes that such a request and direction would, on the balance of probability and based on evidential information, indicate that the integrity of evidence presented to the Parole Board may be compromised and prevent a true and accurate assessment of the prisoner’s risk being provided by witnesses;(b) that the presence of strong and valid objections from participants, including victims, their families or legal representatives, could jeopardise the cooperation of witnesses, should the hearing be in public; or(c) that to hold a meeting in public might create an unacceptable risk of mental or physical harm to any of the participants.(6) The Secretary of State must formally consider any representations from the Chair of the Parole Board in a timely manner and if they choose to disregard the advice of the Chair of the Parole Board, they must outline their reasons within 28 days of receipt of such advice, taking into account all available evidence, including that provided by law enforcement, victims, their families or legal and other representatives.(7) The Secretary of State must, in exercising their powers, balance the need for openness, transparency and maintaining public faith in the efficacy of the criminal justice system with a commitment to the operational independence of the Parole Board and its members’ deliberations, and with an obligation to reduce recidivism and support rehabilitation and the prisoner’s ability to resettle in the community upon release from a custodial sentence.(8) This section applies only to offences as relevant to public protection decisions and outlined in Schedule 18B Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.(9) The Secretary of State must, within six months of the passing of this Act, and annually thereafter, publish an assessment of the efficacy of the policy of open Parole Board hearings and its impact upon openness, accountability, transparency and public support and whether it meets the interests of the justice test.”Member's explanatory statement

This amendment seeks to consolidate the statutory instrument laid before Parliament on 30 June 2022 (SI 2022/717) to improve openness, accountability and transparency and public trust in the Parole Board by giving the Secretary of State powers to direct the Board to work to a presumption that such meetings should be routinely open to the public, with exceptions; whilst also safeguarding the Board’s independence and the requirement to ensure rehabilitation and resettlement of those prisoners likely to be released from a custodial sentence.

My Lords, I support and move this amendment for my noble friend Lord Jackson of Peterborough, who is absent attending the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 148th assembly in Geneva. He had hoped to move his amendment on 12 March, but Committee proceedings were concluded before he was able to do so.

Amendment 171A seeks to establish the presumption that Parole Board hearings would be open to the public—with exceptions, of course. It seeks, more generally, to improve public faith and trust in the criminal justice system. This is both a probing and permissive amendment, and a natural progression to and consolidation of the reforms undertaken by Ministers over the last six years arising from the public disquiet over the proposed release of serial rapist John Worboys in 2018. That resulted in a review of the parole system and a public consultation published in 2022, and a finding in the High Court in March 2018 that the Parole Board’s Rule 25—a blanket ban on transparency and details of the board’s deliberations—was unlawful.

The Government have moved to address the very serious failings identified by the Worboys case, by allowing summaries of Parole Board decisions to be provided to victims and other interested parties, and to provide for a reconsideration mechanism, introduced in 2019, which allows a prisoner and/or the Secretary of State for Justice to seek reconsideration of a number of decisions taken by the board within 21 days. Victims may now also seek a judicial review on the grounds that decisions are procedurally unfair or irrational.

Significantly, the Parole Board’s 2019 Rule 15 was amended by secondary legislation in 2022 to enable public hearings to be facilitated on request to the chair of the Parole Board, in the “interests of justice”. This test is already used by the Mental Health Tribunal. This amendment is cautious, circumspect, and with caveats in its proposed new subsections (5) and (7). It presumes no absolute right to open the Parole Board hearings to the most serious cases, but presents a balance between the interests of the victim, prisoners and the wider criminal justice system, and imposes a statutory duty on Ministers to take note of the importance of rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, fairness and due process.

Finally, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will articulate the Government’s current thinking on, and rationale for, limited reform envisaged in this matter. I urge that they allow for public hearings to become the default position, and I look forward to his reply.

My Lords, at the request of my noble friend Lord Marks, I will speak to his amendment in this group, which is Amendment 171B about the hearing timeframes for the Parole Board to have some flexibility in this matter. I apologise; I would have said, in relation to the two stand part notices, that there were a number of questions that I asked of the noble Earl. I know it has been only a short period of time—I am sure they are on their way—but I just wanted to remind him. I am sure that his smile tells me that there are going to be satisfactory replies shortly.

I come back to Amendment 171B. The current rules are that the release of prisoners serving a life sentence is determined by the Parole Board on or after they have served their minimum tariff. The first parole review to consider a prisoner for release will usually begin six months prior to their tariff expiry and, if a prisoner is not released at their on-tariff review, they will have a further post-tariff review at least every two years. The Parole Board process is lengthy and can take upwards of six months for the whole process to be dealt with. Their victims are asked whether they wish to submit a personal statement; although the Parole Board does not have direct contact with victims, the victim liaison officer will contact them about submitting a personal statement. We know that there has recently been an opportunity for victims to appear and observe some Parole Board hearings as part of the latest pilot.

For victims and family members, going through the Parole Board process can be a highly traumatic experience, forcing them to relive the original offence and the impact it has on them. While victims and families welcome having a voice in the process through being able to submit an impact statement, many feel trapped and unable to move on when their offender is repeatedly coming up for parole, even when it is clear that the circumstances have not changed.

The current system is a drain not only on victims and family members but on the Parole Board itself. The time and financial cost of parole hearings are significant. John Worboys, for example, received more than £166,000 in legal aid following his arrest, paying for legal representation at Parole Board hearings. The average cost of an oral Parole Board hearing, according to the Parole Board’s annual report, is £1,876.

The requirement for the Parole Board to hear cases at least every two years, even when aware that there are no material changes to a prisoner’s circumstances—crucially, of course, to the risk faced by the public if they were to be released—means that prisoners are arbitrarily brought before the Parole Board at great expense. This amendment aims to give the Parole Board the discretion to set the period until a prisoner can reapply for parole, meaning that families will be spared being repeatedly dragged into the process when it is clear that nothing has changed. This approach is adopted in other jurisdictions internationally, such as California, where the parole board is able to direct that a subsequent parole hearing be deferred—in its case, it can defer for up to 15 years; I am not suggesting that that is part of this amendment.

The amendment does not seek to take away an offender’s rights. It would introduce a mechanism through which the offender could request that a Parole Board’s decision to defer a hearing by more than two years be reviewed and, crucially, any reconsideration by the Parole Board of its decision would not involve the victim or family, who would be spared from being trapped in the process. With that, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Marks. I hope that the Committee will consider it well.

My Lords, I rise to support the amendment so admirably spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German, to which I have put my name. I do not wish to add anything—as he has made all the points that I would have made—other than to emphasise that it would give the Parole Board discretion to decide when to have a review. It would minimise the revictimization of the victims and would also be cost-effective.

I am aware that Article 5.4 of the European Convention on Human Rights says that reviews must be at reasonable intervals. I think a limit of two years was set, but, in domestic cases, the courts have declined to be prescriptive about what a reasonable interval is. It is important to recognise that these are fact-specific cases and therefore it is important to reinforce the discretion given to the Parole Board. I support this amendment.

My Lords, it has been a short and interesting debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, introduced the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Jackson. On this side of the House, we will listen to the Minister’s response very carefully. I agreed with the sentiments that she expressed to the extent that the Parole Board should be cautious and fair, and that there needs to be a balance between victims, the process and the prisoners.

The point where I depart from her—which is really the substance of her amendment—is that it should be by default that parole hearings are conducted in public. I am not sure that I would go as far as that but, nevertheless, I agreed with a lot the points that she made. As I said, I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I move on to Amendment 171B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, which was spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, summed up the points succinctly: that giving the Parole Board discretion is desirable. Each case is different and, if the Parole Board has more discretion, it can reduce the potential impact on victims—I understood that point. It can also reduce the number of repeated applications, which have a cost to the public purse, where there may be no real change in circumstances. If one were to give the Parole Board more discretion, it might reduce that impact on victims. Again, this is an interesting amendment, and I look forward to listening to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, in their respective absences, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and my noble friend Lord Jackson for their amendments, which have been so ably spoken to by my noble friend Lady Lawlor and the noble Lord, Lord German.

I will turn first to Amendment 174A, tabled by my noble friend Lord Jackson. This would create a presumption for parole hearings to be conducted in public and a power for the Secretary of State, in effect, to direct a public hearing, contrary to any opposing view from the chair of the Parole Board.

The provision for public parole hearings was introduced by the Government in 2022 in amendments to the Parole Board Rules statutory instrument. This allows any hearing to be conducted in public if the chair of the Parole Board decides that it is in the interests of justice to do so. Prior to this, the rules required that all hearings be held in private.

Hearings are private by default, but applications for public hearings can be made by anyone directly to the Parole Board. The criteria used by the chair to decide applications have been published by the Parole Board on its website. The individual decisions are also published. Since the provisions were introduced in 2022, three public hearings have been held and a further five have been agreed by the Parole Board, which will be heard in the coming months.

The provisions are operating as intended, because the rule changes were made with the understanding that most hearings would continue to be held in private and only a small number of public hearings would be held. This amendment would, in effect, reverse that position, so that all hearings were public by default and a private hearing would take place only with the agreement of the Secretary of State in response to any representations made by the chair of the board.

The amendment also proposes that the Secretary of State should be the person to decide whether a hearing takes place in public. I am afraid I must push back on that idea. Noble Lords will be aware that the board is a quasi-judicial body which makes court-like judicial decisions. As part of its consideration of case, the board will decide whether an oral hearing is necessary or whether a case can be completed on the papers alone. If, having decided that a hearing is necessary, the board is then responsible for the arrangements, conduct and management of that hearing.

It would be out of step with the rest of the process if we gave the Secretary of State a power, in effect, to force the board to hold a public hearing against its wishes. As the body responsible for the hearing, the Government believe that it is right that the board has the final decision on whether the hearing should be public or private.

I hope the Committee will accept that not all cases will be suitable to be heard in public; for example, because of particularly sensitive evidence or the concerns of the victims. It is vital that the risk assessment is not compromised, and witnesses are able to provide full and frank evidence to the board.

The current provisions in the Parole Board Rules mean that the board and the Secretary of State have to consider these issues only in response to an application. The amendment would require them to consider the merits and contact the victims in every single hearing—more than 8,000 cases a year. It would be an enormous administrative burden with very little obvious benefit to the parole system or to the individuals affected by it.

In conclusion, I recognise the disappointment and frustration that may be caused when a public hearing application is rejected, especially where the victim is the applicant. Public hearings are a comparatively new element of the parole system. The Government are committed to improving further the openness and transparency of parole. However, we submit that a complete reversal of the current approach is not merited at this time. On this basis, I hope that Amendment 171A can be withdrawn.

I turn to Amendment 171B, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German. This seeks to allow the Parole Board to direct the period of time which should elapse before a subsequent application to be considered for release can be made. As things stand, under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, the Secretary of State has ultimate responsibility for referring a prisoner’s case to the Parole Board within two years of the previous review.

This amendment would transfer this responsibility to the board and allow them to set the interval between reviews of anywhere between 12 months and five years. The current system already provides for flexibility in the time set for the prisoner’s next parole review. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service—HMPPS—considers a range of factors in deciding when to refer the prisoner to the Parole Board on behalf of the Secretary of State. Reasons must be given for the length of the interval between reviews. These include the Parole Board’s reasons for declining to direct the prisoner’s release at the conclusion of the last review and the interventions required to allow them to progress.

Giving responsibility for setting the period between parole reviews to the Parole Board could potentially result in hearings being set too soon, before interventions have been able to take effect, increasing the number of adjournments and causing further distress for victims. This is not to say that the board does not play an important role. Its insights provide valuable information for HMPPS staff, but HMPPS is best placed to make these decisions.

There is then the question of what the period between hearings ought to be. This amendment aims to increase the maximum interval from two to five years. I fully understand why this is being proposed, but it might be helpful if I outline why it would not be lawful; the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, has already referred to this. Where indeterminate sentence prisoners have served their tariff—that is the minimum term set by the judge at sentencing—they are then eligible for a parole hearing. Unless the Parole Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined, they will remain in prison. If they are not released, my advice is that subsequent reviews must be conducted speedily and at reasonable intervals to satisfy the requirement of Article 5(4) of the convention. I note and take on board the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, in this connection.

I appreciate the motivations at play here. Parole reviews can be difficult for victims. I sympathise with the desire for a longer interval between reviews. I stress to the Committee that the Government always consider victims where the parole system is concerned. I hope we have demonstrated this principle in other measures we have taken. We understand the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord German, that, in essence, greater transparency of the parole system is inextricably linked to the involvement of victims.

Since October 2022, victims have been able to observe Parole Board hearings, as part of a testing phase currently running in the south-west. The testing has now progressed to include the Greater Manchester probation region. During the hearings, victims are supported by a Probation Service victim representative, who discusses the parole process with them. Their VLO will ensure that, if appropriate, they are signposted to relevant support following the hearing.

We completely recognise that it can be traumatising for a victim to hear evidence that is explored during a parole hearing. That is one reason why we are conducting a small-scale testing phase, to make sure that we get the processes and support arrangements right. Our priority is to ensure that victims can observe the hearing in a way that is safe and comfortable for them, while not compromising the Parole Board’s ability to conduct a fair and rigorous assessment of risk.

I hope that those comments are of help. For the reasons that I have outlined, I hope that my noble friend, on reflection, will not feel compelled to press the amendment.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his very thoughtful reply. I should like to reflect, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Jackson, on the very important points that he makes about the sensitivity and the costs, as well as the practicality and the question of time, along with the fact that the Government are working towards greater openness of the Parole Board proceedings. On behalf of my noble friend Lord Jackson, I shall withdraw the amendment, and give further reflection to what my noble friend says.

Amendment 171A withdrawn.

Amendment 171B not moved.

Clause 55: Whole life prisoners prohibited from forming a marriage

Debate on whether Clause 55 should stand part of the Bill.

My Lords, I put my name to this clause stand part notice, which was originally in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. He, alas, cannot be here this afternoon as he is on parliamentary business abroad, and he has asked me to open this short debate. I do not think that the Committee will be that surprised to hear me say that what I am about to say owes much to the noble Lord.

Clauses 55 and 56 prohibit a prisoner serving a whole-life tariff from entering into a marriage or civil partnership with another person, without the written permission of the Secretary of State, to be granted only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances. At Second Reading, on 18 December, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, referred to

“a recent case in which surviving families of the victim of a most serious murder were openly mocked by the convicted offender, who trumpeted his right to marry, causing distress to many”.—[Official Report, 18/12/23; col. 2056.]

It is my view, and I suspect the view of many on the Committee, that it is deeply unsatisfactory to legislate on the basis of one such incident, however upsetting it was for the victim’s family, as it undoubtedly must have been. That point was made at Second Reading by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. Is this one incident, serious though it was, the only basis for seeking to legislate in this context?

Beyond that, there is a question of principle. However repellent their crimes, whole-life prisoners are allowed to eat, exercise, read books, watch television and send and receive letters, so why are they to be denied the basic right to marry a consenting adult? I say “basic right” because Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights states:

“Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry”.

What the state cannot do, consistent with human rights, is impose restrictions so extreme that they impair the very essence of the right to marry. That is the test stated in the consistent case law of the European Court of Human Rights, which considered how this applies to prisoners, in particular in the case of Frasik v Poland in 2010. The court stated in its judgment that an effective bar on any exercise of a prisoner’s right to marry is a breach of Article 12. The court added:

“Imprisonment deprives a person of his liberty and … of some civil rights and privileges”.

The authorities are, of course, permitted to impose restrictions on civil rights to protect the security of the prison regime, but:

“This does not, however, mean that persons in detention cannot, or can only very exceptionally, exercise their right to marry”.

The court added that the state cannot prevent a prisoner enjoying the right to marry because of the authorities’ views as to what

“might be acceptable to or what might offend public opinion”.

That is the basis, it seems, of Clauses 55 and 56. It is very doubtful whether these clauses are wise in any event. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby made the important point at Second Reading that if we are to lock people up for very lengthy periods, perhaps the whole of their lives, we must surely give them some positive purpose in life: some hope, some encouragement to maintain relationships with the outside world, not just for their own self-respect or mental health but because it will help those who have to manage the prison regime and prevent the inevitable frustrations of long-term prisoners erupting in violence against prison officers or other prisoners.

Clauses 55 and 56 have, in my view, no sensible justification. They are objectionable in principle and they will impede good management of the prison system. They seem to have more to do with populism than with any sensible policy. I submit that if these clauses become law, this is an example of bad legislation that an experienced Parliament such as this should not pass. I invite the Minister, when he replies to this debate, to say that the Government will think again about this issue and, I hope, come to the conclusion that it is not worthy of this important Bill.

My Lords, I have added my name to both stand part notices. The first question I asked myself way back before Second Reading, and I still need to ask myself, is why on earth the Government put these two clauses in the Bill. They do not seem to do anything to make the prison regime any better or to make the work that goes on in supporting people in prison any easier. In fact, they appear to be cruel in a variety of ways.

The Secretary of State being able to approve a marriage or civil partnership only based on exceptional circumstances, even if you felt there was a rationale or a reason, is surely the wrong way around. Surely, the Secretary of State should be able to deny them only if there are exceptional circumstances. This measure will apply regardless of the way in which anybody in future seeks a partnership or marriage.

It worries me, as I am sure it does many others in this Committee, how much placing people in prison for their lives will add to—or detract from—what happens inside the prison. It is going beyond punishment. Whatever anybody feels about what happens in a prison establishment, providing some hope for the future of their lives, understanding how their lives work and making sure they feel a sense of purpose in remaining alive is part of the job of the state, which must retain that ability.

These clauses, once again, chip away at those fundamental human rights, disapplying human rights to a specific cohort of people. The universality of human rights in this circumstance is doubly important because, of course, the state is totally responsible for whatever rights and purposes prisoners have. It has to manage them. It is precisely in custodial institutions such as prisons that human rights protections are most vital, because the individuals are under the control of the state.

It would appear, as in the Illegal Migration Act and the safety of Rwanda Bill, that we are beginning to see a testing period for making controversial changes to our human rights framework. It seems to me and those on these Benches that this particular measure is offensive to that spirit of how the state should manage the lives of people in this circumstance. If there were to be a case for saying that somebody cannot get married or have a civil partnership, that is surely by exception rather than by practice.

It appears to me that these clauses do not really fit into this Bill, because of that sense of things being done in the wrong direction. More than anything else, I seek to understand from the Government why they have put this in place. If it is because of a single case, as we have just heard, to write law on the basis of a single case is surely not the correct way to go about it.

My Lords, I wondered why this was in the Bill; it is because this is a victims Bill. My honourable friend Jess Phillips MP is familiar with victims of the crimes of Bellfield, so I looked at what she had to say about this issue. She is a great champion for victims of crime. What she said was quite interesting. She was reflecting on what had been said by Sarah Champion MP, who had put a point reflecting what my noble friend Lord Bach has just said.

Jess Phillips said:

“I truly appreciate my hon. Friend’s fundamental point: everybody hopes for rehabilitation. With this, the only case we have to debate is that of Levi Bellfield, as mentioned. Having worked with some of his direct victims and the families of those victims, while I do not disagree that we sometimes chase headlines and make bad legislation in doing so, with his case I am not sure, from previous behaviour, that I would categorise it as rehabilitation. I would categorise it as behaviour to get headlines. The desire in Levi Bellfield’s case, as has been put to me by many of his victims, is that these schemes keep him constantly in the media, and that is incredibly painful for them. There is a bit from both sides of the argument in this debate: trying to stop the headlines and allowing rehabilitation”.—[Official Report, Commons, Victims and Prisoners Bill Committee, 11/7/23; col. 480.]

My noble friend Lord Bach raises some very important questions about the legality of this proposal. It is important that the Government explain why only one case has led to this being in the Bill.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments in this short debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for setting out his intention to oppose that Clauses 55 and 56 stand part of the Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his comments in support of that.

It is important that the Committee examines the rationale behind these clauses. Clauses 55 and 56 will prohibit prisoners in England and Wales who are subject to a whole-life order from marrying or forming a civil partnership while in prison or another place of detention. The Secretary of State may grant an exemption in truly exceptional circumstances. A whole-life order is the most severe punishment in the criminal law of England and Wales. It is reserved for exceptionally serious offences, such as serial or child murders which involve a substantial degree of premeditation or sexual or sadistic conduct. Unlike other life sentences, offenders subject to a whole-life order can expect never to be released. Their tariff will never expire and they will not be considered for parole at any point.

As the law stands, a prison governor cannot reject a prisoner’s application to marry or form a civil partnership unless the ceremony creates a security risk for the prison. This includes whole-life prisoners. Those subject to whole-life orders can expect never to be released. As they are not working towards life on the outside and the prospect of being able to enjoy married life, any rehabilitative effect of a potential marriage is likely to be significantly reduced. Being married or in a civil partnership does not have any practical impact on an individual’s ability to maintain a relationship with a prisoner. Prisoners are not entitled to conjugal visits and rights to access fertility treatment do not require the prisoner to be married to or in a civil partnership with their partner. Neither do spouses, civil partners or their children have any additional right to visits, telephone calls or video calls. Whole-life prisoners can therefore benefit from supportive relationships while in custody in the same way as other prisoners. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord German, this is not cruel—they can maintain relationships.

While the right is protected under Article 12 of the ECHR, the convention allows states to impose restrictions in a proportionate way for a legitimate purpose. In line with the opinion of the European Court of Human Rights in Draper v the United Kingdom, we consider that a restriction on whole-life prisoners’ right to marry can be justified on the basis of public interest. The public set great store by our response to the most heinous crimes. The current position undermines confidence in our criminal justice system and its ability to deliver justice and protect the public. These clauses allow the Secretary of State to make exemptions on a case-by-case basis in exceptional circumstances. Any discretion available to a Secretary of State would itself be exercised compatibly with ECHR obligations.

We have taken a proportionate approach in applying these measures to only a small cohort of offenders who are already singled out in our domestic framework due to the exceptionally serious nature of their offences. As of December 2023, there were only 67 whole-life prisoners in England and Wales, representing less than 0.1% of the total prison population—less than one in 1,000.

To answer the question from all noble Lords, this is not about a single case. While it was a particular case that brought this issue to the Government’s attention, this is not about any individual; it is a broader point of principle. The justice system must be able to deal appropriately with the worst offenders, to drive up public confidence in the justice system. We consider that these measures are justified on the basis of that public interest. This is not just due to the distress that such an event may cause to the families of victims, whose lives these prisoners have cut short in heinous ways, but, more fundamentally, because of the real risk of damage to public confidence in the criminal justice system if it cannot deal appropriately with the most serious offenders. The Government are resolved that this is an appropriate measure. I therefore propose that Clauses 55 and 56 stand part of the Bill.

I thank the Minister for his response, and the noble Lord, Lord German, for his support in this matter.

I have two points for the Minister, if I may. Is it really considered proportionate as an answer to Article 12 to say that these measures would be allowed only in exceptional circumstances? That seems not very proportionate at all. Secondly, I personally do not see the relevance, when we are talking about a matter of principle such as this, of what percentage of prisoners are in this category. It does not matter what percentage are. If it is right, it is right, and if it is wrong, it is wrong. In my view, it is a matter of some principle that this should not be imposed upon people who have done absolutely terrible things and are paying the price for it. This is a step too far and, as I say, not worthy of Parliament. Having said that, I am not going to take this matter any further today.

Clause 55 agreed.

Clause 56 agreed.

Amendment 172

Moved by

172: After Clause 56, insert the following new Clause—

“Data collection in relation to children of prisonersThe Secretary of State must collect and publish annual data identifying—(a) how many prisoners are the primary carers of a child,(b) how many children have a primary carer who is a prisoner, and(c) the ages of those children.”

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, tabled this amendment, to which I am very pleased to add my name in support and to move it today in this final stage of Committee on the Bill. In his absence, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord for his commitment to the families of prisoners. This is also an issue which I know my right reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury cares deeply about, as well.

This amendment was selected for Report stage in the other place but not discussed. Introduced by Harriet Harman, it is an important progress chaser to the Government’s response to the 2019 report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which she then chaired. This proposed new clause would require the Secretary of State to collect and publish annual data, identifying how many prisoners are primary carers of a child or children, how many children have a primary carer in prison, and the ages of those children. Its inclusion would be highly appropriate for this Bill, which focuses on both victims and prisoners.

When a parent is committed to custody, their child should not also receive a sentence; they should not be punished or overlooked as a result of their parent’s crime. When a primary carer, or indeed any parent, is removed from the home, children and other family members are deprived of a provider of care and income. Often a shadow world of shame and stigma begins, which can haunt them throughout life and put them at risk of getting caught up in the criminal justice system themselves. If we are to prevent offending and anti-social behaviour then we need to be serious about looking upstream to support those at risk. This includes children with a parent in prison.

Charities working with prisoners’ families, such as Children Heard and Seen and the Prison Advice and Care Trust, have repeatedly highlighted the gap in our understanding of the scale of parental imprisonment. I commend to noble Lords two short films released by both those charities that show the heartbreaking realities of this issue and the impact on a child when their parent is sent to prison. It also shows the remarkable work done by both charities alongside families.

The 2019 Joint Committee report highlighted the

“complete lack of reliable quantitative data on the number of mothers in prison”


“the number of children whose mothers are in prison”.

It argued that

“without improved data collection, collation and publication”

it is both

“impossible to fully understand the scale and nature of this issue and to properly address it”.

It continued:

“Mandatory data collection and publication must be urgently prioritised by the Ministry of Justice”.

A few months before that was published, Crest Advisory’s report on the children of prisoners found that

“during a parent’s journey through the criminal justice system there are numerous points which children of prisoners could be identified—on arrest, at sentencing, on entry to prison, and under probation supervision. But at the moment, at no point does the system ask: ‘If this is a parent in custody, where is their child?’”

The point of doing this would be to ensure the welfare of the children and to establish whether help is needed for the family or friends now caring for them. As that report said:

“Instead it is left up to the offender or the parent left behind to seek help—something which we know is problematic because of stigma and fear about children being taken into care”.

That is echoed again and again by the charity Children Heard and Seen, which does such fantastic work with children with a parent in prison, including a ground-breaking initiative across the Thames Valley region.

Rightly, the Government broadened their response to the Joint Committee to all primary carers, not just mothers. Many men are also in this position—albeit with a very different proportion of the male prison population compared with the female estate. Again, we are hampered by the lack of reliable data. However, the Farmer review on women in the criminal justice system, the Ministry of Justice, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and many others highlight that relatively more women than men report being parents and, likely, primary carers.

The Government’s position in 2019 was that their aim was to establish more accurate metrics to measure the number of prisoners with primary carer responsibilities. However, they also acknowledged that gathering information about dependent children is a sensitive matter and committed to exploring the most accurate way to collect and then collate and publish that data,

“provided an accurate method can be found to estimate it, and provided it can be done in a way that protects the rights of vulnerable individuals”.

Given the significant body of evidence showing that the children of prisoners are at risk of markedly worse outcomes in areas such as mental health, underachievement at school and becoming offenders themselves, we should, at the very least, know how many children there are and their age and stage of childhood. The amendment is limited to quantitative data collection, given the inherent problems of collecting identifiers in such a delicate and sensitive area and given that a key aim at this stage is to progress-chase the Government on behalf of these particularly neglected children. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for her introduction and Harriet Harman for her amendment in another place; even though it did not progress, it was very important. I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, cannot be in his place today, because his report, which pre-dates the Select Committee report in the Commons—it was published in 2017 and was called The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime—sparked a lot of this work.

That report emphasised throughout that data was needed on prisoners, their families and their children, particularly the age of the children, because that then enables the right sorts of services to be available inside a prison to support those family links that are so important. The noble Lord is so right that data is critical for ensuring that we—that is, the court system, prison, probation and other services, including Parliament and civil society—understand the impact on both prisoners and their children.

If engaging with families can reduce reoffending by 39%—the premise on which the report by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, was commissioned—that is an important lesson, but so is the quality of that engagement. I hope that that would be enabled by this amendment.

I hope there is another benefit too: that this data can strengthen specifically the support for children of prisoners. Both Spurgeons and Clink are clear that their lives are turned upside-down by their parents’ imprisonment. We know that the experience of vulnerable groups of children has improved significantly since data was properly collected and shared with multi-disciplinary teams. The examples that I am going to give are not in the Ministry of Justice system.

The first example is that of looked-after children. I know that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester mentioned it and families are rightly very concerned about it because they do not want their children to go into care. Prior to better collection of data and the disseminating of that data, however, the service offered to looked-after children was haphazard at best and shameful to our country at worst. Things have improved and continue to improve.

The second group is under the Armed Forces covenant, where that data is now provided to schools and local health services, not just for service men and women or veterans but for their children, because their lives, too, are often turned upside-down.

The third group is young carers. Their rights were significantly strengthened in the Children and Families Act 2014. Through those rights, data needed to be collected and shared in order for them to receive the support that they needed, whether from their council, school, doctor or any other agency. I say that because, when you work with young carers, you understand that before data collection, quite often a child’s doctor was the only person who knew anything about them being a young carer. Schools did not understand and, very sadly, that went on right through society. Again, as with the other two examples that I have cited, it is not perfect but it is much better than it used to be.

I hope that the Government will accept that this data must be collected and published, but I also hope that they will ensure that the benefits of disseminating that information will not just help to reduce reoffending, nor just improve the quality of life between prisoners and their families while they are in prison, but will actually make a substantial difference to these children in their broader lives.

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, because I could not possibly better her introduction to this amendment. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and I were very pleased to put our names to it. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that you cannot create robust policy if you do not have the data. She has helpfully illustrated to the House that it can be done and that, therefore, it should be done.

When I first saw these amendments—I have said this several times in the course of this Bill—I could not quite believe that it was not already happening, but it is not happening. I ask the Minister to seriously consider that this needs to be done for those children.

My Lords, I do not pretend to be an expert on prisons, as some noble Lords are who have put forward this amendment. However, I also wanted to speak briefly to it, and for the very same reason, which is that I just could not believe that we did not collect the numbers on children who have a parent or a primary carer in custody. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, put down a Written Question and that the Government said that they do use a figure, which is 200,000. But that is from a survey from 2009—a pretty long time ago—and that is very different from the 312,000 figure that Crest Advisory has claimed.

We should say that the Government recognise that this is a problem. In that same Written Answer, the Government said they had made changes to the basic custody screening tool. In other words, this means that, when people go into prison, they are asked how many children they have back home. We know that they will not always say, not least because they will be worried about children being taken into care, and again, the Government recognise this. So in that Written Answer they talked about using a linked data programme called BOLD. They said the results should be published this spring and that that should be able to give us a better estimate. So can my noble friend the Minister explain, not necessarily today but perhaps in writing, how this programme works in practice and whether it will provide a permanent solution to the problem, as this amendment would do? If it will not, I ask the Government to consider making this change. Otherwise, as others have said, we will be letting down a group of very vulnerable children.

Finally, the Government’s own statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, says that children and young people will be impacted by having a parent or relative in prison. I am a little confused as to how, on the one hand, in guidance we can state that we know this is a problem and that children will be affected, but on the other we can say that we do not know how many children are affected because we do not gather the numbers. How can we provide the support if we do not know how many children there are or where they are?

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Farmer for tabling this amendment and to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for moving it. It would require the Secretary of State to collect data centrally about prisoners who are primary carers of children and the numbers of dependent children who have a primary carer in prison, and to publish the data annually, including the ages of the children. My noble friend, who is not in his place today, knows that the Government fully support the intention behind this amendment. The Government echo the right reverend Prelate in paying tribute to his work and ongoing contribution towards this issue.

Understanding the personal circumstances of those in custody, including responsibilities for dependent children, is essential if we are to provide effective support for those prisoners to help them maintain contact with those children. Strengthening family ties is an integral aspect of the work of HM Prison and Probation Service. We recognise the importance of maintaining a prisoner’s relationship with family, friends and their wider community, particularly where the best interest of the child is served through maintaining a strong relationship with their parent. Prisons across England and Wales offer a range of services to maintain family relationships, including social visits, family days, secure video calling and Storybook Mums and Dads, an award-winning, charity-led initiative that enables parents in prison to record bedtime stories for their children.

In answer to the right reverend Prelate’s comments on supporting children impacted by parental imprisonment, ministerial responsibility for supporting children who might be vulnerable due to parental incarceration sits with the Department for Education in England and the Welsh Government, and the Ministry of Justice is actively committed to joined-up working across government to better understand the nature of this issue. The Female Offender Strategy, published in 2018, encouraged a partnership-focused approach to addressing the needs of both imprisoned mothers and children affected by maternal imprisonment. We published the female offender strategy delivery plan in January 2023, with a progress report, the Farmer Review for Women, in 2019. Outstanding commitments from the Farmer review are being taken forward under the delivery plan.

Understanding how many children are impacted by parental imprisonment is just as important, because having a parent in prison is a recognised adverse childhood experience that can impact a child’s mental health and lead some to feel they are being judged for the actions of their parents. From the perspective of the criminal justice system and echoing the number that has been mentioned a couple of times in this debate, evidence has shown that over 60% of boys who had a father in prison went on to offend themselves. Therefore, identifying and supporting those individuals at an early stage has the potential to divert them away from the criminal justice system, preventing future victims of crime.

While we are fully supportive of the amendment’s intention, we do not believe that legislation as proposed here is necessary. Our prison strategy White Paper. published in 2021, outlined our intention to address this issue through engagement with other government departments, and to commission updated research to improve our collective understanding of the overall number of children affected by parental imprisonment.

As my noble friend mentioned, we are delivering this commitment through our Better Outcomes through Linked Data project, known as BOLD. It is an almost £20 million cross-government shared outcomes fund that will link data to enable better evidence and more joined-up cross-government services. Through BOLD, we will be publishing a report that will estimate the number of children with parents in prison. We expect findings from the project to be published by spring 2024. This should provide some of the critical data that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, called for. We are working to collect and improve data. We have previously made changes to the internal management—

Why are the Government aiming to have an estimate? We need to know the actual number of these children.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention and appreciate that this debate has focused very much on the wish of many noble Lords to have very accurate data. I am very aware that BOLD will be an estimate. We expect it to be a reasonably accurate estimate, which will be very good information for forming policy. The extent to which more detailed data could be required in future we will keep under review. If it is helpful, I can offer a further meeting on that outside this Committee.

The issue that I raised about young carers was in the legislation—not just in the Children and Families Act 2014 but the Care Act 2014 —because Edward Timpson, the Education Minister at the time, felt that it was so important that there was some mechanism to join up all the different departments. Why are the Government now saying that it is no longer necessary for this to be in legislation and absolutely clear?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her question. I am afraid I do not have a detailed answer and propose to write to her, if that is acceptable.

The basic custody screening tool ensures that we identify prisoners with primary care responsibilities on entry into prison. That means that we can access this information centrally. While we recognise that the self-declared nature of the information collected through the basic custody screening tool means that it is—as many noble Lords have mentioned—fraught with concerns of prisoners about how much information they are willing to give and so brings with it certain levels of inaccuracy. Our intention is that this data will be reflected in the BOLD publication. I hope that, in the circumstances, the right reverend Prelate will agree that this amendment is not necessary and will withdraw it.

I thank the Minister and all other noble Lords who have spoken. I am interested in his answer, because in one way he is saying, “Yes, we need this and recognise this”, but in another is saying “But we do not actually need this amendment”. I look forward to hearing more on that. As has been pointed out, the basic custody screening tool is very basic, and many parents do not want to declare on entry to prison that they have children. I will be watching with interest the BOLD programme and what comes out of that.

It is really important that the progress the Government are making in this area is now put on public record. It is nearly five years since the Joint Committee published its report. Also, I stress that it has been important to touch on family relationships and prisoners having those family relationships, but I do not want to lose sight of the fact that this is about the child. Not all children want to have contact with the parent who is in prison. So we need to be looking through the eyes of the child here.

As has been said, when children are given support, through charities such as Children Heard and Seen, we know that the results are remarkable. If, as the noble Lord says, education and other people are going to have this data, we need the data in the first place. That is where we need to start.

Many remain very concerned about these children who are invisible and that we are not able to support them, but I will not delay the Committee any longer now. I will take the comments back to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer; we will discuss it together and look at how to proceed on Report. Given all that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 172 withdrawn.

Clauses 57 to 59 agreed.

Clause 60: Extent

Amendment 173 not moved.

Clause 60 agreed.

Clause 61: Commencement

Amendments 174 and 175 not moved.

Clause 61 agreed.

Clause 62 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with an amendment.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 (Financial Penalty) Regulations 2024

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, before I begin, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my interests as set out in the register of interests, including as a person with significant control and shareholder of Cashmaster (Holdings) Ltd, Badenoch Investments, Badenoch & Co, Badenoch Partners, Badenoch Advisors, and the Badenoch Trust, as well as a shareholder of several other companies.

These regulations were laid before the House on 19 February under the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023, which I will refer to hereafter as the 2023 Act. This Act is a prime example of the Government’s continued investment in tackling economic crime. The 2023 Act’s reforms will enable us to bear down on the kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists who abuse our open economy, strengthening the UK’s reputation as a place where legitimate business thrives and dirty money is unwelcome.

A substantial secondary legislation programme is now needed to make these reforms a reality. The instrument before us today, as well as some 50 other statutory instruments, will facilitate the necessary changes, including new processes and procedures at Companies House. I am glad to say that the first set of regulations in the programme was already approved by both Houses. These regulations provided the registrar with enhanced powers to rectify instances where address details for companies and company officers have been fraudulently filed on the register of companies. Since 4 March, Companies House has started to make use of these new powers, meaning that it has started to cleanse its register and quickly remove people’s names and addresses where they were used without their consent.

I turn now to the details of this instrument, which applies across the whole of the United Kingdom. At the moment, obligations under the Companies Act 2006 are enforced primarily through the criminal justice system. There is currently only one civil penalty regime operating under the Companies Act 2006, namely the accounts late filing penalty regime. Under this regime, a company automatically incurs a penalty for not filing its accounts on time—this regime will not be affected by these regulations.

The 2023 Act sets out that the registrar may impose a financial penalty as an alternative to prosecution, where she is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that a person has engaged in conduct which amounts to a relevant offence under the Companies Act 2006. In turn, this instrument sets out how financial penalties will be imposed and enforced.

There are a few points here that I consider worth highlighting. First, the penalties will be based on the severity of the offence, and the maximum fine under the criminal law, up to a maximum total of £10,000. The registrar can also impose more than one penalty in certain cases. This provides flexibility to ensure appropriate and effective targeting of offenders.

Secondly, these regulations provide the registrar with the power to revoke or vary the financial penalties she has issued. For example, she could do this in cases where new information comes to light which aggravates or mitigates an offence.

Thirdly, the 2023 Act allows that, where a civil penalty is imposed on a person, it can contribute to that person being disqualified from acting as a UK director.

The registrar will now have the discretion to choose between issuing a financial penalty or passing a case on to law enforcement to consider criminal sanction. Therefore, this new financial penalty regime will be another tool in the registrar’s arsenal to promote compliance and maintain the integrity of the companies register. It ensures that we are striking the right balance between deterring non-compliance and not unduly burdening a small business.

The regulations before us today also make minor and technical changes to the Register of Overseas Entities (Penalties and Northern Ireland Dispositions) Regulations 2023 to ensure consistency between the two financial penalty regimes.

I will now provide an update on the ROE financial penalties regime. As of 19 March, 30,698 overseas entities had registered with Companies House. A further 857 overseas entities had notified Companies House that they had disposed of their interests in land before the register opened. Companies House has taken action against those that have failed to comply with the requirements. As of 19 March, over 400 penalty notices have been issued, with penalties totalling over £20 million. This includes cases where Companies House has received representations and appeals which are ongoing. In the next phase of the compliance process, Companies House will start imposing charges against land held by overseas entities where penalties remain unpaid.

I am of course happy to provide noble Lords with an update on progress when we debate the next set of regulations related to the register of overseas entities—these will be laid before Parliament in the coming months.

In conclusion, let me stress that these regulations are an important part of the effective implementation of the 2023 Act, and I hope noble Lords will support them. I beg to move.

My Lords, I think, the mantle having passed through several Ministers, that this is an economic crime debut for the noble Lord, Lord Offord, so I welcome him to our world. He is ideally suited to bearing down on economic crime.

We welcome this statutory instrument; it is part of the process of having debated the economic crime Bill. Many of us had high hopes for what the economic crime Bill would and could achieve, but at the centre of what we ended up with was the performance of Companies House and its strength to uphold what we need. This is another important step.

I have a couple of questions on the first part of the statutory instrument: first, the potential for multiple penalties. If we were to use the real-life Knighton example of literally hundreds of companies being registered to an unwitting property owner, in theory could Companies House levy a £10,000 penalty for each and every one of those companies registered? It would, clearly, have discretion over whether do that. My second point is on the right to appeal. If Companies House is levying those penalties on the wrongful registration of a company, what is the right of appeal? Is it judicial review—a long period of review and appeal—or is it a relatively swift action?

The Minister mentioned the opportunity to update us when the next tranche of statutory instruments comes through; this would be good. We had a very useful briefing from the Companies House representatives while we were debating the Bill, and it was clear that there was a tremendous amount of resolve there but also an awful lot to do. A full update on where Companies House is on capability and capacity—for example, on recruitment and on starting to implement these measures; I saw reports that it has taken actions that it was not able to before the passing of the Act—would be very helpful. But with those provisos, we look forward to the next 50 statutory instruments.

My Lords, I draw the attention of your Lordships’ House to my registered interests as director and shareholder of McNicol Consulting Limited, which is registered at Companies House.

I have read the Commons debate on this SI, and I have gone through the Act and the Explanatory Memorandum—the memorandum was very helpful, so I thank the Bill team. We will support this SI on these Benches. I have a few questions for the Minister. Will Companies House require more resources if these cases are to be dealt with internally rather than passed on to the criminal justice system? If more are resources needed, will the Government be fulfilling those needs?

Paragraph 7.6 in the “Policy background” section of the Explanatory Memorandum says that the

“financial penalty regime will sit alongside possible criminal sanctions”.

Is it completely at the discretion of the Registrar of Companies whether a business or an individual is issued with a fine or pursued through the criminal justice system? Perhaps the Minister would like to say a bit more about that difference and what will lead to an internal fine rather than pursuit through the criminal justice system.

Paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum says:

“This instrument confers a power on the Registrar to impose a financial penalty”.

The Minister touched on this briefly. How will the Government or the Registrar of Companies ensure consistency in decision-making when deciding whether to issue a civil financial penalty versus criminal prosecution? Is there a specific threshold by which an offence under these obligations becomes criminal rather than civil?

Is there a defined financial penalty for specific offences? On the only other power in respect of the penalties that Companies House can set for late filing, my understanding is that these are at set levels. Is Companies House looking at developing specific levels for specific offences within these categories?

The Minister talked about some of the individuals the Government are hoping to catch through this measure. The maximum fine is £10,000. Given that the profit margins of some organised fraudulent crimes are well in excess of this, will £10,000 be enough of a deterrent, and will it be reviewed?

I have a question about proceeds. Will the proceeds of the fines come back into Companies House? Will they go to the treasurer? I think the Minister talked about £20 million in another case. Will that money be able to be used within Companies House to develop this further?

On the numbers, the bar is being reduced from the criminal prosecution level down to some form of automatic fine or fines through the Registrar of Companies. Are we expecting the number of cases being taken to increase due to the lower threshold and that lower bar? Has any modelling been done?

My final question is about speed. As we welcome this SI, the presumption on these Benches is that it will speed up the ability to go after fraudulent individuals and businesses. What will that look like? Have Companies House or the department done any modelling on the imposition of a fine by the Registrar of Companies, as opposed to having to go through a very clogged-up criminal justice system, as it is just now?

With those questions, we on these Benches support the statutory instrument.

I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I reiterate that the Government are firmly committed to the fight against economic crime and, thus, have worked to implement the 2023 Act as quickly and effectively as possible. As we have said, alongside the registrar’s new powers, which take effect from 4 March, the new financial penalty regime instigated by the regulations before us today will help to promote compliance and maintain the integrity of the UK’s companies register. This will indeed constitute a further step in that journey to transform Companies House from a relatively passive institution to a more active player tackling economic crime.

I turn to some of the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord McNicol. In relation that made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, on multiple penalties, where an address is misused—for example, in relation to more than one company—more than one financial penalty can be imposed, of up to £10,000. Appeals—there is an appeals process; of course, there must be an appeals process—will be heard in a county court or in the sheriff court in Scotland.

Regarding an update on implementation and resources, next month a report will be provided to Parliament. The House can be reassured that Companies House will have the resources it needs. For example, the incorporation fee has been increased from £12 to £50. Recruitment is well under way to ensure that Companies House has the right capabilities to deliver on these reforms—that point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol. To ensure that the teams are in place, recruitment is under way, including new Companies House investigation teams. We are looking at additional staff in the hundreds. By the summer, Companies House will have onboarded over 240 new roles in its intelligence and enforcement teams. This is a new culture for what has previously been a very passive institution. There will be further guidance on this as we work with Companies House to build this capability out.

In relation to the point that the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, made about the discretion of the registrar to impose a financial penalty or to pass the case to law enforcement officers to pursue prosecution, the registrar will soon publish guidance on that enforcement approach. It will provide more detail and clarity on how it will make use of new powers. Obviously, proportionality will come into play. Where there is perhaps more petty behaviour, then fines will be appropriate; where there is more systematic criminal behaviour, clearly that will result in the exercise of criminal sanctions.

The amounts of penalties will be considered on a case by case basis but are capped by the maximum fines able to be imposed under criminal law. Financial penalties are obviously one enforcement measure available to the registrar, alongside criminal prosecution and disqualification. Companies House will work with other agencies where there is evidence of serious and organised crime, as there may be active investigations that the registrar would not want to disrupt.

In terms of where the penalty money goes, it will be paid into the Consolidated Fund held by the Treasury, as required by the 2023 Act.

Having dealt with most of the points, I think there is consensus around the new regime, the devil being in the detail of how it is implemented. This has been a good debate, illustrating the need for a robust financial penalty regime. I hope noble Lords will agree that the regulations provide for just that.

Motion agreed.

Code of Practice on Dismissal and Re-Engagement

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Code laid before the House on 19 February be approved.

Relevant document: 16th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this code of practice, which I will refer to as “the code” for the remainder of this debate, will give legal force to accepted standards about how employers should act when seeking to change employees’ terms and conditions.

The purpose of the code is to ensure that dismissal and re-engagement is only ever used as an option of last resort. The code also seeks to ensure that, where an employer wants to make changes to an employee’s terms and conditions, the employer engages in meaningful consultation with a view to reaching agreement with employees or their representatives in good faith. Employment tribunals will have the power to apply an uplift of up to 25% to an employee’s compensation if an employer unreasonably fails to comply with the code where it applies.

Between January and April 2023, the Government consulted on a draft code, enabling trade unions, employers and other interested parties to contribute their views. In accordance with the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, the Secretary of State also consulted ACAS on a draft statutory code before publishing it. Careful consideration was given to those views and, as a result, changes were made to the draft code. An updated draft code was laid in Parliament on 19 February.

The Government have been clear that threats of dismissal and re-engagement should not be used as a negotiation tactic by employers. When the Covid-19 pandemic led to cases of dismissal and re-engagement, the Government asked ACAS to conduct an evidence-gathering exercise to help us better understand the issue. That report was published in June 2021. The Government then went further and asked ACAS to produce new guidance to ensure that employers were clear on their responsibilities when making changes to employment contracts. That guidance was published in November 2021. ACAS has also published guidance for employees. The Government are now going even further to address the use of dismissal and re-engagement by bringing forward the code, aiming to ensure that this practice is only ever used as a last resort and that employees are properly consulted and fairly treated.

In all these discussions, we must balance protections for employees with business flexibility. There have been calls to ban the practice of dismissal and re-engagement and suggestions to legislate to restrict its use in a manner that amounts to an effective ban. This Government believe that we must preserve companies’ flexibility to manage their workforce in times of crisis. It is, therefore, right that we have mechanisms to enable us to save as many jobs as possible. The code is a proportionate response to dealing with controversial “fire and rehire” practices, balancing protections for employees with business flexibility. I know that the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing by their employees. For most employers, decisions to change terms and conditions are not taken lightly, nor is the choice to let members of their workforce go.

The UK is a great place to start and grow a business and has a strong labour market. Its success is underpinned by balancing labour market flexibility and worker protections. It is vital that we continue to strike the right balance, while clamping down on poor practice. If this code is approved by Parliament, it will be issued and brought into effect by the Secretary of State in accordance with the procedure set out in Section 204 of the 1992 Act. The Government intend for the code to be in effect by the summer.

I am aware that a regret amendment has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woodley. I will respond to it later in the debate. I hope that your Lordships will support the code. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

At end to insert “but this House regrets that the draft Code contains no effective measures to restrain unjustified use of fire and rehire; and fails to include any measures (1) contained in the Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill [HL], or (2) recommended by the International Labour Organization Committee on Freedom of Association’s Definitive Report 404 published in October 2023 on the matter of dismissals of 786 staff by P&O Ferries Limited”.

My Lords, I do not intend to repeat the arguments made earlier this month at the Second Reading of my Private Member’s Bill. However, I must again put on record my sincere belief that, irrespective of the comments the Minister has just made, the Government’s proposed code of practice is utterly toothless. It will do nothing to end the fire and rehire abuses taking place in this country.

Quite simply, I regret that the code does not impose any new legal duties on exploitative employers. I regret that it does not ensure that fire and rehire is used only as a last resort to prevent a business going bust—that is not the case out there in the field. I also regret that it does not make it any easier for workers or their unions to seek justice at an employment tribunal. My Bill would do all this.

The code imposes a paltry 25% uplift in any compensation which abused workers can claim, and that is only if they can win an unfair dismissal claim. That was hard to do at the best of times, even before the increase in fees.

It is clear that this code of practice is a fig leaf to cover the Government’s inaction and lack of any real desire to address the shameful practice of fire and rehire. It simply is not good enough. The working people of our country deserve much better.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, for being kind enough to write to me following our Second Reading debate. If I may, I will address some of the points he made in his letter to me.

As the Minister correctly pointed out, my Bill provides that, when an employee has been dismissed because they have refused to agree to a variation in contractual terms, the employer would not be able to rely on some other substantial reason as the reason for dismissal. Some other substantial reason, or SOSR as it is known by employment rights experts, is the gaping loophole I referred to at Second Reading, which allows bad bosses to ride roughshod over workers’ rights. Closing this loophole is a key purpose of my Bill, but I do not agree with the Minister in his logic when he writes:

“Almost all the cases of dismissal and re-engagement rely on this ground”—

that is, SOSR—

“as a potentially fair reason, therefore this would in effect ban the use of dismissal and re-engagement”.

If it is true that almost all fire and rehire cases rely on SOSR to avoid the judgment of unfair dismissal, this is proof that employment rights have been badly abused in the way that I and other noble Lords have long since warned against.

That aside, my Bill makes specific provision for genuine situations of last resort, when a company simply cannot afford not go ahead and cut wages and

“there is a real threat to continued employment”

in the light of

“the economic situation affecting the employer”.

I agree with that, and my Bill is clear on that. If an employer does their level best, given the circumstances, to fulfil the two obligations of consultation and disclosure, they have little to fear from using fire and rehire to reduce wages to the extent necessary to ensure economic survival of the company.

This gets us to the heart of the matter. The Government agree that fire and rehire should be used only as a last resort, but the code contains no measures to ensure that that is the case. It is, as I have said once already, utterly toothless. On the other hand, my Bill has teeth and can bite. Instead of the limited awards for unfair dismissal normally available, my Bill would allow for amounts such as the employment tribunal considers just and equitable—that is, it is uncapped, which may make a greedy employer think twice before they unfairly sack people. However, it does not ban fire and rehire in all circumstances, as the Minister suggested. That is an important point, which I do not believe that the Government have fully grasped.

The Minister responded to my question at Second Reading about whether the code would have prevented some of the most notorious examples of fire and rehire. I raise the bitter disputes at British Airways and British Gas, and now at Heathrow Airport, where Border Force staff just last week voted 90% in favour of strike action over enforced roster changes that would mean, effectively, a 20% pay cut for each and every one of them. The Minister replied that he was unable to comment on specific cases, but I suggest that the answer is that the code would not have stopped these abuses, or any similar ones, nor would it have stopped the appalling abuses by P&O Ferries two years ago. A number of sacked seafarers were rehired on worse pay and terms and conditions, although many where not; even today—the Minister may not know this—new hires are on less than £5 an hour. That is scandalous; it is not even the minimum wage, and it is happening right now.

The ILO report referred to in the amendment before noble Lords makes a number of recommendations to the Government, including that we should

“ensure mutual respect for the commitment undertaken in collective agreements … overcome challenges regarding the legislative prohibition on sympathy strikes”,

and ensure

“protection against acts of anti-union discrimination”,

including effective sanctions. My understanding is that the Government have failed to deliver on any of those measures, but I hope that my noble friend Lord Hendy, who will no doubt speak, will contribute more on this issue.

The Minister wrote back to me and said that the Government

“will be bringing forward legislation so that the 25% compensation uplift will also apply to the protective award”.

Can the Minister update the House on that proposed legislation, as I am sure it will be of great interest to your Lordships, or to me at least?

I do not wish to take up any more of your Lordships’ time by repeating arguments I have made many times before, so I will end on this point. Fire and rehire is deeply unpopular, with 70% of the Government’s own voters wanting to see the back of it. But this new code, if anything, actually legitimises this abusive practice and shows bad bosses how to get away with it, legally. In my opinion, enough is enough; it is time for change. When will this Tory Government finally fight back and stand up for ordinary workers who are being exploited day in, day out? Thankfully, Labour will take steps to end fire and rehire within the first 100 days of coming to power. I sincerely hope that that is the case, because working people at the sharp end cannot put up with this any longer. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.

My Lords, I am confident that the Minister will have read the Second Reading debate of my noble friend Lord Woodley’s Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill. I too do not intend to repeat the speech I made then, but I make no apology for repeating the most important points, because they were designed to expose whether the code will be the deterrent that the Government think it will be. I am personally extremely sceptical about that, for two very clear reasons, which I will repeat by way of explanation.

First, while this debate is ostensibly concerned with this somewhat anaemic code of practice, it engages much larger questions of access to justice, the balance of power between employers and workers, and, fundamentally, whether the code does what it purports to do and will shield workers from manifest injustice. Given that the introduction of this code was announced in response to P&O Ferries instituting mass redundancies in March 2022, I think it is legitimate to look back at what the Government said then. The then BEIS Minister, Paul Scully, explained the Government’s new commitment to introduce a statutory code of conduct. He did so in highly emotive and, one might say, colourful language. He described the practice of firing and rehiring as “deceitful” and “disgraceful”, labelled the actions of P&O “appalling” and “unscrupulous”, and vowed that the Government would “stand up for workers” against the flagrant disregard shown by companies that use sudden mass dismissal as a negotiating tactic.

Having raised these expectations, it is no wonder that there is manifest disappointment with the glacial emergence, over two years, of a code of practice that will impinge upon employers only at the point a case reaches tribunal. Testing whether or not that will be a deterrent is what I want to draw the Minister’s attention to. I did this in my contribution to the Second Reading debate, drawing attention to the issues of delay and the coming imposition of fees for tribunals. The Minister who responded to that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Lainston, was unable to pick up on those points in his winding up of the debate and offered to write—and, true to his word, he did write. I thank him for attempting to ease my anxieties but I confess that his letter was not wholly successful. Indeed, it was the opposite: it raised the temperature of my anxieties.

The letter began by admitting that there remains a backlog of 32,000 cases in the tribunal system, asserting that reducing outstanding caseload is the key to bringing down wait times, before revealing that:

“Employment Tribunal timeliness data has not been published for some time due to the Employment Tribunal changing their case management system in 2021”.

That was three years ago. We have an assertion that bringing down wait times is essential, followed by a confession that, owing to a change in the case management system three years ago, we are today unable to gauge whether or not wait times are falling.

The viability of this code of practice is entirely contingent on a tribunal system that is effective and can prove timely redress. The fact that we currently, by the Government’s own admission, have no access to the data that would tell us whether it delivers timely redress is absurd, if the Government are to rely upon that as being the ultimate deterrent against this behaviour by the people they described with those very colourful adjectives.

The letter also engaged the question of the Government’s consultation on reintroducing fees at this time, of all times, for those who wish to bring a case before an employment tribunal. I thank the Minister for outlining, in his letter, the details of the help with fees remission scheme, but I remind your Lordships’ House that I raised the case of R (UNISON) v the Lord Chancellor in my speech on Second Reading. It is not mentioned at all in the letter, and I can understand why, because the judgment in this case was unambiguous. It concluded that levying fees was unlawful. It cited the Leggatt report, which specifically identified the absence of fees as one of the three key elements that made tribunals successful, and concluded that fees, however modest, have the effect of preventing access to justice. That was the principal point that I raised in that aspect of my speech, and it was just ignored in the letter I got back from the Government.

I understand the fees coming under consideration are appreciably lower than they were previously, but they will certainly not encourage victims of fire and rehire to have recourse to the tribunal system and may well act as a further discouragement. This is yet another case of the Government telling us that they understand the existence of an injustice, assuring us that their heart is in the right place and they are seeking to right a wrong, but then again balking at doing the needful. We are all familiar with the cases of Tesco, Jacobs Douwe Egberts and Carnival and the other cases that seem to be appearing by the day, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, referred to, and the way in which employers and others weaponise the power advantage they have and exploit their workers. Rather than institute a non-legally binding code of practice that tells employers what they already know, I believe a more fitting course of action would be to enshrine good practice into law and offer clear redress to workers when they are victims of injustice.

My Lords, I share the regrets expressed by my noble friends. I intend to address the second element in the regret amendment put down by my noble friend Lord Woodley, and that relates to the International Labour Organization, which your Lordships will recall is a tripartite body, consisting of Governments, employers and workers. The United Kingdom was a founding member in 1919; it was the first signatory of the fundamental convention on freedom of association—convention 87—in 1949; it is a member of the governing body; and it is represented on the Committee on Freedom of Association.

The relevance of that is that, on 8 November last year, the governing body approved the 404th report of the Committee on Freedom of Association, which reported on the P&O Ferries saga of St Patrick’s Day 2022. Your Lordships will recall that 786 seafarers were dismissed on that date and only 100 were subsequently reinstated. The other jobs were given to agency staff. The Committee on Freedom of Association, as approved by the governing body, made three substantive recommendations, none of which, so far as I can see, is reflected in the code of practice.

The first recommendation related to collective bargaining. The committee said that it

“urges the Government, with the social partners, to ensure mutual respect for the commitment undertaken in collective agreements, which is an important element of the right to bargain collectively and should be upheld in order to establish labour relations on stable and firm ground”.

In many of the instances of fire and rehire mentioned by my noble friend Lord Woodley, there have been established collective agreements and established collective bargaining. That was the case with P&O Ferries, where collective agreements stretching back nearly 100 years were flouted.

The second recommendation relates to the fact that, in the P&O Ferries case, the unions, RMT and Nautilus International, were unable to take industrial action because at the point of the dispute the members were all dismissed and were unable to take any secondary action by calling on port workers to boycott the ferries. The Committee on Freedom of Association said that:

“At the outset, the Committee recalls that a general prohibition of sympathy strikes could lead to abuse and workers should be able to take such action provided the initial strike they are supporting is itself lawful … The Committee recalls that it had previously requested the UK Government to take the necessary measures to ensure that sympathy strikes were protected under the law … The Committee requests the Government to engage with the social partners to overcome challenges regarding the legislative prohibition on sympathy strikes, in conformity with freedom of association”.

As I understand it, the Government have taken no steps whatever to engage with the social partners to overcome those challenges and there is not a word about that in the code of practice.

The third and final substantive recommendation relates to the penalties where such practices are engaged in. It said that

“the Committee notes … that while breaches of the UK law entitle claims to be made in an employment tribunal, such claims are subject to statutorily fixed (and very modest) maxima; for this reason, the company was able to quantify with precision what the cost of the dismissals would be and to assess how long it would be before that cost could be recouped from future profits generated by the poverty wages and diminished terms and conditions of the new crews”.

Its recommendation was:

“The Committee … requests the Government to ensure an adequate and efficient system of protection against acts of anti-union discrimination, which should include sufficiently dissuasive sanctions and prompt means of redress, emphasizing reinstatement as an effective means of redress”.

The Minister will no doubt say that they have increased the penalties by increasing the award of compensation by 25%. Nobody in this House could seriously think that an increase in the award of compensation by 25% could have had any impact on P&O Ferries. It is most unlikely to dissuade any other employers contemplating sacking their workforce and re-engaging them on worse terms.

My noble friend Lord Woodley’s Bill, which he referred to, has two recommendations that one would have wished to see in the code of practice. One is the removal of the caps on compensation so that it would reflect the full loss of each worker in consequence of being dismissed, subject to the usual rules about mitigation of loss, foreseeability and so forth.

The other would be to give the option to the union to obtain an injunction to prevent dismissals where there had been inadequate consultation and inadequate disclosure. For the reason that the committee’s recommendations do not find any reflection in the code of practice, I share my noble friend’s sense of regret at this code.

My Lords, I regret that I did not have the pleasure of being present when the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, received its Second Reading a month or so ago. I clearly understand that the nature of that debate reflects very clearly on what we are debating today.

The Minister was not in your Lordships’ House when we debated the P&O issue. Had he been, he would have experienced outrage and hand-wringing, not just from these Benches but from the Benches behind him and indeed from the Dispatch Box itself. That outrage was felt across the whole of your Lordships’ House. As we have heard, this code was supposed to help embrace that issue and try to make sure that such outrages are not repeated. As we have heard in three well-made speeches from the Opposition Benches, we do not believe that this code comes close to doing that.

The code takes a very optimistic view of human nature: it infers that there are two willing parties with reasonable actions and beliefs. That is not the case that a code of conduct needs to deal with. When reasonable people negotiate with reasonable people, we do not need this code. This code is, essentially, how normal, reasonable people would act, and, as the Minister said, most companies are reasonable companies, and most employees operate with reason. That is why this code, in a sense, merely codifies what normal, civilised behaviour should be.

That is not what a code is for. A code is to deal with the people trying to operate outside normal, reasonable behaviour. On several occasions, the Minister used the word “ensure”. This does not ensure anything, and noble Lords do not have to take my word for it. Paragraph 12 says:

“A failure to follow the code does not, in itself, make a person or organisation liable to proceedings”.

In other words, any teeth it might have had in the first place have been removed by paragraph 12. I share the belief it really had no teeth.

Many other provisions in the code—for example, paragraphs 21 and 22—use the term “reasonable”. How would we test “reasonable” in this circumstance? In Section C, around information, I would be interested to know: what is reasonable? We then move to paragraph 27, which is about commercial sensitivity and confidentiality. In every case of fire and rehire, there will be commercial sensitivity. Therefore, it makes sure that no information ever gets put forward. I am old enough to remember when the United Kingdom was part of the European Union, and we were part of the European Works Council system. That excuse is not allowable within the European Works Council. There is a system within that whereby the works councils are brought into the confidence of the management about their intentions in such circumstances. This does not allow such reasonable behaviour to occur.

Given the genuine and heartfelt comments made opposite during the P&O issue, I am disappointed that this is the result. It is toothless, as the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, said on several occasions; it does not ensure that something such as P&O could never happen again. As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, put it, the 25% uplift is not worth a hill of beans when you look at the financial gain it has made by the actions it has taken.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the code of practice and express my gratitude to all noble Lords who have spoken.

Last week saw the two-year anniversary of the P&O Ferries dismissals, the highest-profile abuse of fire and rehire in recent years—but, sadly, not the only one. The Minister might say that the P&O case is not fire and rehire, but many will not agree with that sentiment. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Today the replaced workers are paid less than half the national wage, as my noble friend Lord Woodley referred to, in conditions that one described as like being in jail. Workers’ pay and conditions horrendously diminished. Meanwhile, the company and its parent, DP World, was awarded £230 million in UK government contracts between March 2022 and July 2023.

This injustice has driven me to extraordinary lengths: it has made me agree with the Member for Welwyn Hatfield, the right honourable Grant Shapps. When he was Secretary of State for Transport, he described the company as

“pirates of the high sea”.

I am even minded to agree with the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who said that fire and rehire was

“unacceptable as a negotiating tactic”.

The code does nothing to prevent any employer treating workers in a shabby way in the months and years to come.

Noble Lords who have run businesses, as I have, know what it is like to face difficult financial decisions. We understand that, in extreme cases, sometimes the only way to continue operating is to consult with employees on renegotiating contracts. If the company goes bust, nobody wins; everybody loses their job. Only in that situation can fire and rehire possibly be justified. Yet in court, employers do not have to prove that the fire and rehire policy would mean the difference between the life and death of the business. That widely criticised omission acts as a cloak of unaccountability, permitting employers to present unscrupulous decisions as unavoidable. All the well-intentioned recommendations in the code—that the employer “take into account” employee objections; that they engage in “all reasonable steps”; and that they do not raise the spectre of job losses too early in the process—are, in effect, neutered by this loophole.

Furthermore, several noble Lords have referred to the potential sanctions—a 25% uplift in fines at the end of a long David and Goliath legal battle—that could be factored in as a cost of doing business, as the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Hendy, stated. We could see companies rewarding executives who are prepared to brush off a few bad PR headlines while making workers’ lives worse. That is appalling in principle and in practice.

The P&O Ferries example should serve as a warning; even the then Prime Minister Johnson thought so. The code does not prevent a race to the bottom; it could lead to a hollowing out of secure jobs. Roads paved with good intentions—whether labelled promises, pledges or non-binding codes of practice—lead only in one direction. It is the workers, threatened with either losing their jobs or accepting worse conditions, who end up feeling the heat. The code currently makes no reference to a necessary qualifying period of employment before it becomes applicable to an employee. Can the Minister tell the House whether the code is applicable from day one for all employees?

In light of the range of concerns raised from only 50 responses to the consultation, I hope that the Minister and the Government will address the shortcomings of the proposal. To that end, my noble friend Lord Woodley’s amendment sets out clearly why the Government should reconsider.

I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I hope to clarify some key points that were mentioned. I will first turn to the regret amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woodley. I know that the noble Lord is a champion of protecting and enhancing worker’ rights, but the Government do not believe that his suggested amendment to the code would be appropriate.

The amendment suggests adding measures from his Private Member’s Bill on dismissal and re-engagement and from a report from the International Labour Organization. The measures contained in the noble Lord’s Bill would, in effect, ban dismissal and re-engagement. That is because the Bill would remove the ground of “some other substantial reason” for an employer to justify a dismissal in a dismissal and re-engagement scenario. Almost all cases of dismissal and re-engagement rely on this ground as potentially a fair reason. Therefore, this would, in effect, ban the use of dismissal and re-engagement.

As I said earlier, it would not be appropriate to impose an outright ban on dismissal and re-engagement. There are some situations in which dismissal and re-engagement have a valid role. Companies that are, for example, going through difficult economic times or a change in their business model may need the flexibility to use this option to save as many jobs as possible.

In regard to the International Labour Organization’s Committee on Freedom of Association’s definitive report 404, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, I would like to clarify that the UK is committed to all ILO conventions that we have ratified, including Convention 87 on the freedom of association and protection of the right to organise, and Convention 98 on the right to organise and collective bargaining. We are carefully considering the Committee on Freedom of Association’s recommendations and will provide information to the ILO in due course.

Turning to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, about P&O Ferries, echoed by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Leong, as we said at the time, the treatment of staff by P&O Ferries was disgraceful and was called out as such from this Dispatch Box. It fell short of the high standards we expect in this country, and which most businesses uphold. The company deliberately chose to ignore statutory consultation requirements. P&O Ferries broke the law by dismissing its workers with no warning, having made prior arrangements to bring in agency staff to replace them. What P&O Ferries did was “fire”, and not “fire and rehire”. The company dismissed staff with no notice or consultation. I understand that it was not seeking to renegotiate its employees’ terms and conditions, so the code would not have applied.

The noble Lord said that some of those employees were fired and rehired. I thank him for bringing that to my attention. I am not familiar with the detail of their personal circumstances, but speaking generally, if an employer seeks to renegotiate terms and expects that it may dismiss an employee and rehire them or another employee to effect the changes, then it would be bound by the code. The Government have taken action in response to what P&O Ferries did. This includes legislating through the Seafarers’ Wages Act 2023 and the ongoing Insolvency Service civil investigation.

A number of noble Lords raised the deterrent effect of the code and, as I said, the code of practice is a proportionate response, balancing protections for employees with business flexibility. An employment tribunal could increase an employee’s compensation by up to 25% where an employer unreasonably fails to comply with the code. The Government will bring forward legislation so that the 25% compensation uplift also applies to the protective award, where employers have not complied with the collective consultation obligations and have unreasonably failed to comply with the code. The noble Lord, Lord Woodley, asked for an update on this legislative change that will increase the deterrent effect of the code. Subject to parliamentary time, the Government intend to bring this forward this summer.

The noble Lord, Lord Leong, asked when the code would apply to an employee. The code will apply from the first day of an employee’s employment, though it will be subject to qualifying periods in individual claims.

Having heard the debate, I think there is perhaps just a philosophical difference on how we proceed in these matters. This Government believe that our workforce and labour laws are in an advanced and sophisticated state. We have record employment in this country: 33 million out of a population of 66 million working. We have just increased the national minimum wage at twice the rate of inflation over the last 25 years, and only 5% of our workforce is on the national minimum wage. Now that they have reached that level, they can be considered to have been taken out of low pay if that is defined as two-thirds of median hourly wages. They are now at that level, and therefore, within our labour force, our laws are working flexibly.

In my role as Minister for Exports, I travel the length and breadth of the country, and I meet companies of all shapes and sizes. The one observation I will make to this House is that post Covid, there has been a reassessment of the value of labour in this country. The labour force is now one of the most valuable parts of any company’s make-up and capability. There are labour shortages, and good labour is scarce. I would argue, perhaps, that there has never been a better time to be an employee, because of the ability to receive higher wages for good skills that are at a premium, and companies want to have those employees within their businesses. In this situation, and thinking as an employer, I can imagine that it would be only in exceptional circumstances, where we were trying to keep our employees together and keep our company on the road, that we would have such a discussion. It would be absolutely as a last resort.

To take the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, about there being no teeth and waiting times in the tribunal system, I acknowledge that there are perhaps backlogs in that system, but this is a process that no employer wishes to get caught up in, considering the amount of time and cost it would take when we want to have our employees happy and working and producing effectively for the benefit of all the stakeholders within the company. Just as a matter of philosophy, we would say that this is an exceptional situation. The TUC says that it estimates that only 3% of employers have ever gone down the road of fire and hire. As we said in the code quite clearly, it is not toIn conclusion, I would argue that the Government are taking robust and appropriate action in this area. A statutory code of practice is a proportionate response to dealing with controversial fire-and-rehire practices. The code will address this practice, aiming to ensure it is only ever used as a last resort, and that employees are properly consulted and treated fairly. It clarifies and gives legal force to accepted standards about how employers should behave when seeking to change employees’ terms and conditions. Subject to parliamentary approval, the code will be in force later this summer. The House should be left in no doubt that the Government will always continue to stand behind workers and stamp out unscrupulous practices when they occur.

Does the Minister have a response to my question about the coincidence of the Government consulting on imposing fees on those who seek to apply to an employment tribunal in the face of the case of UNISON v Lord Chancellor, where fees were held to be unlawful because they impeded access to justice? This issue was not addressed in the letter that the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Lainston, sent to me. It was in my speech at Second Reading. Do the Government have a position on that? Is it just a coincidence that this is happening at the same time as employment tribunals are being given the ability to impose an extra 25% of financial penalties on employers who fire and rehire as part of the code of practice?

As the noble Lord knows, one can read Hansard as well as one can, but not being in the Chamber to hear his eloquent argument of the case makes me slightly deficient in this response. I am disappointed that my noble friend was unable to write more comprehensively on the matter. Perhaps I can follow up with a second letter in that regard.

My Lords, this has been a lively, interesting and, indeed, productive debate. I just want to say one thing to the Minister. In a previous life, I was the leader of Britain’s largest trade union, and I spent more time fighting for companies and for company survivals, and indeed to make sure that they had the right investment to protect jobs and increase jobs in our country, than I ever did fighting against them. That is why I take a little offence that the Minister suggested that my amendment indicates that fire and rehire is banned in all cases. That is the worst case of selective deafness that I have heard from two Ministers, to be quite honest. I point out to the Minister that it does not say that. It makes it absolutely clear that if we are in a situation where the very foundation of the company depends on these actions being taken, not only should they be carried out but we would support that.

However, with regard to where we are, I do not see anything reasonable in the code of conduct, as indeed we have all said here. The Minister also mentioned that—ironically—a TUC investigation into these things found that only 3% of employers were using fire and rehire as a tactic. I said this in the previous debate: 3% across all employers in this country means 38,800 employers. This is not chicken feed; it is big business. It is a pandemic that is right across our country and it will only get worse if we do not legislate to stop it. Again, it has been very interesting that, not only during my previous debate but today on this amendment, not a single speaker has spoken in favour of the code of conduct, never mind anything else, and that includes on the Tory side of this House.

I therefore regret that the Minister’s response is not really doing anything to remove those concerns that we have all registered here about this code of practice. It is toothless, and it does not give the protection and decent compensation that workers who are being exploited deserve. However, as I am sure your Lordships now realise, I do not intend to divide the House on this matter, so I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Motion agreed.

Combined Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny Committees, Access to Information and Audit Committees) (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Motion to Approve

Moved by

The draft regulations, which were laid before the House on 19 February, will, if approved by Parliament, complete the legislative framework for overview and scrutiny committees, and audit committees, of combined county authorities. They make provision about the membership and proceedings of these committees and in relation to allowances for committee members. The regulations also provide for allowances for members of a combined authority’s overview and scrutiny and audit committees.

The wider context of these regulations is that these committees are essential components of the architecture of accountability in combined authorities and combined county authorities. As more powers and resources are devolved to these important bodies and their mayors, the responsibility to ensure sound governance and effective decision-making in the interests of local people becomes ever more important.

Through these regulations we are ensuring that the new combined county authorities have strong and effective overview and scrutiny committees, and we are pursuing a number of further initiatives to develop this architecture of accountability. In particular, we have published the English Devolution Accountability Framework and a scrutiny protocol, and we intend shortly to issue revised statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny.

It may be helpful to say a little more about these initiatives. The English Devolution Accountability Framework sets out how institutions with devolved powers, such as combined county authorities,

“will be scrutinised and held to account … by the residents and voters of their area”,

by local leaders and businesses and, as appropriate, by central government. As part of this framework, the scrutiny protocol in particular sets out how a combined county authority’s or a combined authority’s overview and scrutiny and audit committees hold the institution—and, where there is one, the mayor or directly elected leader—to account.

We intend shortly to issue revised statutory guidance for overview and scrutiny, aimed at local authorities, combined authorities and combined county authorities, to help them carry out their overview and scrutiny functions effectively. The guidance provides advice for senior leaders, members of the overview and scrutiny committees, scrutiny officers and officers with a role in supporting these scrutiny committees. The regulations which we are considering today provide the foundation for these initiatives in their application to combined county authorities.

I turn to the detail of the regulations. They provide for the membership and proceedings of overview and scrutiny committees and audit committees of combined county authorities. They do so by extending the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 so that it applies to combined county authorities as well as to combined authorities. This approach ensures parity between the two types of authority. The regulations also enable the payment of allowances to members of constituent councils of combined authorities and combined county authorities who are appointed to the overview and scrutiny and audit committees.

We have made a few minor changes to the drafting of the 2017 order to reflect the inclusion of non-constituent members and their nominating bodies in the constitutional arrangements for both combined authorities and combined county authorities, and to ensure that the provisions work for both types of authority.

The regulations also accommodate the constitutional difference between combined authorities and combined county authorities. In particular, if the provisions of the 2017 order were simply applied without modification, there would be no duty on a combined county authority to enable, for example, a district council that is within its area but which does not nominate a non-constituent member to refer a matter to the overview and scrutiny committee.

The regulations recognise the legitimate interest of such district councils in certain decisions which could be made by the combined county authority. They do so by extending the referrals provision to include such councils where the matter relates to the council’s area. This extension also applies to the supply by the combined county authority of related documents to a council making a referral.

I turn to the new allowances provisions. These were included in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 at the request of some of the existing combined authorities, to aid quoracy at meetings of overview and scrutiny committees. The regulations enable both combined authorities and combined county authorities to pay an allowance to members of their constituent councils who are appointed to overview and scrutiny, and audit, committees.

The provision is enabling only; if an authority does not wish to make such a payment, it is not obliged to do so. However, where a payment is made, it must be in accordance with a recommendation from an independent remuneration panel. The regulations also include consequential amendments to existing combined authority orders to ensure that the new allowances provisions may have effect in those authorities.

The Government undertook extensive consultation ahead of the 2017 order for combined authorities. The regulations before us today apply the 2017 order provisions to combined county authorities. They make only essential changes to reflect the constitutional provisions in the 2023 Act and to add the provisions enabling payment of allowances. That said, throughout the drafting process, we have engaged officers from the existing combined authorities and from constituent councils of the East Midlands Combined County Authority, as well as the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny. The approach we adopted has been welcomed and the consequential amendments to existing combined authority orders were agreed with each area.

Under the 2023 Act, we hope to see the establishment of more combined county authorities, which, like combined authorities, will have increasing decision-making powers and budgets. The regulations provide that with these powers comes robust, transparent local accountability. This ensures that the public can have confidence in decisions that these new authorities and their elected mayors make.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting this and I see some logic in some of the provisions within the regulations. However, paragraph 10.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum raised my eyebrows. It asks:

“What is the approach to monitoring and reviewing this legislation?”

It then states that:

“The Government has no plans actively to monitor this legislation; the majority of provisions are already in operation without problems for combined authorities”.

Tell that to people who have sat on the Tees Valley Combined Authority’s overview and scrutiny committee. They would tell you that things were not working properly. It got to such a point that the dysfunctionality of that combined authority and the poor or lack of oversight of what was happening led to the Tees Valley Review, which was produced by an independent panel and made some quite interesting observations on what was happening there. The report said that:

“The former monitoring officer advised TVCA oversight and Scrutiny Committee they had no remit to scrutinise”

South Tees Development Corporation decisions. That was quite interesting because Tees Valley Combined Authority had given over £200 million-worth of loans to the South Tees Development Corporation and therefore there was a direct link to why overview and scrutiny needed to take place.

In the report, previous members of the Tees Valley Combined Authority’s overview and scrutiny committee

“expressed frustration at the lack of information provided which they felt undermined their ability to scrutinise the activity of STDC and TWL”—

Teesworks Limited—which is now a privately owned company, 90%-owned by the private sector. Two businessmen with a 90% stake are making super profits on the back of £500 million-worth of public sector investment and again, the overview and scrutiny committee has not been able to scrutinise most of that money.

Recommendations 6 and 7 of the Tees Valley Review report relate directly to overview and scrutiny and show why it was not working, what the deficiencies are and how things need to be improved. The Minister pointed out that new guidance is coming forward, but if the Government are not going to monitor actively the legislation, how will they know whether another Tees Valley Combined Authority issue could happen or is happening? What mechanisms do the Government have in place to ensure that this kind of dysfunctionality can never happen at a combined authority again? It is an important question that the Minister needs to answer, especially since this new legislation will not be monitored. If arrangements are not in place centrally to determine whether there is this kind of dysfunctionality, what arrangements will be put in place to ensure that this could not happen again in any of the existing combined authorities or the new combined county authorities?

My Lords, I will wait for the Minister to reply to the points raised by my noble friend Lord Scriven. In her introduction, she talked about the review that is taking place but not the timescale. It would help the House to know when the Government expect the response, which we all expect, to be produced.

I understand that this instrument maintains parity between combined authorities and combined county authorities and that it is necessary. However, I was concerned to read in paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Notes that

“several of the combined authorities with whom the draft legislation was discussed asked if provision could be included enabling committees to meet virtually or to reduce the quoracy requirement for the transaction of committee business from its current level of two thirds of committee members”.

I am very pleased that the Government concluded

“that face-to-face attendance of meetings”

of overview and scrutiny, and of audit, is important. It is and, having worked on the levelling-up Bill and moved amendments in relation to overview and scrutiny, and audit, I think that the Government’s position is correct.

It is very easy for those who are running overview and scrutiny, and audit, to want to reduce the workload and so suggest “Can we meet virtually?”—that means that, rather than all the conversations that take place before or after a meeting, people are only discussing these matters online—and, “Can committees have a lower turnout/attendance rate?” When we moved these matters in previous legislation, the figure of two-thirds mattered because overview and scrutiny, and audit, must be taken very seriously. I hope that the Government understand this.

We will see when we get the report that the Government are due to present to your Lordships’ House, but, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said, my eyes lit upon the words at paragraph 10.1 of the Explanatory Notes saying that:

“The Government has no plans actively to monitor this legislation”.

I think that this means relating only to whether people take up the option of allowances—it may mean that; however, it may mean something else. I hope that the Government do not mean the wider definition of “legislation”, because all the evidence suggests that the Government need to keep a very close eye on overview and scrutiny and audit, and how it is being carried out.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Shipley, who have asked some very important questions.

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 provides for the establishment of combined county authorities, which typically cover more rural areas; the existing combined authorities typically cover cities. The purpose of these regulation is to ensure that the same membership and proceedings provisions apply to the overview and scrutiny committees and audit committees of combined county authorities as apply to the same committees in combined authorities.

The regulations aim to create uniformity across both types of local authority in terms of committees that scrutinise the spending of public money and enable their members to be paid. We on these Benches would like to raise some specific issues. The measures mirror powers given to local authorities and the current combined authorities. We must be careful that we do not create legislation that allows combined authorities to create overview and scrutiny functions and audit functions if they do not have the specialist teams that are needed to support them properly.

This is a point my honourable friend Jim McMahon MP raised in the other place; he had no satisfactory response. We all know that when local government excels in scrutiny, it is because it has a well-resourced team that enables it to do proper, deep-dive reviews and investigations, to call in expert witnesses and to really go through things. I do not see that provision of finance in these regulations, so I would welcome a response on that.

Will overview and scrutiny committees have the power to conduct a “best value” review? Will remuneration for members of the committees reflect the type of members the committees want to attract? For instance, getting a specialised accountancy perspective may cost more than getting a residential view; will remuneration for each be the same or different? Have overview and scrutiny committees been reviewed yet? How effective have they been so far at ensuring that there are checks and balances in place on local authority spending? Who will pay for the provisions of these regulations? Will the cost come out of already-stretched local authority budgets?

To conclude, we must also recognise that the more powers we give out, the more robust the checks and balances need to be. We are concerned that 14 years of Conservative economic mismanagement, compounded by spiralling inflation and the failure to grow our economy, have hit councils hard. We are keen to ensure that local councils are supported where the Government have failed. We will not expect councils to live hand to mouth, with short-term financial settlements year on year—I think we are now on our sixth single-year financial settlement—which make it difficult for councils to plan. Labour will give councils long-term, multiyear funding settlements so that they can plan ahead, as well as the tools they need to get on with the job. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank Members for their contributions. There were some questions that I may need to come back to in more detail. With regard to the questions that in particular the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked about the situation in Teesdale—

Teesside—apologies; a lot of briefings have gone on in the three weeks since I joined this department.

As noble Lords will know, the mayor has accepted all the recommendations that the independent panel made in its review. They are in many cases substantial and therefore will take time to implement. But they are sensible recommendations and are in line with the frameworks that we have put in place and are putting in place with regard to the scrutiny protocol. From that point of view, the mayor in that region now needs time to put this into place, and the overview and scrutiny committee needs to step up to make the changes required.

There are two points to that. My question is not really about what is happening in Teesside; it is about what mechanism the Government now have in place to ensure that the things that led to the Teesside review do not happen again. In the explanatory framework, the Government state that they are not going to “actively” monitor the legislation. Secondly, the protocol is welcome but it is non-statutory, so bodies do not have to apply it to their own overview and scrutiny committee. That is the case, is it not?

We expect that all combined authorities and combined county authorities, where there is a significant amount of power being devolved, will adopt the best practice that we can possibly put before them. The English Devolution Accountability Framework pulls together all the existing policies and best practice, and indeed we will go further with the scrutiny protocol, plain English guidance and new published outcomes and metrics for areas to be measured by. There will be a new framework, and they will be held to account.

The intention is that this accountability framework will empower local residents and provide them with confidence that devolution is leading to improvements in their area overall. Ultimately, the mayors are accountable to the public, but we believe that the mechanisms need to be there for them to be accountable on a more frequent basis. The Government retain the ability to intervene in exceptional circumstances, but scrutiny and accountability should be led locally. Those are the principles we are applying to this—not just for one authority but for all these authorities, as we devolve the power.

I do not have an exact timetable for the scrutiny protocol; I will write to noble Lords as to when that will become operational. A lot of the work has already been done. Certainly, the scrutiny protocol will apply to all the activities and arrangements of the overview and scrutiny committees in all English institutions with devolved power, including combined authorities, both mayoral and non-mayoral, and combined county authorities—again, mayoral and non-mayoral—and with regard to all devolved powers in county councils and unitary authorities that have agreed to devolution deals. It is very comprehensive; they will all be covered by it.

With regard to the payments of allowances and the differences that may be deemed necessary in order to get good-quality people, any payment may be made only in accordance with a recommendation from an independent remuneration panel at that authority. Therefore, we would expect that panel to take the lead on this. The other side of the coin, of course, is that if an existing combined authority does not wish to make any payments, it is not required to do so, but if in the future it should change its mind, it will not need to seek further fresh legislation in order to do so.

In conclusion, these regulations are essential to ensure a robust local accountability framework for the exercise of devolved power by combined county authorities and their mayors.

Motion agreed.

Strategy and Policy Statement for Energy Policy in Great Britain

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Strategy and Policy Statement laid before the House on 21 February be approved.

Relevant document: 16th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the past few years have brought unprecedented challenges and uncertainty to Great Britain’s energy system. But we have remained resilient and last year laid the foundations for an energy system fit for the future with the landmark Energy Act 2023, which I know many noble Lords were involved in. It was the largest piece of energy legislation in the UK in a generation, and a world first in legally mandating net zero.

The changes in that Act, including the powers to establish the National Energy System Operator, NESO, and new duties for Ofgem, mean that now is the right time to reaffirm the Government’s strategic priorities and policy outcomes in this strategy and policy statement. The Draft Strategy and Policy Statement for Energy Policy in Great Britain is developed according to Part 5 of the Energy Act 2013. It sets out in clear terms the Government’s strategic priorities and other main considerations of their energy policy, the policy outcomes to be achieved, and the roles and responsibilities of persons involved in implementing that policy.

The Secretary of State, Ofgem—the independent regulator for gas and electricity markets in Great Britain —and the NESO, a new independent public corporation responsible for planning Britain’s electricity and gas networks and operating the energy system, will be required to have regard to the strategic priorities set out in this SPS. The Secretary of State and Ofgem must also have regard to the policy outcomes contained within the SPS, and they must both carry out their respective regulatory functions in a manner that they consider best calculated to further the delivery of the policy outcomes.

The NESO is expected to be established this year. The SPS serves an additional purpose of setting out and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the NESO, alongside Ofgem and the Government. The SPS is intended to provide guidance to the energy sector on the actions and decisions needed to deliver the Government’s policy goals, and places emphasis on where the Government expect a shift in the energy industry’s strategic direction.

As the independent energy regulator for Great Britain, Ofgem cannot be directed by the Government on how it should make decisions. Similarly, the NESO is being set up to be operationally independent and free from day-to-day government control. However, the SPS will provide guiding principles for Ofgem and the NESO, when it is established.

The strategic priorities and policy outcomes within the SPS do not include the creation of any new policies or duties. The SPS reaffirms the Government’s existing priorities and commitments, such as affordability, protecting consumers, security of supply, net zero, investment ahead of need, and encouraging Ofgem to make full use of its enforcement powers to support these ambitions. This statement will therefore support strategic alignment between government, Ofgem, NESO and the industry, through making clear what government wants to achieve in the energy sector.

As mentioned, the legal framework of the Energy Act 2013 means that Ofgem, NESO and the Secretary of State all have a duty to have regard to the strategic priorities within the SPS. Ofgem and NESO must also give notice to the Secretary of State if, at any time, they conclude that a policy outcome contained in the SPS is not realistically achievable. Ofgem must also publish a strategy showing how it will further the delivery of the policy outcomes, and its annual report must assess its contribution to delivery of the policy outcomes. The SPS therefore acts as a tool to promote alignment between government, Ofgem and NESO, as all parties will have to have legal regard to the statement in some sense.

As per the Energy Act 2013, the SPS has completed two consultations. The first consultation was undertaken with Ofgem and the Welsh and Scottish Governments. Government worked with all parties to make sure that their views were correctly captured before moving on to a second, public consultation held last summer. In the public consultation, government received views from Ofgem, the Scottish Government, ESO and many stakeholders across industry, including businesses, investors, trade bodies, suppliers, generators and infrastructure operators.

Feedback throughout both consultations was generally positive, and stakeholders were keen to see an SPS implemented to give guidance to the sector and clarity on the roles of Ofgem, NESO and government in delivering the Government’s priorities for the energy sector. Since the consultations have concluded, officials have worked through that feedback and, where appropriate, have used this to inform the current iteration of the SPS which is now laid before your Lordships. The Government are confident that this SPS reflects the right strategic priorities and policy outcomes for energy policy for the whole of Great Britain.

I thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for the time it has taken to review the SPS, as well as the noble Lords, Lord Hollick and Lord Lennie, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others, for their interest in the development of the SPS.

In conclusion, the SPS reaffirms the Government’s commitments and priorities for the energy sector and, in doing so, acts as a tool to support alignment between government, Ofgem, NESO and industry. I beg to move.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward the draft strategy and policy statement, which I support.

As president of National Energy Action, and focusing on the SPS’s aims of affordability and protecting consumers to which my noble friend referred, I want to put a question to him. Although I accept, as the department explains in paragraph 46—this was also referred to by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee—that although Ofgem is independent of government, the regulator is required to

“have regard to the strategic priorities set out in this statement when carrying out its regulatory functions”,

does my noble friend share my concern, particularly for those living in fuel poverty, that although a consumer has control over the unit cost of electricity they are purchasing, they have less control over the standing charge? My understanding of the changes being brought in on 1 April, is that, although we are reducing the unit cost to the consumer, the standing charge is going up incrementally. I imagine, in a very short order—possibly two to three years’ time—that instead of standing charges going up to 50p or 70p, they will cost up to £1 per day. I believe that for many living in fuel poverty that is unaffordable.

So, while I accept that Ofgem should operate independently of the Government, I recall that in 2014, as part of the price review that the water companies’ regulator Ofwat carried out, the Government issued a request to Ofwat to have regard to the affordability of customers’ bills. My question to my noble friend is: is that something the Government might be minded to do under this SPS, in order to have regard to affordability and protecting consumers?

My Lords, I welcome the speech from my noble friend and congratulate him on his dedication to this challenging industry. When one looks at the background to the document we have today, it is just over 10 years ago that the concept of a strategy and policy statement was introduced by the Act in 2013—and here we are now. We now have it, and the vehicle is to be this organisation, the NESO—I do not know exactly how to pronounce it.

It would be helpful for colleagues in the House if we had some indication of what the costs will be when NESO is actually established, as the sphere of influence it has to cover is massive—its responsibilities go right across electricity, gas and hydrogen—and it is no bad thing in life to know, before you start something, what the cost is likely to be. That at least provides you with criteria.

It is fortunate, or unfortunate, depending on one’s viewpoint—I had the privilege of serving on the Public Accounts Committee in the other place for some 12 years, as well as on the Select Committee on energy—that the National Audit Office published a report titled Decarbonising Home Heating on 18 March, precisely a week ago. Thankfully, I managed to pick it up. The summary of its investigations are, in effect, the first solid piece of evidence we have had in any depth on the particular area of home heating. We are talking about 28 million homes, which is a huge market, and the emissions that come from burning natural gas to heat homes. Reducing emissions from heating homes is a key component of the Government’s overall target of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and they have printed that here.

The report says, in paragraph 3 of its summary, that

“growing the supply chain for heat pumps to a minimum market capacity of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028”

is the Government’s target. In the last 12 months, they have achieved 55,000, which seems like slow progress, quite frankly. Furthermore, it says that the Government are

“developing the evidence base to inform strategic decisions in 2026 on the future role of hydrogen in home heating”.

It seems to me that we should have done a fair bit of that work already, but apparently we have not.

Paragraph 4 says:

“The government also committed £6.6 billion from 2021-22 to 2024-25 for schemes to improve energy efficiency … This includes the Boiler Upgrade Scheme”,

which, equally, does not appear to be doing too well.

The report goes through a series of other points, with which I will not tire colleagues here, but it is well worth reading. I will, however, highlight points on some of the key findings. First, the NAO has established that some aspects of the

“plans to test the feasibility of hydrogen for home heating are behind schedule or have been cancelled, meaning it will have less evidence to make decisions in 2026 on the role of hydrogen”.

We know that British Gas has a trial going, and there is a small government trial, but I find that rather worrying. Secondly in relation to hydrogen,

“Ongoing uncertainty over the role of hydrogen could slow the progress of decarbonising home heating”.

The report goes on to say that the Government are thinking of using local government to play a role in establishing what to do about decarbonising home heating. As someone who had the privilege of being a leader of a local authority for some years, I do not think this is something, with a subject that is so important, that will be hugely welcomed by local government, which has more than enough on its plate.

As someone who comes from the world of advertising and marketing, I found it worrying to read, in paragraph 14 of the report, that the department has developed a campaign to promote heat pumps, but it does not seem to be getting through:

“public awareness is low: around 30% of respondents to a government survey in summer 2023 had never heard, or hardly knew anything, about the need to change the way homes are heated”.

This is all very worrying; we do not seem to be making the progress that we ought to be making.

There are a series of eight recommendations in the report; I will not go through them all, but I will pick out a couple. On page 12 of the summary—and remember this is the NAO, which is not prone to stating anything positive unless it feels quite strongly about it— recommendation c states that the department should:

“Consider whether it is possible to provide more certainty on the role of hydrogen in home heating before 2026 to help industry plan and invest”.

There are then some suggestions as to how that could be done.

Additionally, I have one other further area, and that is small nuclear reactors, which were not covered in the NAO report. It is worrying that we have known for at least three years that Rolls-Royce is geared up to do small nuclear reactors, and we have given it good money to work on them, but we are still not at a point where anybody is being appointed. There is a list of six potential people involved; some of them are not even ready now to do a proper pitch, and the rumour is that the pitch will be put back further because some of them are not ready. This slippage, all the way through, symbolises this market, and it is extremely worrying. It is possibly one of the most key areas of our industry and our lives when we talk about home heating.

I do not envy my noble friend on the Front Bench the job, and I thank him for his work so far. There is an awful long way to go, and even though His Majesty’s Government are not the vehicle for doing the communication, we must make sure there is better communication with the general public and that we should go forward together to meet the main policy objective in a way that is based on good science and good experience.

My Lords, this is the first use of the power to designate a strategy and policy statement—SPS—for energy policy in Great Britain, which was introduced in the Energy Act 2013. The changes in that Act included the powers to establish a National Energy System Operator a new independent public corporation responsible for planning Britain’s electricity and gas networks and operating the electricity system. NESO will be required to have regard to the strategic priorities set out in the SPS and new duties for Ofgem, which are all contained in this statement. Can the Minister confirm that NESO will be set up this summer?

All that this statement does is to bring together existing policy and restate that policy in one coherent paper; the statement

“does not introduce new roles or duties for bodies in the sector, it is comprised of only existing government policy, commitments and targets”.

We broadly welcome the statement, but my first question is: why has it taken 11 years, since the Energy Act 2013, to get where we are today? It is 11 years late; we should have been revising the second edition by now. While key elements are welcome, there is much that remains unclear or subject to regular change going forward. I do not think this statement should last five years without review. Will the Government commit to more regular reviews, even an annual review, as we continue our process of transition?

The relationship between the National Energy System Operator and Ofgem is still undefined in this strategy, so when will this be defined? Will the Minister agree to give a further review as soon as NESO is set in place, so that its powers, functions and relationships can be fully scrutinised? The strategy document says that NESO has a duty to notify the Secretary of State if, at any time,

“it thinks that a policy outcome in the SPS is not...achievable”,

as has been stated by other speakers. What are the interim arrangements for the period until NESO is up and running if it decides that there are policies that are not achievable?

I worry also that Ofgem is not accountable to Parliament at the appropriate level of scrutiny for the new powers that are given to it under this policy. There seem to be some tensions for Ofgem between net-zero targets and promoting economic growth as set out in its core functions.

While I welcome the continued commitment to reach net zero, and I am thankful for all the work the Government have done, the Government need to do more at pace. There are key areas where progress is lagging, such as: the development of long-term energy storage; meeting targets, particularly for power generation to be decarbonised by 2030; and the ability to deliver the nuclear plan for a 24 gigawatt deployment by 2050, when many projects are running behind or are late. There are questions about whether we are still on track for offshore wind, following the collapse of the offshore wind auction this year. There are internal disagreements over the clean heat mechanism, and a year of delays means that the target for implementing heat pumps is in question, as we have heard. Emission targets for 2030 look unlikely to be met, the sixth carbon budget is behind schedule and the planned energy efficiency upgrade of ensuring that all properties achieve a rating of band C by 2030 does not have clear mechanisms to take it forward.

The Government are missing their own 2030 fuel poverty targets by 90%; we need a fair and just transition to net zero, yet fuel poverty is completely missing from this statement. I could not find the words in the document and neither does it make any mention of the Government’s own fuel poverty strategy. There is also no mention of the social energy tariff, and the rollout of smart meters is behind. We need more renewables, and we to do more to improve home insulation at scale and at pace. These matters need to be at the heart of our future energy polices, and it feels like they have been forgotten in these documents.

The mention of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement is very welcome, as we are spending £1 billion extra a year on our energy bills. When do the Government think the strategic spatial energy plan will be ready? The policy states that the Government expect an investment of around £100 billion in the energy sector by 2030. Does the Minister agree that recent changes in government policy direction, particularly in relation to electric vehicles as well as on other matters, have caused market uncertainty and damaged investor confidence? What actions are the Government taking to ensure the long-term clarity and stability of our environmental policy?

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed thus far to the debate for making my job somewhat easier than it would otherwise have been and for raising important questions. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, raised the affordability of standing charges from the NEA. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, raised a lot of concerns about lack of progress in a number of areas, which, no doubt, the Minister will address. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, had a range of concerns, particularly about a lack of potential progress on the auctioning of offshore wind contracts for difference, which is about to take place—I think next week.

For my own part, there are three points I want to raise this evening. First, this is the first statement since the Government’s Energy Act 2013 facilitated such statements. Secondly, while we agree with much of the statement, there are some clear differences between the Conservatives and Labour: in particular, on setting 2030 as the date by when Great Britain will be a clean power generator. Thirdly, there is a lack of detail and therefore a need for revision at the earliest opportunity.

I will take these points in order. The Energy Act 2013 assumed that a strategy and policy statement would be essential to align government policy with the actions of government agencies and bodies such as Ofgem and ensure they were marching in lockstep. There has not been a statement since 2013. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, given the five-year gaps between statements, we should now be reviewing our second statement.

However, this policy statement is important in seeking to align government and Ofgem, with Ofgem having recently been designated with a net-zero mandate under the Government’s energy policy of 2023. The Government cannot direct Ofgem, so Ofgem cannot operate unless there is such a policy statement. While this policy statement has been delayed—let us say, since 2013—it is certainly now welcome.

These policy statements are supposed to last five years. We should have had a strategy and policy statement immediately after the 2013 Act, and we should now be revising the second one. It is also clear that the strategy and policy statement will not last more than a year or so from now, because there will be a general election. The outcome of that election is not yet known but, should Labour win, it will certainly be reviewed. Can the Government say why no policy statement has been submitted before now?

While much of the statement is welcome, there are some clear differences between the Government and Labour. The original 2030 date by when we were to have clean power is no longer accepted by the Government. They have recently put back from 2030 until 2035 the date for ending the sales of internal combustion engines, in effect, meaning there will be at least a five-year delay. Their former net zero tsar, Chris Skidmore, and their widely respected former chair of COP, Alok Sharma, have both been highly critical of the Government’s policy. This will surely do nothing to reassure either of them.

There are also areas as yet undefined and unclear, such as the relationship between ISOP—now to be called the national energy system operator—and Ofgem. NESO is a commitment in the Energy Act 2023 but, as we have heard, is yet to be established. When it is, there will be much work to be done to define its relationship with Ofgem as well as questions to be addressed about the regional energy system planners. Once NESO is set up, will there be a statement about these matters, including its relationship to Ofgem and, therefore, to government?

There are other areas that require updating. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, these include a plan for developing long-duration energy storage, as well as the 2030 fuel poverty target, which National Energy Action says will be missed by 90%, and the rollout of smart meters, which is well behind the time set originally by the Government. These and other areas in the statement are either unexplained or undefined. Will any update on these matters be forthcoming?

Finally, a strategic policy statement must take account of the real state of the policy landscape or risk irrelevance; but a statement is better than none at all, which is why we welcome this statement despite its shortcomings

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. First, I am confident that the strategic priorities and policy outcomes in the SPS clearly establish what the Government are trying to achieve in the sector. I think it got fairly widespread support and it established why this is important, demonstrating how these smaller policy outcomes contribute to the broader strategic priorities so that stakeholders can be reassured of how their role fits into the bigger picture.

I hope that the SPS gives industry a sufficiently high-level understanding of the roles, responsibilities and remit of government and the regulators in helping to deliver these objectives. Particularly in the case of NESO, we have provided enough information on the body’s remit to give confidence on the role that it will play when it is established, while also recognising that its responsibilities will evolve over time. As well as reaffirming our ambitions, this SPS will give encouragement to Ofgem to utilise the full range of its existing powers to ensure that those ambitions are realised and that stability and confidence are restored across the sector.

I move on to the points that were raised in the debate, starting with my noble friend Lady McIntosh. The SPS makes clear the importance of tackling fuel poverty, as was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lennie. Ofgem has conducted a call for evidence on the standing charges issue. I know it is a very topical issue; there is a lot of concern. Ofgem received over 40,000 responses to that consultation. It is reviewing those responses. The Government are liaising closely with Ofgem to understand the options going forward. It is an independent regulator, and it would not be right to interfere in the decisions that it will make, but we do understand the concern that has been raised.

The NESO will be funded and regulated by Ofgem through licences and the price control process, as is the case with the electricity and gas system operators today. That is a well-known model, understood widely across the sector. The approach will provide accountability, scrutiny and, of course, value for money, while ensuring that the NESO is able to deliver fully on its objectives.

As part of agreeing future price controls, Ofgem will ensure that NESO is fully resourced to fulfil its objectives and the obligations set out in its licence, including the funding of its statutory duties such as those towards innovation and keeping developments in the energy sector under review. As with other regulated bodies in the sector, the NESO will have the operational freedom it needs to manage and organise itself to effectively deliver its roles and objectives.

I move on to the points raised by my noble friend Lord Naseby. He quoted extensively from the National Audit Office report on home heating. That is of course different from what we are debating today, but he raised some very good points, particularly on the rollout of heat pumps et cetera, on which I agree. My noble friend will be aware that we took a decision not to proceed with the hydrogen village trial last year. That was due chiefly to the lack of available hydrogen, but it also took into account the real concerns that were raised by many members of the public in that area. It is undoubtedly the case that electrification will provide the vast majority of the decarbonisation options in home heating; hydrogen will play a very limited role, if any, in the decarbonisation of heating.

In response to the questions raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, our aim continues to be for the NESO to be operational in 2024, depending on a number of factors including agreeing timelines with various key parties.

On the review of the SPS, I confirm that the Secretary of State can review the strategy and policy statement at any time—for example, following a general election or a significant change in energy policy.

On the questions raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about the rules and responsibilities of NESO, I confirm that we have set out the roles and responsibilities of government, Ofgem and NESO at a high level in the SPS. The Government set the policy direction, while Ofgem is the independent regulator and makes decisions on business and investment plans. NESO will be the whole system planner, the operator of the electricity system, and the expert adviser to the Government and Ofgem as key decision-makers.

We are currently developing a framework agreement, which will set out the relationship between the Government as the shareholder and NESO. We plan to publish this shortly after designation. The specific roles and obligations of NESO will be set out in its licences, on which Ofgem undertook an initial consultation last year. We are due to undertake a statutory consultation this spring. However, as mentioned previously, we expect that NESO’s role and remit will continue to evolve over time as energy policy develops.

On NESO not being able to raise concerns over the achievability of SPS outcomes until it is established, I reassure the noble Lord that Ofgem will also have a responsibility to raise concerns over achievability. We are already in frequent dialogue with the current electricity system operator, on which NESO will be based, where the Government’s ambitions for energy are regularly discussed.

Finally, I move on to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, on why now is the right time for the SPS. The Energy Act 2023 introduced new measures and established the independent system operator and planner in the first place as NESO. We thought that now was a good time—to reply to the point about major policy changes—to develop strategic guidance to explain exactly how we believe that Ofgem, government and NESO would work together to meet the Government’s energy priorities going forward.

I hope I have been able to deal with all the points raised by noble Lords.

Can my noble friend answer the question about small nuclear reactors? There has been consistent delay after delay. Are we going to get a decision in this calendar year?

That is not the subject of this particular policy statement, but my understanding is that Great British Nuclear is currently reviewing the various designs, having instituted a competition to try to pick the best design going forward. I do not know the precise timescale for responding to that, but I will certainly find out and write to the noble Lord.

Motion agreed.

Fair Dealing Obligations (Milk) Regulations 2024

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 1 March be approved.

Relevant document: 16th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. This evening’s protests around Parliament by farmers, seeking a fair price for their product, I think speaks to the need for these regulations.

These regulations are the first of those that were promised, with pigs and eggs to follow, and are part of this Government’s continued backing of our farmers, as the Prime Minister made clear at the NFU conference only last month. These regulations make use of powers in the Agriculture Act 2020, introduced by the Government to help level the playing field between dairy farmers and the larger processers that they supply. The then Agriculture Bill was debated intently in this House and the expertise of many noble Lords helped to shape these powers, for which I extend my thanks. I hope noble Lords share my delight that this work is coming to fruition.

The dairy sector plays an extremely important role in UK agriculture. Its success is underpinned by countless relationships between producers and processors that work extremely well. However, we have been made aware that, for some time, there are examples where relationships are not as constructive as they should be, and the vulnerable position farmers are in can often be exploited. The public consultation carried out in 2020 sought to uncover the issues and inform the types of interventions required to address them. The responses highlighted the main issues that dairy farmers experience, and we have constructed these regulations in direct response to those issues.

We also listened to the perspectives of the milk processors. While the central aim of the regulations remains to enhance fairness and transparency for UK dairy farmers, we have also taken great care to avoid unnecessarily constraining those processers who already treat farmers well. Throughout the entire process of developing these regulations, we have undertaken extensive industry engagement with representatives from across the dairy supply chain to ensure that the regulations were effective and proportionate. It is incredibly pleasing to report that, since the introduction of these regulations, the industry has been in agreement that what we have developed strikes the balance between improving protections for farmers and maintaining the flexibility that businesses need to remain agile.

We will have the opportunity to discuss the content of the regulations, but I will summarise the rationale behind some of their most significant provisions. The regulations introduce a legal requirement for a written contract. We appreciate that this is already commonplace in the industry, but enshrining it in an agreement in writing is the most effective way of safeguarding farmers’ rights. We want to see this best practice universally adopted. Importantly, this also allows us to protect farmers from the imposition of changes without their agreement. The consultation responses revealed quite a worrying number of instances where the agreements farmers had signed up to were changed without their consent. Clearly, this is not the basis of a respectable business relationship. The regulations expressly prohibit unilateral contract variations, so farmers know that, once they have signed up to a contract’s terms, their agreement is required before any changes can be made.

The regulations introduce new requirements on processes to be more open about how prices are determined through the inclusion in the contract terms of the factors that will be used to determine the price being paid. We know it is ultimately the market that decides the price of milk at any given time, and these regulations are not an exercise in price-fixing. However, where farmers are subject to price variations, they should be confident that these have been determined fairly, in line with their expectations, and that they are a true representation of market value. Farmers have sometimes been left scratching their heads as to where the price included in their monthly milk cheque has come from. This new approach will ensure a far higher degree of trust and transparency.

When it comes to either party wanting a business relationship to end, there are now new rules that apply to all contracts on the process of termination. The specific details of this will still be a matter of negotiation, but they will now be subject to some broad parameters to avoid unfair practices occasionally seen in the past, such as restrictions on the days on which farmers are permitted to serve notice. This is to ensure that farmers are not subject to unjustifiably short notice themselves, nor are they trapped in a contract that they want to terminate for an excessively long time.

The regulations address problems farmers raised with us about exclusive contracts, which are contracts that stipulate that a farmer supplying one processor must supply them with the entirety of their production volume. These arrangements have a place in the industry and can be mutually beneficial. However, they can also be harmful to farming businesses when used alongside other contract terms, such as volume gaps and A and B pricing. Therefore, it is no longer permitted.

It is also worth touching on the way in which the regulations account for farmer representation. We are aware that many democratic organisations, such as co-operatives or producer organisations, are inherently structured to adequately represent the interests of their farmer members. As such, we have allowed for lighter regulation of these groups, exempting them from the pricing provisions and the rules on contract variation.

Finally, the regulations establish how we will ensure compliance. We are recruiting a new agricultural supply chain adjudicator, who will be in post before the regulations come into force. This borrows from approaches which have proven successful in related contexts. The individual appointed will investigate complaints and be able to issue substantial fines to anyone in breach.

In conclusion, I hope that I have been able to assure noble Lords that these regulations are the right approach to some of the problems faced by the dairy industry. They focus on those areas the industry has clearly told us need to be improved. They represent a significant step forward in achieving fairness and transparency for UK dairy farmers. I beg to move.

My Lords, I applaud His Majesty’s Government for these new contract regulations. They are both comprehensive and long overdue in addressing matters of serious injustice in the dairy farming sector. Unfair milk contracts have been an area of concern for the dairy sector for many years, going back to the voluntary code of practice for dairy contracts, introduced in 2012. In their current form, most milk contracts do not create mutually balanced business relationships between buyers and sellers. Rights and obligations are often heavily biased in favour of buyers.

At times of pressure, purchasers have been able to change contract terms and pricing mechanisms, in some instances even introducing retrospective penalties and price cuts without negotiation. The Covid-19 crisis saw many of these scenarios play out. Farmers were hit with price cuts at no notice, a lack of transparency on pricing, and delayed payments, resulting in significant pressures on producers during this challenging period.

These regulations will see freely negotiated and fairly balanced contracts, tailored to the needs of both buyers and farmers. They mark a significant step forward. It will be important for industry and government to help support the development of farmer representation structures, such as producer organisations within the dairy sector, to make the most of the regulations and improve trust and collaboration across the supply chain.

This legislation contains extensive powers for the Secretary of State to oversee and enforce the code. I welcome the recruitment of the agricultural supply chain adjudicator, who will, among other things, enforce the regulations on behalf of the Secretary of State. Can the Minister clarify whether it is intended that the person appointed to this role will learn from the operation of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which has been in operation since 2013?

My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward these regulations. They plug a gap which has long been open, as most farmers do not supply supermarkets directly and so are not covered by the Groceries Code Adjudicator.

When I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the other place, I took a small delegation to Denmark to learn about the effectiveness of its milk and other co-operatives. Does my noble friend see this as an opportunity to encourage more co-operatives and producer organisations than we have seen in the past?

I grew up in the hills of the north of England, where I could see how fiercely independent hill farmers and others were. There is often a certain resistance to working together. I hope that the regulations my noble friend has presented this evening will lend themselves to producing such co-operation in future.

The NFU has long argued for fairer, more transparent supply chains. I hope that its pleas will be rewarded in the regulations before us. Can my noble friend assure the House that the Government will lend their support to the development of representational structures, such as the producer organisations and co-operatives to which he alluded? This will ensure that the dairy sector can work collaboratively and effectively with improved trust and greater collaboration across the supply chain.

I warmly welcome these regulations.

My Lords, I too warmly welcome these regulations. It is interesting and rather ironic that the farmers are protesting in Parliament Square while we are addressing this topic. When I saw the tractors outside, I felt rather envious. I wished I had brought my own tractor from Northumberland, although it might have taken most of the weekend.

This has been an issue for a very long time. I have been involved in trying to encourage better relationships within the dairy and other sectors for at least 25, if not 30, years. This is an important development. I welcomed it when the then Agriculture Bill came into the House. It was a big step forward for the Government to bring this in as part of that Bill.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, did the Government seriously consider whether to extend the existing GSCOP and Groceries Code Adjudicator to include the elements contained in that Bill? There have been at least two reviews of the scope of GSCOP during the years. Many of us have been keen that that scope should be extended down the supply chain to provide greater protection and support for primary producers.

Secondly, if the answer to that is, “Yes, we have considered it but have decided to go it alone and establish our own adjudicator within the dairy sector”, are the Government likely to extend that scope to other sectors? Many of the issues dogging the dairy sector dog other sectors too. Relationships within supply chains are nothing like as good as they should be and, in many cases, degenerate into confrontational relationships. In my view, it is important to look at other sectors. When the adjudicator is appointed, it should be made clear that—if it is government policy—the remit is likely to be extended to include other sectors.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation to the House today. This is an incredibly important measure to help resolve deep-seated problems at the producer end of the milk supply chain.

I declare my interests and experiences from being involved in a supply chain, as I have owned a dairy farm and received payments for over 40 years. I supplied milk in the beginning to Milk Marque and subsequently to several other processors, as well as chairing a producer group and the milk co-op Dairy Farmers of Britain. I was also a shadow Agriculture Minister in the Lords during the passage of what became the Agriculture Act, opposite the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner. I thank him for committing Section 29 into the Act.

The milk industry is extremely competitive. It has evolved with the rise and consolidation of supermarkets. Their dominance in the grocery trade has migrated milk away from doorstep deliveries. The consolidation of the top, supermarket end of the supply chain has driven consolidation in the processing sector. I liken it to the challenge of playing musical chairs, whereby the number of processors is successively reduced by the expanding supermarkets, which channel the supply chain towards expanding processors. An example of this business is the Co-op, which, at that time, expanded by acquisition. It reduced its milk suppliers from two to one, whereby the Co-op’s amalgamation costs of £6 million were, in effect, paid for by the dairy supply chain competing to be the one supplier of milk, without much regard to fair dealing.

By contrast, the service sector can be equally unstable and volatile, supplying milk to outlets such as Starbucks and others. In the other place, the debate mentioned the possibility of waste. I agree with the Minister in the other place, Mark Spencer, that there is virtually no waste in the milk chain. The recent example of so-called waste, when Covid shut down such outlets, resulted from those dairy suppliers being suddenly told that there would be no collection of their milk for the foreseeable future, and they faced the problem of safe dispersal immediately, with full tanks and cows needing to be milked again. I pay tribute to Dairy UK and Defra, led at that time by the Secretary of State George Eustice, for rectifying the situation.

I can explain that farmer co-operatives set up Westbury to produce milk powder so that the price of the commodity product, milk, was not set by the last supply to clear the market. The supply chain has also re-engineered milk away from the spring flush towards the supply trough at winter housing, which has taken considerable investment in the chill chain, such that milk freshness is now maintained at 4 degrees, from the farmer’s milk tank, through processing and distribution, to being on the supermarket shelf. The milk industry is a very mature, successful and effective sector of agriculture, yet it needs this regulation.

In the passage of the Agriculture Bill, debate took place around GSCOP and the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, situated in the Business Department, not Defra. I declare my interest as being in the Labour team that took that legislation through the House. The Groceries Supply Code of Practice is different; it is between supermarkets and their immediate business suppliers, not primary producers, which generally do not have direct contracts to supply milk to supermarkets. Careful consideration is needed to determine in which department the agricultural supply chain adjudicator should be positioned. There is a belief that this code of practice can be swiftly implemented, but it has yet to be written. The powers of the adjudicator must be clearly understood in the supply chain and will not in any way relate to prices in the market. This took some considerable time to be understood in the GSCOP, where invaluable experience and advice will be useful, but residing in the Business Department. I agree that the regime should not be interfered with. The great success of the groceries code was in no small measure due to the appointment of the correct person in that independent role.

Farmers are generally not used to taking their products beyond the farm gate. Does the Minister agree that careful handling of the fair-dealing obligation in the milk sector must prove successful if this regime is to be expanded with confidence into further sectors of the industry, next being the pig industry? Any hint of price setting or collusion will entangle the Competition and Markets Authority. There must be no misleading in that respect, with regard to what this important framework must achieve in establishing fair, balanced contracts that are clear and transparent. It will necessitate nearly all processors issuing new contracts of supply and farmer/producer organisations of those processors coming out from under the wings of processors into effective business supply managers and negotiators, on behalf of their farmer members. There could be a need for training and support from the department to help them understand how they can make a difference.

It is positive that the business model of producer organisations will allow associations of producer organisations to arise without recourse to CMA attention. Can the Minister assure the House that, whoever the headhunters are, they understand and communicate the powers of the adjudicator’s office, where the first responsibility is to issue necessary guidance? Will that guidance be subject to industry consultation and endorsed by Parliament?

While it is now four years since the Agriculture Act, there has been exhaustive consultations and discussions within the industry. I pay tribute to the NFU’s Dairy Board, under the leadership of Michael Oakes, for contacting every processor and producer organisation to secure agreement that this regulation must be embraced and made to work effectively by the whole industry. It is vital that long-term relationships are built up for the benefit of consumers.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this SI and for his time and that of his officials in providing a briefing for this long-awaited statutory instrument. Other noble Lords have made positive comments on supporting dairy farmers, and the detail of this statutory instrument. I am grateful to the NFU for its briefing.

Since the voluntary code of practice for dairy contracts was introduced in 2012, nearly 12 years ago, purchasers have been able to change contract terms and pricing mechanisms, even, in some instances, introducing retro-spective penalties and price cuts without negotiation. The Covid-19 crisis saw this happen many times: farmers were hit with price cuts at no notice, and there was a lack of transparency over pricing and delayed payments, resulting in significant pressures on producers. Farmers got a very poor deal.

This SI will introduce mandatory minimum terms for dairy contracts which must be adhered to. As the noble Lord has said, these contracts will cover price, cooling-off periods, notice periods, variations, exclusivity and farmer representation. All these should make a huge difference to how farmers are treated and ensure that they get a fair price for their milk, which is essential for the survival of the dairy-farming industry. It will also bring a level of transparency into milk contracts not previously present.

I fully support this SI and have a point to raise. The Government conducted a call for evidence at the end of 2016 on the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator and whether it should cover all primary producers. This concluded that it would be better for primary producers in the dairy industry not to be covered by the GCA. That was eight years ago. Similarly, the consultation on the issue took place between June and September 2020, nearly four years ago. It would seem that the Government, although concerned about an unfair pricing system for farmers, were not in a hurry to do anything about it.

There are large parts of the instrument around termination of contracts, including where the business purchaser becomes insolvent and where there are disputes and enforcement. I welcome these sections, as they give farmers access to redress when things go wrong.

I understand that the debate on this SI in the other place was very short indeed, and I have no wish to prolong the debate here this evening. This legislation, while long in the making, is a positive step forward in addressing the imbalances that we have seen for too long in the dairy supply chain. I also hope that it will lead to support for farmers going forward, as they look to create the right structures to make the best use of the issues in this legislation.

Finally, I place on record my thanks, and I am sure the thanks of many others—the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to this—to Michael Oakes, who has been the chair of the NFU Dairy Board for eight years. Without his tenacious work over the past decade on this issue, I doubt that we would be debating it this evening. It seems that, without an advocate continually pushing, progress can be painfully slow. Let us hope that progress now speeds up considerably, and that this SI becomes law and is enacted without further delay.

My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for his introduction and saying how impressed I was to watch him pouring a glass of water at the same time: he is clearly channelling his feminine side by doing two things at once.

These draft regulations, as we have heard, propose to introduce minimum standards for the contracts that businesses use when purchasing milk from dairy farmers. We fully support the aim to improve fairness and transparency in the UK dairy sector, which, according to Defra, is characterised by small, fragmented dairy producers. We have heard a lot about the unfair commercial terms on which farmers have had to go into contracts, so we very much support this SI. Like other noble Lords, I thank the NFU for its work on this issue. The NFU has made it clear that it strongly supports the regulations, as unfair milk contracts have unfortunately been an area of concern for many years. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford talked about the voluntary code of practice for dairy contracts, which came in in 2012. This has clearly not been working, so we very much welcome the regulations in front of us today.

While I have said we very much support the regulations, I have a number of questions for the Minister. The proposed requirements include that all contracts should be made in writing and contain clear pricing terms, through either a fixed or variable price, setting out how the price to be paid is generated and establishing a means for producers to challenge variable price calculations. We are very pleased that unilateral changes to contract terms will be prohibited and that the Secretary of State is going to be able to impose fines. The Minister said in his introduction that this is only the first and that further legislation will cover other agricultural sectors. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned how long the regulations have taken. It has dragged on. Can the Minister say why it has taken so long? It is four years since the Agriculture Act was passed. Although he mentioned pigs in his introduction, does he have any idea when we are likely to see the SIs for the other areas we are expecting—pigs, eggs and fresh produce?

The agricultural supply chain adjudicator and the Groceries Code Adjudicator have been mentioned. Transform Trade sent an interesting briefing expressing its concerns around departmental fragmentation and the sectoral siloed approach that it feels the Government are taking by addressing the problems in only four sectors, and only at the farming stage. Its concerns include the fact that risks and costs will continue to be passed on to all supply chains; and that while the adjudicator may be able to address farmers’ experience of unfair trading practices, where the cause of that unfair trading practice originated with the food retailers, the retailers will continue to get away with passing unfair trading practices. I would be interested to have reassurances from the Minister on this concern.

Of course, not all farmers work in the four sectors that are covered. How does Defra intend to keep an eye on what is happening in the other sectors that are not protected? Will the adjudicator appointed to enforce the milk codes be able to share information relevant to the GCA’s ability to assess whether the 14 largest UK food retailers they cover have breached the Groceries Supply Code of Practice purchasing code? We need to be sure that this is working effectively.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry, asked about the scope of the GCA. This is a really important question. When I was in the other place, we did a lot of work on the GCA when it was established, and it really needs to be seen to be working effectively, including within this new regime.

My noble friend Lord Grantchester talked about food waste. He mentioned that there is little waste within the dairy sector, but the design of regulations under these powers is potentially a missed opportunity to implement the Government’s stated policy of using them to reduce farm-level food waste, as was said during the passage of the Agriculture Act. As we are expecting further SIs to come forward in a similar way, I would be interested to hear why the Government’s consultation on using the powers did not make explicit reference to, or explicitly invite evidence on, how the powers could be used to reduce food waste. Food waste prevention may well be on the Government’s radar, but it is not clear from the consultations that were carried out, so my final comment is that further elaboration and confirmation around that would be very welcome.

My Lords, I am very grateful for all the views shared on this SI. I believe we all recognise that the market needs to operate fairly, and that where there are vulnerable parties in the supply chain, the Government are justified in introducing protections. A great number of the questions this evening were focused around the adjudicator, its role, what precisely it is going to be doing and when it is going to be appointed, and I will come back to that in a little more detail and just answer one or two of the other questions first.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering asked a few questions around co-operatives and producer organisations. As I said in my opening remarks, with these regulations we have looked to protect what was already working and to prevent only what was going wrong. Our consultation revealed clearly that many relationships in the dairy supply chain are exemplary and working well for all parties. This includes those where farmers have effective representation, be that through the producer organisation model or with the structures of a co-operative. As a result, some parts of these regulations do not apply for producers represented in this way. We hope this encourages purchasers to consider relationships with representative organisations, as evidence suggests that this can be beneficial to all parties.

I move on to the issues around the adjudicator, which were very eloquently expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. The noble Lords, Lord Curry and Lord Grantchester, also touched on many of the issues, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, talked extensively about them, so let me talk a bit about the role that the new adjudicator—the enforcement agency, if you like—will have. Our new adjudicator will focus on the first stage of the supply chain, on a sector-by-sector basis. We are confident that this targeted approach, looking in-depth at specific areas of the supply chain, will be very effective. We are currently recruiting our new agricultural supply chain adjudicator. The final decision will be taken by Ministers following the due Civil Service process. I have taken on board a lot of the comments made about the skills necessary for this individual and how we would like to replicate the process that was so successful with the Groceries Code Adjudicator.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Curry, who asked why an extension to the Groceries Code Adjudicator was not used instead. The idea of expanding the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator was explored in the formal call for evidence in 2016. This concluded that an extension of the GCA’s role further along the supply chain would not be appropriate. The reasons for this include that it would extend the GCA’s remit significantly. These regulations are focused on the contracts that dairy farmers hold directly, which are almost exclusively with processing companies. The Groceries Code Adjudicator instead regulates the relationships between the largest grocery retailers and their direct suppliers, another point covered by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester.

There were further questions about why we are not going to use the regulations on all sectors. We will use the powers of Section 29 to protect farmers wherever necessary. However, the different needs and working practices of each industry mean that a targeted approach is needed to draft the most effective regulations. Our work on drafting this statutory instrument and the upcoming pork regulations has justified this approach, with the needs of each industry being very distinct. As well as developing regulations to apply to the UK pork sector, we have recently concluded consultations on the UK laying egg and fresh produce sectors. The Prime Minister has also announced a new review into the broiler chicken sector. There were a number of questions about what is going to be coming forward and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, also asked when we would see these SIs. When I have been asked that recently, I have replied, “Before the Summer Recess”, and I am hopeful that we might do even better than that in this case.

I am also picking up on the very important point from the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, about the need for careful handling here, to ensure that the rollout into other sectors does not get derailed by heavy-handed or inappropriate activity. I am hearing that loud and clear.

I also picked up a number of questions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Hayman, on why we have been waiting so long for these regulations. We can all acknowledge—I certainly do—that these regulations have taken longer than expected. However, it has been extremely important that we consulted and engaged extensively to ensure that we are able to take everybody with us on this journey. Again, for the reasons expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, it is important we get this first step right. As noble Lords know, I am relatively new to this. Now that I am seeing it, I will push it forwards as fast as I possibly can.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, also asked why these regulations do nothing about food waste. The fair-dealing powers can be used to address practices that result in on-farm food waste. In sectors where this can be an issue, such as the fresh produce sector, we can intervene and introduce new rules to reduce the amount of food going to waste. However, these regulations apply to the dairy industry, and it is only in extremely rare cases that milk is wasted—a point raised earlier. Our consultation did not reveal that a specific intervention was required to address this in this SI.

In summary, I hope noble Lords will agree that this SI is both necessary and proportionate.

Motion agreed.

Christians: Persecution

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support persecuted Christians around the world.

My Lords, I thank all those who have put down their names to speak tonight on this important but unfortunately largely ignored issue of the global persecution of Christians. I also thank the Minister for being here to respond.

My thanks also go to all those who have contacted those listed to speak tonight for the various briefings which have been put together. The truth is that we probably have enough material on this issue to speak for a very long time this evening—the matter is an expansive one—but we are constrained by the time limits set and should endeavour to respect those. In an effort to comply, I will cite specific examples of Christian persecution to point out the trends I wish to cover rather than try and deal with every country on the watch-list; that would be impossible.

Whether through serendipity or divine intervention, I can think of no better time than Holy Week to bring this issue to the attention of the House. The Bible tells us that this was the time when Jesus suffered greatly, both physically and mentally, knowing the death he would face on Good Friday. It therefore seems appropriate to focus on the great suffering that continues for Christians across the world today.

In January, along with many other MPs and Peers, I attended the launch of the 2024 Open Doors World Watch List here in Parliament. The Minister was there as well. Every year, this organisation compiles a report which sets out the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. This year, the research found that more than 365 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith—around one in seven Christians worldwide.

For those of us living in the United Kingdom, it can often feel as if our faith is not respected and indeed is often belittled, even though we have an established Church here in England and Wales. As Christians in the UK, we may feel marginalised, but to hear that our brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted for their faith in the manner that was outlined was frankly shocking. Yet very little of this persecution is spoken about, never mind acted on, and that needs to change.

Back at Christmas in 2018, the then Bishop of Truro, now the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, was asked by the then Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, to carry out a review into the global persecution of Christians; to map the extent and the nature of the persecution; to assess the quality of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office response; and finally to recommend changes in policy and practice to deal with the issue.

The comprehensive final report, which was published in June 2019, noted that the problem was indeed a global phenomenon. It said that the western response to the problem, however, was no doubt

“tinged by a certain post-Christian bewilderment, if not embarrassment, about matters of faith, and a consequent failure to grasp how for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants faith is not only a primary marker of identity, but also a primary motivation for action (both for good or ill)”.

Religious persecution occurs to a third of the world’s population in some form, with Christians being the most persecuted group, even though freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right. To make things worse, global persecution of Christians is underreported and therefore is not highlighted and responded to in an adequate way. The geographical spread of anti-Christian persecution, and its increasing severity, was noted by the Truro report. Indeed, in some regions, the level and nature of the persecution arguably came close to meeting the UN’s international definition of genocide.

The main impact of the persecution, apart from the individual suffering, is the internal displacement and exodus from various parts of the world. As we come to celebrate Easter in the Christian calendar and all the events that took place in Jerusalem in that Holy Week, we should pay more attention and do something about the fact that Christianity now faces being wiped out in parts of the Middle East, where its roots go back the furthest. In the birthplace of Christ, Christian numbers are at 1.5% of the population. Understandably we have heard much about the plight of our Jewish friends in the region, and indeed the plight of all those living in the region, but rarely do we hear about the tiny Christian minority who are struggling to be heard, let alone helped. In Iraq, the population of Christians has plummeted from 1.5 million to now just over 100,000.

Christianity, which has provided much-needed plurality in the region, is disappearing, and apart from the tragedy which that is for those Christian communities, it has a destabilising impact on the Middle East. I wonder if the Minister, who has great expertise and experience in this area, could comment on that aspect in particular when he makes his remarks.

The Truro report said that Government need to give

“priority and specific targeted support”

to Christian communities—this was

“not only necessary but increasingly urgent”.

Given that recommendation, perhaps the Minister could update us on any specific action that has been taken of the back of that report, given that it is nearly five years since its publication.

This issue of stability and security was a theme explored by the Open Doors launch this year. The title of this year’s report was The Cost of Collapse and the Cost of Control, and it indicated that under the cover of state fragility and failure, violence against Christians has intensified in many parts of the world while, elsewhere, autocratic countries increase their control.

By way of example of state fragility, as sub-Saharan Africa becomes more unstable, religiously motivated violence is intensifying. In 18 of the 26 sub-Saharan countries, 4,606 Christians were killed because of their faith during the 2024 reporting period. The growing violence is causing a displacement crisis as more and more Christians are forced to flee their homes. It is of great concern to me that this displacement of Christians is also happening in India. More than 62,000 Indian Christians were forced to flee their homes during the 2024 reporting period—a huge jump from 380 in 2022 and 834 in 2023. I am sure that His Majesty’s Government are very concerned about this and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s observations on this region, about which we both care deeply.

A subsection, if I may describe it as such, of the persecution of Christians is the treatment of Christian women. Put simply, they are more likely to be the victims of discrimination and persecution than their male counterparts. That could be through people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced marriage—the list continues. This double marginalisation of being a woman and a Christian is underreported as women are often invisible in such societies and poorly represented. For example, there is evidence from Pakistan of Christian girls being groomed, trafficked into sham marriages and forced to convert to become Muslims.

I welcome the fact that the international development White Paper commits the UK to development policies that are inclusive of people marginalised for their religion and belief. As I said earlier, freedom of religion and belief is a key human right but it is sadly ignored in many parts of the world, especially in areas of conflict. We have a proud history of promoting religious freedom in the United Kingdom, so we should be doing more to promote it across the world. Freedom of religion is almost a passport to securing other human rights, such as freedom from fear, the right to family life and the right to privacy. If freedom of religion is not protected, other rights will be overlooked and ignored as well. We talk a lot in this House about creating foreign policies to aid stabilisation, conflict resolution and, importantly, reconciliation. Surely, such aspects of our foreign policy must recognise the needs of religious minorities in formulating conflict and stabilisation policies.

I urge the Minister to implement the recommendations of the Truro report that remain outstanding. In particular, I look forward to the Government establishing the role of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief in statute to add to and underline the excellent work carried out by Fiona Bruce MP. There is also a real and urgent need to include mandatory religious literacy in the training of all FCDO staff. This is particularly important given that, I am sad to say, we cannot take for granted that our civil servants have a working understanding of Christianity any more. In doing so, we need to recognise that there is, according to the Truro report, a reluctance from some diplomats to raise the issue of Christian persecution for fear of upsetting local Administrations. There does not appear to be that reluctance when it comes to other issues that may cause offence locally. Can the Minister comment on how diplomats and staff in the Foreign Office in general can be better equipped to deal with these complex but urgent issues?

I once again thank all noble Lords who will contribute. I hope that the UK can, as recommended in the Truro report, take on the role of a global leader in articulating freedom of religious belief.

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee. I will offer a few reflections of my own.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I felt that we had reached a point where religious persecution had come to an end. On the whole, there was no persecution of Christian belief, certainly in the West, so I and a lot of others were rather surprised that, when John Paul II was elected Pope in 1978, he quite quickly expressed the worldview that he saw the Church as still being subject to persecution. It took some time to think that through. If you grew up in Poland, I suppose you would see things rather differently from how I saw things growing up somewhat later than John Paul II. If you saw the persecution of the Church by Nazis and later under communism, you would have a very different view. Famously, he created an astonishingly prodigious number of saints during his time as Pope, many of them martyrs of the 20th century. I think that spoke very strongly to him. One needs to see this in a broader sense.

While the noble Baroness spoke largely of persecution in the third world—if one is still correct in referring to it as the third world—I will speak about the persecution of Christianity in the West. The persecution that John Paul II was familiar with growing up abated considerably as a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain, but that does not mean it has gone away. In fact, it is present in Europe in a new and virulent form and has spread west. We now see a very large number of attacks on churches in western Europe, prodigiously in France but also in Germany and Spain. We have even seen priests murdered in their churches in France and Spain in the last few years. In Europe, 852 hate crimes were identified in 2022 by the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, with attacks on places of worship, symbols and institutions. That represented a 44% increase. Arson attacks against churches in Europe were up by 75% in 2022.

It is salutary to turn briefly to Canada, where in the last few years 100 churches, I believe all of them Catholic, have been torched and burned to the ground. That arose from a story that the Catholic Church had been involved in the past in some form of creating mass graves of native children. That led to a considerable level of hostility, which expressed itself in these church burnings. On closer examination, the evidence to support those claims seems to have been greatly exaggerated at the very least. This was in Canada—a western, liberal country.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there have been 341 incidents across 43 US states since May 2021. These are just against Catholic churches; there are also incidents of attacks against African American churches and Protestant churches. You can find at least a dozen such attacks on Catholic churches on Wikipedia. The way we think about these things is quite curious; when, in looking for this evidence, I typed into Google “Church attacks USA”, I got back something that said, “Did you mean ‘Church attacks us’?”—it assumed that the Church was attacking us, rather than churches being attacked in the USA. That shows a certain form of bias.

It is important to think about where these attacks are coming from. In France and possibly other parts of Europe, they appear to be associated with Muslims, often illegal immigrants or people in a state of uncertainty who are not settled in that local society. In Canada, they appear to be associated with stories about mass graves of native children. In the United States—I may be touching on a sensitive point here—they appear to be correlated with arguments about abortion and seem to be coming from what might be called a certain strand of liberalism attacking the churches.

That is one of the things that concerns me very greatly, because it is something relatively new and is a matter of considerable concern. We have been free of that, but what starts in America ends up here. Indeed, as an aside, apart from Brexit, I can hardly think of a single original idea that we have produced in Britain that we have not imported from the United States in the last 30 years. I hope it will not happen here, but we need to be wary, because these culture war issues have clearly generated attacks in the United States, and that could come in this direction.

Finally, we badge our international efforts on this subject under the term “freedom of religion or belief”. That is what we advocate and that is what we fight for, to a degree, at least—and my noble friend the Minister is, I am sure, going to answer the question posed by the noble Baroness, as to the extent to which the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office does that. However, that is what we do when we do it: we badge it as freedom of religion or belief. That is a legal and philosophical principle. It is, in its own terms, wholly admirable, but it is also universal and it does not reflect or recognise the particular cultural heritage of this country, which is indeed a Christian heritage, as evidenced by the presence of Bishops on the Benches over here.

It is possibly the wrong question, but I ask only this: is it too much that we might see ourselves not only as international advocates of that universal principle but as particular defenders of Christianity in the rest of the world?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, for tabling this important Question. I thank her for the excellent review that she has already given of what is going on around the world.

It is manifestly clear that some Christian groups are unfairly treated, abused, murdered and discriminated against in many parts of the world. I am patron of Barnabas Aid, which works in many contexts around the world, bringing aid and support to minority Christian groups and refugees. The estimate of Barnabas Aid of, for example, Christian violence in Nigeria since 2009 is that some 45,000 Christians have been murdered. This is to say nothing of the violence and everyday marginalisation of Christian communities in many other parts of the world. In what has been dubbed the ultimate year of elections, with some 64 national elections taking place in 2024, Christians viscerally fear the outcome in some countries, in stark contrast to the much less existential nature of our general election in the United Kingdom this year.

I do not think we can properly pursue this question without considering another question alongside it, which the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, touched upon: namely, does the United Kingdom value its foundational faith any longer? We seem to go out of our way to avoid the use of the word Christian and to speak of “British” values, as if they are a group of virtues standing alone. We may remember that, in 2007, the European Union decided not to mention the Christian roots of Europe at its 50th anniversary. Pope Benedict XVI retorted that this was a form of apostasy against itself. He went on to show that, in culture, landscape, history, law and values, the roots of Europe, and of course of the United Kingdom, are undeniably Christian. We should not be ashamed of declaring so.

My argument takes me directly back to the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Foster: what are we doing to help those Christian people abroad whose commitment to our values leads them to be persecuted? Reference has already been made to the Bishop of Truro’s independent review of 2019, undertaken at the invitation of the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Jeremy Hunt. The review showed the horrifying scale and extent of the suffering of minority Christian groups in places as diverse as Iraq, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Of course, it is important to recognise that we do not limit our concern to Christians only. We should care for everybody. However, the clear evidence is that the name of Christianity is a label of discrimination and suffering. Noble Lords may remember that the Truro report was welcomed by the Times. In the editorial leader column, it was greeted in the following way:

“The West must be ready to support the Christian faith. That, rather than embarrassment, has to be the starting point of our necessary conversations with … followers of other faiths”.

In conclusion, I offer one thought and ask the Minister—a man we deeply respect—a question. The thought is that valuing the faith that the United Kingdom has received, and which has shaped us in so many ways, does not limit our generosity and welcome to other faiths. To repeat what the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, has said, I would be grateful if the Minister could inform us of how many of the 22 recommendations in that review have been implemented, and what is holding up the remaining ones.

My Lords, I too add my congratulations and appreciation to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, on securing this important debate and her comprehensive and moving survey and speech. It is a pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and I pay tribute to his considerable expertise in this area over many years. I am grateful to my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, formerly the Bishop of Truro, for a briefing in advance of this debate. He is not able to be present, but I know he will follow deliberations closely.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, set out so eloquently, the beginning of Holy Week is a fitting time to remember the persecution of Christians across the world and the costs of faith. This persecution has been evident since the very beginning of the Church. Even so, it is extremely sobering and moving to reflect that, according to Open Doors, 365 million Christians face some sort of persecution worldwide—about one in seven of the global Christian population. I also note with other noble Lords the disproportionate consequences and costs for women and girls.

We pay tribute today to the courage and perseverance of persecuted Christians, and, in turn, appreciate the freedom of belief which is a feature of our own democracy. As the historian Tom Holland argued recently in his powerful book, Dominion, many of the core values of our society can be traced directly to our Christian heritage and need to be sustained by that Christian heritage now.

However, this debate has a broader significance, because freedom of religion or belief, and violations against anyone, can be important indicators of the state of human rights in any context globally. As the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said:

“Freedom of religion or belief rightly has been termed a ‘gateway’ to other freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.

An approach that guarantees freedom of religion or belief for all, as advocated by the Truro review, is the best way of addressing Christian persecution for two important reasons. First, singling out Christians inevitably others them, increasing their vulnerability. It is also antithetical to the Christian faith itself to favour Christians over other faiths. Christianity puts no limit on its definitions of who is our neighbour, so it is wrong to argue theologically for special treatment of persecuted Christians. Secondly, it is also impossible to support persecuted Christians without supporting the freedom of religion or belief of all persons. Freedom of religion or belief is intertwined with other human rights and a matter of legally binding international human rights obligations.

We need to note and acknowledge in this debate that we have seen a regrettable increase in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom since the terrible 7 October attacks and the devastating conflict in Gaza. The work of faith leaders building bridges, strong relationships and understanding locally has been a vital part of the local response to events in Israel a