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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022

Online Safety Bill (Thirteenth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Sir Roger Gale, †Christina Rees

† Ansell, Caroline (Eastbourne) (Con)

† Bailey, Shaun (West Bromwich West) (Con)

† Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

† Carden, Dan (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)

† Davies-Jones, Alex (Pontypridd) (Lab)

† Double, Steve (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)

† Fletcher, Nick (Don Valley) (Con)

† Holden, Mr Richard (North West Durham) (Con)

† Keeley, Barbara (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab)

† Leadbeater, Kim (Batley and Spen) (Lab)

† Miller, Dame Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)

Mishra, Navendu (Stockport) (Lab)

† Moore, Damien (Southport) (Con)

Nicolson, John (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP)

† Philp, Chris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

† Russell, Dean (Watford) (Con)

Stevenson, Jane (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)

Katya Cassidy, Kevin Maddison, Seb Newman, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 21 June 2022


[Christina Rees in the Chair]

Online Safety Bill

We are now sitting in public and proceedings are being broadcast. Please switch electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during the sitting. I understand the Government wish to move a motion to amend the programme order agreed by the Committee, so that the Committee’s session at 2pm on Thursday will not take place.

I beg to move,

That the Order of the Committee of 24 May 2022, as amended on 26 May 2022, be further amended, in paragraph (1)(h), by leaving out “and 2.00pm”.

In the light of the rail strike on Thursday, I am grateful to the Opposition Front Bench for agreeing to the suggestion that the Committee does not sit that afternoon.

Because this motion has not been agreed by the programming sub-committee, it may only be proceeded with if everyone is content. Does anyone object to the motion?

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 118

Penalty for failure to comply with confirmation decision

We now come to amendment 135 to clause 118, with which it will be convenient to discuss amendments 136 to 138. All these amendments have been tabled by Carla Lockhart, who is not a member of the Committee. Would any Member like to move the amendment? I see no Member wishing to do that.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause 119 stand part.

Government amendments 154 to 157.

Clauses 120 and 121 stand part.

Bore da, Ms Rees. It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I rise to speak to clauses 118 to 121 and Government amendments 154 to 157.

As we all know, clause 118 is important and allows Ofcom to impose a financial penalty on a person who fails to complete steps that have been required by Ofcom in a confirmation decision. This is absolutely vital if we are to guarantee that regulated platforms take seriously their responsibilities in keeping us all safe online. We support the use of fines. They are key to overall behavioural change, particularly in the context of personal liability. We welcome clause 118, which outlines the steps Ofcom can take in what we hope will become a powerful deterrent.

Labour also welcomes clause 119. It is vital that Ofcom has these important powers to impose a financial penalty on a person who fails to comply with a notice that requires technology to be implemented to identify and deal with content relating to terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse on their service. These are priority harms and the more that can be done to protect us on these two points the better.

Government amendments 155 and 157 ensure that Ofcom has the power to impose a monetary penalty on a provider of a service who fails to pay a fee that it is required to pay under new schedule 2. We see these amendments as crucial in giving Ofcom the important powers it needs to be an effective regulator, which is something we all require. We have some specific observations around new schedule 2, but I will save those until we consider that schedule. For now, we support these amendments and I look forward to outlining our thoughts shortly.

We support clause 120, which allows Ofcom to give a penalty notice to a provider of a regulated service who does not pay the fee due to Ofcom in full. This a vital provision that also ensures that Ofcom’s process to impose a penalty can progress only when it has given due notice to the provider and once the provider has had fair opportunity to make fair representations to Ofcom. This is a fair approach and is central to the Bill, which is why we have not sought to amend.

Finally, we support clause 121, which ensures that Ofcom must state the reasons why it is imposing a penalty, the amount of the penalty and any aggravating or mitigating factors. Ofcom must also state when the penalty must be paid. It is imperative that when issuing a notice Ofcom is incentivised to publish information about the amount, aggravating or mitigating factors and when the penalty must be paid. We support this important clause and have not sought to amend.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Ms Rees, and I congratulate Committee members on evading this morning’s strike action.

I am delighted that the shadow Minister supports the intent behind these clauses, and I will not speak at great length given the unanimity on this topic. As she said, clause 118 allows Ofcom to impose a financial penalty for failure to take specified steps by a deadline set by Ofcom. The maximum penalty that can be imposed is the greater of £18 million or 10% of qualifying worldwide revenue. In the case of large companies, it is likely to be a much larger amount than £18 million.

Clause 119 enables Ofcom to impose financial penalties if the recipient of a section 103 notice does not comply by the deadline. It is very important to ensure that section 103 has proper teeth. Government amendments 154 to 157 make changes that allow Ofcom to recover not only the cost of running the service once the Bill comes into force and into the future but also the preparatory cost of setting up for the Bill to come into force.

As previously discussed, £88 million of funding is being provided to Ofcom in this financial year and next. We believe that something like £20 million of costs that predate these financial years have been funded as well. That adds up to around £108 million. However, the amount that Ofcom recovers will be the actual cost incurred. The figure I provided is simply an indicative estimate. The actual figure would be based on the real costs, which Ofcom would be able to recoup under these measures. That means that the taxpayer—our constituents —will not bear any of the costs, including the set-up and preparatory cost. This is an equitable and fair change to the Bill.

Clause 120 sets out that some regulated providers will be required to pay a regulatory fee to Ofcom, as set out in clause 71. Clause 120 allows Ofcom to impose a financial penalty if a regulated provider does not pay its fee by the deadline it sets. Finally, clause 121 sets out the information that needs to be included in these penalty notices issued by Ofcom.

I have questions about the management of the fees and the recovery of the preparatory cost. Does the Minister expect that the initial fees will be higher as a result of having to recoup the preparatory cost and will then reduce? How quickly will the preparatory cost be recovered? Will Ofcom recover it quickly or over a longer period of time?

The Bill provides a power for Ofcom to recover those costs. It does not specify over what time period. I do not think they will be recouped over a period of years. Ofcom can simply recoup the costs in a single hit. I would imagine that Ofcom would seek to recover these costs pretty quickly after receiving these powers. The £108 million is an estimate. The actual figure may be different once the reconciliation and accounting is done. It sounds like a lot of money, but it is spread among a number of very large social media firms. It is not a large amount of money for them in the context of their income, so I would expect that recouping to be done on an expeditious basis—not spread over a number of years. That is my expectation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 118 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 119 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 120

Non-payment of fee

Amendments made: 154, in clause 120, page 102, line 20, after “71” insert:

“or Schedule (Recovery of OFCOM’s initial costs)”.

This amendment, and Amendments 155 to 157, ensure that Ofcom have the power to impose a monetary penalty on a provider of a service who fails to pay a fee that they are required to pay under NS2.

Amendment 155, in clause 120, page 102, line 21, leave out “that section” and insert “Part 6”.

Amendment 156, in clause 120, page 102, line 26, after “71” insert—

“or Schedule (Recovery of OFCOM’s initial costs)”

Amendment 157, in clause 120, page 103, line 12, at end insert—

“or Schedule (Recovery of OFCOM’s initial costs)”.—(Chris Philp.)

Clause 120, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 121 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 122

Amount of penalties etc

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss:

Government amendment 158.

That schedule 12 be the Twelfth schedule to the Bill.

Labour supports clause 122 and schedule 12, which set out in detail the financial penalties that Ofcom may impose, including the maximum penalty that can be imposed. Labour has long supported financial penalties for those failing to comply with the duties in the Bill. We firmly believe that tough action is needed on online safety, but we feel the sanctions should go further and that there should be criminal liability for offences beyond just information-related failures. We welcome clause 122 and schedule 12. It is vital that Ofcom is also required to produce guidelines around how it will determine penalty amounts. Consistency across the board is vital, so we feel this is a positive step forward and have not sought to amend the clause.

Paragraph 8 of schedule 12 requires monetary penalties to be paid into the consolidated fund. There is no change to that requirement, but it now appears in new clause 43, together with the requirement to pay fees charged under new schedule 2 into the consolidated fund. We therefore support the amendments.

I have nothing further to add on these amendments. The shadow Minister has covered them, so I will not detain the Committee further.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 122 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 12

Penalties imposed by OFCOM under Chapter 6 of Part 7

Amendment made: 158, in schedule 12, page 206, line 43, leave out paragraph 8.—(Chris Philp.)

Paragraph 8 of Schedule 12 requires monetary penalties to be paid into the Consolidated Fund. There is no change to that requirement, but it now appears in NC43 together with the requirement to pay fees charged under NS2 into the Consolidated Fund.

Schedule 12, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 123

Service restriction orders

I beg to move amendment 50, in clause 123, page 106, line 36, at end insert—

“(9A) OFCOM may apply to the court for service restriction orders against multiple regulated services with one application, through the use of a schedule of relevant services which includes all the information required by subsection (5).”

This amendment would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while still preserving the right of those sites to oppose the application for, and/or appeal through the courts against any, orders to block access or support services.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 51, in clause 125, page 110, line 20, at end insert—

“(7A) OFCOM may apply to the court for service restriction orders against multiple regulated services with one application, through the use of a schedule of relevant services which includes all the information required by subsection (6).”

This amendment would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while still preserving the right of those sites to oppose the application for, and/or appeal through the courts against any, orders to block access or support services.

With your permission, Ms Rees, I will speak to clause stand part and clauses 124 to 127 at the same time. Labour supports clause 123, which outlines the powers that Ofcom will have when applying to the court for business disruption measures. Business disruption measures are court orders that require third parties to withdraw services or block access to non-compliant regulated services. It is right that Ofcom has these tools at its disposal, particularly if it is going to be able to regulate effectively against the most serious instances of user harm. However, the Bill will be an ineffective regime if Ofcom is forced to apply for separate court orders when trying to protect people across the board from the same harms. We have already waited too long for change. Labour is committed to giving Ofcom the powers to take action, where necessary, as quickly as possible. That is why we have tabled amendments 50 and 51, which we feel will go some way in tackling these issues.

Amendment 50 would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while still preserving the right of those sites to oppose the application for—and/or appeal through the courts against any—orders to block access or support services. The Bill currently requires Ofcom to seek a separate court order for each service against which it wishes to take enforcement action in the form of blocking access or services. That is the only effective mechanism for overseas websites. UK-based services will be subject to enforcement notices and financial penalties that can be enforced without having to go to court. That creates a disadvantage for UK sites, which can be more easily enforced against.

Given that there are 4 million to 5 million pornographic websites, for example, the requirement for separate court orders will prevent Ofcom from taking action at scale and creating a level playing field for all adult sites. Under the Bill, Ofcom must take action against each offending website or social media company individually. While we acknowledge that the Government have stated that enforcement action can be taken against multiple offending content providers, in our opinion that is not made clear in the Bill.

Moreover, we are concerned that some pornography websites would seek to avoid the Bill’s requirements by changing their domain name—domain hopping. That was threatened last year when Germany moved to issue a blocking order against major providers of internet pornography. That is why Ofcom must be granted clear enforcement powers to take swift action against multiple websites and content providers in one court action or order.

This group of amendments would also provide clarity and ease of enforcement for internet service providers, which will be expected to enforce court orders. Labour wants the Bill to be genuinely effective, and amendments 50 and 51 could ensure that Ofcom has the tools available to it to take action at pace. We urge the Minister to accept these small concessions, which could have a hugely positive impact.

Amendment 51 would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while preserving the right of those sites to oppose an application for an order to block access or support services, or to appeal through the courts against any such order.

It will come as no surprise that Labour supports clause 124, which sets out the circumstances in which Ofcom may apply to the courts for an interim service restriction order. We particularly support the need for Ofcom to be able to take action when time is not on its side, or where, put plainly, the level of harm being caused means that it would be inappropriate to wait for a definite failure before taking action.

However, we hope that caution is exercised if Ofcom ever needs to consider such an interim order; we must, of course, get the balance right in our approach to internet regulation more widely. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could outline his understanding of the specifics of when these orders may be applied. More broadly, Labour agrees that Ofcom should be given the power to act when time demands it, so we have not sought to amend clause 124 at this stage.

Labour also supports the need for Ofcom to have the power to apply to the courts for an access restriction order, as outlined in clause 125. It is vital that Ofcom is given the power to prevent, restrict or deter individuals in the UK from accessing a service from a non-compliant provider. We welcome the specific provisions on access via internet service providers and app stores. We all know from Frances Haugen’s testimony that harmful material can often be easily buried, so it is right and proper that those are considered as “access facilities” under the clause. Ultimately, we support the intentions of clause 125 and, again, have not sought to amend it at this stage.

We also support clause 126, which sets out the circumstances in which Ofcom may apply to the courts for an interim access restriction order. I will not repeat myself: for the reasons I have already outlined, it is key that Ofcom has sufficient powers to act, particularly on occasions when it is inappropriate to wait for a failure to be established.

We welcome clause 127, which clarifies how Ofcom’s enforcement powers can interact. We particularly welcome clarification that, where Ofcom exercises its power to apply to the courts for a business disruption order under clauses 123 to 126, it is not precluded from taking action under its other enforcement powers. As we have repeatedly reiterated, we welcome Ofcom’s having sufficient power to reasonably bring about positive change and increase safety measures online. That is why we have not sought to amend clause 127.

Thank you for chairing this morning’s sitting, Ms Rees.

I agree with the hon. Member for Pontypridd that these clauses are necessary and important, but I also agree that the amendments are important. It seems like this is a kind of tidying-up exercise, to give Ofcom the ability to act in a way that will make its operation smoother. We all want this legislation to work. This is not an attempt to break this legislation—to be fair, none of our amendments have been—but an attempt to make things work better.

Amendments 50 and 51 are fairly similar to the one that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children proposed to clause 103. They would ensure that Ofcom could take action against a group of sites, particularly if they were facing the same kind of issues, they had the same kind of functionality, or the same kind of concerns were being raised about them.

If the Minister does not intend to accept amendments 50 and 51, will he at least ensure that if Ofcom comes to the Secretary of State and says, “Look, we’re really struggling because we’ve got to do all of these applications individually,” there is some power or ability for the Secretary of State or Parliament to amend this legislation to ensure that Ofcom’s ability to act is not hampered? This is not about Ofcom bringing cases against people who should not have cases brought against them; it is just about making the paperwork easier for Ofcom. These clauses may not allow delegated powers, but will the Minister commit to considering the issue at a future stage? Obviously, the Bill will go to the other place afterwards. If the Minister were to consider including the provision at a future point, that would make the legislation better, and it would make it easier for Ofcom to operate. We do not want Ofcom to spend money and time unnecessarily; we want it to focus on making a big difference. If it is mired in unnecessary extra paperwork, its ability to do so will be hampered.

If no other Members wish to speak to amendments 50 and 51 and clauses 123 to 127, I will call the Minister to respond.

Let me start with amendments 50 and 51, which were introduced by the shadow Minister and supported by the SNP spokesperson. The Government recognise the valid intent behind the amendments, namely to make sure that applications can be streamlined and done quickly, and that Ofcom can make bulk applications if large numbers of service providers violate the new duties to the extent that interim service restriction orders or access restriction orders become necessary.

We want a streamlined process, and we want Ofcom to deal efficiently with it, including, if necessary, by making bulk applications to the court. Thankfully, however, procedures under the existing civil procedure rules already allow so-called multi-party claims to be made. Those claims permit any number of claimants, any number of defendants or respondents and any number of claims to be covered in a single form. The overriding objective of the CPR is that cases are dealt with justly and proportionately. Under the existing civil procedure rules, Ofcom can already make bulk applications to deal with very large numbers of non-compliant websites and service providers in one go. We completely agree with the intent behind the amendments, but their content is already covered by the CPR.

It is worth saying that the business disruption measures—the access restriction orders and the service restriction orders—are intended to be a last resort. They effectively amount to unplugging the websites from the internet so that people in the United Kingdom cannot access them and so that supporting services, such as payment services, do not support them. The measures are quite drastic, although necessary and important, because we do not want companies and social media firms ignoring our legislation. It is important that we have strong measures, but they are last resorts. We would expect Ofcom to use them only when it has taken reasonable steps to enforce compliance using other means.

If a provider outside the UK ignores letters and fines, these measures are the only option available. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd, mentioned, some pornography providers probably have no intention of even attempting to comply with our regulations; they are probably not based in the UK, they are never going to pay the fine and they are probably incorporated in some obscure, offshore jurisdiction. Ofcom will need to use these powers in such circumstances, possibly on a bulk scale—I am interested in her comment that that is what the German authorities had to do—but the powers already exist in the CPR.

It is also worth saying that in its application to the courts, Ofcom must set out the information required in clauses 123(5) and 125(3), so evidence that backs up the claim can be submitted, but that does not stop Ofcom doing this on a bulk basis and hitting multiple different companies in one go. Because the matter is already covered in the CPR, I ask the shadow Minister to withdraw the amendment.

I am interested to know whether the Minister has anything to add about the other clauses. I am happy to give way to him.

I thank the shadow Minister for giving way. I do not have too much to say on the other clauses, because she has introduced them, but in my enthusiasm for explaining the civil procedure rules I neglected to respond to her question about the interim orders in clauses 124 and 126.

The hon. Lady asked what criteria have to be met for these interim orders to be made. The conditions for clause 124 are set out in subsections (3) and (4) of that clause, which states, first, that it has to be

“likely that the…service is failing to comply with an enforceable requirement”—

so it is likely that there has been a breach—and, secondly, that

“the level of risk of harm to individuals in the United Kingdom…and the nature and severity of that harm, are such that it would not be appropriate to wait to establish the failure before applying for the order.”

Similar language in clause 124(4) applies to breaches of section 103.

Essentially, if it is likely that there has been a breach, and if the resulting harm is urgent and severe—for example, if children are at risk—we would expect these interim orders to be used as emergency measures to prevent very severe harm. I hope that answers the shadow Minister’s question. She is very kind, as is the Chair, to allow such a long intervention.

In a Bill Committee, a Member can speak more than once. However, your intervention resolved the situation amicably, Minister.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about clauses 124 and 126 in answer to my questions, and also his comments about amendments 50 and 51, clarifying the CPR. If the legislation is truly to have any impact, it must fundamentally give clarity to service users, providers and regulators. That is why we seek to remove any ambiguity and to put these important measures in the Bill, and it is why I will press amendment 50 to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 123 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 124 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 125

Access restriction orders

Amendment proposed: 51, in clause 125, page 110, line 20, at end insert—

“(7A) OFCOM may apply to the court for service restriction orders against multiple regulated services with one application, through the use of a schedule of relevant services which includes all the information required by subsection (6).”—(Alex Davies-Jones.)

This amendment would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while still preserving the right of those sites to oppose the application for, and/or appeal through the courts against any, orders to block access or support services.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 125 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 126 and 127 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 128

Publication of details of enforcement action

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Minister and his Back Benchers will, I am sure, be tired of our calls for more transparency, but I will be kind to him and confirm that Labour welcomes the provisions in clause 128.

We believe that it is vital that, once Ofcom has followed the process outlined in clause 110 when issuing a confirmation decision outlining its final decision, that is made public. We particularly welcome provisions to ensure that when a confirmation decision is issued, Ofcom will be obliged to publish the identity of the person to whom the decision was sent, details of the failure to which the decision relates, and details relating to Ofcom’s response.

Indeed, the transparency goes further, as Ofcom will be obliged to publish details of when a penalty notice has been issued in many more areas: when a person fails to comply with a confirmation decision; when a person fails to comply with a notice to deal with terrorism content or child sexual exploitation and abuse content, or both; and when there has been a failure to pay a fee in full. That is welcome indeed. Labour just wishes that the Minister had committed to the same level of transparency on the duties in the Bill to keep us safe in the first place. That said, transparency on enforcement is a positive step forward, so we have not sought to amend the clause at this stage.

I am grateful for the shadow Minister’s support. I have nothing substantive to add, other than to point to the transparency reporting obligation in clause 64, which we have debated.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 128 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 129

OFCOM’s guidance about enforcement action

I beg to move amendment 7, in clause 129, page 114, line 3, at end insert—

“(aa) the Information Commissioner, and”.

This amendment ensures that before Ofcom produce guidance about their exercise of their enforcement powers, they must consult the Information Commissioner.

If I may, in the interest of speed and convenience, I will speak to clause stand part as well.

The clause requires Ofcom to issue guidance setting out how it will use its enforcement powers in the round. That guidance will ensure that the enforcement process is transparent, it will cover the general principles and processes of the enforcement regime, and it is intended to help regulated providers and other stakeholders to understand how Ofcom will exercise its powers.

Government amendment 7 seeks to make it mandatory for Ofcom to consult the Information Commissioner’s Office before producing guidance on how Ofcom will exercise its enforcement powers in relation to the enforceable requirements in the Bill. That is important because the Information Commissioner’s Office has a significant interest in matters of data protection and privacy, and we want to make sure its opinion is properly taken into account before changes are made. We therefore think it is appropriate that the Information Commissioner’s Office is consulted in such circumstances.

Clause 129(4) states that the Secretary of State will be consulted in the process. What would be the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to that? Would she be able to overrule Ofcom in the writing of its guidance?

The hon. Member asks for my assistance in interpreting legislative language. Generally speaking, “consult” means what it suggests. Ofcom will consult the Secretary of State, as it will consult the ICO, to ascertain the Secretary of State’s opinion, but Ofcom is not bound by that opinion. Unlike the power in a previous clause—I believe it was clause 40—where the Secretary of State could issue a direct instruction to Ofcom on certain matters, here we are talking simply about consulting. When the Secretary of State expresses an opinion in response to the consultation, it is just that—an opinion. I would not expect it to be binding on Ofcom, but I would expect Ofcom to pay proper attention to the views of important stakeholders, which in this case include both the Secretary of State and the ICO. I hope that gives the hon. Member the clarification he was seeking.

As we know, clause 129 requires Ofcom to publish guidance about how it will use its enforcement powers. It is right that regulated providers and other stakeholders have a full understanding of how, and in what circumstances, Ofcom will have the legislative power to exercise this suite of enforcement powers. We also welcome Government amendment 7, which will ensure that the Information Commissioner—a key and, importantly, independent authority—is included in the consultation before guidance is produced.

As we have just heard, however, the clause sets out that Secretary of State must be consulted before Ofcom produces guidance, including revised or replacement guidance, about how it will use its enforcement powers. We feel that that involves the Secretary of State far too closely in the enforcement of the regime. The Government should be several steps away from being involved, and the clause seriously undermines Ofcom’s independence—the importance of which we have been keen to stress as the Bill progresses, and on which Conservative Back Benchers have shared our view—so we cannot support the clause.

I repeat the point I made to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton a moment ago. This is simply an obligation to consult. The clause gives the Secretary of State an opportunity to offer an opinion, but it is just that—an opinion. It is not binding on Ofcom, which may take that opinion into account or not at its discretion. This provision sits alongside the requirement to consult the Information Commissioner’s Office. I respectfully disagree with the suggestion that it represents unwarranted and inappropriate interference in the operation of a regulator. Consultation between organs of state is appropriate and sensible, but in this case it does not fetter Ofcom’s ability to act at its own discretion. I respectfully do not agree with the shadow Minister’s analysis.

Apologies, Ms Rees, for coming in a bit late on this, but I was not aware of the intention to vote against the clause. I want to make clear what the Scottish National party intends to do, and the logic behind it. The inclusion of Government amendment 7 is sensible, and I am glad that the Minister has tabled it. Clause 129 is incredibly important, and the requirement to publish guidance will ensure that there is a level of transparency, which we and the Labour Front Benchers have been asking for.

The Minister has been clear about the requirement for Ofcom to consult the Secretary of State, rather than to be directed by them. As a whole, this Bill gives the Secretary of State far too much power, and far too much ability to intervene in the workings of Ofcom. In this case, however, I do not have an issue with the Secretary of State being consulted, so I intend to support the inclusion of this clause, as amended by Government amendment 7.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment 7 agreed to.

Clause 129, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 130

Advisory committee on disinformation and misinformation

I beg to move amendment 57, in clause 130, page 115, line 4, leave out “18” and insert “6”

This amendment changes the period by which the advisory committee must report from 18 months to 6.

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 58, in clause 130, page 115, line 5, at end insert—

‘(6) Following the publication of the report, OFCOM must produce a code of practice setting out the steps services should take to reduce disinformation across their systems.”

This amendment requires Ofcom to produce a code of practice on system-level disinformation.

Clause stand part.

Clause 130 sets up a committee to advise Ofcom on misinformation and disinformation, which is the only direct reference to misinformation and disinformation in the entire Online Safety Bill. However, the Bill gives the committee no identifiable powers or active role in tackling harmful misinformation and disinformation, meaning that it has limited practical purpose. It is also unclear how the advisory committee will fit with Ofcom’s wider regulatory functions.

The remaining provisions in the Bill are limited and do not properly address harmful misinformation and disinformation. If tackling harmful misinformation and disinformation is left to this clause, the Bill will fail both to tackle harm properly, and to keep children and adults safe.

The clause risks giving a misleading impression that action is being taken. If the Government and Ofcom proceed with creating the committee, we need to see that its remit is strengthened and clarified, so that it more effectively tackles harmful disinformation and misinformation. That should include advising on Ofcom’s research, reporting on drivers of harmful misinformation and disinformation, and proportionate responses to them. There should also be a duty on Ofcom to consult the committee when drafting relevant codes of practice.

That is why we have tabled amendment 57. It would change the period by which the advisory committee must report from 18 months to six. This is a simple amendment that encourages scrutiny. Once again, the Minister surely has little reason not to accept it, especially as we have discussed at length the importance of the advisory committee having the tools that it needs to succeed.

Increasing the regularity of these reports from the advisory committee is vital, particularly given the ever-changing nature of the internet. Labour has already raised concerns about the lack of futureproofing in the Bill more widely, and we feel that the advisory committee has an important role and function to play in areas where the Bill itself is lacking. We are not alone in this view; the Minister has heard from his Back Benchers about just how important this committee is.

Amendment 58 would require Ofcom to produce a code of practice on system-level disinformation. Again, this amendment will come as no surprise to the Minister, given the concerns that Labour has repeatedly raised about the lack of provisions relating to disinformation in the Bill. It seems like an obvious omission that the Bill has failed to consider a specific code of practice around reducing disinformation, and the amendment would be a simple way to ensure that Ofcom actively encourages services to reduce disinformation across their platforms. The Minister knows that this would be a welcome step, and I urge him to consider supporting the amendment.

I want to briefly agree with the sentiments of the Opposition Front Bench, especially about the strength of the committee and the lack of teeth that it currently has. Given that the Government have been clear that they are very concerned about misinformation and disinformation, it seems odd that they are covered in the Bill in such a wishy-washy way.

The reduction of the time from 18 months to six months would also make sense. We would expect the initial report the committee publish in six months to not be as full as the ones it would publish after that. I do not see any issue with it being required to produce a report as soon as possible to assess how the Act is bedding in and beginning to work, rather than having to wait to assess—potentially once the Act is properly working. We want to be able to pick up any teething problems that the Act might have.

We want the committee to be able to say, “Actually, this is not working quite as we expected. We suggest that Ofcom operates in a slightly different way or that the interaction with providers happens in a slightly different way.” I would rather that problems with the Act were tackled as early as possible. We will not know about problems with the Act, because there is no proper review mechanism. There is no agreement on the committee, for example, to look at how the Act is operating. This is one of the few parts of the Bill where we have got an agreement to a review, and it would make sense that it happen as early as possible.

We agree that misinformation and disinformation are very important matters that really need to be tackled, but there is just not enough clout in the Bill to allow Ofcom to properly tackle these issues that are causing untold harm.

When I spoke at the very beginning of the Committee’s proceedings, I said that the legislation was necessary, that it was a starting point and that it would no doubt change and develop over time. However, I have been surprised at how little, considering all of the rhetoric we have heard from the Secretary of State and other Ministers, the Bill actually deals with the general societal harm that comes from the internet. This is perhaps the only place in the Bill where it is covered.

I am thinking of the echo chambers that are created around disinformation and the algorithms that companies use. I really want to hear from the Minister where he sees this developing and why it is so weak and wishy-washy. While I welcome that much of the Bill seeks to deal with the criminality of individuals and the harm and abuse that can be carried out over the internet, overall it misses a great opportunity to deal with the harmful impact the internet can have on society.

Let me start by speaking on the issue of disinformation more widely, which clearly is the target of the two amendments and the topic of clause 130. First, it is worth reminding the Committee that non-legislatively—operationally—the Government are taking action on the disinformation problem via the counter-disinformation unit of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which we have discussed previously.

The unit has been established to monitor social media firms and sites for disinformation and then to take action and work with social media firms to take it down. For the first couple of years of its operation, it understandably focused on disinformation connected to covid. In the last two or three months, it has focused on disinformation relating to the Russia-Ukraine conflict —in particular propaganda being spread by the Russian Government, which, disgracefully, has included denying responsibility for various atrocities, including those committed at Bucha. In fact, in cases in which the counter-disinformation unit has not got an appropriate response from social media firms, those issues have been escalated to me, and I have raised them directly with those firms, including Twitter, which has tolerated all kinds of disinformation from overt Russian state outlets and channels, including from Russian embassy Twitter accounts, which are of particular concern to me. Non-legislative action is being taken via the CDU.

I would also point to the legislative action that is currently in train. The Committee will be aware that the National Security Bill had its Second Reading a week or two ago. Colleagues who have studied that Bill—as I am sure they have—will have noticed that clause 13 creates a new foreign interference offence, and that cross-refers to clause 24 in that Bill. I may be over-reaching by trying to memorise two Bills rather than one, but I think those references are right.

That new foreign interference offence, which is being criminalised separately from this Bill, makes it a criminal offence for a foreign state-backed organisation to propagate disinformation, and it specifies the circumstances or conditions that have to be met. I observe in passing that once the National Security Bill has received Royal Assent, it will be possible to add that offence to the Online Safety Bill as a priority offence under schedule 7, so levers will be available.

In addition, for certain kinds of disinformation and misinformation that cause adults harm, it will be possible for that harm to be designated in secondary legislation as a priority category of harm. We may discuss that further in due course.

It is fantastic to hear that those other things are happening—that is all well and good—but surely we should explicitly call out disinformation and misinformation in the Online Safety Bill. The package of other measures that the Minister mentions is fantastic, but I think they have to be in the Bill.

The hon. Lady says that those measures should be in the Bill—more than they already are—but as I have pointed out, the way in which the legal architecture of the Bill works means that the mechanisms to do that would be adding a criminal offence to schedule 7 as a priority offence, for example, or using a statutory instrument to designate the relevant kind of harm as a priority harm, which we plan to do in due course for a number of harms. The Bill can cover disinformation with the use of those mechanisms.

We have not put the harmful to adults content in the Bill; it will be set out in statutory instruments. The National Security Bill is still progressing through Parliament, and we cannot have in schedule 7 of this Bill an offence that has not yet been passed by Parliament. I hope that that explains the legal architecture and mechanisms that could be used under the Bill to give force to those matters.

On amendment 57, the Government feel that six months is a very short time within which to reach clear conclusions, and that 18 months is a more appropriate timeframe in which to understand how the Bill is bedding in and operating. Amendment 58 would require Ofcom to produce a code of practice on system-level disinformation. To be clear, the Bill already requires Ofcom to produce codes of practice that set out the steps that providers will take to tackle illegal content— I mentioned the new National Security Bill, which is going through Parliament—and harmful content, which may, in some circumstances, include disinformation.

Disinformation that is illegal or harmful to individuals is in scope of the duties set out in the Bill. Ofcom’s codes of practice will, as part of those duties, have to set out the steps that providers should take to reduce harm to users that arises from such disinformation. Those steps could include content-neutral design choices or interventions of other kinds. We would like Ofcom to have a certain amount of flexibility in how it develops those codes of practice, including by being able to combine or disaggregate those codes in ways that are most helpful to the general public and the services that have to pay regard to them. That is why we have constructed them in the way we have. I hope that provides clarity about the way that disinformation can be brought into the scope of the Bill and how that measure then flows through to the codes of practice. I gently resist amendments 57 and 58 while supporting the clause standing part of the Bill.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 58, in clause 130, page 115, line 5, at end insert—

‘(6) Following the publication of the report, OFCOM must produce a code of practice setting out the steps services should take to reduce disinformation across their systems.”—(Alex Davies-Jones.)

This amendment requires Ofcom to produce a code of practice on system-level disinformation.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 130 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 131

Functions of the Content Board

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The clause allows Ofcom to confer functions on the content board in relation to content-related functions under the Bill, but does not require it to do so. We take the view that how Ofcom manages its responsibilities internally is a matter for Ofcom. That may change over time. The clause simply provides that Ofcom may, if Ofcom wishes, ask its content board to consider online safety matters alongside its existing responsibilities. I trust that the Committee considers that a reasonable measure.

Labour welcomes the clause, which, as the Minister has said, sets out some important clarifications with respect to the Communications Act 2003. We welcome the clarification that the content board will have delegated and advisory responsibilities, and look forward to the Minister’s confirmation of exactly what those are and how this will work in practice. It is important that the content board and the advisory committee on disinformation and misinformation are compelled to communicate, too, so we look forward to an update from the Minister on what provisions in the Bill will ensure that that happens.

The shadow Minister has asked how this will work in practice, but as I said, the internal operation of Ofcom obviously is a matter for Ofcom. As Members have said in the recent past—indeed, in the last hour—they do not welcome undue Government interference in the operation of Ofcom, so it is right that we leave this as a matter for Ofcom. We are providing Ofcom with the power, but we are not compelling it to use that power. We are respecting Ofcom’s operational independence—a point that shadow Ministers and Opposition Members have made very recently.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 131 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 132

Research about users’ experiences of regulated services

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

We support clause 132, which ensures that Ofcom is required to understand and measure public opinion concerning providers of regulated services, as well as the experiences and interests of those using the regulated services in question. The Bill in its entirety is very much a learning curve for us all, and I am sure we all agree that, as previously maintained, the world really is watching as we seek to develop and implement the legislation. That is why it is vital that Ofcom is compelled to conduct and arrange its own research to ensure that we are getting an accurate picture of how our regulatory framework is affecting people. I stress to the Minister that it is imperative that Ofcom consults all service providers—big and small—which the CBI stressed to me in recent meetings.

We also welcome the provisions outlined in subsection (2) that confirm that Ofcom must include a statement of its research in its annual report to the Secretary of State and the devolved Administrations. It is important that Ofcom, as a regulator, takes a research-led approach, and Labour is pleased to see these provisions included in the Bill.

We welcome the inclusion of clause 133, which extends the communication panel’s remit to include online safety. This will mean that the panel is able to give advice on matters relating to different types of online content under the Bill, and on the impacts of online content on UK users of regulated services. It is a welcome step forward, so we have not sought to amend the clause.

I want to make one short comment about clauses 132 and 133, which are really important. There is no intention to interfere with or fetter the way that Ofcom operates, but there is an obligation on this Committee, and on Parliament, to indicate what we would expect to see from Ofcom by way of the clauses, because they are an essential part of the transparency that we are trying to inject into the sector.

Research about users’ experiences is hugely important, and such reports contain important insights into how platforms are used, and the levels of misinformation and disinformation that people are exposed to. Ofcom already produces highly authoritative reports on various aspects of the online world, including the fact that three in four adults do not think about whether the online information that they see is truthful. Indeed, one in three adults believes that all or most information that they find online is truthful. We know that there is a significant gap between consumers perception and reality, so it is important to ensure that research has good exposure among those using the internet.

We do not often hear about the problems of how the online world works, and the level of disinformation and inaccuracy is not well known, so will the Minister elaborate on how he expects Ofcom to ensure that people are aware of the reality of the online world? Platforms will presumably be required to have regard to the content of Ofcom reports, but will Ofcom be required to publicise its reports? It is not clear that such a duty is in the Bill at the moment, so does the Minister expect Ofcom to have a role in educating people, especially children, about the problem of inaccurate data or other aspects of the online world?

We know that a number of platforms spend a great deal of money on going into schools and talking about their products, which may or may not entail accurate information. Does Ofcom not have an important role to play in this area? Educating users about the changes in the Bill would be another potential role for Ofcom in order to recalibrate users’ expectations as to what they might reasonably expect platforms to offer as a result of the legislation. It is important that we have robust regulatory frameworks in place, and this Bill clearly does that. However, it also requires users to be aware of the changes that have been made so that they can report the problems they experience in a timely manner.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke that these are important clauses. I want to put them into the context of what we heard from Frances Haugen, who, when she spoke to Congress, said that Facebook consistently chose to maximise its growth rather than implement safeguards on its platforms. She said:

“During my time at Facebook, I came to realise a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook. “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world.”

When we consider users’ experiences, I do not think it is good enough just to look at how the user engages with information. We need far more transparency about how the companies themselves are run. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on how this clause, which looks at users’ experiences, can go further in dealing with the harms at source, with the companies, and making sure a light is shone on their practices.

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Pontypridd for these clauses. I will turn to the questions raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. First, she asked whether Ofcom has to publish these reports so that the public, media and Parliament can see what they say. I am pleased to confirm that Ofcom does have to publish the reports; section 15 of the Communications Act 2003 imposes a duty on Ofcom to publish reports of this kind.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend asked about educating the public on issues pertinent to these reports, which is what we would call a media literacy duty. Again, I confirm that, under the Communications Act, Ofcom has a statutory duty to promote media literacy, which would include matters that flow from these reports. In fact, Ofcom published an expanded and updated set of policies in that area at the end of last year, which is why the old clause 103 in the original version of this Bill was removed—Ofcom had already gone further than that clause required.

Thirdly, my right hon. Friend asked about the changes that might happen in response to the findings of these reports. Of course, it is open to Ofcom—indeed, I think this Committee would expect it—to update its codes of practice, which it can do from time to time, in response to the findings of these reports. That is a good example of why it is important for those codes of practice to be written by Ofcom, rather than being set out in primary legislation. It means that when some new fact or circumstance arises or some new bit of research, such as the information required in this clause, comes out, those codes of practice can be changed. I hope that addresses the questions my right hon. Friend asked.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton asked about transparency, referring to Frances Haugen’s testimony to the US Senate and her disclosures to The Wall Street Journal, as well as the evidence she gave this House, both to the Joint Committee and to this Committee just before the Whitsun recess. I have also met her bilaterally to discuss these issues. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that these social media firms use Facebook as an example, although there are others that are also extremely secretive about what they say in public, to the media and even to representative bodies such as the United States Congress. That is why, as he says, it is extremely important that they are compelled to be a lot more transparent.

The Bill contains a large number of provisions compelling or requiring social media firms to make disclosures to Ofcom as the regulator. However, it is important to have public disclosure as well. It is possible that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton was not in his place when we came to the clause in question, but if he turns to clause 64 on page 56, he will see that it includes a requirement for Ofcom to give every provider of a relevant service a notice compelling them to publish a transparency report. I hope he will see that the transparency obligation that he quite rightly refers to—it is necessary—is set out in clause 64(1). I hope that answers the points that Committee members have raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 132 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 133 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 134

OFCOM’s statement about freedom of expression and privacy

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

As we all know, the clause requires Ofcom to publish annual reports on the steps it has taken, when carrying out online safety functions, to uphold users’ rights under articles 8 and 10 of the convention, as required by section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998. It will come as no surprise to the Minister that Labour entirely supports this clause.

Upholding users’ rights is a central part of this Bill, and it is a topic we have debated repeatedly in our proceedings. I know that the Minister faces challenges of his own, as the Opposition do, regarding the complicated balance between freedom of speech and safety online. It is only right and proper, therefore, for Ofcom to have a specific duty to publish reports about what steps it is taking to ensure that the online space is fair and equal for all.

That being said, we know that we can and should go further. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen will shortly address an important new clause tabled in her name—I believe it is new clause 25—so I will do my best not to repeat her comments, but it is important to say that Ofcom must be compelled to publish reports on how its overall regulatory operating function is working. Although Labour welcomes clause 134 and especially its commitment to upholding users’ rights, we believe that when many feel excluded in the existing online space, Ofcom can do more in its annual reporting. For now, however, we support clause 134.

I welcome the shadow Minister’s continuing support for these clauses. Clause 134 sets out the requirement on Ofcom to publish reports setting out how it has complied with articles 8 and 10 of the European convention on human rights.

I will pause for a second, because my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and others have raised concerns about the implications of the Bill for freedom of speech. In response to a question he asked last week, I set out in some detail the reasons why I think the Bill improves the position for free speech online compared with the very unsatisfactory status quo. This clause further strengthens that case, because it requires this report and reminds us that Ofcom must discharge its duties in a manner compatible with articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR.

From memory, article 8 enshrines the right to a family life, and article 10 enshrines the right to free speech, backed up by quite an extensive body of case law. The clause reminds us that the powers that the Bill confers on Ofcom must be exercised—indeed, can only be exercised—in conformity with the article 10 duties on free speech. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend additional assurance about the strength of free speech protection inherent in the Bill. I apologise for speaking at a little length on a short clause, but I think that was an important point to make.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 134 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 135

OFCOM’s transparency reports

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Again, Labour welcomes clause 135, which places a duty on Ofcom to produce its own reports based on information from the transparency reports that providers are required to publish. However, the Minister will know that Labour feels the Bill has much more work to do on transparency more widely, as we have repeatedly outlined through our debates. The Minister rejected our calls for increased transparency when we were addressing, I believe, clause 61. We are not alone in feeling that transparency reports should go further. The sector and his own Back Benchers are calling for it, yet so far his Department has failed to act.

It is a welcome step that Ofcom must produce its own reports based on information from the provider’s transparency reports, but the ultimate motivation for the reports to provide a truly accurate depiction of the situation online is for them to be made public. I know the Minister has concerns around security, but of course no one wants to see users put at harm unnecessarily. That is not what we are asking for here. I will refrain from repeating debates we have already had at length, but I wish to again put on the record our concerns around the transparency reporting process as it stands.

That being said, we support clause 135. It is right that Ofcom is compelled to produce its own reports; we just wish they were made public. With the transparency reports coming from the providers, we only wish they would go further.

I have spoken to these points previously, so I do not want to tax the Committee’s patience by repeating what I have said.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 135 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 136

OFCOM’s report about researchers’ access to information

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Again, Labour welcomes clause 136, which is a positive step towards a transparent approach to online safety, given that it requires Ofcom to publish a report about the access that independent researchers have, or could have, to matters relating to the online safety of regulated services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South rightly outlined in an earlier sitting, Labour strongly believes that the transparency measures in the Bill do not go far enough.

Independent researchers already play a vital role in regulating online safety. Indeed, there are far too many to list, but many have supported me, and I am sure the Minister, in our research on the Bill. That is why we have tabled a number of amendments on this point, as we sincerely feel there is more work to be done. I know the Minister says he understands and is taking on board our comments, but thus far we have seen little movement on transparency.

In this clause we are specifically talking about access to information for researchers. Obviously, the transparency matters were covered in clauses 64 and 135. There is consensus across both parties that access to information for bona fide academic researchers is important. The clause lays out a path to take us in the direction of providing that access by requiring Ofcom to produce a report. We debated the matter earlier. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South—I hope I got the pronunciation right this time—

The hon. Lady made some points about the matter in an earlier sitting, as the shadow Minister just said. It is an area we are giving some careful thought to, because it is important that it is properly academically researched. Although Ofcom is being well resourced, as we have discussed, with lots of money and the ability to levy fees, we understand that it does not have a monopoly on wisdom—as good a regulator as it is. It may well be that a number of academics could add a great deal to the debate by looking at some of the material held inside social media firms. The Government recognise the importance of the matter, and some thought is being given to these questions, but at least we can agree that clause 136 as drafted sets out a path that leads us in this important direction.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 136 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 137

OFCOM’s reports

Briefly, before I hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South, I should say that Labour welcomes clause 137, which gives Ofcom a discretionary power to publish reports about certain online safety measures and matters. Clearly, it is important to give Ofcom the power to redact or exclude confidential matters where needs be, and I hope that there will be a certain level of common sense and public awareness, should information of this nature be excluded. As I have previously mentioned—I sound a bit like a broken record—Labour echoes the calls for more transparency, which my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen will come on to in her new clause. However, broadly, we support this important clause.

I would like to press the Minister briefly on how exactly the exclusion of material from Ofcom reports will work in practice. Can he outline any specific contexts or examples, beyond commercial sensitivity and perhaps matters of national security, where he can envision this power being used?

I welcome the shadow Minister’s support for the clause, once again. The clause provides Ofcom with the power to publish relevant reports about online safety matters to keep users, the public and Parliament well informed. Again, clearly, it is up to Ofcom to decide how it publishes those reports; we will not compel it.

On the question about confidential material that might be withheld, the relevant language in clause 137 looks, to me, to precisely echo the language we saw previously in clause—where was it? Anyway, we have come across this in a previous clause. When it comes to publishing material that can be excluded, the language is just the same.

I would like to make it clear that, while, obviously, this decision is a matter for Ofcom, I would expect that exclusion to be used on a pretty rare basis. Obviously, one would expect matters that are acutely commercially sensitive to be excluded—or redacted—to address that. If there was very sensitive intellectual property, where it would prejudice a company’s commercial interest to have all of that intellectual property exposed, I would expect Ofcom to exercise the exclusion or at least redact what it publishes.

However, because transparency is so important—it is a point that the Committee has made repeatedly—I would expect these exclusions to be used sparingly, and only where absolutely necessary to deliver issues such as the commercial confidentiality or IP protection. Then, it should be used to the minimum extent necessary, because I think that this Committee thinks, and Parliament thinks, that the disclosure around these reports and the reports about breaches—mentioned in the clause I was trying to reach for previously, which was clause 128(4)(b) and (5)(b); perhaps Hansard would be kind enough to clarify that point to make me look slightly more articulate than I in fact am—should be used only very carefully and very rarely. The Committee should be clear on that, and that the bias, as it were—the assumption—should be on the side of disclosure rather than withholding information.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 137 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 138

Appeals against OFCOM decisions relating to the register under section 81

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Good morning, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee with you in the Chair. Clause 138 allows companies to make appeals against Ofcom’s decisions regarding the categorisation of services within categories 1, 2A or 2B.

We have argued, many times, that we believe the Government’s size-based approach to categorisation is flawed. Our preference for an approach based on risk is backed up by the views of multiple stakeholders and the Joint Committee. It was encouraging to hear last week of the Minister’s intention to look again at the issues of categorisation, and I hope we will see movement on that on Report.

Clause 138 sets out that where a regulated provider has filed an appeal, they are exempt from carrying out the duties in the Bill that normally apply to services designated as category 1, 2A or 2B. That is concerning, given that there is no timeframe in which the appeals process must be concluded.

While the right to appeal is important, it is feasible that many platforms will raise appeals about their categorisation to delay the start of their duties under the Bill. I understand that the platforms will still have to comply with the duties that apply to all regulated services, but for a service that has been classified by Ofcom as high risk, it is potentially dangerous that none of the risk assessments on measures to assess harm will be completed while the appeal is taking place. Does the Minister agree that the appeals process must be concluded as quickly as possible to minimise the risk? Will he consider putting a timeframe on that?

Clause 139 allows for appeals against decisions by Ofcom to issue notices about dealing with terrorism and child sexual abuse material, as well as a confirmation decision or a penalty notice. As I have said, in general the right to appeal is important. However, would an appeals system work if, for example, a company were appealing to a notice under clause 103? In what circumstances does the Minister imagine that a platform would appeal a notice by Ofcom requiring the platform to use accredited technology to identify child sexual abuse content and swiftly take down that content? It is vital that appeals processes are concluded as rapidly as possible, so that we do not risk people being exposed to harmful or dangerous content.

The shadow Minister has set out the purpose of the clauses, which provide for, in clause 138 appeal rights for decisions relating to registration under clause 81, and in clause 139 appeals against Ofcom notices.

I agree that it is important that judicial decisions in this area get made quickly. I note that the appeals are directly to the relevant upper tribunal, which is a higher tier of the tribunal system and tends to be a little less congested than the first-tier tribunal, which often gets used for some first-instance matters. I hope that appeals going to the upper tribunal, directly to that more senior level, provides some comfort.

On putting in a time limit, the general principle is that matters concerning listing are reserved to the judiciary. I recall from my time as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice, that the judiciary guards its independence fiercely. Whether it is the Senior President of Tribunals or the Lord Chief Justice, they consider listing matters to be the preserve of the judiciary, not the Executive or the legislature. Compelling the judiciary to hear a case in a certain time might well be considered to infringe on such principles.

We can agree, however—I hope the people making those listing decisions hear that we believe, that Parliament believes—that it is important to do this quickly, in particular where there is a risk of harm to individuals. Where there is risk to individuals, especially children, but more widely as well, those cases should be heard very expeditiously indeed.

The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South also asked about the basis on which appeals might be made and decided. I think that is made fairly clear. For example, clause 139(3) makes it clear that, in deciding an appeal, the upper tribunal will use the same principles as would be applied by the High Court to an application for judicial review—so, standard JR terms—which in the context of notices served or decisions made under clause 103 might include whether the power had been exercised in conformity with statute. If the power were exercised or purported to be exercised in a manner not authorised by statute, that would be one grounds for appeal, or if a decision were considered so grossly unreasonable that no reasonable decision maker could make it, that might be a grounds for appeal as well.

I caution the Committee, however: I am not a lawyer and my interpretation of judicial review principles should not be taken as definitive. Lawyers will advise their clients when they come to apply the clause in practice and they will not take my words in Committee as definitive when it comes to determining “standard judicial review principles”—those are well established in law, regardless of my words just now.

There is a concern that platforms might raise appeals about their categorisation in order to delay the start of their duties under the Bill. How would the Minister act if that happened—if a large number of appeals were pending and the duties under the Bill therefore did not commence?

Clearly, resourcing of the upper tribunal is a matter decided jointly by the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice, in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, and, in this case, the Senior President of Tribunals. Parliament would expect the resourcing of that part of the upper tribunal to be such that cases could be heard in an expedited matter. Particularly where cases concern the safety of the public—and particularly of children—we expect that to be done as quickly as it can.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 138 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 139 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 140

Power to make super-complaints

I beg to move amendment 143, in clause 140, page 121, line 1, after “services” insert “, consumers”.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 144, in clause 140, page 121, line 2, after “users” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 145, in clause 140, page 121, line 4, after “services” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 146, in clause 140, page 121, line 5, after “users” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 147, in clause 140, page 121, line 6, at end insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 148, in clause 140, page 121, line 7, after “users” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 149, in clause 140, page 121, line 14, after “service” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 150, in clause 140, page 121, line 18, at end insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 151, in clause 140, page 121, line 19, after “users” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 152, in clause 140, page 121, line 25, at end insert—

“‘consumers’” means individuals in the United Kingdom acting for purposes that are wholly or mainly outside the trade, business, craft or profession of the individuals concerned.”

The Committee has been flexible about grouping clauses should it make sense to do so. I ask that the Committee allow me to speak to this set of amendments alone. It does not make sense for me to discuss these amendments and amendment 77 at the same time. If I could separately discuss amendment 77, as it says on the Order Paper, then I would appreciate that.

This group of amendments specifically relate to consumer protection. It is the case that online fraud facilitated through social media platforms and search engines is one of the most prevalent forms of crime today. Reported incidents increased significantly during the pandemic, and often resulted in victims losing life-changing amounts of money. In addition to the financial impact of being scammed, there is the emotional and physical impact. We know it has a significant effect on people’s mental health. I am glad that the Government listened to the Joint Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and changed the legislation to include fraud.

Amendment 143 is about expanding who can make super-complaints, in order to reflect the expansion of the Bill to include fraud. The Bill does not leave a lot of the details around super-complaints to be made in secondary legislation. These amendments specifically allow groups that are acting on behalf of consumers, or those who are making requests on behalf of consumers, to make super-complaints. I am not sure that if somebody is acting on behalf of consumers that fits into the definitions of users of the service and people representing users of the service. Perhaps the Minister can convince me otherwise. If consumers are losing significant amounts of money, or where there is risk of significant numbers of people losing significant amounts of money—for example, where a search engine allows fraudulent advertising to be the top result—including “consumers” in the Bill will allow organisations acting on behalf of consumers to take action. It may be that the Minister can give me some comfort in this, and let us know that organisations acting on behalf of consumers would potentially—if they meet other criteria—be able to put forward a super-complaint.

I understand that there are other methods of complaining—it is possible for other complaints to be made. However, given the significant increase in the risk to consumers in the past few years, it would seem sensible that the Minister give some consideration to whether this is adequately covered in the Bill, and whether consumers are adequately protected in this section of the Bill, as well as in the additional flawed clauses that the Minister added between publication of the original draft Bill and the Bill that we have before us today.

The Bill currently specifies that super-complaints can be made back to Ofcom by bodies representing users or members of the public. The addition of consumer representatives through the amendments is important. Consumer representatives are a key source of information about harms to users of online services, which are widespread, and would be regulated by this legislation. We support the amendments, which would include consumers on the list as an entity that is eligible to make super-complaints.

Clearly, we want the super-complaint function to be as effective as possible and for groups of relevant people, users or members of the public to be able to be represented by an eligible entity to raise super-complaints. I believe we are all on the same page in wanting to do that. If I am honest, I am a little confused as to what the addition of the term “consumers” will add. The term “users” is defined quite widely, via clause 140(6), which then refers to clause 181, where, as debated previously, a “user” is defined widely to include anyone using a service, whether registered or not. So if somebody stumbles across a website, they count as a user, but the definition being used in clause 140 about bringing super-complaints also includes “members of the public”—that is, regular citizens. Even if they are not a user of that particular service, they could still be represented in bringing a complaint.

Given that, by definition, “users” and “members of the public” already cover everybody in the United Kingdom, I am not quite sure what the addition of the term “consumers” adds. By definition, consumers are a subset of the group “users” or “members of the public”. It follows that in seeking to become an eligible entity, no eligible entity will purport to act for everybody in the United Kingdom; they will always be seeking to define some kind of subset of people. That might be children, people with a particular vulnerability or, indeed, consumers, who are one such subset of “members of the public” or “users”. I do not honestly understand what the addition of the word “consumers” adds here when everything is covered already.

Will the Minister explicitly say that he thinks that an eligible entity, acting on behalf of consumers, could, if it fulfils the other criteria, bring a super-complaint?

Yes, definitely. That is the idea of an eligible entity, which could seek to represent a particular demographic, such as children or people from a particular marginalised group, or it could represent people who have a particular interest, which would potentially include consumers. So I can confirm that that is the intention behind the drafting of the Bill. Having offered that clarification and made clear that the definition is already as wide as it conceivably can be—we cannot get wider than “members of the public”—I ask the hon. Member for Aberdeen North to consider withdrawing the amendments, particularly as there are so many. It will take a long time to vote on them.

I thank the Minister for the clarification. Given that he has explicitly said that he expects that groups acting on behalf of consumers could, if they fulfil the other criteria, be considered as eligible entities for making super-complaints, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 66, in clause 140, page 121, line 8, at end insert—

“(d) causing harm to any human or animal.”

This amendment ensures groups are able to make complaints regarding animal abuse videos.(Alex Davies-Jones.)

I beg to move amendment 77, in clause 140, page 121, line 9, leave out subsection (2).

This amendment removes the tests that complaints have to be of particular importance in order to be admissible.

When I first read clause 140, subsection (2) raised a significant number of red flags for me. The subsection might be reasonable if we did not have giant companies—social media platforms particularly—that significant numbers of people across the UK use regularly. Facebook might be counted as a “single regulated service”, but 85% of UK residents—57.1 million people—had a Facebook account earlier this year. Twitter is used by 28% of people living in the UK, which is 19 million users. TikTok is at 19%, which is significantly less, but still a very high number of people—13 million users. I can understand the decision that a super-complaint picking on one certain company might be a bit extreme, but it does not make sense when we are considering the Facebooks of this world.

If someone is making a complaint about a single regulated service and that service is Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or another large platform—or a new, yet-to-be-created platform—that significant numbers of people use, there is no justification for treating that complaint differently just because it is against a single entity. When a complaint is made against Facebook—I am picking on Facebook because 85% of the UK public are members of it; it is an absolute behemoth—I would like there to be no delay in its being taken to Ofcom. I would like Ofcom not to have to check and justify that the complaint is “of particular importance”.

Subsection (2)(a) states that one of the tests of the complaint should be that it “is of particular importance” or, as subsection (2)(b) notes, that it

“relates to the impacts on a particularly large number of users of the service or members of the public.”

I do not understand what

“large number of users of the service”

would mean. Does a large number of the users of Facebook mean 50% of its users? Does it mean 10%? What is a large number? Is that in percentage terms, or is it something that is likely to impact 1 million people? Is that a large number? The second part—

“large number…of members of the public”—

is again difficult to define. I do not think there is justification for this additional hoop just because the complaint relates to a single regulated service.

Where a complaint relates to a very small platform that is not causing significant illegal harm, I understand that Ofcom may want to consider whether it will accept, investigate and give primacy and precedence to that. If the reality is that the effect is non-illegal, fairly minor and impacts a fairly small number of people, in the order of hundreds instead of millions, I can understand why Ofcom might not want to give that super-complaint status and might not want to carry out the level of investigation and response necessary for a super-complaint. But I do not see any circumstances in which Ofcom could justify rejecting a complaint against Facebook simply because it is a complaint against a single entity. The reality is that if something affects one person on Facebook, it will affect significantly more than one person on Facebook because of Facebook’s absolutely massive user base. Therefore this additional hoop is unrealistic.

Paragraph (a), about the complaint being “of particular importance”, is too woolly. Does it relate only to complaints about things that are illegal? Does it relate only to things that are particularly urgent—something that is happening now and that is having an impact today? Or is there some other criterion that we do not yet know about?

I would very much appreciate it if the Minister could give some consideration to amendment 77, which would simply remove subsection (2). If he is unwilling to remove that subsection, I wonder whether we could meet halfway and whether, let us say, category 1 providers could all be excluded from the “single provider” exemption, because they have already been assessed by Ofcom to have particular risks on their platforms. That group is wider than the three names that I have mentioned, and I think that that would be a reasonable and realistic decision for the Government—and direction for Ofcom—to take. It would be sensible.

If the Government believe that there is more information—more direction—that they could add to the clause, it would be great if the Minister could lay some of that out here and let us know how he intends subsection (2) to operate in practice and how he expects Ofcom to use it. I get that people might want it there as an additional layer of protection, but I genuinely do not imagine that it can be justified in the case of the particularly large providers, where there is significant risk of harm happening.

I will illustrate that with one last point. The Government specifically referred earlier to when Facebook—Meta—stopped proactively scanning for child sexual abuse images because of an issue in Europe. The Minister mentioned the significant amount of harm and the issues that were caused in a very small period. And that was one provider—the largest provider that people use and access. That massive amount of harm can be caused in a very small period. I do not support allowing Meta or any other significantly large platform to have a “get out of jail” card. I do not want them to be able to go to Ofcom and say, “Hey, Ofcom, we’re challenging you on the basis that we don’t think this complaint is of particular importance” or “We don’t think the complaint relates to the impacts on a particularly large number of users of the service or members of the public.” I do not want them to have that ability to wriggle out of things because this subsection is in the Bill, so any consideration that the Minister could give to improving clause 140 and subsection (2) would be very much appreciated.

We support the SNP’s amendment 77, moved by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. The super-complaints mechanism introduced by clause 140 is a useful device for reporting numerous, widespread concerns about the harm caused by multiple or single services or providers. Subsection (1) includes the conditions on the subjects of super-complaints, which can relate to one or more services. However, as the hon. Member has pointed out, that is caveated by subsection (2), under which a super-complaint that refers to a single service or provider must prove, as she has just outlined, that it is “of particular importance” or

“relates to the impacts on a particularly large number of users of the service or members of the public.”

Given the various hoops through which a super-complaint already has to jump, it is not clear why the additional conditions are needed. Subsection (2) significantly muddies the waters and complicates the provisions for super-complaints. For instance, how does the Minister expect Ofcom to decide whether the complaint is of particular importance? What criteria does he expect the regulator to use? Why include it as a metric in the first place when the super-complaint has already met the standards set out in subsection (1)?

There must be no loopholes in the complaints procedures, including as regards holding individual services and providers to account. Amendment 77 both strengthens and simplifies the super-complaint provisions, and we support it.

I think the Committee, and the House, are pretty unanimous in agreeing that the power to make super-complaints is important. As we have discussed, there are all kinds of groups, such as children, under-represented groups and consumers, that would benefit from being represented where systemic issues are not being addressed and that Ofcom may have somehow overlooked or missed in the discharge of its enforcement powers.

I would observe in passing that one of the bases on which super-complaints can be made—this may be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley—is where there is a material risk under clause 140(1)(b) of

“significantly adversely affecting the right to freedom of expression within the law of users of the services or members of the public”.

That clause is another place in the Bill where freedom of expression is expressly picked out and supported. If freedom of expression is ever threatened in a way that we have not anticipated and that the Bill does not provide for, there is a particular power here for a particular free speech group, such as the Free Speech Union, to make a super-complaint. I hope that my hon. Friend finds the fact that freedom of expression is expressly laid out there reassuring.

Let me now speak to the substance of amendment 77, tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. It is important to first keep in mind the purpose of the super-complaints, which, as I said a moment ago, is to provide a basis for raising issues of widespread and systemic importance. That is the reason for some of the criteria in sections (1)(a), (b) and (c), and why we have subsection (2)—because we want to ensure that super-complaints are raised only if they are of a very large scale or have a profound impact on freedom of speech or some other matter of particular importance. That is why the tests, hurdles and thresholds set out in clause 140(2) have to be met.

If we were to remove subsection (2), as amendment 77 seeks to, that would significantly lower the threshold. We would end up having super-complaints that were almost individual in nature. We set out previously why we think an ombudsman-type system or having super-complaints used for near-individual matters would not be appropriate. That is why the clause is there, and I think it is reasonable that it is.

The hon. Lady asked a couple of questions about how this arrangement might operate in practice. She asked whether a company such Facebook would be caught if it alone were doing something inappropriate. The answer is categorically yes, because the condition in clause 140(2)(b)—

“impacts on a particularly large number of users”,

which would be a large percentage of Facebook’s users,

“or members of the public”—

would be met. Facebook and—I would argue—any category 1 company would, by definition, be affecting large numbers of people. The very definition of category 1 includes the concept of reach—the number of people being affected. That means that, axiomatically, clause 140(2)(b) would be met by any category 1 company.

The hon. Lady also raised the question of Facebook, for a period of time in Europe, unilaterally ceasing to scan for child sexual exploitation and abuse images, which, as mentioned, led to huge numbers of child sex abuse images and, consequently, huge numbers of paedophiles not being detected. She asks how these things would be handled under the clause if somebody wanted to raise a super-complaint about that. Hopefully, Ofcom would stop them happening in the first place, but if it did not the super-complaint redress mechanism would be the right one. These things would categorically be caught by clause 140(2)(a), because they are clearly of particular importance.

In any reasonable interpretation of the words, the test of “particular importance” is manifestly met when it comes to stopping child sexual exploitation and abuse and the detection of those images. That example would categorically qualify under the clause, and a super-complaint could, if necessary, be brought. I hope it would never be necessary, because that is the kind of thing I would expect Ofcom to catch.

Having talked through the examples from the hon. Lady, I hope I have illustrated how the clause will ensure that either large-scale issues affecting large numbers of people or issues that are particularly serious will still qualify for super-complaint status with subsection (2) left in the Bill. Given those assurances, I urge the hon. Member to consider withdrawing her amendment.

I welcome the Minister’s fairly explicit explanation that he believes that every category 1 company would be in scope, even if there was a complaint against one single provider. I would like to push the amendment to a vote on the basis of the comments I made earlier and the fact that each of these platforms is different. We have heard concerns about, for example, Facebook groups being interested in celebrating eight-year-olds’ birthdays. We have heard about the amount of porn on Twitter, which Facebook does not have in the same way. We have heard about the kind of algorithmic stuff that takes people down a certain path on TikTok. We have heard all these concerns, but they are all specific to that one provider. They are not a generic complaint that could be brought toward a group of providers.

Would the hon. Lady not agree that in all those examples—including TikTok and leading people down dark paths—the conditions in subsection (2) would be met? The examples she has just referred to are, I would say, certainly matters of particular importance. Because the platforms she mentions are big in scale, they would also meet the test of scale in paragraph (b). In fact, only one of the tests has to be met—it is one or the other. In all the examples she has just given, not just one test—paragraph (a) or (b)— would be met, but both. So all the issues she has just raised would make a super-complaint eligible to be made.

I am glad the Minister confirms that he expects that that would be the case. I am clearer now that he has explained it, but on my reading of the clause, the definitions of “particular importance” or

“a particularly large number of users…or members of the public”

are not clear. I wanted to ensure that this was put on the record. While I do welcome the Minister’s clarification, I would like to push amendment 77 to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Steve Double.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (First sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Mr Peter Bone, Sir Mark Hendrick, Mrs Sheryll Murray, † Ian Paisley

† Andrew, Stuart (Minister for Housing)

† Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

† Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

† Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Henry, Darren (Broxtowe) (Con)

† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

† O’Brien, Neil (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

Bethan Harding, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee


Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive, UKRI, and member of the Levelling Up Advisory Council

Mairi Spowage, Director, Fraser of Allander Institute

Ben Still, Managing Director, West Yorkshire Combined Authority

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 21 June 2022

[Ian Paisley in the Chair]


Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Good morning, colleagues. I have a few preliminary announcements. Hansard would love to have any speaking notes emailed to them at hansardnotes@ Keep your phones and devices on silent please.

Today, we will first consider the programme motion on the amendment paper. We will then consider a motion to enable the reporting of written evidence for publication, and then a motion to allow us to deliberate in private about our questions, before the fun and games of the oral evidence sessions. In view of the time available, I hope we can take these matters formally without debate, but that is entirely up to you.

Let us deal first of all with the programme motion. I call the Minister to move the programme motion, which was discussed yesterday by the Programming Sub-Committee for the Bill.



(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 21 June) meet—

(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 21 June;

(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 23 June;

(c) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 28 June;

(d) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 30 June;

(e) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 5 July;

(f) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 7 July;

(g) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 12 July;

(h) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 14 July;

(i) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 19 July;

(j) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 6 September;

(k) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 8 September;

(l) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 13 September;

(m) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 15 September;

(n) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 20 September;

(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following Table:




Tuesday 21 June

Until no later than 10.10 am

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, UK Research & Innovation

Tuesday 21 June

Until no later than 10.50 am

Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire; West Yorkshire Combined Authority

Tuesday 21 June

Until no later than 11.25 am

Professor Mairi Spowage, University of Strathclyde

Tuesday 21 June

Until no later than 2.40 pm

Greater Manchester Combined Authority; West Midlands Combined Authority; Solace

Tuesday 21 June

Until no later than 3.20 pm

Professor Graeme Atherton, University of West London; We’re Right Here; Institute for Public Policy Research

Tuesday 21 June

Until no later than 4.00 pm

Local Government Association; County Councils Network; District Councils Network

Thursday 23 June

Until no later than 12.15 pm

Royal Town Planning Institute; Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; Savills

Thursday 23 June

Until no later than 1.00 pm

National Association of Local Councils; Neighbourhood Planners London

Thursday 23 June

Until no later than 2.30 pm

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands

Thursday 23 June

Until no later than 3.10 pm

Create Streets; Heritage Alliance; Royal Institute of British Architects

Thursday 23 June

Until no later than 3.55 pm

Wildlife and Countryside Link; ADEPT; CPRE

Thursday 23 June

Until no later than 4.15 pm

Town and Country Planning Association

Thursday 23 June

Until no later than 4.45 pm

Chartered Institute of Housing; National Housing Federation

Thursday 23 June

Until no later than 5.15 pm

Onward; Centre for Policy Studies

(3) proceedings on consideration of the Bill in Committee shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 13; Schedule 1; Clauses 14 to 24; Schedule 2; Clauses 25 to 30; Schedule 3; Clauses 31 to 53; Schedule 4; Clauses 54 to 74; Schedule 5; Clauses 75 to 83; Schedule 6; Clauses 84 to 87; Schedule 7; Clauses 88 to 91; Schedule 8; Clauses 92 to 97; Schedule 9; Clauses 98 to 100; Schedule 10; Clauses 101 to 113; Schedule 11; Clauses 114 to 133; Schedule 12; Clauses 134 to 137; Schedule 13; Clauses 138 to 144; Schedule 14; Clauses 145 to 160; Schedule 15; Clauses 161 to 164; Schedule 16; Clauses 165 to 184; Schedule 17; Clauses 185 to 196; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;

(4) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Tuesday 20 September. —(Stuart Andrew.)

The Committee will therefore proceed to line-by-line consideration on Tuesday 28 June at 9.25 am.


That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Stuart Andrew.)

Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room and will be circulated to members of the Committee by email.


That, at this and any subsequent meeting at which oral evidence is to be heard, the Committee shall sit in private until the witnesses are admitted.—(Stuart Andrew.)

The Committee deliberated in private.

Examination of Witness

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser gave evidence.

9.31 am

Q Do any Members wish to make declarations of interest in connection with the Bill? I do not see any Members signalling that.

We will now hear oral evidence from Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation. Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we will stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has just agreed. For this session, we have until 10.10 am. Dame Ottoline, you are very welcome. Would you introduce yourself for the record?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: It is a pleasure to be here. My name is Ottoline Leyser. As you said, I am the CEO of UK Research and Innovation, which is the main public sector funder for research and innovation in the UK. We invest about half of the public sector research and innovation spend, right across the UK.

Q Thank you, Professor Leyser, for coming this morning. I start with a very open-ended question. To what extent do you think the Bill will help achieve some of the goals set out in the levelling-up White Paper?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: Goodness, that is a big question. My interest and expertise are particularly around the R&D aspects of the Bill. One of the really encouraging and exciting things going on across the Government at the moment is the attempt to tackle some of these huge cross-cutting issues, and levelling up is very much one of those things. That absolutely requires concerted, co-ordinated action, right across the Government, through virtually all the Departments, in a way that is aligned and co-ordinated and which really delivers on very broad priorities. Levelling up is a really good example. Net zero is another one.

Those kinds of things require different ways of working. This Bill is one framework in which that kind of joined-up thinking can be set out and embedded in the way in which government works. Yes, I think it absolutely has the opportunity to deliver on the ambitions set out in the White Paper. That depends very much on the alignment between the mechanisms and framework set out in the Bill and the missions element that is core to pushing forward the White Paper agenda.

Q The Bill sets out various measures to widen the devolution agenda. It also puts into law the various missions set out in the levelling-up White Paper. For context, will you explain how in your particular area of expertise that fits with the wider agenda of ensuring that research and development spending serves the goals of levelling up, and what that means for UKRI as an organisation?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: Absolutely. Research and development has an important role to play in the levelling-up agenda, in the context of economic regeneration right across the country. What we see at the moment is huge disparity in all kinds of measures, but one of them is total factor productivity across the UK, and R&D-intensive business and industry are critical to generating those high value-add activities that support economic growth across the UK, bringing with them a whole variety of high-quality jobs. One of the things that is important to emphasise is that innovation-led growth is not just about jobs for innovators; it is a huge ecosystem of activity that goes around that, which will provide economic growth and high-quality jobs and opportunities for people in local innovation clusters right across the country.

That is the goal. The role that UKRI needs to play is critical in that. We have this extraordinary opportunity, with the formation of UKRI four years ago, of bringing together all the disciplines and all the sectors. In the same way as I mentioned that cross-Government co-ordination is needed, cross-R&D co-ordination is needed to deliver some of the activities. We span the whole system in UKRI, so we can build back better aligned investment that can support open economic growth—as I said—right across the UK. We need that balance, co-ordinating across different inputs, to drive growth which is led by R&D and innovation. That is multiple things, some of which are in my remit and some of which are certainly not—that is another key point.

The co-ordination locally is important, but in the broader national context—that is also important. This is not about fragmentation; in fact, it has to be the opposite of fragmentation. While local empowerment and local choice are critical, that has to be embedded in a much wider national context. We cannot have a situation in which, across the country, every region decides that it aims to specialise in the same thing. That would obviously be incredibly counterproductive for everyone. That balance between national co-ordination and local empowerment is critical across my kind of investment and across the broader range of leaders as set out in the White Paper.

Q One of the missions takes forward the Government’s ambition to increase our public domestic R&D spending outside the greater south-east by a third over the spending review period. How do you feel about that mission? On the level of ambition, are there things you would change about it; is the balance right; should we be doing things in a different way; should we be locking it in more tightly? Given all those different sorts of questions, is that balance between that objective and other priorities for UKRI right? How do you feel about the mission broadly speaking?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: It is good to have those kinds of clear targets and goals. That is helpful. I think it is a long-term ambition, and that is another critical element of both the Bill and the missions, having those clearly articulated long-term goals to steer towards. The SR element of it is obviously much more rapid, and made in the context of the rising R&D budget across the SR, so I think it is achievable.

From my point of view, it is important to stress that our spend distribution does not meet the target from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There is the broader Government target for the whole of investment, of 30% and 40% set out in the missions, and then there is a specific BEIS target of 55% outside the greater south-east. Our spend does not meet that at the moment—we are only part of the BEIS spend—but the critical element from that point of view is that in our open competitions for funding, we have flat success rates across the country. The news that we are investing more in the greater south-east than outside that area is because we do not receive the applications.

A lot of what we need to do is capacity building. We need to think hard about how we support the excellent research and innovation that we see right across the country to galvanise and bid into our schemes, making sure that the schemes we put forward are equally open to everyone right across the country and that the targeted interventions that we put in place, of which there are some—they are only going to be a small proportion of our overall investment—are carefully considered in the context of the wider capacity-building activity to drive up opportunity for everyone right across the country.

There is excellence everywhere, however, and we can see that, for example, in parts of the recent research excellence framework. One hundred and fifty-seven universities across the UK made submissions to have their research assessed in that exercise. There is world-leading research in 99% of them, according to the assessment process, which can lead activity. Harnessing the benefit of that will be critical to the levelling-up agenda and to the wider economic recovery from the pandemic that we need to drive.

Getting back to your question—are those the right ambitions?—I suppose I am inherently more in favour of outcome and output ambitions than I am of input ambitions but, none the less, I think having those clear targets behind which we can align our activity in UKRI and more broadly across Government is very helpful in embedding this agenda right across everything that we do. That will be critical to success.

Q Thank you, Professor Leyser, for your time this morning. In your role as a member of the Levelling Up Advisory Council, with respect to levelling up, do you think that at the moment things are getting better, or are they getting better quickly?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: That is quite a difficult question to answer. At the moment, things are very challenging right across the country. We have the inflationary pressures caused by a combination of the tail of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. That has come on the back of the pandemic, which also caused a lot of economic and social shockwaves across the country. Both those things, if anything, amplify disparities for a whole variety of reasons. Because of those factors, it would be difficult to argue that things are getting better.

Having said that, and looping back to what I said at the beginning, I am very encouraged by the ambition—reflected in the Bill and the White Paper—to take on some of the really big, long-standing and multifaceted problems; to get to the root of them and tackle them through this concerted, aligned action. That is not typical, because we have tended to work in silos when dealing with particular aspects, which does not work as well as integrated, concerted actions. A lot of the important problems, such as health inequalities, are multifaceted, and we do not solve them by simply looking at, for example, the health system. I am encouraged by the new approaches that are being taken to try to address some of the problems, but I do not think they are yet biting.

Q You mentioned the importance of the missions in your first answer. The missions themselves do not appear in the Bill in explicit form, as they do in the White Paper; rather, it is stated that there should be missions. You will have heard the concern from the Opposition, and indeed from others, that that approach will give Ministers a lot of freedom and perhaps the ability to mark their own homework. How do you think we could get some independence into the system?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: I think that, because these are really long-term missions, writing them into the Bill has a lot of risk. As we have just discussed, maybe the missions are not ambitious enough in some contexts; as time moves on, that gap might widen and it may be important to increase the ambition in a mission. There need to be embedded mechanisms to keep under review the success of the missions and then to increase them, for example, if that is the appropriate response, or to respond to an entirely new opportunity that was not envisaged when the missions were set. So not writing the missions into the Bill is actually a sensible approach.

Having said that, I agree with you that the whole point about missions is that they have to be really clear, identifiable and quantifiable targets that we are driving towards through multiple, concerted actions, and there has to be continuous monitoring of the progress being made. That has to be a key element of how the missions are run. I would absolutely hope that there would be external scrutiny, as well as transparency in the publication of the progress towards these goals, and then at least parliamentary scrutiny, which I am sure will be rigorous, of that progress and of the actions that need to be taken if the progress is not as robust as one would like.

Should there be some completely independent external body? In the spirit of the missions, only if it has a really clear purpose and remit beyond what can be achieved through the transparent publication of progress towards the targets and the scrutiny that there will already be on those targets. I agree that what is happening needs to be really clear, as does what needs to be done if progress does not happen fast enough. There are many options for how that is achieved and I am sure the Committee will have the expertise to make choices about which of those options is preferable.

Q Thank you. I have just one more question, turning to your work and your previous response on regional growth. You have been part of a really successive triangle of work in Cambridge that brings together business and academia and has had great development success—success that we are seeking to see elsewhere in the country. What are the features of a local economy that really motors like that? What do we need to have elsewhere in order to see that success?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: This is a topic of tremendous interest in UKRI: how do you build clusters of activity that create self-sustaining positive feedback cycles that really grow things, anchored in a place? A lot of work has been done examining this over the years, in many places. As usual, it is a combination of factors. In many cases there is a lot of evidence that anchor institutions seed a lot of that activity, be that an excellent university, some kind of prime industrial presence or an excellent research institute—for example, a public sector research establishment or a catapult. Some kind of anchor activity fuels a critical element of the cycle, which could be on the research side or the innovation side, or hopefully a combination of the two. That is one of the key components.

The other absolutely critical element is about people—skills and people. A local environment anchors people there by providing the kind of living and working environment that attracts people to a region. Anchor institutions contribute to that, but so does the skills environment—the skills, training and opportunities that are available. For me, joining all those things up is particularly important. In the context of people, such an environment is one in which people go for a particular reason for a particular job, but the opportunities around that environment are such that there are other jobs that are also exciting.

It is about getting that dynamic mobility of people between, say, the university sector, the SME sector—small and medium-sized enterprises—and the more prime business sector, with people moving around and all the allied activities needed to fuel that, such as the local policy and the investment communities that go with that. Joining all that stuff up in the local ecosystem, through strong leadership locally—a critical element—and those key anchor institutions, provides exciting opportunities for people to build a whole variety of careers, working through that ecosystem.

Those are the key ingredients, and UKRI obviously has a role in supporting several of those, but they can only be successful in the context of that broader alignment between local leadership and the wider attractors needed in a local environment to bring people in and keep them there: transport networks, cultural institutions—those kinds of things.

Q You will be aware of the allegations—the suspicions in certain quarters—about how transparent and impartial the allocation of the towns fund awards were. Given that similar concerns have been expressed by the Public Accounts Committee about the potential for this with levelling-up funds, what measures do you think would be helpful to allay the fears that distribution of levelling-up awards might be open to similar charges of lack of transparency and of impartiality?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: I am not sure exactly which funding you are referring to. From the point of view of the funds that are being allocated through UKRI, as I mentioned earlier, the funds that are explicitly placed—targeted—are not a very large proportion of our overall funds. For me, the key goal is to think about it in the context of the capacity-building element that I said is so important. There should be local empowerment and local consideration about what would be the best interventions in those places.

We have run the strength in places programme for a while, and it has run on a fully open competition. One of the advantages of fully open competitions is that they provide an equal opportunity for everybody to begin with, which is good. On the other hand, they are slower and more bureaucratic, in that you have to run the open competition. There is an interesting balance to be struck between that process and the ability more rapidly and fluidly to allocate money to places, so that they can use the money in a way that targets their local priorities.

We are in the process of working out how best to work to deliver the new funds that have come through the recent spending review, which are being targeted specifically at three regions. Those regions were selected based on evidence that that kind of injection of cash could really drive the capacity building that I described. There are very high-quality objective measures of how you can consider that capacity in different places and, therefore, the impact of the funding that goes in. I would absolutely agree with you that it is really important, in the context of a levelling-up agenda, that funding is seen to be allocated fairly with the opportunity for everyone to access the benefits of those funds.

Q To follow up on that, there are communities that would really benefit from levelling-up funding, and the indices of multiple deprivation to assess need are not being used here. Do you have any concerns or comments about that?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: I am specifically interested and involved in the funds associated with R&D investment, and the important thing about R&D investment is that there has to be the ability to use it effectively locally to drive and build local capacity in R&D activity. That has got to be the governing choice. It is clear that simply transferring money to places that are most in need of levelling-up, with the instruction that it should be spent on R&D, is not an effective way to tackle the specific, targeted issues in every region. As an accounting officer for this money, I have to deliver value for money, and that value for money has to be based on the ability of regions to use that money effectively to drive their capacity building in R&D activity. Wider investments should be made on different criteria, but for R&D investment it has to be R&D criteria.

Q On the topic of R&D, do you think there is any merit in involving the devolved Parliaments at the decision-making stage, in terms of a strategic overview of the effective use of resources?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: UKRI is deeply engaged with the devolved Administrations on R&D investment. We have regular meetings and are working very hard to ensure that everything we do right across our investment portfolio, quite independently of the levelling-up agenda, is properly sensitive to the variation in need across the UK. Actually, we in UKRI have a lot to learn in the context of the incredibly successful activity going on in all the devolved Administrations on thoughtful, targeted investment, making use of the multiple streams that are available to drive up local economic growth.

I visited Northern Ireland fairly recently, where they have done a fantastic job of increasing the R&D intensity in a very effective way through this kind of careful, concerted investment in particular areas that are a focus for Northern Ireland. I absolutely agree that deep consideration of the devolved Administrations is very important, both in making sure that what we do supports the whole the UK, and in learning from very successful interventions in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

I call Tim Farron. Will you bear in mind I have another question after you? Thank you.

Q Professor Leyser, thank you for being with us. The Bill states its commitment to widening opportunity and tackling disparities between regions. Obviously, economic disparities and opportunity disparities exist within regions and communities. The biggest driver of that must be access to housing that people can afford. In the last two years, there has been a 50% drop in the number of long-term lets available and an 11% rise in rents, which are clearly linked. If we are to tackle disparities, surely we will want to tackle the lack of affordable housing for so many people. What in the Bill enables that to happen, through either the missions or the powers that local authorities might be given to tackle that disparity?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: As I said previously, I completely agree that this is a multifaceted problem that has to be thought of in a joined-up way, which is why the overall approach set out in the Bill is good. My role is CEO of UKRI, so I am not in a position to provide any expertise or advice on how to solve the housing problems, but I would hope that you would have the opportunity to ask those who are able to address that question to give evidence to the Committee.

Q Thank you. I represent a rural community in Cumbria. The problems there are specific. As a member of the advisory board, do you think there is room for different rules to apply in different parts of the United Kingdom, so that certain local authorities might have different powers from others to, for example, control the number of holiday lets and second homes, so that there is a decent number of affordable and available properties for a permanent population?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: Again, the specifics of that question are well outside my area of my expertise. From an R&D point of view, I hope I have been stressing all along that the key to success is specificity—it is understanding local regions and therefore understanding what the bottlenecks are to their growth and targeting investment very specifically in the context of those bottlenecks. That obviously requires really deep local knowledge and local empowerment.

I am absolutely in favour of careful consideration of local needs in the investments that are made. That is very much how UKRI is going about thinking about our R&D investments. I would hope that that approach is considered more widely, because I do not see how one can tackle these problems unless it is through putting in place specific, targeted, well thought-through locally aligned interventions.

Q Professor Leyser, given that economic cluster development grows exponentially, what risks do you foresee of the legislation choking off development space for the growth of economic clusters, particularly inward investment on key strategic sites? Housing developers getting a quick return and receipt, for example, could choke off the opportunity to grow a cluster outwards.

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: As I have said, this careful alignment of multiple interventions is crucial precisely because if one rushes in with a particular input, its knock-on consequences are not always foreseen, and we need to be able to respond to them and adjust accordingly. It is critical to think hard upstream about the aligned series of investments being made, and to monitor and feed back, so that where the evidence begins to grow and the chosen interventions have some of those knock-on and unforeseen consequences, they are identified and rectified before things get dug in too deeply. Exactly as you say, growing those clusters is very much about creating the right ecosystem and the right sets of interactions between the different parts. That drives positive feedback and sucks in additional investment in the virtuous cycle that we are all seeking to build. That is critical.

The answers are very specific and depend on the particular element of the overall system that you are looking at. From our point of view, we are really keen to ensure that our investments build synergy between local specialisations and growth, and national capability and capacity. It is important that our investments outside the greater south-east do not in any way undermine the extraordinary powerhouse that the greater south-east is for our R&D activity, and that, rather, those two things are synergistic with one another and that the skills and specialist areas developed in particular parts of the UK work in synergy with activity in other parts of the UK. That local-national map is critical to ensure that we do not drive the negative consequences of interventions, which, as you have highlighted, are a risk.

Q Do you believe that there is anything missing from the legislation that could enhance economic opportunity?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser: These are long-term problems to fix, and they need multiple concerted and co-ordinated interventions. To me, a critical element is getting long-term cross-Government commitment to drive this through to completion. That is a very hard thing to achieve in the context of our parliamentary democracy, because those interventions will last over multiple Parliaments and everybody has to be behind them. That challenging aspect is, I hope, deliverable through the combination of the Bill and the mission statements, but, as we discussed earlier, it will require relentless focus on the missions, and accountability for delivering them through successive Parliaments.

Professor Leyser, thank you so much for your evidence, and in particular for the kind things you said about Northern Ireland—not that I am biased in any way whatsoever.

Examination of Witnesses

Tracy Brabin and Ben Still gave evidence.

We will now hear oral evidence from Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire. Should I say welcome home, Tracy, or welcome back? The panel has until 10.50 am. For the record, will you please introduce yourself formally?

Tracy Brabin: Hello everybody. It is good to be back, even if it is virtually. I am Tracy Brabin, the Mayor of West Yorkshire, and I am joined by—

Ben Still: Hello everybody. I am Ben Still and I am managing director of West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

Q It is lovely to see you again, Tracy. It is a little different with all the screens, but we are really grateful for your time this morning. My first question is quite an open one. You, as Mayor of West Yorkshire, have similar powers to lots of other Mayors, but different powers from some others. What more would you add to your role—whether that is powers that other Mayors currently have or other things done by central Government—that would mean you could do what you are seeking to do in West Yorkshire?

Tracy Brabin: Thank you so much, Alex. Let me open by saying how welcome the Bill is. Finally, we have got to a point where it feels like it is going to be a real thing. The mission statements are also very welcome. I chair the M10, which is the group of Mayors around the country, and we are very positive about this next step and the opportunities for us to work with Government to really understand what devolution is about. The idea of more Mayors across the country joining the M10 is incredibly welcome.

When it comes to more powers, I think there is a more fundamental question: where do we want to get to with this Bill, and what is the strategic relationship that we want to build with Mayors and with Government? If we are taking powers from Whitehall and giving them to regions and elected Mayors, what freedoms are we then giving to those Mayors to deliver? In the Bill, there seems to be a focus very much, and quite rightly, on the accountability of Government, but there does not seem to be that equivalence of the accountability of Mayors to deliver.

We have said all along, in every meeting we have been in with Ministers, “We can help you deliver on your missions.” For example, on climate change, we have met the Government and the M10 has met the Government to talk to them about more powers and how we could help hit the zero carbon target of 2050. In our region, our target is 2038, so we could be outliers for Government to help deliver. However, there is not that detail and that understanding of who is going to deliver these outcomes. I think the Committee will wrestle with that over the next few months. Whose responsibility to deliver the outcomes?

I have always said that the way to level up in West Yorkshire is to have that London-style transport system, which is one of the mission statements. Unfortunately, the integrated rail plan meant that we were not able to benefit from the billions of pounds of investment that would come with that strategic project. It is really important, as an attractive region to international investors and inward investment, that we have a skilled workforce. At the moment, we are a bit hamstrung on delivering the types of skills we need in an agile way in response to business, because we are being told by Westminster, “This is the project; this is what you have to deliver” without the understanding of the complexity of delivering skills training for those furthest away from going back to college.

On climate change, we have to get away from the beauty contests and the way we have to bid for funding for projects—for example, for electric vehicle charging points. We have to be given the autonomy to help the Government to deliver on their mission statements. There are a number of points there, Alex, but we will get into a little bit more detail as we go further into the session.

Q I appreciate that, Tracy. Given the company that you have this morning, this is probably a pertinent question: can you talk to us—from your own personal experience and having talked to your colleagues in the M10—about what it is like to work with a combined authority and about the features of a good local collaboration?

Tracy Brabin: I have been pretty blessed in that the combined authority has been in existence since 2014. Although we took a wee while to get to the actual landscape and the footprint of a combined authority, we got there. It has been incredibly efficient, because I landed in a position where a lot of work had already been done to set up the mayoral combined authority. Now, that is not the same across the country. When our colleague Dan became Mayor of South Yorkshire, that infrastructure was not set up. We are, I would hope, one of the most efficient and progressive MCAs; that is my target—to be the most progressive MCA in the country.

Certainly, there is lots that we are already doing that is reflected in the Bill. For example, there is the extra scrutiny. We were determined to ensure that we had proper scrutiny in place, so we went from one scrutiny committee to three. We also pay our scrutiny members for their time. However, the Bill could go further and have that commonality across the regions—really investing in our scrutiny members and allowing them to meet remotely. The current expectation that people have to meet in a room means that quorum is sometimes challenging. During covid, we managed to make it secure—and look at us now, doing governmental business remotely. I would really hope that this Bill could ensure that we could have that scrutiny locally, and delivered in a more modern way.

Fundamentally, the idea, for us as a combined authority—we are five regions with Labour council leaders—is that we have a combined mission of delivering for the people we represent and who elected us, but there is a challenge in that when we come to the Government with our vision, there is this beauty contest and these funding streams. There is also a churn of Ministers and a churn of ideas from Ministers. It would be really empowering to have a direct relationship with the Treasury and could get the funding pot, with the delivery assessed on the outcomes. We could then have extra scrutiny from not just our own colleagues here in West Yorkshire but, potentially, the Public Accounts Committee and Committees like yourselves. We could be part of the outcome story, rather than just waiting for the Government to open up the floodgates on things we have to bid for, in which case it is all about the scrutiny of the process rather than the outcomes.

Ben Still: The partnership for an MCA to be successful must be deep, and there must be a strong sense of shared endeavour. As the Mayor has said, the five West Yorkshire leaders and the Mayor work very hard to develop that sense of shared endeavour. We can see that in the fact that the combined authority has specific sub-committees dealing with individual sectors, each of which is chaired by one of those local authority leaders.

We also have cross-party representation on the combined authority, so that—I think we will come back to this theme—ideas and policies that are developed through the CA can stand the test of time and be long term, as was discussed with the last witness. We completely agree that the long-term nature of these policies means that they have to be sustained over successive Parliaments and successive mayoralties.

Tracy Brabin: It is unusual to have cross-party membership of the combined authority. In parallel, we have our local enterprise partnership board, which is one of the most diverse in the country. We have a strong relationship with that LEP board too. As I say, the structures are here in West Yorkshire to deliver. The history of delivery is there from previous funding streams, where we have delivered and spent every penny—

Tracy, I am going to have to cut you off, because we need slightly shorter answers. I will ask the Minister—who does not believe in “churn of Ministers”—to ask you a question.

Q Tracy, thank you for taking the time to be with us this morning—it is much appreciated.

Clauses 60 and 61 will simplify and streamline the processes for setting up new combined authorities. West Yorkshire is lucky, because it already had a combined authority from 2014. From your own experience of getting the mayoral combined authority set up and from the wider experiences of the M10 group, could you say anything about the complexity and time taken to set up new combined authorities? I appreciate that people are full of enthusiasm and want to get on with it, but that, at the moment, they have to go through some quite laborious processes to get going. What was your experience of that? Do you welcome provisions that would simplify and speed up the process of getting going with CAs?

Tracy Brabin: My role really started on election day—I was not here setting up the office and the CA. However, going forwards into combined county authorities and other models, I hope that whatever learning you get from that will come back and refresh our modelling, so that we can learn from these new MCAs and CCAs. Ben, would you like to add to that? You were here; you did it!

Ben Still: Briefly, there is a set of processes that we and the other CAs had to follow. The provisions in the Bill to simplify those processes are welcome in the sense that the statutory tests still need to be met; that is the important thing, I suspect. For us, though, the combination of the will on both sides—both locally and within the relevant Government Departments—to go through the processes at pace and to work collectively is just as important as the steps we need to go through.

Q Thank you. When I was a child in Huddersfield, we originally had a metropolitan county council; we then went through a long period of having no elected city region-wide leadership. How do you compare the experience of having a directly elected Mayor to either of those previous regimes—either having no elected leadership, or having a county council or assembly-type model? Do you think the mayoral model is preferable?

Tracy Brabin: I would say wholeheartedly that the mayoral model is better. It is a single point of contact; it is a point of contact with Government. The Mayor is a champion, advocate and ambassador for the region, and somebody that can work collectively on strategic priorities. The role is not just local but national—and, I would suggest, international—to raise the profile of a region. It is great that Government are understanding and getting behind devolution. It really, genuinely is the way forward for our region.

Q The Bill makes it simpler for Mayors to take on police commissioner powers. What are the advantages for Mayors of having police commissioner powers? Does it allow integration across different subjects in your activity?

Tracy Brabin: I cannot tell you. The gift that keeps on giving is the fact that I also have responsibilities for police and crime. It means we can take a public health approach to everything we are doing, getting people in the room or on Zoom from housing and transport, and—via the integrated care system—people from health talking about health inequalities that impact on crime. It is a really brilliant tool to address some of the greater challenges across West Yorkshire. There are obviously lots of different versions, and only Andy Burnham and myself have those powers, but they are really useful.

For example, they help us to deliver my commitment to the safety of women and girls across West Yorkshire. It feeds into everything, including transport. We have the safety app that allows bus users to feed back on whether women and girls feel safe travelling. On skills, we are able to support 750 more police officers and staff, and to work with the chief constable to try to find a pipeline of diverse young people wanting to go into the police. It is a really great strength.

I would say that giving police and crime commissioners and our teams in-year funding pots, with different expectations and timeframes, is incredibly difficult to handle. I hope that we can get multi-year pots of funding to do bigger projects that have a greater impact.

Q I have one last quick question. West Yorkshire has what some people describe as a strong Mayor model, whereby the Mayor needs to be on the side of the majority for various decisions to be taken. There is a diversity of decision-making structures in the existing MCAs. What would you say are some of the advantages of having a strong mayoral model or strong decision making for particular subjects?

Tracy Brabin: It is helpful that we have real strength in our leaderships, because they are really experienced leaders. We are all focused on delivering for the people of West Yorkshire, and it has not come to a point where it has been down to my vote. We get a consensus before we go to a vote, and the opposition members on the CA are very helpful, because they provide the check and challenge to get us to a point of compromise so that we can bring everybody with us in delivering for the people of West Yorkshire.

Q Thank you, Tracy; it is nice to see you again. Your region is significantly diverse, with both rural and urban areas. Like every other part of the UK, you will have seen a worsening housing crisis in the last couple of years, particularly in the private rented sector, which appears to be evaporating into short-term lets, especially in your rural communities. What powers does the Bill give you to ensure the availability of affordable for the people you represent?

Tracy Brabin: Affordable and sustainable homes are a priority for me, because it is personal—I grew up in social housing. My commitment to the people of West Yorkshire was to deliver 5,000 affordable and sustainable homes. Over the years, we have seen the number diminish, partly due to right to buy and partly due to the lack of funding. I am able to work with the councils and push them to get to further building target, which has been really helpful. The brownfield fund for housing has enabled us to really focus on the spots that blight our communities, and to work with developers.

For the first time, the West Yorkshire housing associations have all come together under one umbrella to deliver on my housing pledge and to help us get there, but it is still a challenge. Although the £22 million extra in the Bill for brownfield housing is welcome, it comes with the same strings attached and the same expectations from the Government, but with less time to deliver. There is an expectation that we have more freedom, but we need to get away from the strings that hold us back from delivering.

Let us not forget that we have areas in West Yorkshire where the housing stock is really low cost, and we are trying to square the circle of how we build more when we have the Government’s expectations about market failure. We have met Homes England since I became Mayor. I am very interested to see how that relationship develops and how we can work more closely on affordable housing, because the need in our region is growing exponentially. The lists of people waiting for a secure and affordable home are far too long. Ben, I do not know whether you want to talk more technically.

Ben Still: Thank you, Mayor. There is a lot in the Bill that could potentially be helpful to local authorities in unlocking and developing land. The issue that we face in West Yorkshire is much more about the viability of housing sites than about pressure on land and so forth. This is a good example of where the Mayor working in partnership with the local authorities is not just about the legislative provisions, but about the strength of the partnership. The Bill does not change the fundamental relationship between local authorities and Mayors with regards to who is responsible for the delivery of housing.

Q A quick follow-up: which powers relating to housing stock would you like in the Bill so that you can ensure sufficient affordable and available homes for people in every part of your region?

Tracy Brabin: What may help more is the strategic planning, which I understand has not been agreed because the planning was going to be changed from Government, so we do not have clarity on our strategic planning powers. It would be incredibly helpful if we got some conclusion on that.

Ben Still: I might add that the common theme in many of our answers is that what is needed is not necessarily additional powers, but the freedom to work with local authorities to deliver the right solutions in the right areas. That is what we will be looking for in the Bill as it progresses, namely the ability to take local decisions within a guiding framework.

Tracy Brabin: May I add a supplementary point? The city region sustainable transport scheme—the big transport fund of nearly £900 million—has felt as if it is really heading in the right direction. It is really progressive that it is multi-year. It is money that we can really deliver; it is long term, and it is about local freedoms. However, in implementing it, we are getting check and challenge from Government about, for example, whether we can have silver bins in a particular project or a grass roof on a train station.

It is really important when the Committee is looking through the Bill to identify how Government can enable Mayors to make those decisions and trust them to deliver, because if we focus on outcomes rather than processes, then I think we can deliver for Government and be challenged as to whether we have delivered against the 12 missions once those schemes have been approved.

Q Tracy, it is nice to see you again. This Bill is about levelling up, yet the different mayoralties have different powers and cover different geographical spaces, and therefore have different economic inequality between them. How do you think that real levelling up can come across all regions and indeed all nations through this legislation?

Tracy Brabin: Thank you, Rachel. I would say that poverty is everywhere. It is not one region over another; it is everywhere. And poverty is expensive. Our mission in West Yorkshire—I know that other Mayors share this mission—is to close that disadvantage gap, to close the wage gap between the highest earners and the lowest, and to close the health inequalities that blight some of our communities. Some of our communities were extremely badly hit by covid, particularly in West Yorkshire, because of various circumstances, and it will take us a long time to recover.

However, Rachel, in direct response to your point, I would say that transport really preoccupies most of the Mayors—how can we make sure that we can get our talented people to opportunity? We have seen the HS2 Bill being laid before Parliament, and how frustrating it is for the people of West Yorkshire to see so much investment going into one side of the country, when we know that levelling up and tackling poverty are both absolutely about making sure that people can get to good jobs, and to colleges and to skills training, and so on.

As the M10, we work together to try to improve transport. Collectively, for example, Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and I work on buses, which is the transport system that the majority of people in West Yorkshire use. We are reducing bus fares, capping single trips to £2 and making it £4.50 for a daily pass. We are doing what we can to make sure there is more money in people’s pockets and that transport works. However, it is more than a structural problem, Rachel, in that transport has to work, and Government must invest. I know that it is one of the mission statements, and I know that Government want to do it, and we can help them to do it.

Q Do you believe that having West Yorkshire as a combined authority provides sufficient leverage to bring about the economic regeneration that you seek, or do you believe that the unit is perhaps too small and there should be a Yorkshire-wide, more combined authority? Some will be much smaller—for instance, North Yorkshire.

Tracy Brabin: That is right. When there is a mayoralty in North Yorkshire, I think it will be really powerful for us all to work together collectively for team Yorkshire. It is something that I am really looking forward to. On whether that delivers more, perhaps Ben wants to come in.

Ben Still: Only to say that the legislation that underpins the creation of CAs was based around the model of the functional economic area. Yorkshire and the bigger geographies have more complex overlapping functional economic areas. In our devolution deal we looked at broader options, including looking at the Yorkshire level, but ultimately the discussions with Government came back to focusing on the functional economic areas around the metropolitan area of West Yorkshire. That is the geography that the legislation works most effectively on.

Tracy Brabin: But we do work with and fund a number of schemes with York.

Ben Still: Which is why I suspect the county combined authority model is not based on that legislation.

Q If I may ask one more question, what additional fiscal powers would enable you to have better leverage in being able to deliver your programme?

Tracy Brabin: It is not necessarily about further fiscal powers. It is about being free to deliver what our community needs with the powers that we have currently without continually having to go back to government for sign-offs and cheques and challenges when government can give us the money to deliver.

There are other powers that I would need. For example, we were talking just before this call about the precept and how Mayors have the opportunity to impose a precept, but it does feel that it has to be around something that impacts on people’s lives and around policy. For example, Andy Burnham uses his precept to have free bus travel—I think it is for the under-25s or under-19s. A precept adds cost for local people and the mayoralty. What we should be doing in the MCA is saving Whitehall money, because we are delivering on the things that it would normally deliver from Whitehall and Westminster.

Going forward, there are lots of discussions about fiscal powers, and there is work that we are doing in the M10 to look at that. Do you want to come in, Ben?

Ben Still: Only to say that the move towards an outcome framework, as the Mayor has previously mentioned, with a multi-year funding settlement—perhaps through a spending review process directly with Treasury, rather than through individual grants agreements with individual Departments—would be a significant step forward for us and a better reflection of proper devolution.

Q Morning, Tracy; it is good to see you. I want to touch on the point around accountability. You mentioned the role of accountability with Government, but do you think the Bill will improve your accountability or the role of a Mayor directly with the electorate?

Tracy Brabin: The accountability is the election, so I suppose it depends on whether people believe that I have delivered on my 10 manifesto commitments. More seriously, I think I would be open to more accountability from Government. If you give us the freedom to work directly with the Treasury and then focus on outcomes, we will be accountable to Government. In this Bill, it does not feel like there is that focus on outcomes and assessment of delivery against expectations.

Ben Still: When we became a mayoral combined authority from a combined authority, one of the things that we did in preparation was to increase the number of scrutiny committees that exist in the CA, so we have three—up from one—scrutiny committees that look at the work of the combined authority and have both pre-decision and post-decision scrutiny capabilities. The Bill mentions paying scrutiny members to get better attendance and so on, which we welcome, but we already do that in West Yorkshire. The issue for us is the high levels required for scrutiny committees to be quorate, so we would welcome more flexibility in that regard.

Q You touched previously on the differences in your and Greater Manchester’s mayoralty structure, in that you are both also responsible for setting a police and crime strategy and therefore do not have a police and crime commissioner. Under that model, you and Greater Manchester each have a Deputy Mayor for Policing, who is appointed by you, rather than directly elected by the electorate. Does that make the process as accountable to the electorate as possible, when it comes to setting the police and crime strategy?

Tracy Brabin: In West Yorkshire, my Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime is Alison Lowe. She is accountable to me, and fundamentally I am accountable to the public for police and crime outcomes. My role is to hold the chief constable to account on behalf of the public, and Alison and I have been doing that together. We are fortunate in West Yorkshire to have an outstanding police force, which is working closely with us to deliver on our manifesto commitments, including recording misogyny as a hate crime and getting greater diversity in the police force to reflect the communities we serve.

It works really well here that Alison and I work closely together to deliver, and there is no tension between our expectations for our communities. I mentioned the Venn diagram; we are able to overlay our desires to make people’s lives better and easier in West Yorkshire through my other responsibilities, and through police and crime.

Q Would you advocate rolling out that model—with that type of dual structure—further, through the Bill?

Tracy Brabin: It certainly works for us, so I would suggest so. It is convenient and straightforward, and we work together as a team. It is working here.

I would add, though, that there is some differential between the terms and conditions of Mayors and those of deputy Mayors. For example, Alison will be getting a pension and maternity rights, but Mayors get none of those, because they are paid differently. The terms and conditions that we fight for for our constituents are not in this Bill. The M10 has been discussing that issue with the Government, because without pensions and rights the role may not be attractive to young people or people who want to start a family. I would hope that the Bill might address that.

Q Good morning Tracy; it is good to see you.

I want to return to planning. We share an ambition, in that we obviously want the right houses in the right places for our population. Much of the Bill is about community-led planning—that is, ensuring that communities have a say in where houses should be built, so that we can improve support for development within communities. How would that marry up with a strategic approach that was perhaps done by Mayors? I often describe planning as something that people feel happens to them, rather than them being engaged in it. If Mayors around the country had lots of strategic planning rights and powers, is there a danger that we might negate the chance of improving community involvement in the planning system in order to build the houses we need?

Tracy Brabin: It feels to me that there are already those checks and balances for local communities. When there is an option for a warehouse or the building of homes and so on, the public and communities have an opportunity to reject that planning. Obviously, local plans are a responsibility for local councils, but for me what would be interesting with the strategic planning is to support local councils when they have a vision. For example, in Stockport in Manchester, the council has a vision to bring together greater investment and a bolder planning opportunity, working with communities. Maybe it would be cross-border and difficult to navigate, so the Mayors could be helpful there.

Of course, it is important for the public to have a voice in what their communities look like, but we would hate to get into a situation where communities that are happy with their village could block much-needed housing from their community. It is important that we keep the conversation going, though. I know our local councils do everything they can to work with communities to get the right outcomes, but we do need more social and affordable housing in our region. There is a role for the Mayor to play in that, and the strategic plan would help.

Ben Still: To add to what the Mayor has said, the strategic planning covers a variety of topics of which housing is one. There is probably a role for Mayors from mayoralties and combined authorities to join up when looking at things like strategic infrastructure such as transport, broadband and so on, where it makes sense to plan across individual local authority or unitary authority areas. As the Mayor said, the local authority is the planning body and it has that process with communities. The Bill has a number of aspects that might strengthen that.

Any other questions? No. That brings us to the end of the session. Tracy—Madam Mayor—thank you for your enthusiastic evidence. Ben, thank you for coming along for your evidence, too. It is most appreciated.

Tracy Brabin: Thank you, and good luck everybody.

Examination of Witness

Mairi Spowage gave evidence.

Hello and good morning. We now come to oral evidence from the director of the Fraser of Allander Institute. Would you like to introduce yourself for the record?

Mairi Spowage: I am Professor Mairi Spowage and I am the director of the Fraser of Allander Institute, which is in the economics department at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. For those of you who are not familiar with the institute, we are an economic research institute which in the past focused very much on the Scottish economy, but over the past decade or so has moved more across the UK, particularly focusing on regional economic policy, the measurement of economic outcomes and wider societal outcomes at devolved and regional levels.

Thank you very much, professor. We have until 11.25 am for this session. I will start with Patricia Gibson.

Q Thank you and welcome, Professor Spowage. The Public Accounts Committee has expressed concerns that the allocation of levelling-up funds could be at risk of being mired in the same kind of controversy and difficulties as the towns fund. Nobody wants to see that happen. What measures do you think would help to ensure that the allocation of any levelling-up funding is fully transparent and can be accounted for?

Mairi Spowage: We did quite a lot of work last year through the first iteration of the levelling-up fund on the sorts of metrics that were used to determine the highest priority areas. The UK Government made it clear in their criteria for which projects would be funded that that was not be the only thing that would be taken into account and that there were other issues they would look at around the strategic fit. In particular, in the first round there were a lot of criteria about how quickly certain pots of money could be spent. For community renewal, it had to be spent by March 2022; for levelling up, it was over a number of years. There were quite strict criteria that would be applied. In addition, there was the requirement that projects or packages of projects also be supported by local MPs.

I am most familiar with the Scottish projects, but the series of projects across the UK that were funded were not necessarily in the areas that were identified as highest priority using the metrics that had been set out. I suppose it is for the UK Government to say why that is the case and why the particular projects were funded, as I am not familiar with all the projects that did not get funded, for example.

It will be very important throughout this process and in the future, and for the shared prosperity fund as well, to set out clearly why the projects being funded are likely to achieve the outcomes set out in the levelling-up White Paper and broader outcomes around the funds. That will ensure these investments actually lead to the sorts of changes that the UK Government desires. They should then set out why a project will move the metrics they have chosen to measure the success of the fund. It will be very important to have clarity on why the packages of projects that are being funded will actually help achieve the outcomes.

Q What might the impact be on the entire levelling-up agenda? The Government have not used indices of multiple deprivation to assess need when distributing levelling-up funding.

Mairi Spowage: It is a really good question. There has been a challenge around indices of multiple deprivation for many years. In general, they are used within the devolved nations to distribute funds, whether looking at how different things are invested in in health or education or what targets are set for universities. They are generally used in the devolved nations.

The issue with the indices of multiple deprivation is that they are not comparable across nations. While they rank areas within each of the nations, they do not say anything about how a particular output area or data zone in Scotland compares to one in England, both because they are just relative ranks within a country and because different metrics are used and different methodologies are adopted.

We said in one of the papers we published last year that perhaps a body like the Office for National Statistics might wish to consider how we can say something sensible about relative need on multiple dimensions of deprivation right across the UK. Given the ambitions of the UK Government, their levelling-up agenda and the way they are choosing to fund that as a replacement for EU funding, there is a clear policy need for that sort of tool now. It is very difficult for the UK Government to use the current indices of multiple deprivation across the UK, because you cannot compare between nations.

Q To pursue that point, we know that the UK Government want the devolved Parliaments to be involved at the implementation stage rather than decision-making stage, as happened with the EU funding. What do you think the impact of not involving the devolved Parliaments at the decision-making stage is on the efficient use of resources and strategic overview?

Mairi Spowage: There is a danger, depending on the sorts of the projects that are funded through the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds, that in devolved areas UK Government aims for what these projects might achieve will come into conflict with the aims of the devolved Government. It would make sense for the UK Government to engage with the devolved Governments, and indeed regional governments in England through combined and mayoral authorities, at the point at which they are making decisions.

It is made clear in the criteria around the shared prosperity fund that the local plans to be set out by areas across the country need to be cognisant of local strategies such as the national strategy for economic transformation in Scotland. They do set that out in the criteria for what the plans are going to fund, but I always think it makes sense for collaboration between different layers of government to ensure that the projects funded do not come into conflict with any ambitions that the Welsh Government, Scottish Government or the Northern Ireland Executive—when it can form—have for economic development in their nation, particularly when talking about spending in devolved areas.

Q Do you think it would be helpful or desirable for an independent body to oversee and assess the UK Government’s progress on levelling up?

Mairi Spowage: Through the Bill, my understanding is that the UK Government have to publish regular updates on the progress that they are making towards the missions that it sets out and the metrics chosen to measure success. There is quite a lot of work to do to ensure that those metrics cover the whole of the UK on all the different missions. There is a significant amount of investment—I believe that the ONS is looking to try to do that better, but it is not for me to say whether an independent body should be set up to monitor what is, after all, a UK Government policy agenda that they can legitimately pursue.

Q Professor Spowage, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us this morning. The Bill creates statutory requirements around the levelling ambitions that we were just discussing. One of those is on digital connectivity. Through Project Gigabit and the shared rural network, Scotland is likely to see particularly large increases in connectivity. How do we best drive growth, particularly in more rural parts of Scotland? How do we best measure progress in the roll-out of connectivity? Do you agree that the rise of online working is, potentially, a strong tailwind for the rural Scottish economy?

Mairi Spowage: Yes, if and when digital connectivity is of sufficient quality it will present a lot of opportunities for the rural economy. We still hear in parts of Scotland that it is a barrier to remote working. It would be hugely transformative for lots of areas, particularly of rural Scotland, but I am sure that lots of other rural parts of the UK would say the same. It would be transformative in terms of the connectivity of people working from home, perhaps for businesses in population centres but also for businesses that are operating in these areas, to have a more reliable connection. It could be extremely transformative to those areas.

We have heard from some of our work with businesses that to a certain extent it can also work the other way. Businesses based in remote and rural Scotland are employing people in the big population centres, but sometimes having to pay them more money because they are more likely to command higher wages in those areas, particularly in this very tight labour market that we have at the moment.

Improvements in digital connectivity present huge opportunities for rural Scotland. As much as there is quite a lot of focus on transport connectivity through the levelling-up funds, investment UK-wide—particularly in rural areas—in digital connectivity is one of the areas where we could get the biggest bang for our buck in transforming the economy and reducing regional inequality, particularly when we look at the population outlook if current trends continue in rural areas.

Q Thank you. One of the other missions for which the Bill is creating statutory requirements is to increase domestic public R&D investment outside greater south-east England by a third over this spending review period. Alongside that, there has been the creation of an innovation accelerator centred on the Glasgow city region. How can we best harness the large public investment in research and development to drive growth right across Scotland?

Mairi Spowage: That is a great question, and one that policy makers in Scotland have been grappling with for a long time, particularly given the quality of our universities in Scotland and their international prowess in research and development. We seem to have an issue between the development of the ideas, the start-up, and the translation of that into commercial opportunities that can be scaled up into medium-sized businesses. In Scotland, we often find those opportunities are lost, particularly to the south-east of England, because the infrastructure is there to scale up that business to the next step. I think the sorts of investments that you are talking about, not just in Glasgow but in other locations in Scotland, will be really important. We have to think about how we take all of the great advances that have been made in academia in Scotland and turn them into commercial opportunities, have them scale up and feel that there is the infrastructure and capacity in Scotland so that they do not have to move or be bought by companies outwith Scotland.

Q That is very helpful. In your earlier answer you drew attention to the lack of UK-wide indices of multiple deprivation. We know that in the first round of the levelling-up fund, the 50% of local authorities that had the lowest median pay got roughly three quarters of the investments—it is targeting poorer areas. Would it be attractive, as part of the data drive in the levelling-up White Paper, to create more UK-wide indices of deprivation and other things?

Mairi Spowage: Yes, I would be very supportive of that. We can see in the sorts of metrics that are used—not only those related to indices of multiple deprivation but educational outcomes or transport connectivity—that some of them are focused on England-only measures; sometimes they are GB only. We do not want to fall into the trap of, in some cases, using GB and UK inter-changeably here. It is really important that we think about the metrics that we are going to use to capture the reduction in regional inequalities across the UK. Wherever possible, we should invest in developing UK-wide measures.

In some cases I can see that there are data sources in the devolved nations that are very similar to those being used for England. I think there is work that could be done to develop more consistent measures right across the UK, for which, as I said earlier, there is a clear policy need for the UK Government’s programme.

Q Thank you for your time this morning, Professor. Can you expand on an element of a previous answer you gave about the work that the Office for National Statistics, of which you are a fellow, is doing on developing a dataset in that area?

Mairi Spowage: I am not here to speak for the ONS, but I am a fellow, so they ask me and a group of other expert academics for advice on their work programme. They have published a subnational data strategy, which was worked up not just by the ONS but across the Government’s fiscal service, to think about how we can develop more sophisticated metrics across the UK to capture different levels of needs and progress. That would be to support not only the levelling-up agenda but things more broadly. In partnership with the Department for Levelling Up, the ONS is looking to develop more metrics across the UK. Some of that will be working closely with the devolved Administrations to develop data sources and think what might be comparable.

We have done a significant amount of work with the Economics Statistics Centre of Excellence. We published a paper recently on developing a suite of sub-national indicators across the UK. We made recommendations there, which included working closely with the devolved Administrations to develop data that was consistent across the UK, particularly on educational and environmental outcomes. A recent example would be something like fuel poverty, which is obviously a live discussion. It is measured differently in all four nations of the UK, so it is very hard to compare differential rates of fuel poverty in different parts of the UK at the moment.

Q Do you feel that the outcome of that work might be a definitive set of statistics and measurements that we could use in this space, that we could perhaps seek to build consensus around? Is this particularly contested space in your community? It is in ours, as you may have noticed.

Mairi Spowage: It is always difficult to come up with a set of metrics that everybody is going to agree with. One of the most challenging things, particularly if you compile them in an index, is how you weight them together, which things you give most prominence to, because if you are weighting metrics that are more focused on, perhaps, income deprivation and you are focusing less on rurality, you will get quite a different allocation of resources from the one that you will get if you are giving more weight to lack of connectivity, or rurality, than income deprivation. That is just one example. Most of the indices of multiple deprivation have income and employment, education, health, crime, and access to services, as well as housing. The weights that you give to these things can be contentious and, depending on the weight that you give to things, there can be quite a different outcome in your allocation.

It is obviously possible to come up with a consensus on things like the indices of multiple deprivation. The different nations show that you can come up with something that broadly everybody agrees is sensible, but even with the indices of multiple deprivation, which are well established, policy makers in rural areas would say that they do not capture rural disadvantage very well at all, because the geographic areas that tend to be used for rural areas are very large and do not capture pockets of deprivation within rural areas. Even with those established metrics, people in rural areas have argued for many years that they do not serve them well. I think it is difficult to get a consensus, but there is a good basis to start from, in terms of the long-established 20 or 30-year discussions about indices of multiple deprivation and how to measure that across the UK.

Q That is a very handy caution for us with regard to using these statistics for allocation purposes. When it comes to measuring progress, would it be a little easier if we were not seeking to aggregate and to weight them but instead to use them as some sort of dashboard such that we would be able to form some sort of consensus on what indicators would show whether we were levelling up across the UK? Would we be able to reach a kind of breadth there, certainly in your community?

Mairi Spowage: Yes, I think that is possible. In terms of the sorts of metrics that we could use, it will be important that the metrics used capture the outcomes of what we are trying to achieve and not just inputs or outputs, but I do think it will be possible, and I agree with you that it makes much more sense, when we are thinking about whether the interventions that we are pursuing are making progress on the outcomes that we are interested in, to look at those as a suite or a dashboard of indicators, rather than trying to come up with some index overall. Yes, absolutely, it should be possible to come up with a suite of indicators that are broadly agreed upon. However, there are things like the Scottish national performance framework, trying to measure the 11 national outcomes that the Scottish Government have set out through consultation with Scottish public life and communities about what is important. Just be aware: 81 indicators are used to capture that, and having 81 indicators makes it quite difficult to say overall whether we feel we are progressing to the sort of Scotland that we want to see. It can be difficult to come up with something that is comprehensive enough and that does not become unwieldy.

Q Hi, Professor; good to see you with us. You mentioned earlier the situation regarding a tight labour market. Thinking about rural communities in Scotland and England in particular and elsewhere in the UK, to what extent you think an absence or a lack of workforce is hampering those economies. In the Lake district, 63% of hospitality businesses last year reported that they were working below capacity, because of the lack of workforce. To what extent do you think that workforce problems—or lack of workforce—are hampering economic growth in certain areas? What is the cause? Does the Bill do anything to solve those problems?

Mairi Spowage: It is a massive problem. For all the businesses we talk to on a regular basis right now, it is their No. 1 issue. They are very concerned about their energy, fuel and input costs going up hugely, but their biggest problem is sourcing staff, particularly businesses in rural areas. It means that they do not open as much in many cases, particularly when we talk to hospitality businesses—they are not serving non-residents for dinner, or they are not opening on all days of the week. That seems to be quite common across the Scottish businesses we talk to on a regular basis, so it is an absolutely huge problem.

What is causing it? Well, for many years, there has been a movement—within Scotland at least, which I am more familiar with—from rural to more urban areas. In Scotland, there has been movement from most areas to Edinburgh and its surrounds, to be honest. That is projected to continue. If it does, that has some pretty huge consequences for rural areas. Obviously, housing plays into it as well, with young people in an area being attracted away, perhaps to study, but also for employment, and not being able to afford to buy houses in the local area. Certain parts, particularly the highlands, have huge issues with second-home ownership dominating particular settlements.

Those are all issues. With some of the pressure valves that we used to use a lot in rural areas in Scotland around EU labour, it is not quite the same situation any more, so we are not seeing the same supply of labour from that sort of source that we did in the past. That definitely seems to be causing issues, particularly in hospitality and social care.

Q What might the Government do in the levelling-up Bill to help that situation? You talked in particular about the impact on rural communities—what might make it more affordable or attractive for people of all ages in the working-age population either to move to or to remain in rural communities?

Mairi Spowage: I suppose some of things we have talked about—improved digital connectivity, improving transport connectivity—are likely to make some areas seem more accessible than they were before, particularly when that might connect people to employment centres. Investing in connectivity, both digital and transport infrastructure, is likely to improve the situation for rural areas. However, we also have an issue with labour supply, and the outlook for population overall for areas like Scotland is not good in the aggregate, as well as having to think about the issues of digital and transport connectivity.

Q Are there any metrics at all on what impact that is having on regional growth?

Mairi Spowage: It is difficult, because we have had a very strange couple of years, and the data tend to be very lagged at the sub-UK level for us when understanding what the impacts might be on regional growth. The leading indicators we have, on payroll employment, wages and things like that, suggest that lots of areas of Scotland seem to be lagging behind other areas of the UK, but some of that is in relation to the oil and gas industry in the north-east, which right now is the poorest area of the UK in wage growth, since pre-pandemic. There are interesting things going on in the north-east, because of the oil and gas industry. The highlands and islands of Scotland also seem to be lagging behind a bit in wage growth and payroll employment growth. So, not yet, I think, is the answer. This is one of the challenges with sub-UK statistics, which I hope that any investment in statistics might deal with—we have to wait so long to find out what is happening in economies across the UK.

Any further questions, colleagues? No. Professor Spowage, I thank you for your evidence. It is much appreciated. Thank you for giving us your time and expertise today.

That brings to a conclusion our morning sitting.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Miss Dines.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Second sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Mr Peter Bone, † Sir Mark Hendrick, Mrs Sheryll Murray, † Ian Paisley

† Andrew, Stuart (Minister for Housing)

† Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

† Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

† Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Henry, Darren (Broxtowe) (Con)

† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

† O'Brien, Neil (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

Bethan Harding, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee


Professor Graeme Atherton, Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up, University of West London

Eamonn Boylan, Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Sacha Bedding, Campaign Community Leader, We’re Right Here

Rich Bell, Campaign Manager, We’re Right Here

Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen, Chair, District Councils Network

Councillor James Jamieson, Chair, Local Government Association

Councillor Tim Oliver, Chair, County Councils Network

Dr Parth Patel, Research Fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research

Joanne Roney OBE, President, SOLACE, members' network for local government and public sector professionals, and Chief Executive, Manchester City Council

Laura Shoaf, Chief Executive, West Midlands Combined Authority

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 21 June 2022


[Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Examination of Witnesses

Eamonn Boylan, Laura Shoaf and Joanne Roney gave evidence.

Welcome back. We are in public session and the proceedings are being broadcast. I encourage you to switch any mobile or electronic devices to silent. I welcome the fourth panel of witnesses. We will now hear oral evidence from Eamonn Boylan, chief executive of Greater Manchester Combined Authority; Laura Shoaf, chief executive of West Midlands Combined Authority; and Joanne Roney OBE, president of SOLACE and also chief executive of Manchester City Council. They are all joining us via Zoom.

Before calling the first Members to ask questions, I remind you all that questions should be limited to matters that are in scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee agreed this morning. This session will last until 2.40 pm. I find that with larger panels we should try to direct our questions to a specific member of the panel, otherwise one questioner could end up taking all of the session. I also encourage our panellists to be pithy in their answers, but if one of your colleagues has had a question directed to them and you think there is something really important that you need to say, please do indicate and say it because it will add to the evidential value.

I have already introduced the panel. For the sake of time, I will call our first questioner, Tim Farron.

Q43 First, it is great to see you all here. I am not sure who to put the first question to. The levelling-up Bill has provisions for communities that go through devolution settlements and local government reorganisation to have a Mayor, but for that to be called something else and for the title to be amended. Do you think that that is sufficient in terms of respecting the desires of a local community? Is it possible for a community that has not yet got a devolution settlement to construct their own governance arrangements without having a Mayor or anything like it, yet still be able to access the full devolution deal that the Government might offer? I will pick Laura.

Laura Shoaf: I can probably speak only from our perspective as an area that has a Mayor. I will reflect on what we have seen so far in the first and second term. The elected Mayor model has worked really well in our area and has been a success for accountability, which is critical. As devolution continues and more powers are devolved, the mechanisms need to be in place to ensure accountability. In our experience, that works quite well by having an elected Mayor.

Q Looking close to home in my neck of the woods, we have just gone through a local government reorganisation and we have two unitary authorities. Cumbria’s six districts are being abolished. The county council will be abolished and there will be two new authorities from next April: Westmoreland and Furness, and Cumberland. In both cases, those councils are now run by majority by parties that opposed the notion of a Mayor. Do you think it would be respecting the will of the people of those two parts of Cumbria to impose on them a Mayor, or to tell them that they could not have a devolution deal if they did not accept a Mayor?

Laura Shoaf: I think one of the principles of devolution is that they should be unique to each place. I would not necessarily suggest that one model would work absolutely everywhere. If devolution is to work, in our experience it must be meaningful to the place, and it must be something that reflects democracy and accountability in that place. I do not think there is a one size fits all answer to that, but I would reiterate that in our experience, with our Mayor, that has been a very powerful role to rally around and it has yielded great results.

Q This question is for Eamonn and Laura. One of the missions the Bill will put on a statutory footing will increase public domestic research and development spending outside the greater south-east area of England by a third over the spending review period, and in both of your combined authorities there is an innovation accelerator on top of that. How can we best ensure that that mission is a success? How can we best ensure that the innovation accelerator does what it is supposed to do and catalyses significant amounts of further public and private investment into those two city regions? I will ask Eamonn to start.

Eamonn Boylan: Thank you. We were very pleased to be identified as one of the three innovation accelerator areas in the White Paper. We have been working very hard on developing a broader approach to innovation through an organisation imaginatively called “Innovation Greater Manchester”. We see the innovation accelerator as being effectively the fuel in the tank that can drive that forward.

It is fair to say that there needs to be a clear concentration on those areas where individual city regions can be globally significant and competitive, rather than having a broader approach. They need to be very clear that the purpose of the innovation accelerator is to improve not only the performance of business and employment in a particular location, but to drive prosperity for the UK as a whole.

There is a need for longevity in terms of the commitment, to make certain that the innovation agenda can be rolled out, developed and properly evolved over a period of time, but also concentration on those areas where, quite clearly, particular places have a significant, if not unique contribution, to make.

Laura Shoaf: I will do my best not to repeat the exact same answer, but we have another organisation, the aptly titled “Innovation West Midlands”. I reiterate all the points that Eamonn has just made and a point I made slightly earlier, which is that places have different areas of expertise. We want not to spread the jam so thin that it doesn’t make a difference in any one area, but to really invest and be very precise in each area, especially where there is a comparative advantage.

Q Thank you both. The Bill makes it easier and quicker to establish new combined authorities, either with or without a Mayor, in new parts of the country. How important has the role of the Mayor been in terms of being a figurehead and attracting inward investment to your two city regions, and catalysing wider conversations with Whitehall and other stakeholders? What difference has having a Mayor made in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands? I will ask Laura to start answering this question.

Laura Shoaf: It has really been transformational. As an officer, I was working in the region before there was a Mayor, then in a Mayor’s first term and now in a Mayor’s second term. I would reflect on the fact that the role, with its accountability and ability to galvanise and be a figurehead, has grown over time. It definitely evolves alongside a region.

For us, with our Mayor, we have seen the ability to come together as a region, to make cohesive arguments, to attract a lot more inward investment and to be able to work at scale, if you take something like brownfield land, where we have been able to operate at regional level, so we can have a regional impact, then being very careful not to do what is already done very well locally. I often describe it as two plus two plus make five, instead of four. That is exactly what we have seen through the model to date.

As you can tell, my background is not from this country, but this model is well understood and recognised in other countries when trying to attract inward investment from abroad. It is a model that is understood, works well and helps make it easier, if that makes sense, to drive some of those big conversations.

Thank you. Eamonn, would you add anything to that?

Eamonn Boylan: I would certainly echo Laura’s final comment about the international potency of the mayoral model, which is proving to be a real strength. We led the field with the creation of the first combined authority, which has been in operation since 2010. The first mayoral election was in 2017, so they had a lot of experience of working prior to having a Mayor, with strong local leadership provided—particularly by the city of Manchester.

I think the Mayor has had the transformative effect that Laura has described, not only in respect of areas where there is a very clear power vested in the Mayor, but also where the Mayor’s influence and use of soft power can be quite useful in helping to galvanise change and support and amplify activity. The example I would use in the Greater Manchester case is the work we have done collectively on street homelessness and rough sleeping, which has been very successful. A huge of amount of work has been done by individual local authorities, but it has also been galvanised by collaboration through the office of the Mayor. It is a very powerful office and tool for us to use both locally and internationally.

Q The Bill strengthens and streamlines compulsory purchase order powers and creates the opportunity for local authorities to run high street rental auctions as part of a wider shift toward increasing places’ ability to do brownfield regeneration through the brownfield fund, with the new role of Homes England and so on. Are the strengthened CPO powers and the high street rental auctions and so on things you would welcome and which you could see your authorities and your constituent authorities using? I will aim that again at Eamonn and Laura mainly, but if anyone else wants to come in, please do.

Eamonn Boylan: It would be difficult to make CPO slower. Aiming to accelerate it is very welcome. The flexibility around the application of CPO to support a wider range of purposes is also welcome. I think we need to recognise that initiating a CPO is quite a high-risk activity for a local authority. Therefore, we would need to be certain about the legislative framework within which we were working, but certainly the principle of acceleration of CPO and its broader application is something we would generally welcome and would certainly seek to make use of.

Laura Shoaf: I will just pick up on the point about pride in place. Pride in place is a key goal that is outlined as part of the levelling-up agenda. I think that being able to speed up the delivery of projects where a compulsory purchase order is needed will bring clarity and help us to deliver pride in place. That is just one other aspect that I think is important.

[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]

Joanne Roney: I will come in with three quick points to support Laura and Eamonn. Among the wider society of chief executives—who represent the views from up and down the country, including places that do not currently have combined authority or mayoral models—there is a welcome for these additional powers. The first point is that whatever replaces the existing CPO system needs to simple and inexpensive. The current process is very costly.

Secondly, there is a bit of a concern around capacity in local authorities to take advantage of these new powers. Talking with my Manchester hat on, one of the things we do in Greater Manchester is shared capacity between the 10 local authorities through the combined authority, but that capacity point to take effective new powers is important. Thirdly, we would like to see the revoking of permitted development rights to go alongside CPO powers to make the maximum impact in some of our communities.

Q I have one last question to Laura. The Bill, among other things, makes it simpler for Mayors to take on the powers of the police and crime commissioner, effectively streamlining governance and creating a single point of accountability, which enables the join-up of different priorities between crime and transport and so on. If that were to happen and there were to be a decision in Westminster to do that, could you see that there would be some synergies from combining those two roles? You could join up transport and criminal justice policies.

Laura Shoaf: We have certainly seen it work well elsewhere, including in Greater Manchester. Initially, the combined authority did not have full support to transfer those functions in 2019. What I would suggest that we need to do now is look at the timing of the deal and of Royal Assent, and how we could align governance around that. We would need to look at the issues around co-termination and there would probably be quite a bit of work to make sure that it was something that the entirety of the region would get behind.

Q Thank you, Sir Mark. I am grateful to the witnesses for being with us this afternoon. I will start with a basic question that is probably best answered by the chief executives of the combined authorities, but Joanne, please do contribute if you want to.

Your two combined authorities are seen as very much at the forefront of devolution to combined authorities and Mayors. Much of what we talk about in the context of the Bill is about how to push the rest of the country up to having similar levels of responsibility. What more do you want yourselves? What more do you want to build on your current settlement? Where might devolution go in the future for you?

Eamonn Boylan: We have significant ambition for further devolution and we are working to develop propositions that we will be discussing with officials over the coming weeks in response to the Government’s call for us to step forward with a trailblazer devolution deal, which was contained in the White Paper. The asks would be for greater power and influence in areas such as housing, transport, skills—you will be unsurprised to hear that—because we believe that there is a need for us to be able to shape local skills offers and opportunities to the local jobs market more effectively than currently happens.

The other major ask we have, consistent with a number of other places and some recent think-tank reports, would be for a greater degree of certainty over the funding framework and the outcomes framework that we agree with the Government over a period of time, whether that is a spending review period or some other period. At the moment, we are hampered by the number of separate and completely bespoke competitive processes that we go through to resource an awful lot of our activity. Having greater certainty over funding—not necessarily more funding, although that would be welcome—and greater flexibility over its deployment, for which we would be very willing to be held directly accountable to yourselves in Parliament, would be the real goal for us and a real step forward in terms of the current devolution journey.

Q Laura, what is your response from the West Midlands perspective?

Laura Shoaf: In a lot of ways, our position is very similar. Again, there is a big focus on skills and a want to go further and faster to have more control over budgets and particularly to look more at employment support and careers. It is similar for transport and housing, but for us, it is very specifically housing retrofit, as we have some of the worst levels of fuel poverty in the country. Another area that is slightly more bespoke to the West Midlands is around digital inclusion, where we have some quite unique circumstances.

We are also interested in flexibility. I would reiterate all the points about funding simplification, funding certainty and funding flexibility and the willingness to be held accountable, and how important it will be through this process to have transparent and accessible local and regional data so that we know whether we are levelling up. That is something we are really keen to work with the Department on. In general, more certainty around funding, which is simplified, and, please, more accountability. Like Greater Manchester, our Mayor is keen to be accountable and held accountable for delivering.

Joanne Roney: The point I would make is that the devolution settlement needs to be alongside the multi-year local authority funding settlement and sustainable funding for the wider social infrastructure issues that we are trying to tackle, which Laura mentioned.

To pick up that point about fragmented funding, in 2020 the Local Government Association recognised that 448 different grants were paid to councils, with different initiatives and different timescales on them. When at a combined authority level we are trying to tackle delivery of some of those big, wider ambitions, as outlined in the 12 missions, I think that stability and flexibility of funding for local authorities and the wider public sector plays into the mix to make the effect of the devolution changes that we want. So, core funding for public services, alongside the devolution asks, is important.

Q Thank you, Joanne. That leads me nicely into my next question, which is to you, perhaps with your Solace hat on, but obviously in your day-to-day leadership role in a local authority as well. How do your members feel about their current capacity to deliver what they need to as a council? How would they react to being asked to do more things?

Joanne Roney: Capacity is a huge challenge for local government and for my members, up and down the country. That is capacity in terms of not only workforce and expertise but stable funding. As Eamonn said, it is not necessarily more money, but an understanding of the long-term planning that we need, and multi-year settlements so that we can start to work collectively.

To answer the question about how my members feel about doing more, as Eamonn said, in Greater Manchester we have been at the forefront of working together, as 10 local authorities, with these wider ambitions, for a considerable amount of time. One of the key features of Greater Manchester’s original devolution deal was public sector reform. We were very mindful of the fact that we think we can do more collectively, in particular in that space around prevention, to start to make best use of public sector resources.

My members would say, “More power to devolution to Greater Manchester,” and that, importantly, the resources, reform agendas and public sector expenditure should be dealt with at the lowest possible level to get the changes we need to make the difference to coincide with the 12 missions. That is what they would say.

Q I have one more brief question, if I may—a final point on compulsory purchase orders, to ensure that I understood what was said in the previous answer. Notwithstanding issues of cost and capacity, which link to what Joanne just said, given what is on the face of the Bill on CPO, would you like to see anything further in the Bill, or do you think anything needs to be added or subtracted? Eamonn, you mentioned permitted development. That question is to any or all of the panellists.

Eamonn Boylan: The measures contained in the Bill in respect of CPO are eminently sensible and supportable. There will always be issues—this goes back to Joanne’s point about certainty of funding—with the availability of funding and the ability to manage what is still a complex legal framework, but the reforms set out in the Bill are an essential prerequisite for making CPO more applicable and useful in delivering place-based regeneration.

Q To start, I have a question for Ms Roney. There are proposals to move from section 106 funding to a new infrastructure funding model. How will that be helpful in releasing funding to generate affordable and social housing? Where do you see the risks in that funding proposal?

Joanne Roney: We have gone around the loop on a number of these different measures for a considerable time. If the outcome is to deliver more affordable housing, I think the challenge is still the variances between different parts of the country and the ability to deliver affordable housing because of the value of the land and the cost of build. So I am not sure that that will necessarily fix it, but then I am not sure that section 106 fixed it either. I think we should be having a different conversation—about how we provide affordable housing in different areas.

I will call on my colleague Eamonn to help me here, because one of the successes of the combined authority has been the revolving housing investment fund that we have used and the different models we have created to try to get better value out of all our developments and translate that into affordable housing numbers. We have had a range of success, but some of that has come from the ability to use flexible funding that we already have to support some schemes.

Overall, I think we would support the proposal in the Bill, but we need to do more to look at affordable housing provision in different parts of the country, and different innovative and flexible ways to drive value in order to provide truly affordable homes.

Eamonn Boylan: I echo Joanne’s comments, but I will just make the point—I know a number of Committee members will be well aware of this—that section 106 is far less potent in northern parts of the country than in others because of the issues around viability, particularly where we are dealing with brownfield land. Most of my brownfield land has the periodic table underneath it, and therefore the costs of remediation are significant.

We really welcome the Government’s initiative on the brownfield land fund, which has really helped us to unlock development, but section 106 or a replacement levy will not provide us in the north with sufficient resource to deal with the challenge of affordable housing. We need to go beyond that. That is part of the devolution ask that we will be making around how we might work more effectively with Homes England in delivering programmes—particularly on affordable housing, and particularly on affordable low-carbon or zero-carbon housing, which is a very significant challenge.

Laura Shoaf: I mentioned earlier that one of the things we wanted to do in a trailblazer devolution deal was to look at how we can use the housing and brownfield funding that we have more flexibly, to address some of the wider regeneration challenges but also to help us to increase levels of affordable housing. The brownfield funding, as Eamonn said, has demonstrably made a difference in our ability to assemble sites, to remediate sites, to bridge the viability gap and then, ultimately, to do what we all want to do, which is to deliver more housing, affordable included.

Q Thank you. May I move on to the issue of viability appraisal, stacking up and being able to deliver projects? Clearly, there are multiple challenges with being able to deliver viable economic/residential projects, particularly in the north. What changes do you want to see to the Bill to make sure that such projects, which really do regenerate local communities, can be delivered?

Eamonn Boylan: At the risk of repeating myself, one of the keys to unlocking significant urban regeneration is certainty of funding and confidence in the longevity of any funding source. I will use the example of Ancoats, which used to be a no-go area in Manchester but is now regarded by some as the coolest urban neighbourhood in western Europe. The platform for delivering that was laid by investing public money through derelict land grant 15 years before the major acceleration in housing development took place; the market took that time to recover post-recession and to move forward. It is not only the availability of resource; it is our ability to invest at the right time in order to trigger affordable and sustainable growth and leverage very significant private sector investment.

In answer to your question about whether we think there are places where the Bill could go further, we think the review of Green Book evaluation methodology needs to be pushed forward in order to take more account of some of the affordability and viability challenges we face. I have a long catalogue of projects in both housing and other areas where we have failed the Green Book benefit-cost ratio test at individual project level but not been allowed to apply it at the programme level, where overall we could have made it stack up. I think flexibility around the application of some of those rules would be really helpful in enabling us to move forward.

Joanne Roney: May I can come in on the back of that to give an example? Ancoats, as Eamonn said, is one of the successes in Manchester. I am currently dealing with the north and the east of the city. The north of the city has 15,000 homes to be built across a range of sites involving a range of different Government Departments.

I completely support the idea that the Bill could go further in helping us with land assembly and doing more to encourage, through grants, brownfield land to be acquired and remediated, but there is also something about simplifying the process through a partnership with Homes England so that I do not have to produce a business case for Homes England, for the Treasury and to access individual grants. There has to be a more efficient way to do large-scale regeneration of swathes of land that needs to be brought back into use and put to greater purpose. That is key for the devolution asks for Greater Manchester, particularly in respect of that partnership with Homes England.

Q I have a couple more, if I may. On the planning changes proposed in the Bill, there is a sequencing around national infrastructure projects and local development plans. What do you consider to be the implications of the interruption of local development plans as a result of national infrastructure projects? What does that mean for your ability to pursue your housing and economic aspirations locally? I am talking about the Secretary of State’s powers.

Eamonn Boylan: We have had to deal with sequential challenges in terms of development, control and planning for a number of years. It is fair to say that we would need to be reassured that there was sufficient cognisance of the timing of the planning of projects at a major or national level so that they can be properly accommodated in local plans and so that local plan considerations can inform the way in which those plans are brought together.

One thing in the Bill that is of slight concern to us is the reference to it being possible to have only one local plan at any one time. We have done a lot of work over the past six years to develop a spatial framework for all of Greater Manchester, incorporating nine of the 10 boroughs. That was supported by the development of local plans that were entirely consistent with it but overarchingly governed by that strategic framework. We just want to make certain that there is a transitional arrangement that will enable us to protect that position as we move ahead, because it has held us in good stead as we have moved forward over recent years.

Laura Shoaf: I do not know that I have much to add. We do not have a regional spatial framework in the West Midlands and we are not a planning authority, so this might not be the best place for me to make a useful comment. Joanne might have a view.

Joanne Roney: I am not sure that I disagree with anything Eamonn said. Broadly, we welcome the introduction of additional tools and powers that help us to deal with compliance and anything that can help existing sites to be built out. I think Eamonn has mainly covered the other points that I would have made about seeking the approach to continue to get the complexity out of the system, particularly in respect of the production of local plans.

Q I have a question about the infrastructure levy that touches on the issues that my colleague just raised. Does the panel have any thoughts on the ways in which, if it is at all, the proposed infrastructure levy is more beneficial than the current arrangement? I appreciate that lots of detail needs to be filled in, but how would you—I suppose this is directed to Eamonn and Laura—see the infrastructure levy operating, particularly on complex brownfield sites?

Eamonn Boylan: One thing in the Bill that we very much welcome the principle of is the notion that the infrastructure levy is effectively extracted once value has been created. That will make it much easier to calculate an appropriate levy, particularly on a complex, multifaceted scheme.

The issue for us would be, if the income from the levy is delayed until after development has been completed, what are the arrangements that enable me to fund the infrastructure up front? That is needed to enable the development to take place in the first instance. It would need to be linked to the availability of things like the brownfield land release fund or, potentially, borrowing powers to enable us to invest in the infrastructure on the basis of a levy replenishing the borrowing at a later date. The principle is a good one, and I am sure it will be welcomed in the development community, but we need to find a way of making certain that it does not work in a way that prevents us delivering infrastructure in a timely way to enable schemes to come forward.

Laura Shoaf: I reiterate that there is still a lot to unpack and still a lot to understand about what it will mean in practice. We keep coming back to certainty and simplicity being the two things that really help enable us to get big, new-generation projects off the ground. I reiterate Eamonn’s point: anything that can be leveraged into some sort of pump priming to help to give both certainty and consistency would be genuinely very welcome.

Joanne Roney: I would just add that generally, across the UK, we are supportive of the infrastructure levy being non-negotiable, which is a strong statement to make, and of it being determined at a local level, which will take in those regional differences that Eamonn and I mentioned earlier—the viability in different places. There is a lot to welcome in this, but the detail needs to be worked through.

Q I have a brief follow-up question for Eamonn. You said one of the potential advantages is that the levy is extracted at the point that the value has been created. Do you foresee any disputes arising between local planning authorities or combined authorities and developers as to valuation appraisals at that point in time? Will we get conflict at that point in time between the two sides over what the precise value is and therefore what the levy should be?

Eamonn Boylan: I will not pretend to you, sir, that I can have absolute confidence that we will avoid disputes over valuation. We have it at the start of projects now and we have had it at different stages. It will be essential to have established prior to the signing of formal agreement with the developer or developers that we have an agreement on the valuation methodology to be used at the point at which the levy is to be calculated—to try to remove some of that risk. That is certainly what we would hope.

Joanne Roney: I think the move to viability assessments increasingly being made public to planning committees helps to bring transparency and clarity to value early on in the discussions, as part of the planning process. We would want to build on that, so that we try to avoid those arguments. I am sure they will be there, but it is how they get resolved.

As there are no further questions, I thank the witnesses for their evidence. We will move to the next panel: we have two witnesses virtually and two present in the room. If Members wish to remove their jackets, please feel free to do so.

Examination of Witnesses

Professor Graeme Atherton, Rich Bell, Sacha Bedding and Dr Parth Patel gave evidence.

We will now take oral evidence from Professor Graeme Atherton, head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London; Rich Bell and Sacha Bedding from the We’re Right Here campaign; and Dr Parth Patel from the Institute for Public Policy Research. We have until 3.20 pm. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record?

Dr Patel: I am Parth Patel. I am a fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, where I lead the programme of work on democracy and justice. I am also a doctor in the NHS.

Rich Bell: I am Rich Bell. I am the campaign manager for We’re Right Here, a campaign for a community power Act. Our campaign is supported by a number of national policy organisations, including Power to Change, New Local and Locality, but it is driven by community leaders who are pursuing a range of social missions in their community, all of whom believe that their work would be easier if public institutions were designed for them to do things with, rather than designed to do things for them. Sacha is one of our six leaders.

Sacha Bedding: Hi, I’m Sacha Bedding. I work for a small, estate-based charity in the Dyke House area of Hartlepool. The charity is called the Wharton Trust, but we are better known locally as the Annexe. We are a community anchor organisation; I think that would be the best description of us. I am here on behalf of my colleagues in the We’re Right Here campaign.

Professor Atherton: My name is Graeme Atherton. I am based in the University of West London, and I head the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up, which is a research centre at the university focused on developing policy-relevant research on geographical and broader forms of inequality. The centre was launched just over a year ago.

I understand that Government Members started the questioning last time, so I ask Alex or Matthew to start.

Q I will, if that is all right, Sir Mark. Good afternoon, panellists. I am really grateful for your time. I will direct my first question to Rich and Sacha. Your campaign is about community power. What do you think about what is in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill?

Rich Bell: Our basic sense is that there are positive individual measures in the Bill to strengthen the agency of local authorities and communities, but we have some worries about the way that local leadership is conceived of in the Bill. Andy Haldane, who led the Government’s levelling-up taskforce, said that if we are to make a reality of levelling up, local governance has to be a team sport involving local government, local finance, community organisations and local people, yet local leadership seems to be conceived of, both in the levelling-up White Paper and in the Bill, as being restricted to elected metro Mayors, potentially county mayors and governors. We do not think that that fulfils the need for meaningful control at community level. Giving people control of the services, spaces and spending decisions that shape our places will be absolutely pivotal to fulfilling levelling-up missions related to pride in place—as will local leadership, obviously.

Q Sacha, did you want to expand on that?

Sacha Bedding: Teesside is well known for what our metro Mayor, Ben Houchen, is doing. If you were to ask people in my community what that means to them—the purchase of an airport; the decarbonisation of industry; carbon capture and storage—they would say that they are good things, and the macroeconomic circumstances arising out of them could be a positive, but it feels as though they are a million miles away from having an impact on their life. When we talk about local leadership, I would like us to move beyond the sub-regional. From a Westminster perspective, that is more local, but from a community perspective, to really feel for those people in left-behind neighbourhoods, of which ours is one, it needs to be most local leadership. Giving people agency and control over more decisions, more often, would be beneficial.

The Bill is a start, and a step in the right direction. As Rich says, there are elements that you can get behind, but probably more needs to be done, so that people can feel that they benefit from some of the levelling-up opportunities in the paper.

Q This might be a good moment to go to you, Parth. In your research, you have looked at democracy and decision making. What does that tell you about who people are confident in, where they want to make decisions, and what involvement people in general want in decision making?

Dr Patel: At their simplest, questions of constitutional reform and devolution are questions about whose voice is heard, which we should not detach from the question of who has a voice in the first place. There is minimal engagement in Bill with local politicians at certain scales, or with community and civil society organisations and citizens. There are some allusions to public consultation, but without much detail about what it involves. That is a problem, because when you are implementing a tier of local governance without having come bottom up, there is a risk that the link between the citizenry and this new tier of state will be weak. Then you get low political engagement, of all sorts, and local opposition to certain new tiers of government, and it feels like a wasted opportunity.

At the same time, clauses 43 and 45 grant the Secretary of State new powers to impose a combined county authority, change the constitution in a CCA or impose a mayoralty unilaterally—with a public consultation, although that is not quite defined. That purely top-down approach to constitutional reform risks being at best a little bit of a waste and at worst democratically not very legitimate.

Q Thank you. Graeme, we spoke a little in this morning’s sitting about the missions. As you know, whether the missions should be set out in the Bill, or whether the Bill should say instead that there should be some missions, is something of a politically contested space. We also talked a little about how we will understand progress. From your research in your unit at the university, how best can we as decision makers and legislators monitor levelling up and understand the impact of the various levelling-up missions and programmes?

Professor Atherton: One of the first things is that the missions differ significantly in precisely how they can be measured. For some missions, you see targets that one could see progress against in a quantitative way; for others, that is less so. Consistency across the missions would seem a good starting point. Then, if we are indeed to look for progress, there need to be quantitative and possibly other measures alongside each mission.

Inevitably, one of the challenges with levelling up is that the White Paper is so broad and encompasses so many different policy areas. We found over 120 different policy targets or policies mentioned in the White Paper, alongside £250 billion-worth of spend. Refining that down to a number of missions will be difficult. First, you need to make the missions consistent, and there needs to be a rationale for why certain things are included as missions and others are not. For instance, we consistently have things on skills, but not on other aspects of education—we have things for younger groups, at primary level, but not for those at a level between the two.

The important point is: what is and is not the mission? In defining it and looking for progress, we need to be as precise as we can be for each mission. We should possibly go beyond the time scale in the White Paper, and look at what happened prior to that, because although the medium term is good, you need to consider the short, medium and long-term progress you are looking to make on the missions.

Q Thank you to all the panellists; it is brilliant to see you here. My first question is to Dr Patel. Rural communities face inequality in accessing health services, given the geographical distances that people need to travel to receive healthcare. Thinking about cancer treatment, A&E and GP access, what evidence can you call on to indicate whether those large geographical distances have an impact on health outcomes?

Dr Patel: It is an excellent question. I cannot call on a precise study that will give me an exact scientific answer to what you are asking. The thing about health outcomes is that they are a point of convergence for a whole array of economic, social, cultural and political factors, including access to public services of all kinds, not just health services. That is why health outcomes are quite a good thing to look at. Within the 12 missions, it is sort of the mission of the missions. The other 11 all basically feed into whether or not we achieve the health mission, so it is a good thing to look at. There are no two ways about it: public services are a key determinant of health distributions and health patterns, and they make a massive difference to cancer outcomes, for example. At the same time, they are not the be-all and end-all. The local economy matters, and things like pride in place and social relations also matter.

Zooming out a little bit, do I think this Bill and the proposed funding pots around it will achieve the health mission? The evidence tells me I should be sceptical. A really good example is if we look at east and west Germany in 1990, when there was a four-year life expectancy difference between east and west Germany. Two decades later, that had closed to three months. In those two decades, we saw radical constitutional reform, sweeping political change, €2 trillion of investment and a massive upgrade in public services and access to the services you described. In relation to that, what this Bill proposes is certainly more symbolic than substantial, and that is where my scepticism originates.

Q On using this Bill to provide rights to access, or giving local communities the powers of definition and delivery, so that GP practices are protected in rural communities or cancer treatment is brought closer to where people live, what provisions could be put into the Bill to make sure those things are delivered?

Dr Patel: That is another brilliant question. There is a huge cut-across here with what has been going on with NHS reforms over the past two or three decades. It is almost as though we have had some of the issues again—the problem with top-down structural reform and how, ultimately, it does not really make a difference. Structures are important, but people really care about outcomes.

I would encourage people to compare what has being going on with the integrated care system reforms, and to think about the priorities, legislative and non-legislative, between those new institutions; the ICS boards operate at the same sort of size as a mayoral combined authority. I for one have definitely encouraged the ICSs to have a much stronger conversation with combined authorities about how they can work together to ensure that services can be delivered to the hardest-to-reach populations. There are certainly places that are doing that quite well. Often, it comes back not just to governance, but to resourcing. By that, I do not just mean money; I mean personnel. The public sector is anaemic in a lot of places, and that is a huge barrier beyond a legislative one.

Q Thank you. I have a quick one for Rich and/or Sacha about planning. How much do you think the campaign to increase communities’ power over their destiny depends on the level of planning control and the kinds of powers communities have?

Rich Bell: I think the destiny of communities is significantly shaped by their level of control over planning decisions. One thing we are at once encouraged by and slightly disappointed by in this Bill is the proposal regarding the neighbourhood share. This is the idea that 25% of the infrastructure levy could be controlled by either a parish council or a neighbourhood planning forum. That currently applies in the case of the community infrastructure levy, but not in the case of section 106. I think it is a very positive step on the Government’s part to extend that neighbourhood-level control over the investment of developer-generated public money—to devolve that directly to neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, parish councils are predominantly found in wealthy and rural areas. A report produced for the Department then known as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government by academics at the University of Reading concluded something very similar on neighbourhood planning forums just a few years ago.

We would suggest that members of the Committee should consider whether the Bill could be amended to expand the definition of a “qualifying body” on page 264. We would ask Members to introduce a clause amending the Localism Act 2011 that expands the range of organisations to whom that neighbourhood share could be passed. It should be possible for local authorities to designate community anchor organisations, such as the Wharton Trust in Hartlepool, as local trusted partners who could work with that local authority to spend that not insignificant amount of public money.

Q This question is mainly for Sacha and Rich. It is about high street rental auctions, which the Bill introduces. As well as being an opportunity to improve our high streets and regenerate the local economy, do you think they are an opportunity for voluntary groups, small businesses and social enterprises to get themselves a place on the high street? How would you like to see community involvement in that high street rental auction process work?

Rich Bell: We were very encouraged by the detail of this proposal. We were very pleased to see that the Bill defines high street use in a way that recognises the use of high street premises as a communal meeting space. It is incredibly important that the legislation recognises that high streets are not just drivers of local economies; they are the sites of the bumping spaces and the meeting places that stitch together our social fabric. It is similarly positive that the Bill’s local benefit condition recognises the social and environmental benefits of high street premises as well as their economic benefits.

We encourage the Government to consider how they can shape accompanying regulations to ensure that local authorities feel that they have permission to work with social enterprises and local community organisations, and to shape their own criteria for high street auctions, so that those community organisations can gain access to high street sites. As I say, we were encouraged by the detail.

Sacha Bedding: High streets are absolutely about pride. There is nothing worse than seeing boarded-up places. The opportunity for local ownership and activity will help. People are full of ideas on how to do that. I will not go on too long; we absolutely agree with what Rich said, and there will be any amount of ideas, not just focused around retail, on how people can help make their high streets thriving places again.

Q I noted your comments, Mr Bell, about the importance of team spirit in levelling up communities. Do you have any thoughts or comments about the fact that the Scottish Government will not be involved at the decision-making stage in the allocation of levelling-up funding? That suggests that there will be implications for duplication, the inefficient use of resources, and lack of strategic overview.

Rich Bell: My only comment would be to say that it seems incredibly important, when taking what is a pretty radical step in promoting sub-regional devolution across England, to do so in a joined-up way which involves dialogue with all the national Governments across the UK. That said, I would say that the problem in the Bill is not the lack of emphasis on sub-regional and national devolution; the problem is the lack of emphasis on devolution at the most local level, as Sacha said, and the complete absence of genuine community leadership.

Q The Institute of Economic Affairs has described the missions in the Bill as being of “dubious quality”. Do you have any concerns about whether there are sufficient or robust ways of objectively measuring the progress and impact of levelling up, given that many say that there appears to be a lack of accountability or even ownership for each of the missions? If you do have such concerns, how do you think that the Bill could, or should, be altered to address them?

Rich Bell: I suspect that this is a question that Graeme and Parth will be able to answer slightly better. As a campaign, we certainly see a case for some sort of independent body that would be charged with assessing the suitability of the levelling-up missions and, crucially, the metrics against which they are measured.