House of Lords
Wednesday 6 May 2020
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
Arrangement of Business
The announcement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, Virtual Proceedings of the House of Lords will now begin. I remind Members that these proceedings are subject to parliamentary privilege and that what we say is available to the public both in Hansard and to those listening and watching. Members’ microphones will initially be set to mute, and the broadcasting team will unmute their microphones shortly before we reach their place in the speakers’ list. When Members have finished speaking, their microphones will again be set to mute.
Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions will now start. I will call each Oral Question in the normal way, and supplementary questions will be asked in the order shown on the speakers’ list. Please ensure that questions and answers are short, because that helps everybody on the list. Each speaker’s microphone will be unmuted prior to their supplementary question and returned to mute once their supplementary question has finished.
National Asylum Support Service
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, we have worked closely with Public Health England to ensure that asylum accommodation providers follow relevant guidance and are supporting asylum seekers to social distance within the accommodation estate. All supported asylum seekers receive translated guidance and increased contact management. In hostel-based accommodation, measures taken include segregation of symptomatic service users, sequencing of mealtimes, two-metre marking to ensure social distancing and increased cleaning and hygiene regimes.
I thank the Minister for that response, but what she has said is just not consistent in any way with the experience of charities working with these people on a daily basis. Refugee Action, Asylum Matters and the Scottish Refugee Council have described the situation in detention centres as life threatening. People are being forced to share kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and sometimes even beds with complete strangers. This goes against everything the Government are advising. Will the Minister agree to meet me and some of these charities so that she can see for herself exactly what the situation is on the ground?
We are working with accommodation providers and NGOs—and in the detention estate, as the noble Baroness outlines—to ensure that they are providing services to vulnerable asylum seekers. Our providers have identified vulnerable service users and are providing them with additional support, including supplying food parcels where needed. We have also procured 4,000 single hotel rooms to assist with initial asylum seekers at this time.
My Lords, I thank the Lord Speaker for calling me and the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, for asking this Question. Is it not essential that all those dealing with asylum seekers constantly remember that these people—women, children and men—have been through terrible experiences, too often involving torture, which in many instances have left them scarred? Is it not therefore essential that, in all that we do, we take as warm and supportive an attitude as possible and that we avoid a minimalist, regimented regime? Should the good Samaritan not constantly be our example?
My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Some of these people will have had the most terrible experiences. Nobody whose asylum application is complete will be asked to leave the country. As I said, we are procuring 4,000 hotel rooms. People in both our asylum estate and our detention estate are treated as any other member of the public would be, whether they are vulnerable, as the noble Lord outlined, or not.
My Lords, it is not easy to provide a safe distancing policy in our overcrowded penal institutions. Once the state detains inmates, it assumes full responsibility for their safety and welfare. What effort has been made to ensure that people are released from detention centres to places of safety in the community? Will the Minister ensure that there is a moratorium on deportation until it is safe to deport people?
As I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, at this point in time nobody whose case has been concluded and who is due to leave will be asked to leave. That will be the position up to June and possibly beyond. The noble Lord is absolutely right: the asylum estate has as many obligations in terms of social distancing as any other place in the UK. I do not think that deportations are happening at the moment either.
My Lords, my question refers to the wider issue of migrants arriving in the UK. Last month, four boats carrying up to 57 migrants were intercepted by HM Coastguard and the Border Force in the English Channel. Can my noble friend reassure us that our coastguard and Border Force officers are adequately provided with PPE when dealing with such eventualities, and that any such migrants will be given health checks and monitored for signs of Covid-19?
My noble friend is absolutely right that migrants arriving in the UK should be assessed. Certainly, if they are being put into accommodation, we want to ensure that they are not Covid-positive. If anyone moved into initial accommodation —possibly a hostel-type arrangement—is symptomatic, they are moved into hotel-type accommodation so that they can segregate and isolate. I join calls every day with our Border Force colleagues, and I understand that their PPE requirements are adequate.
My Lords, what advice and information on Covid-19 is available in languages other than English, in what format and in which languages? How is it made accessible to people needing help from the National Asylum Support Service, including through the use of registered public service interpreters?
My Lords, all asylum seekers currently accommodated in asylum support properties can receive advice on asylum support and associated Covid-19 guidance and signposting through our advice, issue reporting and eligibility provider, Migrant Help. They can contact Migrant Help 24 hours a day on a freephone number if they need assistance or guidance. The AIRE service provides all the current process, policy and health guidelines, as well as immediate access to service providers for escalation. The translated public health guidance is available in 12 languages, with instructions to service users.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Doocey outlined the shocking plight of refugees, who are forced to make the impossible choice between enduring dangerously unsanitary conditions here or the dangers of returning home to the source of their persecution. I was very pleased to hear the Minister talk about the 4,000 hotel rooms that have been made available; we know that hotel chains have been very generous in their offer of rooms. How many refugees are currently staying in hotel accommodation? How many are left living in other types of accommodation, and what are the plans to ensure that they have safe, sanitary conditions in which to sit out the pandemic?
There are basically three types of accommodation: the initial, hostel-type accommodation facilities for people arriving here; hotel accommodation facilities, as the noble Baroness mentioned and as I pointed out earlier; and dispersed accommodation, which is where the significant majority of our service users reside. The latter consists of houses or homes of multiple occupancy, which obviously accommodate smaller numbers. I cannot give her the figures on hotel accommodation, but I can certainly write to or email her with these.
The Refugee Council has persistently campaigned for better access to healthcare for asylum seekers, noting that a lack of confidence in communicating in English and confusion over the support available act as huge obstacles. Will the Minister make urgent representations to the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that all asylum seekers have access to healthcare, and specifically testing, during the Covid-19 pandemic? Secondly, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, asked the Minister for a meeting. Did the Minister agree to that?
I did not confirm that, but I am very happy to have a virtual meeting with the noble Baroness. On healthcare, as I said earlier, all asylum accommodation providers continue to provide translated public health guidance, which is available in 12 languages, and instructions to service users. Nobody, whether an asylum seeker or not, need worry that healthcare will not be available to them.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, DfID is rapidly adapting its bilateral programmes across Africa to help counter the health, humanitarian and economic impacts of Covid-19 in support of the most vulnerable and poorest people. We have provided health experts to give direct support to African countries, and we have made significant contributions to the multilateral response. UK aid is also supporting a team at the WHO’s office in Brazzaville, to co-ordinate the regional response.
My Lords, I commend the Minister and her department for the rapid deployment of financial support to the continent. As she will be aware, the gravest health risks facing African people may well arise from the economic impacts, rather than the disease impacts, of Covid, leading to a reduction in resources available for health services, spiralling hunger and an increase in other fatal diseases such as measles, polio and malaria. Can the Minister therefore tell the House what planning DfID is undertaking to ensure a co-ordinated and long-term approach to supporting and reviving African economies as they emerge from the immediate crisis?
I agree with the noble Lord that the gravest health risks may come from the economic impacts. The UK is at the forefront of efforts to protect African economies. We are encouraging international financial institutions, UN agencies and others to co-ordinate to make funds available as quickly as possible. We have committed up to £150 million to the International Monetary Fund to help vulnerable countries meet debt repayments. In the longer term, we are providing technical assistance and capacity building to help support the African Union’s African continental free trade area, which offers the opportunity to kick-start regional trade and support the economic bounce back.
My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, if Covid-19 becomes endemic in African countries, it will remain a threat to the world for the foreseeable future? Would she consider convening a conference of Commonwealth African countries—after all, Nigeria, the largest country on the continent, is a Commonwealth country—to see whether the initiative can be taken on a Commonwealth basis?
I thank my noble friend for that question. I absolutely agree that we need to tackle this pandemic globally. We are not going to resolve it within our own borders unless we help the rest of the world to tackle it too. I also agree on the importance of our Commonwealth relationships. Sadly, the CHOGM conference has been postponed, but I know that my noble friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the Commonwealth, is in regular contact with Commonwealth leaders so we can help each other to tackle the pandemic.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a farmer as set out in the register. Could the Minister confirm that, in providing support to African and other eligible countries, careful consideration is given by DfID to purchasing suitable surplus agricultural products from British farmers as a result of the steep decline in demand from the food service sector, and that this is distributed as part of the aid budget to those countries experiencing desperate food shortages? A broadly similar policy has just been announced by the Canadian Government.
My Lords, we remain deeply concerned about the food security situation in Africa. In east Africa alone, nearly 25 million people are at crisis levels of food insecurity. We are supporting farmers in Africa in a number of ways through our global agriculture and food security programme and our adaptation for smallholder agriculture programme. On the export of food from the UK to Africa, I will have to take that back to the department and follow it up in writing to the noble Lord.
My Lords, the G7 is due to meet in the United States in June—or perhaps virtually. What action will the UK take to ensure that that summit addresses the economic fragility of sub-Saharan Africa, the supply chains and the international trade that has been disrupted as a result of the Covid-19 international lockdown, and not just the economic needs of the developed world?
I assure the noble Lord that we will absolutely take into account the economic and supply chain impacts on the developing world. We have pre-meetings ahead of the G7 where that discussion is already happening, and I am sure it will be on the agenda for the summit.
My Lords, aid to developing countries is dwarfed by massive debt repayments to rich countries. Other than the G20’s decision to temporarily suspend debt payments, what further measures are being considered to alleviate the crippling debt so that health systems can be strengthened?
My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to the suspension of debt repayments, which we argued for with the G20 and the Paris Club. I have already mentioned the £150 million going to the International Monetary Fund for catastrophe containment. We are also working closely with the private sector to see what we can do there and providing advice to developing countries on how best to respond to the economic impact of Covid-19.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Secretary-General of the UN’s High-level Advisory Board on Mediation. What specific steps are the Government taking to support the very successful call for a global ceasefire as it applies to sub-Saharan Africa, particularly among those countries that already have some kind of ceasefire in place, to support the mediation and peace process? I am of course referring to the Secretary-General’s call.
My Lords, we fully support the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire. We are working in countries, where it is relevant, to ensure that we are doing what we can. We do not need any further issues affecting people who are already impacted so heavily by Covid-19.
The Foreign Secretary yesterday warned about the criminal gangs and other supranational organisations seeking to disrupt a cure for Covid-19. We have seen a rise in attacks on Chinese people in the United Kingdom and suggestions that the virus has been spread by Jewish people or by Muslims. What will my noble friend do in terms of offering advice to African countries to counter this kind of fake news, which could turn various communities against one another and be just as damaging as the disease itself?
My noble friend will be aware of the programme that we have in this country to tackle fake news, but we have also announced support to tackle false claims and conspiracy theories in Africa, which may spread rapidly on social media and may even promote dangerous behaviour. Our support will be going to the Humanitarian to Humanitarian Network, which addresses the spread of misinformation during epidemics and will help to tackle specific mistruths in Africa.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the devastating effect of the combination of Covid-19 and famine caused by locusts sweeping across east Africa? As PPE is needed to fight coronavirus and locusts—both are growing simultaneously—supply chains are being badly affected in the worst affected countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan. Can the Minister give some assurance that this lethal combination of locusts and coronavirus is being addressed as a priority?
I can assure that the noble Baroness that it is. We are deeply concerned about the potential second wave of locusts coming into east Africa. We are working with other donors to support UN agencies, the Red Cross and NGOs to respond to coronavirus, and with the FAO on locusts. That includes helping the world’s poorest countries to access critical medical supplies, including PPE.
My Lords, I welcome Monday’s pledge by the UK of £250 million at the virtual EU summit to boost public research funding for a new Covid vaccine. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that any vaccine developed using UK public money will be accessible by and affordable for all?
My Lords, I refer to my interests as listed in the register. There are Commonwealth countries in Africa that have no DfID representation within them. What are the Government doing to ensure that on-the-ground organisation is arranged for the aid that the UK is providing? Would the Minister consider using the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have relationships in some of these countries, to assist?
My Lords, as I said, the Commonwealth has an essential role to play in the global response to Covid-19. We obviously have a presence in the vast majority of countries that need our presence and, where we do not, we work closely with international agencies to make sure that they are delivering the help needed on the ground. However, I will certainly take the noble Lord’s suggestion of working with other Governments back to the department.
Covid-19: Contact-tracing App
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to (1) protect the privacy of users, and (2) provide oversight, of the National Health Service’s COVID-19 contact-tracing application and, in particular, whether the application will meet Apple’s privacy standard for Bluetooth.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, we have put privacy at the heart of the app and the way it works. It is designed so that you do not have to give up your personal details to use it. We have worked in partnership with both the National Cyber Security Centre and the Information Commissioner’s Office throughout. We continue to hold discussions with Apple and Google. The app uses only software development tools and mechanisms that are supported by Apple and Google.
To be effective, achieve widespread adoption and ensure our safety, the new app needs to gain public trust. So, why have the Government developed a go-it-alone, centralised app which is not optimally privacy-preserving, not interoperable with the apps of other countries—not even Scotland, it seems —not fully compatible with the Apple and Google Bluetooth protocol, and has no mandatory oversight, time limit on its use or public data impact assessment?
My Lords, it is not a go-it-alone app; others are following our lead on this. It is interoperable, and we are working with other countries to make sure it is. Testing with the public has turned out to be extremely positive and we look forward to publishing the audit shortly.
My Lords, the importance of track, trace and isolate is beyond doubt, but what assurances can the Minister give to your Lordships’ House that this data, as part of data-sharing with the NHS, will be anonymised and protected to prevent information being used by others?
My Lords, the anonymised data-sharing is protected by the security protocols that have been agreed as part of the app’s governance. That governance is overseen by the ethics board, chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery from University College London, who previously headed the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what lessons Her Majesty’s Government have learned from South Korea and Taiwan, for example, which have been far more successful than the UK in testing, tracking and tracing, and hence reducing death rates? South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has had 252 deaths and Taiwan, with a population of 24 million, has had six deaths. Can the Minister explain to the House why the UK’s record looks comparatively so poor?
My Lords, I am in touch with both the South Korean and Taiwanese Governments, and we are greatly inspired by the throughly professional way in which they have gone about epidemic management. I commend both those countries and their efforts. However, the epidemic arrived in Britain in an incredibly fulsome way. The Chief Medical Officer has been very clear that if that had happened in either of those countries, their responses would have been similar to that of Britain. I defend the Government’s response to the epidemic.
My Lords, one of the core principles of data protection is to gather the minimum amount of data. I understand that one reason given by the NCSC for asking for partial postcodes on registration for the app is to assist with regional healthcare planning and to monitor potential Covid flare-ups. Can the Minister explain why data from Covid tests and NHS 111, for example, would not be sufficient to keep the transmission rate down in a post-lockdown test, track and trace strategy?
My noble friend Lady Blackwood is entirely right. The testing and the surveillance done by testing give us powerful insight into the demographic reach of the virus and information on a very broad basis on the regional reach, but we are looking for a much more granular level of detail from the very powerful, multimillion level of detail that the app can provide. The value of those surveillance details has led us to design the app in the way we have.
Matt Hancock has said that the app is to flag up our proximity to someone else using the app, not to track our movements. So why do the terms and conditions of the app request access to track our precise location based on GPS or network-based systems?
My Lords, the app works by using the Bluetooth tags which are shared once you have declared symptoms or you have had a positive test. It does not rely on GPS tracking. If the terms and conditions are broader, that is because we want to try to provide the most thorough set of conditions that encompass all the data provided by the user’s telephone. However, I can reassure the House that it is Bluetooth tagging that is used by the app and the surveillance system.
My Lords, what work is going on to make sure that the app that NHSX is developing is interoperable with other countries’ apps? Clearly we all want to get back to a situation where people can move freely from one country to another for business or leisure, so interoperation is important. I will be grateful if my noble friend can update us.
My noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy is entirely right. We all wish to move as quickly as possible back to normal, but I am afraid that travel will be one of the aspects of our former lives that will be slowest to return. That said, we are working extremely hard with other countries to make sure that interoperability can be baked into our arrangements. Of course, the app has not yet been launched and few other countries are ahead of us. We sat with the Irish Government on 24 April in order to work out interoperability protocols since that border is the most important and proximate to us.
The Office for National Statistics tells us that the highest number of deaths is among the poorest communities at 55 in 100,000 versus 25 in 100,000 in other communities, yet they are also the most digitally excluded people. It is tragic that these inequalities mean that the contact-tracing app will not help those who most need it. What is the Government’s plan to address this enormous challenge?
The noble Baroness is entirely right to point to the importance of ensuring that the vulnerable are included. Of course, the app is not the only thing we are depending on. Manual track and trace in the conventional way of using a telephone and speaking to those who test positive will still be a core part of our track-and-trace arrangements. Efforts will be made to reach those who are vulnerable or digitally isolated to ensure that they have details of the provisions for these track-and-trace arrangements.
My Lords, I would like to follow up on the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, because she has put her finger exactly on how this may not work because either our most vulnerable and poorest communities will not have the technology or there will be problems with language. I would like some more detail from the Minister about exactly how the Government intend to roll this out. Given that it took such a long time to roll out the NHS volunteers system, I feel that we might find ourselves with our most vulnerable and poorest communities disadvantaged.
The noble Baroness is entirely right to be concerned about the vulnerable and our approach. I completely share those concerns. It is a massive challenge, but that does not stop us embracing the advantages of technology where millions of transactions can be done in a day which could never be done by more manual processes. An enormous amount will be invested in trying to reach out to those who are isolated, vulnerable or digitally excluded to ensure that they have details of our track-and-trace arrangements. Hiring an enormous army of track-and-trace experts has already begun, and details can be seen on my Twitter feed of how volunteers who have the right qualifications can join those efforts.
My Lords, if we are moving to a centralised app, what assurances do we have about how long the data will be stored? I see references to use for research purposes in various documents. Will there be careful safeguards about the deletion of the data after a certain period?
Israel: West Bank
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the announcement by the government of Israel of its intention to commence discussions from 1 July on applying Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and other territory in the occupied West Bank.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, we are deeply concerned by reports that the new Israeli Government coalition have reached an agreement which may pave the way for annexation of parts of the West Bank. The United Kingdom’s position is clear: any unilateral moves towards annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart peace negotiations and contrary to international law.
I thank the Minister for his Answer, but
“no country, however large, can dismember its neighbour and break international law without consequences.”
These are the words of Boris Johnson when Foreign Secretary, in an article published on 22 February 2018 criticising Russia for its annexation of Crimea. The Minister accepts, as I understand it, that the possible annexation by the Israeli Government of land on the West Bank would likewise be illegal, but otherwise the Government’s response is an exercise in hand-wringing, as evidenced by the response today and by the answer given yesterday to the Written Question put down by my noble friend Lady Northover.
The possibility of a just, two-state solution is being dismantled before our eyes in favour of a one-state imposition, all endorsed by President Trump. What is the Government’s position? Do they accept the inevitability of annexation or will they condemn and seek to prevent it? We are entitled to know; the Palestinians are entitled to know as well.
My Lords, the UK position is absolutely clear. Any unilateral moves towards annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel, as I have said, would be damaging to the restart of any peace negotiations and, as I say again, contrary to international law.
Calling for harm to Jews, holding the British-Jewish community responsible for the actions of Israel, suggestions of disloyalty, conspiracy or undue financial power and Nazi comparators are all outwith the agreed IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Does the Minister agree that robust criticism and debate, while vital for democracy, are undermined by those who demean and dehumanise through hateful and abusive language?
I agree with the noble Lord. As he will know, the Government are a strong supporter of the IHRA definition; in that regard, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Pickles. The United Kingdom stands very much on the sentiments that the noble Lord has expressed. Any kind of bigotry or hate against any community is unacceptable.
My Lords, the last time I was in Israel, I told the mayor of Jerusalem that the settlements were a mistake. He said: “What do you want me to do, police the ethnicity of land sales between Israelis and Palestinians?” If most Palestinians recognise that a land swap for the settlement blocks is the pragmatic way forward, should not we in the UK be doing the same?
My Lords, as my noble friend will know, our long-standing position remains that the United Kingdom believes in a peace negotiation, a settlement between both sides based primarily on the 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, as would allow understanding of the position on the ground. Our position in that regard has not changed.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that everyone who wishes the best of futures for both Israel and the Palestinian people should be giving all the support they can to the people trying to bring about a two-state solution, and that therefore no support for any unilateral action should be given? It does not matter who is taking the unilateral action, whether it is Israel, the Palestinian people or any other actor in this conflict. Real friends of Israel should surely be against any unilateral action, which is bound to be only an obstacle on the road to peace, and that should apply to land annexation by Israel or calls from the Palestinians for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Can the Minister confirm that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government is still to do everything to help bring about an agreed two-state solution for both parties?
My Lords, the Israel Attorney-General’s office has warned the Israeli Prime Minister that annexation could trigger an International Criminal Court investigation into senior army officers and others. Will the Government co-operate if such an investigation occurs?
My Lords, I am not going to speculate on what may or may not happen. It remains very clear that we support a negotiated settlement between both sides, as I have said. As for anything which the ICC brings forward, we are supporters of the ICC, as the noble Baroness will know.
I refer the House to my interests as stated in the register. At his last speech to the Knesset on 5 October 1995 on the ratification of the Oslo accord, Yitzhak Rabin stated:
“The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley”.
Just one month later, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and others signed an Early Day Motion as a tribute to the murdered Prime Minister, describing him as
“a man of great courage and vision who led his country … along the path towards peace”.
The noble Lord was right to do so then and, I guess, would do so again. Does the Minister agree that the Council for Arab-British Understanding would be fulfilling its mission and be in tune with government policy by writing to the Palestinian leadership and other Arab states urging the Palestinians to sit down and talk peace directly with the Israelis?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend on the vision and the courage of the sadly passed-away Prime Minister Rabin. He brought peace to the region and his vision is what is needed now. Of course, I support all negotiated settlements, and we call upon both sides to sit down together and reach an agreement that works for Israel and for the Palestinians.
This proposal—so far it is only a proposal—over long-disputed territory has been taken out of context. I hope the Minister appreciates that. It relates to the Jordan valley, which has always been part of likely land swaps. It forms part of an overall vision to have a Palestinian state in the remainder of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The outright rejection of the entire US plan and adherence to past, failed plans are certain to condemn all sides to continued conflict. The Saudis have called on the Palestinian leadership to engage in direct negotiations with Israel on the merits of the US proposals. Can the Minister tell the House whether the UK Government have made representations to the Palestinian National Authority to do the same and get on with negotiations?
My Lords, it is clear that annexation does not mean the takeover of the West Bank, but the takeover of some parts that have been on the table in every suggested peace deal for decades—namely, in land swaps such as in the Jordan river valley, as has been mentioned, in exchange for land elsewhere. Does the Minister agree that this is a vital opportunity for Mr Abbas to negotiate again for a two-state solution?
My Lords, I agree that what we want to see and what is required—it has been a long-standing position, and we remain steadfast—is a negotiated two-state solution that works for Israel in terms of its security concerns, and provides for a sovereign Palestinian nation.
My Lords, I fear that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We might have got one or two more supplementary questions in had not some of the others been so long. I thank everyone who has taken part today. That concludes the Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. Virtual Proceedings will resume at a convenient point after noon for a Private Notice Question on the impact of Covid-19 on higher education.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
Arrangement of Business
The announcement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, Virtual Proceedings of the House will now resume. I remind Members that these proceedings are subject to parliamentary privilege and that what we say is available to the public both in Hansard and to those listening and watching. Members’ microphones will initially be set to mute and the broadcasting team will unmute them shortly before we reach their place in the speakers’ list. When Members have finished speaking, their microphone will again be set to mute.
The Virtual Proceedings on the Private Notice Question will now commence. I will call the Private Notice Question in the normal way, and supplementary questions will be asked in the order shown on the speakers’ list. Please ensure that questions and answers are short. A single question with a concise answer will ensure that we get through as many Members’ questions as possible. Each speaker’s microphone will be unmuted prior to them asking a supplementary question, and returned to mute once their supplementary question has finished.
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement on 4 May of the support package for universities and students as a result of the impact of COVID-19, what steps they are taking to protect (1) the quality, and (2) the accessibility, of higher education.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, all registered providers must comply with the Office for Students’ conditions for quality and access. We are protecting the interests of students by stabilising the admissions system, bringing forward £2.6 billion of forecast tuition fee income to help universities’ cash flow, and providing students with more support. This includes help for universities to reprioritise spending to increase student hardship funds, to support students to continue to access their university education.
My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration of interests. Will the Minister kindly confirm that the definition of the 5% uplift on student numbers is forecast and not any historic benchmark? Will she confirm—perhaps not today, but in writing—an urgent timeline for the publication of the work of the research sustainability task force in respect of the likely catastrophic loss of income from overseas students and the urgent need to underwrite research funding, should cross-subsidy be no longer available?
My Lords, the precise figures to determine the 5% uplift on the cap will be provided at provider level, and the methodology for that will be published shortly. The task force is made up of members from the Department for Education, BEIS, the devolved Administrations and the sector, and will meet to ensure the long-term viability of the research capacity of UK universities.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, higher education is profoundly affected by loss of income from overseas students. This will compound the loss of research income from Horizon 2020 and other EU participation programmes, which have long been a critical part of our research success and indeed our cultural richness. What steps are being taken to encourage overseas students to come to the UK and how much further funding can be supplied to replace the substantial money, if not the collaboration, which is desperately needed for our research programmes?
My Lords, in relation to international students, the department is working with the Department for International Trade to amend the international education strategy. The clear message is that the UK is open for business and for international students to come at the start of the academic year, but we recognise that different arrangements may need to be made. Those arrangements are in train—for instance, with different visa situations—so that students can begin their courses remotely overseas. We are keenly aware and are doing all we can to support the sector at this difficult time.
My Lords, I am concerned about the potential disparity in support across the United Kingdom. Can my noble friend the Minister outline the measures to be taken by Her Majesty’s Government to ensure equity of support across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as England? Can she confirm that the £100 million of public funding for research activities announced by my honourable friend the Science Minister will be available to each of the home nations?
My Lords, as I have outlined, the Government’s resource task force is specifically including the devolved Administrations. The changes to student finance affect students in Northern Ireland and Wales as well. We are in close touch with colleagues in Scotland, particularly in relation to English students who will study there and Scottish students who will come to the UK.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a recently appointed member and vice-chair of GB MET, a local FE college. The Government are allowing universities to charge students the full £9,250 annual tuition fee while our campuses remain closed—as long as there are “highest standards of online teaching”. Does the Minister accept that many courses are simply unsuitable for online learning? Students cannot access studios, laboratories, libraries and placements during the current pandemic. The market-driven higher education system has forced students to see themselves as consumers, and they are not getting what they have paid for. It is not fair on students nor on the university institutions.
My Lords, most universities have adopted online provision. The Office for Students has been very clear to the sector that the quality of provision that is being offered should be maintained during this period. If a student has any complaints about the quality of what they are being offered, they should deal with it first with their university—but, as the noble Lord will aware, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education can adjudicate on the quality of student provision at a university.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Snowdon Trust, which assists disabled students with the extra expenses attributable to their disability. What steps will the Government take to ensure that disabled students are not further disadvantaged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic; for example, by exempting them from the student number controls?
My Lords, the Office for Students has been very clear that the quality of provision for all students should be maintained. There has been particular advice in relation to disabled students and their access to online provision. A letter from the Minister to the sector has highlighted the need to make sure that, where online provision cannot meet the needs of students, they are able to access all the support that they need remotely, including the non-medical help that they are often entitled to. The Equality Act is still in force in relation to the provision of higher education.
How will the Government’s bailout measures and future policies help universities move away from the wasteful commercial model, where they see themselves as competing businesses, towards a more co-operative model of communities of scholars working for the common good? The kind of waste that could be eliminated is, as the Augar report highlighted, the £500 per student that is spent on marketing. Does the noble Baroness agree that universities cannot afford such sums?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. The £700 million is the estimate of the Office for Students for the specific access of higher education to all the schemes that have been outlined. Noble Lords spent many days debating the Higher Education and Research Act, and the Office for Students is a modern regulator, encouraging greater innovation and putting student choice at the centre of our system.
I call the noble Baroness, Lady Blower. No? Then I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington. We will come back to the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, if we have time.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that certain practices will have to change in lockdown? One of them is that anybody who needs an assessment of a disability can do that online as opposed to doing it the traditional way, face to face. I remind the House of my declared interests.
The noble Lord is correct; where an assessment is needed for disability support allowance, it needs to be done remotely. We are seeing that in these difficult circumstances there are situations where the use of remote technology has proved to be advantageous, and it might end up being a change or an option in any current system.
May I congratulate the Government on increasing the number of extra graduates this year? The number amounts to about 34,000, and the Government will insist on certain courses for 10,000. I suggest that they should insist only on courses for the entire number that are related to improving the British economy. We need more technically trained people: more doctors, dentists, midwives, nurses and medical workers. We also need more technicians, engineers and computer specialists who understand cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. We do not need more humanities students—they can learn from home virtually—but the physical presence of all those other students at a university will be needed in September this year.
My Lords, in addition to the forecast numbers and the 5% uplift, 10,000 places are reserved, and I am pleased to be able to tell my noble friend that half of them will be in the healthcare sector. Further details on the allocation of the 10,000 additional places will be released in due course.
The measures are a welcome step for cash flow but do not avoid the projected fall in income of £2.5 billion and the cost to the economy of £6 billion and 60,000 jobs. What is the Government’s response to this assessment from the UCU/London Economics report?
My Lords, the package that has been announced will stabilise the sector and give all the clarity that can be given at the moment. As I have outlined, the forecast is that the sector will be eligible for £700 million as regards loans and the job retention scheme. However, we are working with and keeping in close touch with the sector. The Office for Students has an individual contacting every provider so that we are in touch with their financial situation going forward.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
House of Lords: Allowances
Motion to Agree
1. The Resolution of the House of 20 July 2010 (House of Lords Allowance) shall temporarily cease to have effect in respect of attendances after 20 April 2020.
2. Members of this House, except any Member who receives a salary under the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 and the Chairman and Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, should be entitled to an allowance in respect of each day of attendance on or after 21 April 2020.
3. “Attendance” means attendance—
a) at a sitting of this House or a Committee of this House,
b) at a virtual proceeding of this House or a virtual meeting of a Committee of this House, or
c) on such other Parliamentary business as may be determined by the House of Lords Commission.
4. The amount of the allowance payable to a Member in respect of a day of attendance should be £162.
5. In respect of attendance at a physical sitting or virtual proceeding of this House only Members who speak during the sitting or the proceeding, or who are otherwise necessary to the proceedings, should be entitled to an allowance.
6. In respect of attendance at a Committee of this House, only Members of that Committee or Members authorised to attend a meeting of such a Committee by the Chair should be entitled to an allowance.
My Lords, both Houses have been operating under unprecedented circumstances over the last few weeks and I know I speak for the whole commission membership when I convey thanks to all those who have heeded government health advice and remained away from the House to take part wherever possible in remote proceedings.
Over recent weeks, many of your Lordships, myself included, have had to adapt to considerable technological changes, which have been challenging at times. Although there have been teething issues along the way, we can be both proud and grateful to all those involved who have supported and enabled us to continue to perform our roles as parliamentarians, be that communicating government policy or holding the Government to account.
However, these unprecedented circumstances have raised specific issues around allowances—a situation we are seeking to address through this Motion. The overwhelming majority of Members of your Lordships’ House are not paid a salary but instead are entitled to claim an allowance which recompenses noble Lords for the costs incurred and associated with physically attending the House to undertake parliamentary work. Now that we are working remotely and in the majority of cases not attending the House in person, the commission has agreed that the amount Members are able to claim needs to reflect this new, temporary situation.
Alongside a change in the rate of the daily allowance, the commission has also agreed that we should more precisely define participation in our proceedings. After careful consideration and lengthy discussions, the commission has proposed that the current allowance system be temporarily suspended and the maximum daily claimable rate be reduced from £323 per day to £162.
Eligibility for the temporary allowance will be based on direct contributions in the proceedings of the day, which will be reflected in the public record. This reduced rate applies to Members whether they are actively participating online in a Virtual Proceeding or in the significantly reduced number of physical sittings that take place in this Chamber. Members participating directly in the important work of our Select Committees will also be eligible for the new temporary allowance at the same rate. Simply following proceedings online or signing up to a speakers’ list does not meet these eligibility criteria.
The commission agreed that the half-day flat rate of £162 was the most appropriate amount for the temporary allowance as it aligns with the amount available to those participating in parliamentary business away from Westminster under normal circumstances. Of course, the proposals before your Lordships’ House also retain the current position that a Member does not have to claim anything should they feel so inclined.
The Motion proposes that the temporary allowance arrangements be applied retrospectively from 21 April, when we returned from the Easter Recess and began our new way of working, so that Members are able to claim for remote participation from that date. These changes to our allowance system will of course be kept under constant review.
I am aware that there are very different views across the House and across all Benches about the detail of these proposals. No commission member took these decisions lightly. However, at a time when millions of people across the country are having to adapt to working remotely and are facing considerable financial challenges of their own, it is right that we have adapted our financial arrangements and our burden on the taxpayer to reflect the current working environment we face. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
At end to insert—
“7. The House of Lords Commission must determine whether the provisions of paragraphs 1 to 6 either
(a) should continue to be in effect, or
(b) should be replaced with an alternative entitlement to allowances,
and in either case must bring a resolution to that effect before this House on, or before, 30 June 2020.”
My Lords, as a former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and now as a Deputy to the Lord Speaker, I tend to approach these issues not just from a party point of view but from an institutional point of view, trying to understand the impact of any decisions that might be made on the institutions that we are privileged to be able to serve.
Listening to a number of noble Lords across the House, it is clear to me that there is an increasing loss of trust that the House is being treated properly. Yesterday’s Private Notice Question, asked by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, and the supplementary questions to it gave one example. However, the issue goes back much further than the Covid-19 outbreak—to, for example, suggestions that during restoration and renewal the House of Lords should be shuffled off to York, not in order to pay respect to the people in the north of England but to marginalise the influence of the House.
Recent briefings from 10 Downing Street about cutting out anyone over the age of 65 and moving to electing Peers are not thoughtful, creative comments but simply destructive threats whose purpose is to shut down debate in this place. Indeed, that seems to be the Government’s strategy. Having a very large majority in the House of Commons, it is only in your Lordships’ House that real, meaningful dissent is possible. Holding the Government to account is an essential role of Parliament, and that requires the possibility of not just asking questions of government but, from time to time, saying to government, “No, you’ve got it wrong.” In the case of this Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, it is clear that there have been misjudgments and mistakes, some very serious.
I hear Ministers trying to gloss over such questions by saying that there will be time to address them later. That is true, but the time to learn from the mishandling is not just afterwards in the preparation for the next global pandemic, which we all hope will be as far away as the last one a century ago; no, we need to learn lessons as quickly as possible now to save lives. The Government need to hear the reality of what is going on in the health and care sector and in society as a whole.
In such national crises, the initial posture of society is of course to rally round the Government in the hope of finding clear leadership. However, when things do not go well and we find that the level of deaths in our country is one of the worst and that government promises are misleading or unfulfilled, trust, very properly, gives way to criticism. If that criticism is not heard and heeded—for example, in your Lordships’ House—accountability is not fulfilled. If it is heard and heeded, accountability is fulfilled, but, if not, the criticism gives way to hostility and a breakdown of trust and working relationships.
One thing that emerged when I tabled this amendment was that it was not possible for the Opposition effectively to oppose the Government’s position. We are not able to vote in our virtual sittings, although the suggestion that this is not technically possible is, frankly, misleading. As we in the Liberal Democrat group have found, it is perfectly possible to vote using the reaction feature in the Zoom program if one wants votes to take place.
It was also made clear to me that the House authorities did not want votes to take place in the Chamber, the Lobbies or the Royal Gallery, despite arrangements having been made some time ago, because of anxieties about the health of clerking staff. As a doctor and a psychiatrist, I am of course very alert to such issues, but the result is that it is not possible for this House to vote on any issue or to be clear whether the Government’s position has the support of the House. We are told that it will be at least four or five weeks before that capacity is technically available to us in the virtual sittings.
I am very sceptical. It seems that there is an attempt by the Government’s strategist and senior advisor to ensure that your Lordships’ House is muzzled and sidelined during this time of national crisis, and, as populist and authoritarian leaders around the world are doing, to use this crisis to make permanent changes in favour of an untrammelled Executive. That is why I propose that by the end of June the House of Lords Commission should be required to put forward any proposals that it has, whether to continue the arrangements currently being pushed through or to have a return to more reasonable arrangements for the work of the House.
The noble Baroness and her colleagues may feel that what is being proposed is reasonable and appropriate—although to suggest to people in the world at large that working online is not real work at all is hardly appropriate—but if that is the case, the rest of your Lordships’ House would expect that those who make the decision should change their practices and reduce their allowances voluntarily to reduce their substantial emoluments as an indication of some measure of solidarity. After all, we have had too many examples already of leading figures making rules that apply to other people, but not observing them themselves in respect of the Covid-19 crisis.
This House has changed enormously since I came here almost a quarter of a century ago. Those journalists who do not trouble to read our Hansard or come down the Corridor to familiarise themselves with the House as it now is will not be familiar with the fact that there is now a much wider range of age, gender, ethnic and religious diversity, and, particularly, income. The House authorities ought also to appreciate that those who come from well beyond London and the south-east have particular needs if they are to properly represent the concerns of those in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.
I do not agree with the terms of the Motion brought forward by the Leader of the House, but I have no real way of voting against it. I know from my experience in Northern Ireland that when people find that they cannot express their concerns by voting for change, it leads to a breakdown in trust and relationships, without which no institution or society can work harmoniously. That is why I appeal to her to find a way to take on board my request, which does not take away from the content of the Motion but simply requires it to be reviewed when one could reasonably expect that voting would be possible in a virtual sitting. There are various ways she could do this, and I hope that she will find a way.
I believe that the amendment would have the overwhelming support of the House if it could vote and show it. It is the welfare of the future of the House, not just now but in the long term, that is at stake. I beg to move.
My Lords, I think that everybody on the commission and a large majority of your Lordships’ House accepts that during these unprecedented times and with us moving temporarily to a virtual House, it was right that the current allowance system should be changed and that Members should receive a reduced amount. There was disagreement on the commission about how much that reduction might be. I argued for a somewhat larger amount; others argued for a much lower figure. The figure in today’s Motion reflects what might be thought of as the centre of gravity of opinion on the commission.
As I said, I wholly accept that some reduction was appropriate. I declare an interest in that I am a recipient of allowances. However, I should point out for clarity that this proposal will, given the constraints on people speaking and the reduction in Select Committee sittings, result in reduction in allowances received by individual Members of between three-quarters and seven-eighths of what people might reasonably otherwise have expected to receive. This is particularly hard on people from Scotland, Wales and the English regions who have unbreakable rental contracts on flats in London. It must, therefore, be seen very much as a temporary expedient.
Any discussion on allowances must be framed against the question: what is the point of your Lordships’ House? Unless we are clear about that we cannot have any clarity about what value to ascribe to it.
Like all institutions, we have a temptation to exaggerate our own importance, but if Parliament ever had a crucial role to play, then it is at this moment in our national history when we are facing a combination of an immediate crisis and, looking forward, a clear need to reassess the nature of our economy and how to better run society for the benefit of all its members. Parliament is the pre-eminent forum for undertaking that role, and your Lordships’ House is an integral part of Parliament.
That helps to explain the frustration of many of my colleagues and many others across the House about the pace at which we have adopted new proceedings, why they believe that we should not be departing from the long-held principle that any Peer who wishes to speak in a debate should be able to do so, why they want to move to electronic voting without delay, and why they support moves to a virtual House in the short term but are keen to move to a hybrid House, as the Commons already have, as soon as possible. On that latter point, they do so because their experience of questioning Ministers and taking part in debates remotely is that it is a pale imitation of the real thing. There is no possibility of really putting Ministers under pressure in the sterilised environment of the virtual world. I believe that even Cicero would have struggled to make a significant impact via the medium of Zoom.
Their frustrations are exacerbated by what they see as a concerted attempt by the Leader and the Government to denigrate the work of this House. We are used to the Government threatening the Lords with some kind of draconian retribution when they think we might kick up rough, but the Sunday Times article hit a new low. Despite the assertion yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord True, that the proposal that all of us over the age of 65 are too clapped out to do any real work did not represent government policy—I am sure that the newly ennobled noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, will be particularly grateful for that—the article was an attempt to reduce the standing of your Lordships’ House as a corporate body in the eyes of the electorate. It was a disgrace, and I hope the noble Baroness the Leader will take this opportunity to repudiate not just the proposals in it but also its tone.
Having said that, I was pleased to see that the Government are allegedly considering replacing the current House with an elected Chamber, a proposition that has of course been supported in the Lobbies in the past by Members of the Cabinet, including Michael Gove. Perhaps the noble Baroness could tell us the state of government thinking on that proposal.
If your Lordships’ House is to continue, either with its broadly current membership or on any other basis, the way in which we make it possible for people of all backgrounds and from all parts of the country to play a full part needs to be uppermost in our mind. We are not a Chamber just of the affluent part-time retirees for whom membership comes with a sense of noblesse oblige. The previous Labour Government introduced great strides in making this House more diverse and more reflective of the country as a whole, and we strongly supported that. We must not allow the current crisis to turn the clock back.
That brings us back to allowances. The Government have accepted that the scheme before the House today is temporary, but “temporary” is an extremely slippery word and, indeed, a slippery concept. I argued at the commission that we should have either a review or a sunset clause on today’s proposals by the end of June, by which stage hopefully we will have a hybrid House in operation. If they are not reviewed at that point, people who live at some distance from Westminster and who have to pay for accommodation here will be spending all or more of their allowances on accommodation, and some simply will not be able to afford to do it. They will therefore not be able to participate fully in the work of the House. I am sure no one believes that having a Londoncentric House is desirable, but that will be the consequence if the proposal before us today is anything more than a temporary expedient.
There is a very strong argument for having a longer-term external review of the allowances system, and I would support that, but in approving the Motion today the House must provide a mechanism for the longer term. I therefore support the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Alderdice, and I look forward to reverting to a fully functioning House as quickly as health considerations allow.
My Lords, there are two issues here: allowances and the wider issue of the conduct of the House during the lockdown, as was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Newby.
The Leader of the House concentrated her remarks on allowances. On that specific issue, I agree with the commission’s proposal for the reasons that the Leader gave. In a time of great crisis when people are making great sacrifices, it is absolutely right that we follow suit. The right compromise on this is a halved allowance, for the reasons given by the noble Baroness. That should continue for as long as we are meeting virtually because the actual costs that most noble Lords—I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that it is not true of all noble Lords—need to meet are lower.
However, I agree entirely with the thrust of the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Alderdice, about the conduct of the House in lockdown, including that our arrangements should be considered emergency arrangements—because they are, or at least I hope that they are, unless the Government make further changes—to deal with an emergency situation. I say this directly to the Leader: the great concern among many Members is that the emergency changes we are all willingly making to meet the exigencies of this crisis may become permanent. As all of us who have dealt with these situations in other contexts know, precedent always becomes the justification for further changes, particularly in dealing with the proceedings of Parliament. Some key aspects of the arrangements for the House in lockdown are causing acute concern; the noble Lords who just spoke were absolutely right to raise them.
Very significant departures from established practice have been taking place. From time immemorial, it has been a principle that noble Lords who wish to participate in our debates can do so. For the first time, as far as I am aware, in the eight centuries of the history of the House of Lords, under changes that are not even the subject of specific resolutions of the House but are the consequence of going online, noble Lords are being told that they cannot participate in the proceedings of the House. The Motion in the name of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, which we will debate this afternoon, goes to the heart of the crisis facing the country: the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the poor and disadvantaged. Many noble Lords have been told that they cannot participate in this debate because of the arbitrary three-hour time limit that has been imposed and because of the exigencies of the Virtual Proceedings.
The answer is obvious: the proceedings should be longer. There is no reason why we should sit for only three hours. We could sit for five hours. We are sitting only on a limited number of days anyway. Many of us think that we should sit for longer. The noble Baroness can correct me but my understanding is that the Government have been the motive force in restricting our sittings and not holding more debates or longer ones. It is absolutely within our control to fix this.
The second issue is that of a wholly virtual House. It is obvious now to anybody who considers what has happened that the Procedure Committee and the House of Lords Commission made a major error in the arrangements that they put in place for our proceedings after 21 April. They should have moved immediately to a hybrid House, as the House of Commons did. Indeed, it has made a great success of it. I just came into your Lordships’ House from watching Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister was doing a perfectly good job of answering questions and dealing with points made by both the leader of the Opposition in the House and MPs joining via Zoom. That has kept the House of Commons at the centre of the public debate; it has not become invisible. We went wholly virtual, which was a huge mistake —the Procedure Committee needs to get a grip on this when it meets next Monday—and which made us wholly invisible. For the first week of our Sitting, proceedings were not even broadcast, which is a major departure from established parliamentary practice. They are now being broadcast but, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, rightly said, they are not getting a fraction of the attention they get when they take place in this Chamber.
We need to speak bluntly at this point. The Procedure Committee has been very seriously remiss in meeting its duties to the House and to the public, and I hope that it will get a grip and that the Senior Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, will fulfil his duties to the House as a whole and not simply implement the wishes of the Government regarding the arrangements for the lockdown.
I hope also that three issues can be addressed immediately. The first is the move towards a hybrid House, so that we can fulfil our duties to the public and do not become invisible. The second is that noble Lords who wish to speak in debates can continue to do so, because that is absolutely central to the performance of their parliamentary duties. If that means longer debates, we should have longer debates—we are here to serve the public, not to serve ourselves. The third aspect, which is vital, is the proceedings on legislation. Your Lordships’ House is a legislature. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, said that we are tempted to exaggerate our importance, but we should not underplay in any way our importance as a legislature. We make the law and there is no more important function in the country than making the law.
Under the arrangements that we are going to debate in a moment, the rights of noble Lords to participate in the Committee stages of Bills and to fulfil their constitutional functions are being severely circumscribed, and for no good reason. If we had a hybrid House, people would be able to participate in Committee proceedings as normal. We have an absolutely unprecedented situation whereby noble Lords who want to engage in the Committee stages of Bills next week have to give advance notice. This has never happened in the history of the House of Lords: that for Members to participate in consideration of a Bill, they have to give advance notice. The whole point of debate is that there is give and take and people come in as they see how debates continue. I have tabled an amendment that would ensure the automatic recommittal of Bills which have been considered only virtually in Committee, so amendments could be moved thereafter.
We have grave responsibilities to the public during this crisis: to debate the challenges facing the country and to bring to Ministers’ attention the severe tribulations being suffered by millions of people up and down the country. We can do that only if we can make our voices heard, and if we can sit properly. I do not believe that the Procedure Committee has enabled us to do that, so it needs to take immediate radical, remedial action before our constitutional duties are severely undermined.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and a pleasant novelty to agree with every word that he has said. I speak in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.
When I entered your Lordships’ House four and a half years ago, I spoke of the deep sense of privilege. But I was also very aware that that was underscored by the knowledge that I am not in any way, shape or form a member of a privileged elite. My fear is that the decision we are discussing today perpetuates the dangerous myth that that is all the House of Lords is about, visible or invisible: that people assume that we are simply part—that we are the epicentre—of the privileged elite.
I do not believe that is true. I know from my own situation and the situation of other Members that they rely on the income that the allowances bring to live in the real world. I joined this House in the knowledge that I would take a drop in my income. I did so in good faith, believing that I would receive an income in the service of my country, but that faith has been sorely tested by the announcement on allowances because the decision takes no account of the fact that some Members are not wealthy and have a huge mortgage, as I do, that some Members have a ministerial pension and that some Members are nowhere near retirement age.
This decision hangs those of us who live in that part of the real world out to dry. This is not a lifestyle issue; it is a question of livelihood. How on earth am I meant to live without the income that the allowances give? Has anyone explained that to the media? Has my noble friend, for whom I have great respect, fought for my interest? How many members of the House of Lords Commission have a mortgage and how many are not in receipt of a pension? As the Lord Privy Seal rightly said, no Member has to claim any allowance, but some Members need to do so.
Your Lordships’ House needs to reassert itself. I urge the Lord Privy Seal to withdraw this Motion until the House has an opportunity to debate it fully or, if she cannot do that, at the very least to accept the amendment so skilfully advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.
I declare an interest as someone who receives and claims allowances. I am, I think, the only representative today of the usual channels, and I would like to make a few remarks about how this system will work. No one in their right mind wants to debate allowances—that is reflected in the attendance today—and nobody really wants to make arguments on the subject. I accept that the focus of our work must be on the crisis, how the country is affected health-wise and how we are to come through it job-wise. However, there must be an understanding in the House that many of us accept that there has to be some form of short-term response to protect the reputation of the House, but we should not support it if we think it will undermine our work, effectiveness and reputation in the longer term.
In the short term, as my colleague and noble friend Lord Newby pointed out, the halving of the allowances that we are talking about is not the case. It is more like a quartering. Few people will be able to make more than one intervention a week. If the commission also put out a press release emphasising the benefits of cost-savings, which I accept there were, it raises fears that this is a permanent solution and it will be politically difficult if we then have to put the costs up again.
Turning to my role in the usual channels, I shall tell the House a little about the difficulties of what will happen in the short term and why this must be a short-term solution. Too many Peers will have to intervene in Questions and debates and, more importantly, good people will stand aside to allow others who need the financial support to do so. They will not speak or ask questions when we most need them to do so. The Chief Whips—I am sorry to use this analogy, but 50 years ago I spent time in the London docks—are making me like a shop steward in the casual system who will determine who speaks, who deals with the rationing of questions and, effectively, who gets their income. I do not want that role, and nor should the House want the Whips to have that role.
In the short term, a number of Peers have contractual obligations with their rents. These are the people really committed to this place and who therefore do really good work; they provide for themselves to do that and take out contractual rental commitments. With this level of allowances—I remind everybody that the allowances are for expenses—I think most people who have those contractual arrangements, certainly those in my group, will not be able to meet them, probably through the summer, by the looks of things.
Thirdly, one in 10 of my group is supported by an intern or a member of staff paid for by my group. That means that 10 people’s jobs are uncertain at the moment, should this scheme go ahead in the long term. All those people contribute behind the scenes to the work of this House. We do not see them; they support us. They will face a lot of uncertainty and the Peers will have to make up their minds whether to give up their contractual obligations to those people. So do not think that it is just us who will be hit by this; there are also the staff who support us. That is on top of all the people paid for by the various state funds, do not let us forget that.
What I am really saying to the House is that the commission needs to show leadership—I would have done. I think I behaved in this way in any organisation that I ran as a manager: if I cut people’s wages or made people redundant, I cut my wages. I did not take a wage increase or a bonus. That should flow across our organisation, if we are to provide leadership in the short term.
This scheme cannot last in the medium term; it is a short-term response. I accept that, so let us make it so. Therefore, in the short term—we do not want to wait until 29 June to do this; we need to start now—we need to define what work in the House means, because it does not mean just intervening in the Chamber, so that we can introduce a new revised scheme when we have the hybrid Parliament working in June and onwards. It is sadly not acceptable that we should settle our own allowances and money—the Commons has come to realise this—so we need an independent review, which will take a bit longer. That is why we need a short-term solution after this scheme is approved today. We need something longer-term, to be looked at independently and outside.
That is the advice I give this House. Obviously, we accept that we have to do something in the short term, but it would be very unfair on the effectiveness of this House and its Members if this is seen as anything other than a short-term, temporary scheme.
I, too, am speaking in favour of my noble friend Lord Alderdice’s amendment. Having come through the virus, I am able to be here and am glad to have the opportunity. Many of my colleagues, of course, cannot be here.
The United Kingdom is going through an extraordinary crisis and the Government have much that they must tackle. This is a global crisis with huge implications. As the noble Baroness will know, over 200 Members of the House that she leads have written to the Lord Speaker, making the point that it is our duty as Members of the House of Lords both to help the Government and hold them to account. Given the gravity of this crisis, we need urgently at least to return to our normal sitting pattern. We rightly allowed the Commons to be prioritised in setting up hybrid procedures. Now that it has been done, the same must urgently happen here. As the letter says, the implications of the pandemic are huge. There are issues of health and safety, economic damage, civil liberties and human rights, and many aspects of each. There is so much to cover. Just yesterday, the Lords examined the financial stability report, which had passed unseen by the Commons because it had not even been published when they waved it through.
Internationally, some Governments and others seem to be taking advantage of the cover of coronavirus. It is our responsibility to make sure that a spotlight is shone there too, given that the United Kingdom aspires to global leadership and is a member of the UN Security Council. Therefore, there is more for us to do, not less, so all effort must be put into the Lords returning as the second and scrutinising part of Parliament, and impediment must not be placed in the way of that. However, it has been, as the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and my noble friends Lord Stoneham, Lord Newby and Lord Alderdice have made plain.
I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, said about a ministerial pension. I was an unpaid Minister through most of the coalition. The Government Chief Whip said at the time that none of us would lose out. Clearly, we need a sunset clause for this proposal, which assumes that we will be working less, not more. If this proposal is to go through, clearly the salaried members of the commission must show leadership by voluntarily taking a pay cut, not to 80% but along the lines that will result from this proposal. The sooner we at least move back to our usual days and hours in this crisis, the better.
My Lords, it is quite clear from the comments we have heard already that we indeed live in extraordinary times for our country. Indeed, I do not recall ever speaking to such an empty Chamber. That is not because I am a brilliant speaker whom everyone floods in to listen to; it is because Members take their responsibilities seriously and are in the Chamber to take part in the work that we do.
On the very day it was announced that the number of deaths in the UK from coronavirus is now the highest in Europe, we also got more information on the alarming number of deaths in social care situations. It is very sobering for us to be here today talking about the issues before us. What is happening across the world brings enormous responsibilities not only for the Government but for the opposition parties. Parliament also has responsibilities—to ensure that those on the front line have the equipment, the protection and the support that they need, and that those trying to manage their lives through this crisis and beyond know that they have all the support and information which government and society should provide for them.
The Government decide the Order of Business. I am sorry that the first item up today was allowances. It has been reflected in the speeches that we have heard. Not one person has talked about the allowances without talking about how the House operates. My noble friend Lord Adonis has some amendments on this later, but he touched on it when he spoke earlier. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, when moving his Motion, spoke about how the House operates and our responsibilities. I would prefer the allowances Motion to be much further down the agenda. I hope that the Minister can take that back and discuss it with the usual channels. It was not the most important item before us today. Having said that, it is important, and has caused a lot of discussion.
I will speak briefly on some of the other issues, but on the issue of allowances the Minister’s comments about the difficulties in reaching this compromise Motion before us reflect the inadequacies of the current system of allowances that we have heard about from others. Those deficiencies cannot be corrected in a Motion during a crisis. The existing system and the new system being proposed also reflect the perception of Parliament. Both are predicated on being physically or virtually in the Chamber, and now we have the added criterion, which the Minister supports, that at Oral Questions, even if someone is on the list to speak, they have to be engaged in listening at least 30 minutes beforehand. If somebody else speaks for too long and goes over—and I do not want to curtail Ministers from giving complete answers to questions—and do not get in, that is no longer deemed a participation, even though they are present in the virtual chamber.
The problem with that is that it perpetuates the myth that the only work of value that parliamentarians do is that which occurs in the Chamber, whether virtual or physical. I had this discussion when I was a Member of the other place. It was always an issue for constituents. They would turn on the TV and see whether you were present in the Chamber, and if you were not there they would wonder what you were doing. As parliamentarians from both Houses, we have to say what our role is, and it is not predicated on just a few words of a speech in the Chamber.
The Minister and I, through our responsibilities, which take far longer to fulfil virtually than they do when we are physically in the building, are paid representatives of this House. That recognises the other work that we do outside the Chamber. But there is a difficulty. She has a number of government Ministers who are unpaid. They are working very hard. I know that, because members of my own Front Bench are regularly in meetings and conversations leading up to legislation about the current situation and the future business of the House. Most of the work undertaken by Ministers on the Front Bench is paid—six are not—but none of the Front Bench in my party, the Official Opposition, are paid. For all those meetings and all the work that they do, they are not recognised in any way at all. There is no recognition, including financial recognition, unless they ask a question or speak in a debate. That is the point which other noble Lords have made about the role of our work.
On the Minister’s point about noble Lords not having to claim anything, we all know that is the case, and there are a few who may choose not to do so. But we ought to be clear that the days when independent means allowed someone to have a seat in Parliament without any payment—lots of millionaires were able to work as often as they liked without any payment at all—have long gone. That no longer reflects what the House of Lords, the second Chamber of our Parliament, does. I hope that she will reflect on that. We know that is still the situation for some, but I would not make a thing of it, given that it applies to so few Members of your Lordships’ House.
There have been difficulties in reaching this temporary position, partly because of the compromises involved, and partly because it does not recognise anything other than saying a few words or making a speech in a virtual or physical Chamber.
I want to ask the Minister a couple of things. First, she will know that as the Leader of this House she bears an enormous responsibility for its reputation. It would be helpful if she could recognise and thank those who, during this time, have put an awful lot of effort into holding the Government to account, not for party political points but because the Government have to get this right. We cannot go through this crisis without that natural role of scrutiny and challenge to get the best possible decision-making in the interests of people in this country, who are suffering through a terrible ordeal. That role of scrutiny and challenge is vital in normal times; it is even more so in times of crisis.
I hope that she will also be able to consider and reflect upon some of the other points that have been raised. As Leader of the Opposition, and considering her role as Leader of the House, I would be interested to know what discussions she has had in government about the role of your Lordships’ House. There was an awful story in the Sunday Times, briefed by somebody in the Government. The noble Lord, Lord True, was absolutely right to say what nonsense it was, but somebody in government was talking to a newspaper in those terms, and that is inappropriate.
I will say something about online proceedings now rather than come back when the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, moves his Motions, should he choose to do so. Obviously, Virtual Proceedings are inadequate; they will never be as good as the real thing. All of us want to get back to the point where we can fulfil our responsibilities in the way we want to fulfil them. The whole House wants that, and I hope the Government want that too. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised a number of issues. Those are the kinds of issues—I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, as I say this—which the usual channels are grappling with daily. The allowances add another complication, but ensuring as much proper scrutiny of the Government as possible and ensuring that Members can contribute and use their expertise is an ongoing challenge and struggle.
We want to go back to normal business as soon as it is safe for this House—that includes all the staff of this House, including cleaners, caterers, doorkeepers and clerks of the House, as well as noble Lords—to do so. We may have to do that in stages, but we have to recognise that technology can take us only so far.
I hope the noble Baroness can confirm that, in Committee, the proceedings will not be as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, fears; that there will be far more flexibility and latitude to ensure that noble Lords are not excluded; and that the first day in Committee should allow for Second Reading speeches, so that those broad, general points can be put on the record as well.
There is a lot more work to do. The Motion before us is a difficult one. It has to be accepted at this stage but, as has been said, it needs to be under constant review.
I thank all noble Lords for their comments. I am going to restrict my comments on this Motion to allowances, because we will come on to some broader points that noble Lords raised on other issues in debating the next Motion. However, I am very happy to reiterate the words of my noble friend Lord True yesterday: there is absolutely no basis to the Sunday Times story. It is not government policy and nothing that I recognise, and I am very sorry for the hurt and upset it has caused in your Lordships’ House. I put on record again that it is not true.
Regarding the number of contributions, this debate has made clear the difficult decisions and balances that the commission had to strike in coming up with these proposals. I completely recognise, as we all do, the very real-life consequences once decisions have been made. That is why, as I said in my opening remarks, the allowance will be under constant review. We are in a moving picture and in unprecedented times, as I think everybody recognises. We are doing our best to move as and when we can to ensure that we take all this into account.
The voting Lobbies have been set up, but I very much hope that the noble Lord will not feel the need to use them today. I reiterate that this is under constant review. It is temporary, along with all the proceedings that we are undertaking. However, despite all the issues raised by noble Lords, and the restrictions we are dealing with in the Virtual Proceedings, I believe that we are able to do our job in very difficult circumstances. We are all very grateful to all those supporting us in being able to do so, notwithstanding the very real impact this is having on so many people’s lives.
The noble Baroness has not really addressed the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Alderdice. Can she confirm whether she personally, and on behalf of the Government, believes that there should be a review? If so, when does she believe that should happen by? If she does not think so, on what basis does she think we can continue with what everybody accepts is an unacceptable, temporary situation, without any sense of when it might come to an end?
As the noble Lord is aware, since he is on the commission, this is not a government decision but a decision of the commission, on whose behalf I am speaking. The Motion makes it clear that it is a temporary arrangement. As noble Lords know, I have said that it is under constant review. We can discuss with the Lord Speaker what that reviewing may look like, but it is not my decision alone as I am part of the commission.
We will have to see when and how we start to move. We are anticipating new guidance over the weekend on what restrictions will be happening. I am sure that all of us in the House will look at how to implement them. We all want to return as a House, as everyone has stated, but we have to stick to government guidelines and ensure that we have a safe working environment for Peers and staff. We have put Virtual Proceedings in place and are trying to roll them out. We are trying to increase the amount of business being done in Virtual Proceedings, which we will obviously discuss on the next Motion as we look to take more legislative stages online.
This is a constantly moving issue. I can assure noble Lords that—whether they know it or not—my staff and team, through the usual channels and with all the other leaders, are working constantly to ensure that we are doing our best to allow noble Lords the opportunities to address the issues that they want to.
I want to press the noble Baroness further, because I asked about her role as the Lord Privy Seal. I appreciate that she speaks as a member of the commission, but she is a member of it as the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of this House. What discussions has she had with the Government? In her role as Lord Privy Seal—a position that I think Thomas Cromwell held as well—it would be nice to know that she had been discussing the role of this House with the Government.
Yes, I am very happy to say so. One of the only other items on an agenda largely about coronavirus, in Cabinet and elsewhere, is that of parliamentary business. I am therefore able to give regular updates on the work of the Lords. I have been discussing with my Commons colleagues the work they are doing and how we can roll that out, and I am of course raising House of Lords’ issues on a regular basis within government; that is my job and that is what I do.
As I have said, these issues are under constant review. We are looking at them all the time, but a sunset clause sets an arbitrary date. These are temporary measures and we are looking to develop things. Lots of ideas have been mentioned today about how we may wish to move forward, and we are committed to that. I think that that negates the need for specific dates.
I do not think the noble Baroness answered the question that I raised. In showing leadership, she must go back to the commission this week, or next week—whenever it is due to meet—to start some of the work that will be required when this scheme ends. It is not good enough to wait until the end of June. We have work to do to define what business in the House means. Is she prepared to go back to the commission and recommend that that work should start straightaway?
I am sure that all members of the commission—a number of whom are here today—including me, will take that on board. We meet regularly, and I am sure that such discussions will happen. The noble Lord is absolutely right: as this develops, there needs to be thinking on allowances, our proceedings and a move to a hybrid House. We will need to have regular conversations to make sure that we can come up with solutions that work for Members and for the business of this House.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who participated in this debate—a slightly longer one than perhaps we might have expected, but that shows the strength of concern and feeling. I confess to a degree of disappointment. I do not think that the noble Baroness, or the Government in general, quite understand the import of what was being said. I focused more on the institutional than the individual consequences, which other noble Lords spoke to— I shall not name everyone who participated.
As she finished, the noble Baroness spoke about the fact that we are expecting announcements at the weekend on what will happen, and of course we look forward to that. But it is another example of the same problem. Her right honourable friend the Prime Minister chose not to do it in the House of Commons but to do it on a Sunday evening, when he would be the focus. The Speaker in another place has made it clear that that is not proper parliamentary process or procedure. It is crucial that these matters are brought back to Parliament and that Parliament is given its place.
The noble Baroness could have, without accepting the amendment, given an undertaking to fulfil its requirements on her own word, and I would have accepted that. I think that we will all have to go away and reflect on the consequences. I hope that she and her colleagues will realise that they have now created a situation where trust has got to be built, rather than depended upon, because some of it has simply evaporated. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, as is the proper process in your Lordships’ House. I do so not because I agree with the Motion, but because it is what we have to do.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Business of the House (Virtual Proceedings relating to the Committee stage of public bills and to Messages and First Readings)
Motion to Agree
That, further to the resolution of the House of 21 April, until further Order—
1. Committee stages of public bills may take place in Virtual Committee.
2. Such Proceedings shall follow, so far as practical, procedure in Grand Committee as modified by any guidance issued by the Procedure Committee.
3. A Virtual Committee is empowered to amend a bill, stand part its Clauses and Schedules, agree its Title and report it to the House.
4. No amendments may be tabled after the deadline prescribed by the Procedure Committee for consideration in Virtual Committee.
5. For the purposes of Standing Order 47(2) (Commitment of Bills) any motion to discharge an order of commitment is to be moved at a convenient point in physical proceedings, and Virtual Committee may be cancelled without motion if no amendments have been set down before the deadline for production of the Marshalled List.
6. Notwithstanding Standing Order 41(2) and (3), messages between the Houses may be sent and received, and a bill sent from the Commons may be read a first time, irrespective of the sitting of the House.
7. The provisions of this Order shall be applied in accordance with guidance issued under the authority of the Procedure Committee from time to time, which may vary the provisions of the Companion to the Standing Orders insofar as they apply to Virtual Proceedings.
My Lords, from next Wednesday we will begin taking the Committee stages of public Bills virtually. These virtual Committees will constitute the Committee stages of these Bills in the same way a Grand Committee would in normal times and will be able to take decisions in the same way. I make it clear from the outset that while virtual Committee sittings will be time-limited, Committee stages will not: we do not time-limit the consideration of primary legislation and will not start now. More time will be found for any virtual Committees that take longer than expected, following discussions between the usual channels. This is the same process that has previously been followed when Bills are taken in the Chamber or the Moses Room.
Last Thursday, the Procedure Committee agreed the new temporary virtual procedures and has subsequently issued detailed guidance on how Committee stages will work. The guidance, including this Motion, was issued on Monday. I urge all noble Lords to familiarise themselves with the guidance. Notice of the first virtual Committee, due to take place next Wednesday, was given via last week’s Forthcoming Business. Subject to the overall cap I shall now set out, any Member of the House may take part in a virtual Committee. However, as with all our business at the moment, Members will need to sign up in advance to take part, and only those who do so will be able to participate in proceedings. Those taking part will also be asked to indicate in advance which amendment or groups of amendments they wish to speak to, in order for the digital service to ensure that Peers can be part of the broadcast proceedings. Those Members who table or add their names to amendments will be signed up automatically.
The deadline for tabling amendments for virtual Committees will be one day earlier than normal: 5 pm three working days before a virtual Committee is due to take place, or 4 pm if that day is a Friday or in recess. It will not be possible to table amendments once the deadline has passed, so that groupings can be agreed and Members signed up to participate in good time. Since the House returned on 21 April, we have steadily increased the amount and type of business we take virtually. Our Virtual Proceedings have become smoother as we have become used to them and they are now being broadcast to the public in the same way our physical proceedings are. It is necessary for Members to sign up in advance of Virtual Proceedings, so that the digital service and broadcasting team know which Members are taking part and can support them properly, as I am sure all noble Lords who have taken part in the proceedings so far have seen as they get ready to take part. Noble Lords who are not able to take part are, of course, able to view the proceedings, and the Procedure Committee, not the Government, has set the deadlines for signing up, as is right and proper.
I know that questions were raised in the previous discussion about time limits and caps on the numbers of Members who can participate. These are not arbitrary rules; there are reasons linked to the administrative and broadcast capabilities of the House. The House authorities, the digital service and the broadcast team are already working at maximum capacity. Staff across the House are working long hours, working in reduced teams so they can do their jobs while respecting social distancing, and travelling on public transport to get to the House to allow us to participate virtually. They are here. I am sure noble Lords all appreciate the huge effort they are putting in on our behalf, but we have to be mindful of the demands we put on them and make sure they are giving them the space and ability to do their jobs to the best of their ability, which is absolutely what they are doing. I place on record again my thanks to all those who have worked so hard, and continue to do so, to support us. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, the first part of the amendment provides that:
“All bills considered in a Virtual Committee shall be recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration in the Chamber.”
It may be convenient for the House if I speak to the second part of the amendment too, which is that this order—the arrangements that the Leader has just proposed for virtual Committees—
“shall expire on 30 June 2020, or earlier if the House shall so order.”
First, I echo every word the Leader said about the staff of the House. We pay tribute to them and recognise the great sacrifices they have been making and the intense pressure they have been working under. We fully accept that—in so far as Virtual Proceedings need to take place, which is the key proviso in this respect—special arrangements need to be put in place. I in no way question what the Leader said in that regard. The point that goes to the heart of the matter on Committee stages—and the reason Committee stages are so important—is that this is the House’s role in making the law, which is the most important function we undertake on behalf of the people.
The key issue is how far we need to consider Bills in these virtual Committee stages anyway. We are in a crisis. The overwhelming object of our public duties should be focusing on resolving the crisis. Looking at the legislation it is proposed that we take in Committee next week, it is not clear to me why any of this needs to be considered until the crisis is over. We are considering this legislation at the Government’s behest. The Government are imposing these requirements on the House, not the House itself.
The House’s duty is this. If the Government believe that legislation needs to be considered during the crisis—it is the Government’s decision that the legislation should be considered—our job as parliamentarians is to put in place proper arrangements to see that parliamentary scrutiny takes place in accordance with our constitutional requirements. The problem with the virtual Committees as currently proposed is that this is not the case. The Leader said that Members can take part, but in order to take part—as she said in her remarks—they have to give advance notice of the specific amendments they wish to participate in. This is a radical breach from the House’s normal procedures. Members cannot vote in Committee; there are no arrangements for voting. There are no arrangements at all for spontaneous contributions, and at the moment there is no automatic procedure for recommittal.
I therefore press the Leader: what will happen to these Bills after their virtual consideration? What is the procedure, if noble Lords are dissatisfied with the consideration that has taken place in virtual Committee, for recommitting? My understanding—the Leader can correct me—is that the House itself has to vote for recommittal; it is not an automatic procedure. In this amendment I propose an automatic procedure of recommittal to a Committee of the whole House, which would be either the House itself or the hybrid House, if by then we have the hybrid House. It will not otherwise happen. I would be grateful if the Leader could confirm what the arrangements are in respect of recommittal. If noble Lords are dissatisfied with the consideration that has taken place in virtual Committee, what arrangements will there be for recommittal? If they are not adequate, will she accept my amendment?
The other point of great importance is the temporary nature of these proceedings. If they are to be temporary, the Government should accept a sunset clause. That is the reason I have included the second part of the amendment—that these arrangements for virtual consideration will
“expire on 30 June 2020, or earlier if the House shall so order.”
I would like to press the Leader on one or two specific points. She said that the detailed arrangements for Committee stage were published on Monday. I confess that I have not had a chance to read them, so maybe they are in there. It is not easy to find a lot of the documents being referred to at the moment unless they are pointed up from the Front Bench. Currently, because it is not possible to vote in Grand Committee and decisions can be taken only by unanimity, if noble Lords are not content with proceedings they can object to decisions being taken—I have myself—and they are therefore returned to the House.
In a Committee stage, if a noble Lord online objects to a clause standing part, what happens? Does the clause stand part or not? This is a fairly fundamental constitutional issue. If it stands part, it means that the proceedings in the virtual Committee are of no account, because noble Lords have expressed dissatisfaction and are not prepared to agree to the proceedings, yet the proceedings are still deemed to be agreed. That would be an extreme departure from acceptable parliamentary practice. If Members are allowed to object to clauses standing part, what happens if they so object and the relevant clause is not deemed to be agreed by the virtual Committee? The only solution to that issue I can see is that those clauses are then remitted for reconsideration of the Bill by a Committee of the House.
I would be grateful if the Leader could answer my specific questions. Will she tell us of the Government’s willingness to see Bills recommitted after virtual Committee if there are concerns, what the procedure would be and whether she would be prepared to accept a sunset clause so that for only a very few Bills in these emergency conditions are we expected to undergo this very substandard scrutiny which in no other circumstance but this crisis would your Lordships think acceptable? I beg to move.
My Lords, I want to say a few words on this, because the issue of Committees is important and I hope that the noble Baroness can say a bit more about it. It is my understanding that if an amendment is debated in Committee but not voted on, the same amendment can be re-tabled on Report. If noble Lords are dissatisfied with any debate, considering it inadequate or wishing to contribute, they will have the opportunity to do so. That means that our proceedings could be much longer in order to get to that point—it emphasises how superior Chamber proceedings are to Virtual Proceedings.
Committees normally meet on two days a week, Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday. It is therefore imperative that the House moves to a proper four-day working week as a matter of urgency—I think that is scheduled from Monday 18 May. Can the Leader confirm that there will be a normal four-day working week for your Lordships’ House from then? That is important for our overall business.
I also understand the issue about capacity; the point has been well made. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said how much we appreciate the work that has been done to get the Virtual Proceedings running in the way they are—I think that most of us have found them better than we anticipated. I take some responsibility for them not being broadcast over the first few days after the recess because I said that, come what may and even if we were not being broadcast, we had to be back, with the opportunity to question the Government. I was pleased that that lasted for only a few days, but it was important that, whatever the situation, we returned on 21 April to fulfil our responsibilities—even if it was inadequate, we had to do so. It has steadily improved since then and we pay tribute to those responsible.
There is an issue of capacity with Committees. We currently have gaps between business that we would not normally have. Will the Leader keep under consideration sitting on a Friday? If we cannot undertake the work that we have on those four days, is it possible to use a Friday? For example, if Committees were not able to meet because the House was sitting or a debate was taking longer, we could have that open as an extra sitting day in the same way as we have sometimes had sitting Fridays.
The noble Baroness should take some pride, and I press her again to pay tribute to those who have wanted to take part in the proceedings—I think she missed that out. I say that in respect of her own Front Bench, of mine and of all those working on the Back Benches and across the House. They wish to engage because they value the work of this House. We have only to look at how the work of this House is regarded outside. I received numerous representations about the debate on the PNQ last week on child protection, even though it was brief, recognising that, across the board and in all parties, this was the House taking that issue very seriously. If we cannot do our business in the four days—and I ask the Leader to confirm that there will be a solid four days as soon as possible—we should keep open the possibility of Friday sittings.
I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. I had of course made a note to thank all Peers across all Benches, including the Opposition Front Bench, and of course I thank my Ministers as well for everything they have done to contribute to these proceedings. I apologise for having failed to say that in my response last time, but I wholeheartedly support the words of the noble Baroness.
I will address some comments. Yes, we will be returning on Mondays. I think that was the correct date—I do not know all the dates in May off the top of my head. That will be published in Forthcoming Business and we will move towards four-day weeks from then. The usual channels will always keep business under review to make sure that we are doing everything we can. Obviously we will have to see how Committee stages work in virtual proceedings, but we want to balance scrutiny of government with making sure that legislation comes through, and those conversations will continue in the constructive way they always do.
Quite a lot of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, are mentioned in the guidance, which will be circulated to all Peers. It probably has not been done yet, because we did not want to assume that this Motion would be passed, but as soon as it has been, the guidance will be published. If any noble Lords have further questions, please get in touch and we will clarify them. We have attempted to consider most issues, but I accept that we may not have considered some things. However, I can say to the noble Lord that, as the noble Baroness rightly said, post Committee we will move on to Report, and we have amended the rules to allow amendments in Committee to be brought back on Report if there is not unanimous support; so we are having a bit of flexibility and recognising the virtual proceedings.
The same rules apply to Virtual Proceedings as to Grand Committee, and we feel that there will be ample time for scrutiny. As I said, the noble Lord will see that the sessions for Committees are in one-and-a-half-hour slots, again for all the procedural reasons. Regarding Committee stage as a whole, we normally have various days in which to look at Bills in Committee, and that will continue. So while the sessions themselves may be time limited, that does not mean that Committee stage as such is time limited.
As I say, we are also looking at Report. Members of the commission will know that work is ongoing to build a remote voting function, which needs to be built now that the Commons have, I believe, got their system up and running and are planning to start using it. Some of the gremlins they faced have now been sorted out, and we will be building a similar system so that we will be able to vote as well.
I hope that that deals with all the issues but, as I say, guidance is being published, and if that does not answer all the questions, we will be happy to provide more detail. I beg to move.
The big question raised by what the Leader said—I will come back on one of the other points in a moment—is what will happen on Report. Can she give to the House an undertaking that there will be no Report on a Bill until we have a hybrid House, so we do not face the same issues on Report as she has just outlined in Committee about noble Lords needing to indicate in advance that they can participate? That is an absolutely crucial issue.
I am afraid that I cannot make a commitment on a hybrid House, because I do not know when we are going to move to it or what the guidance will be. We are working towards facilities for a hybrid House at the moment, which we are all committed to, but I am afraid that I cannot make promises about how practical it will be, or anything on that basis. However, we will ensure that when Members wish to vote on proceedings on Report, we will have a system up and running to ensure that they can do that.
But it would be unacceptable at the moment unless we could have some other discussions. My instinct is that Report stage of proceedings as a virtual Chamber would be rather unsatisfactory, so let us keep this under discussion and review. It would be extraordinarily difficult to do it in a way that would satisfy your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, the Leader has left me more concerned after her remarks than I was before, for precisely the reason that my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition has mentioned. It seems that the only way in which these virtual Committee proceedings would be tolerable to the House is if the House meets at Report stage, so that we can have the proper give and take that we accept as part of our proceedings, people do not have to give advance notice of their desire to participate, and we are not forced to make a really significant trade-off in the quality of our scrutiny when making the law. I put on record, which is all that we can do at the moment, my extreme dissatisfaction. That is not just on my part; I have spoken to many noble Lords who cannot be present today about these arrangements and there is very widespread dissatisfaction.
Since the Procedure Committee has not done a very good job so far of taking account of the concerns of the House, the only way that one can send it a message as to the gravity of these concerns—I understand it is meeting on Monday—is to say that, if it were to come forward with any proposal for the fully virtual consideration of Bills on Report, there would be a very significant backlash from all parts of the House on any such arrangement. I am extremely concerned that the Leader of the House has not been able to give an undertaking today that that will not happen.
I may be able to satisfy my noble friend in some way by saying that this would not be discussed by just the Procedure Committee—the usual channels would also discuss it. I have to say that I have grave concerns. Until we have a fully functioning House or an interim stage of it is hybrid, we may be unable to take Report stages, so we have to have those discussions quite urgently.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend, who has reinforced exactly what I have been saying. As far as I can tell, the great majority of your Lordships would not regard it as acceptable to have a fully virtual Report stage. We obviously have no alternative but to agree to these proposals, but this is done very clearly on that understanding.
To reiterate, it is not clear to me who makes these decisions—I am even more confused after these debates about where the Procedure Committee, the House of Lords Commission and the usual channels come in—but whichever of the various bodies and shadowy institutions it is, I hope that they take account of the remarks made in the House today and that we are not placed in a position in a fortnight’s time of having a resolution tabled which would lead to a fully virtual Report stage. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
My Lords, I beg to move that we substitute “five” for “three”—that is, we have five hours for the debate this afternoon, not three. I was very much hoping that the Leader of the House might accept this amendment; if she is willing to accept it, I do not need to proceed further. I see that she is shaking her head, so in that case, I need to detain the House for longer.
This afternoon, we are faced with a situation for the first time. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said he has been in the House for a quarter of a century—he does not look any the worse for it, if I may say so. I am a spring chicken: I have been here for only 15 years. However, this is the first debate in which I have sought to participate in the House—it may be the first time this has happened in the history of the House, apart from at Oral Questions when of course not everyone can get in—when noble Lords who have wished to speak in the debate are not being allowed to do so.
Because of the need to reconcile the Virtual Proceedings with the number of people who wish to speak and the three-hour time limit, which the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has arbitrarily imposed, many noble Lords are being told that they cannot speak in the debate. I am one of the fortunate ones who—I am not quite sure by what procedure—my noble friend the Labour Chief Whip has chosen to allow to speak rather than many of my noble friends who are not allowed. It is completely unacceptable that noble Lords should not be able to fulfil their parliamentary duties and speak in a debate.
The debate in question is that tabled by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, calling attention to the impact of the coronavirus crisis on poverty and disadvantage. That goes to the heart of the crisis that the country is undergoing at the moment. If we have any role at all, it is to debate such issues and to bring them to the attention of the House. The House is meeting only in a part-time capacity at the moment anyway. So far as I am aware, there is no reason whatever why the proceedings today cannot last for five rather than three hours. If they lasted for five hours, all noble Lords who wished to speak would be able to do so, there would be full consideration of the issues and we would be performing our duties properly. Instead, the noble Baroness the Leader is arbitrarily cutting the proceedings of the House and not allowing noble Lords to take part.
If the noble Baroness is not prepared to accept my amendment, she will find that we routinely object, and, as soon as we are able, we might start voting on the time limits for debates—something that has never happened in the history of the House. She needs to understand that this House works through give and take, and one element of that is that noble Lords are able to make their contributions. That is the whole basis and understanding on which the usual channels have worked. If, through force majeure on the part of the Government, which is what the noble Baroness is proposing at the moment, noble Lords are not able to make their contributions, the understandings on which the business of this House is conducted will break down. Indeed, they are breaking down at the moment. I can tell the noble Baroness that, from discussions I have had with other noble Lords, that is happening, because noble Lords are being told that they are not allowed to speak in a debate this afternoon. As I said, that has never happened before.
I am very sorry that the noble Baroness is not prepared to accept this amendment. It seems to be perfectly reasonable. Any ordinary member of the public looking at this debate would find it incomprehensible that we are not able to debate the Motion in the name of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York on the impact of Covid-19 on poverty for five rather than three hours in order to give it fuller consideration. The noble Baroness has not offered a single good reason why we cannot do so. If she persists in imposing this arbitrary time limit on the House, I give her notice that in future I will seek to amend all the Motions relating to the time limits for business of the House to provide for more time. There will be a growing head of steam on this issue across the House and, as soon as we are able to vote, the Government might find that they lose control of the procedures of the House entirely. That will not be in the best interests of the Government or maybe even the House as a whole. I beg to move.
My Lords, I want to speak briefly in support of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. The noble Baroness shakes her head but I too wished to speak in the debate this afternoon and was intending to flag up the global impact. It will be enormously more challenging to meet the sustainable development goals after this pandemic. However, I withdrew from that debate because about 15 Liberal Democrats wished to speak. Therefore, I am an example of what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has said. It is incredibly important, globally, to address this issue and I regret that I cannot put that case this afternoon.
Perhaps I may be of help. Obviously talks have been taking place in the usual channels. I understand that she cannot support what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is saying, but we are making every effort to end these time limits by widening opportunities in debates, extending our hours and sitting for an extra day. We are moving towards that and I wonder whether she would formally give that backing so that eventually we get back to the point where we do not have time limits or limits on the number of speakers who can take part.
I entirely agree that today’s debate is extremely important and I am delighted that we have been able to facilitate it. Our Benches have, quite rightly, given a Conservative Party debate to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York and I look forward to what I am sure will be an extremely interesting and informed debate by all noble Lords taking part.
I have to reiterate to noble Lords that the House authorities, the Digital Service and the broadcast team are at maximum capacity. They are not able to facilitate longer debates or those with more than 50 Members taking part. I know that it is frustrating but I am afraid that there are practical, administrative and broadcast restrictions, and we are working within those strictures.
I do not dispute that that is frustrating. As a Government, as the usual channels and as the House authorities, we are doing our best to facilitate the Virtual Proceedings, but I am afraid there are limits to what everyone is able to do. I know noble Lords are frustrated but I cannot stress enough how hard people are working—and the hours they are working—to do this. The House of Commons is using broadcasting procedures, as is our House. This is not about trying to curtail discussion and debate, but about trying to facilitate as much as we can within the boundaries within which we are having to work. I am sorry to keep saying it, but it is important to put that on the record.
I am sorry that I cannot agree to the noble Lord’s request at this point—I am afraid it will not be possible—but I hope that everyone who participates in the debate enjoys their time in it. I have no doubt that they will make extremely important points that we as a Government and everyone listening will take into account and reflect on.
I want simply to draw the noble Baroness’s attention to one reason why people find this frustrating: the repeated assertions about what was technically possible and possible for practical reasons have turned out not to be the case at all. She needs to understand that some of us have been working online and virtually for a long time and in many circumstances, both nationally and internationally. We know what is possible and what is not. There seems to be a lack either of imagination and creativity or of something else. She needs to understand that that is one reason why trust is breaking down on this point.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. How can I choose my words diplomatically? It is not credible to assert that it is not technically possible to sustain an online debate for longer than three hours, as the noble Baroness asserts. That is an assertion—she has hidden behind the technical difficulties—but I do not believe that it is credible. I participate in many virtual meetings that take longer than that. As far as I am aware, no aspect of Zoom means that a meeting cannot continue for more than three hours.
I am afraid we are coming to a sharp disagreement here. It is my view that the reason this is happening is to do not with the technical capacity of the House but with the Government’s desire to suppress debate. That is why, unless this issue is rectified soon, the noble Baroness will find significant ongoing controversy. The precise reason for that is that we are all taking seriously our duties as parliamentarians to consider the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on the country.
Walter Bagehot famously said that an assembly that does not meet is deficient in a primary degree. The House of Lords cannot undertake its responsibilities if it does not meet. Our duty is to see that we meet and give the proper consideration that we should to these weighty issues. I simply do not think that the arbitrary time limits that the noble Baroness seeks to impose are satisfactory or technically required. On that basis, for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
That the debate on the motion in the name of Lord Boswell of Aynho, which is set down to take place in a Virtual Proceeding on Tuesday 12 May, be time-limited to 3 hours and that the time limit may be varied by the unanimous agreement of the members taking part in that Virtual Proceeding at the commencement of proceedings.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
That the debate on the motion in the name of Baroness Boycott, which is set down to take place in a Virtual Proceeding on Thursday 14 May, be time-limited to 3 hours and that the time limit may be varied by the unanimous agreement of the members taking part in that Virtual Proceeding at the commencement of proceedings.
Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill [HL]
Order of Commitment
Employment Allowance (Increase of Maximum Amount) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Fire and Rescue Functions) (Amendment) Order 2020
Motion to Approve
Budget: Economic and Fiscal Outlook
Motion to Approve
That this House approves, for the purposes of section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, the Government’s assessment of the medium-term economic and fiscal position as set out in the latest Budget document and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s most recent Economic and Fiscal Outlook and Fiscal Sustainability Report, which forms the basis of the United Kingdom’s Convergence Programme. Considered in Virtual Proceedings on 5 May.
House adjourned at 2.06 pm.
Arrangement of Business
The announcement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, the Virtual Proceedings on the debate in the name of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York will now commence. This is a time-limited debate. I will first call the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York in the usual way. The question will then be put. Then I will call each speaker on the list in the usual way. Each speaker’s microphone will be unmuted prior to speaking and returned to mute once their speech has finished.
Income Equality and Sustainability
Motion to Consider
The Motion was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Government Chief Whip and the usual channels for granting me this opportunity to move a Motion that is very dear to my heart—thank you. I commend Her Majesty’s Government for their rapid action in the current crisis and, through unprecedented public spending, working to protect jobs and avert millions of redundancies. It is in the light of this recent health emergency that I beseech your Lordships’ House to take note of the case for increasing income equality and sustainability.
Last Thursday, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, opened a Question for Short Debate on Covid-19 and people living in poverty. I believe that what we are doing today has the potential to make a lasting difference. As Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, said:
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.”
As long ago as 28 April 1909, Winston Churchill, then president of the Board of Trade, gave a speech in the other place in which he said:
“It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions.”—[Official Report, Commons, 28/4/1909; col. 388]
Not much has changed since. That principle remains as strong as ever in our national life.
Ten years later in 1919, after a world war and a global flu pandemic, the International Labour Organization constitution affirmed:
“Peace and harmony in the world requires an adequate living wage.”
The economic argument that workers should be paid a fair and living wage was not new even then. In 1776, Adam Smith, said to be the father of modern market economics, wrote:
“Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
Many jobs fall far short of this ideal for millions of workers across the United Kingdom. The truth we now see is that the vast majority of front-line key workers are hard-pressed on poverty wages.
Kate Pickett’s and Richard Wilkinson’s ground-breaking book The Spirit Level showed that a wide range of social problems are more common in societies with larger income differences between the rich and the poor. The solution must be to narrow the gap between wages and basic living costs. The creation of an economic equality and sustainability commission would help to facilitate the creation of more income equality and a fairer society that would solve many of the pressing social problems such as the supply of genuinely affordable homes and social care provision. David Cameron, before he was Prime Minister, acknowledged:
“We all know, in our heart, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.”
When I was Bishop of Stepney, I soon became aware that low-paid workers there were having to work two or three minimum wage jobs but still struggled to make ends meet. At that time, the Living Wage Foundation, started in Bethnal Green in 1997, called on businesses to recognise the important role of their “invisible” workers and pay them a real living wage.
A recent Living Wage Foundation publication from 3 March 2020 quotes two case studies of year 6 pupils. The first says:
“Mum works extremely long hours to make ends meet—often do not see parents for long periods. Choice between paying bills and paying for food.”
The second says:
“Mum works as a Care Worker and is paid £8.21 an hour. Have to do the dishes and keep things tidy at home—I have my chores to do. Mum is not supposed to work weekends but works Saturday and Sunday—comes home, has dinner, watches TV and goes to sleep. I am lonely. This”—
a living wage—
“would make a difference to my family.”
I am very proud to support the proposals from the Living Wage Commission, which I chaired, for the real living wage, calculated according to the cost of living, providing an hourly rate of pay that is independently calculated each year. Rates for 2019-20 are £9.30 across the UK and £10.75 in London. This living wage applies to all directly employed staff over the age of 18, regardless of the number of hours they work. We need to distinguish between Her Majesty’s Government’s national living wage—a higher minimum wage rate for over-25s—and what I referred to as the real living wage, through which families do not go short.
If we support the principle that those who are least well-off should get the most help, it is shocking that children living in poverty have not been the number one priority in the unprecedented package of support announced by the Chancellor. The coronavirus national emergency is already exposing the inadequacy of the safety net provided by our social security system, as more people who have not previously relied on benefits get to experience how mean it really is. Hopefully, this will lead to a more generous and compassionate system. So, why not increase the national living wage to £10 per hour for everyone now? The time has come for us all to stop talking about welfare benefits and talk instead about social insurance, a term which underlines both that our focus should be on need, and that we are all in this together.
The biblical vision is not of a world in which individualism and consumerism are the purposes for which we are made, but one in which we are created for fellowship and mutual responsibility. It is of a world in which the principal aim of policy is to enhance the well-being—that is, the personal and communal flourishing—of all in society. The challenge is to articulate a vision of that eudaimonia; not a word much used in Yorkshire or in your Lordships’ House, but a useful Greek word to describe the well-being and flourishing of a community and all those within it.
Dame Julia Unwin, in her chapter in the book I edited, On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future, analysed the changing face of poverty in this country, including the rising gap between the rich and the poor. She also highlighted the new and deeply worrying fact that for the first time, the historic link between poverty and unemployment has now been broken. She writes:
“The notion that hard work will enable people to leave poverty and build a life of self-reliance has been broken. Instead the prospects of work provide intermittent activity, limited reward and no security.”
After the current crisis, the major concern of our age is sustainability. It is becoming ever clearer that income equality is a precondition for moving to environmental sustainability. It now seems inevitable that people all over the world will suffer endless environmental crises and hazards, leading to displacement and food shortages. As well as a need for better systems for emergency aid, much will depend on a strong ethos of mutual support between neighbours as well as between countries. That is fostered by greater equality, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown in both The Spirit Level and more recently in The Inner Level. Greater equality is the basis for stronger community life and indeed a greater capacity to be united in a response to the climate emergency.
It is therefore crucially important to reduce income differences both before and after tax. We need to make income tax highly progressive again and to have higher taxes. To reduce inequalities before tax, all employers should, as a minimum, pay the real living wage. In English cities where Labour-controlled local authorities have set up fairness commissions, they have almost always become living wage employers. They have successfully communicated their real living wage commitment to everyone they do business with and have encouraged them to consider implementing the real living wage for the real cost of living.
The current crisis has made all of us aware of the need to recognise the value of our key workers. Please listen to the words of Linda, a carer:
“Since I started being paid the living wage I haven’t had to worry about if I can pay the bills and more importantly than that, I get to spend time every day with my mum and daughter and I’m not falling asleep on the sofa as soon as I get in. I eat better, I sleep better and I’m much less stressed”.
That is from a page in the Living Wage Foundation’s guide.
The Scottish Government and Wirral Council recently took bold steps to support care workers, committing to uplift them to the real living wage—including ancillary workers such as cleaners and catering staff. Some of the local employers have been paying their workers a real living wage since long before the crisis, recognising that higher pay benefits not only workers but businesses, through lower staff turnover and lower absenteeism. Care work is a huge industry with around 1 million workers supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society, often for incredibly low pay. For too long, its importance has been undervalued and underfunded but now there is a real opportunity to create lasting change in the sector.
As we emerge from this crisis, we must look again at how we value this work and pay for it. It is time to rethink how government, public bodies and businesses work together in order to bounce back better and ensure that there is adequate funding, so that all care work is rewarded with, at least, a real living wage. Then, we must deliver fair pay rises for our key workers and rewards for workers across the economy, to restore what they have lost through 10 years of cuts and slow growth. Let us make paying the real living wage the litmus test for a fair recovery. Let us help our country become a place where the wellsprings of solidarity—of a new, undivided society—can begin to spring up, and then go beyond the real living wage. Income inequality is the great giant of our time, which we must slay. The real living wage is a crucial tool in our armoury, but the living wage is a first and vital step in challenging inequality.
Let me end by sharing with your Lordships the four guiding principles which have impelled me to work tirelessly to promote the real living wage. The first is that all human beings are of equal worth in the sight of God. There is no one and no group of whom we can say “They are less important” or “They don’t matter”. The needs of the other person are always as important as my own. The second is a commitment to offer everyone the opportunity to flourish. A society is well-ordered only in so far as it offers ways of flourishing to all its members. The third is a recognition of our human interrelatedness and interdependence. As the African proverb says, “When a tiny toe is hurting, the whole body stoops down to attend to that toe”. The reality is that we are all inextricably bound up with each other’s welfare. We rely on each other; if one suffers, sooner or later we will all suffer. Covid-19 and the lockdown have vividly demonstrated this for us all. The fourth is the need to accept our duty of responsibility by using our God-given potential both for ourselves and to serve others. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the most reverend Primate on initiating this debate. It is timely, since Covid-19 has provided politicians with the opportunity to put well-being before growth. The crisis which has brought so much pain and damage has also given rise to greater social interaction and neighbourliness, and a desire not only to take care of each other but to show respect and affection for those who care for us. NHS workers and carers across the country have become an intrinsic, tangible part of our family and daily life, whom we now depend on and embrace. Their prominence has been made possible as fast living and the consumer-driven lifestyles that fuel income inequality have been put on hold. In their place, the appeal for voluntary helpers has exceeded all expectations. Party politics effectively evaporated in the corridors of care. In place of prejudices and barriers, we are witnessing social cohesion, friendliness and mutual support. People have rediscovered those they live with.
Income inequalities are divisive the world over. As with other sustainability issues, the social and business consequences are inseparable. Correlations between a nation’s degree of income inequality and its rates of domestic abuse, crime and obesity will come to the fore again. Every one of these “social” problems blights and imposes a huge tax on society. But this health emergency provides the opportunity for a new approach and for closer collaboration, transitioning to sustainability in an overcrowded world.
It is not just our politicians but our companies, our religious leaders and our opinion formers who have a responsibility as we emerge from Covid-19. We must all take ownership; we must all take action; we must all take an interest. We must not ignore the important lesson we have learned: that we can put well-being before the excesses of economic growth.
My Lords, it is a privilege to pay tribute to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, whose commitment to equality shone through in his opening speech, as it has done throughout his career. I hope that he will continue his campaigning work in the years ahead.
Britain is a deeply unequal society. Income inequality is the fifth highest in the OECD, and there are vast inequalities in wealth, opportunity, education and life expectancy. It is tempting to believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is a great leveller, yet these inequalities have become greatly magnified. The economic effects of the pandemic are disproportionately experienced by the low paid and the young. Those working in shut-down sectors are seven times more likely to be the lowest paid, and those under 25 are three times more likely to work in hospitality or retail—sectors that have closed entirely. The health risks are disproportionately borne by the poor, those from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds, and women, because they are more likely to be key workers, live in cramped accommodation, or have an underlying health condition.
Alongside exposing the inequalities in our society, this health emergency also risks exacerbating them further. Unemployment will be concentrated in the lowest-paid sectors, potentially scarring future employment and earnings. Those soon to leave school or graduate will enter a labour market in severe recession, with lower job prospects and wages. For school-age children, prolonged periods out of the classroom are particularly damaging to those from poorer backgrounds.
Despite this bleak picture, the response to the virus has shown us a better way. While homelessness has doubled over the past decade, funding has now been found to house more than 90% of rough sleepers. Meanwhile, air quality has dramatically improved, as nitrogen dioxide levels have halved. No one, of course, would choose for life to continue as now, but we do face a choice about the society we want to be. As we commemorate VE Day, let us remember how that victory signalled a desire for change, and go forward with the same determination to build a new social contract, fit for the future.
My Lords, I wish to support the case for a universal basic income. The current crisis has shown the need for people to have access to basic funding, yet the machinery to deliver cash to many people does not exist. Many key workers on whom we now know a functioning survival economy depends—not just health and social care workers but delivery drivers, shop assistants and food producers—are all paid below average. Others, such as those on zero-hours contracts, those living within the cash economy and some self-employed people, are missing out altogether.
The post-Covid-19 scenario may be for higher unemployment and less job security. Work patterns are likely to change radically as more technical solutions are applied. It is true that new technologies may create new jobs, as some argue, but they may also make some jobs redundant. That will leave a small number of lucrative activities; some, but fewer, low-skilled and lower-paid jobs; and, overall, not enough employment to go round. We surely cannot contemplate a society were a small minority corner the jobs and opportunities, leaving the overwhelming majority behind. It is not only unfair but likely to prove politically unsustainable.
The scale of government intervention in the past two months shows that a universal basic income could be affordable. If it were set at between £50 and £100 a week, it would provide basic peace of mind and security, but not at a level that would deter people from joining the workforce if they could. It would also make people more willing to engage in consumption, and would therefore act as a stimulus to the economy. It certainly should not be buttonholed in any ideological category. It can be applied in a way that is economically and socially beneficial, right across society, and could sit alongside other targeted benefits. It could be funded through taxation in much the same way as child benefit, which is clawed back progressively, up to 100% from higher earners. A universal basic income would make a significant contribution to evening out income inequality. It is an idea whose time has come.
My Lords, one of the main economic risks from the pandemic will be the likelihood of mass long-term unemployment, as we experienced in the 1980s. Today, the Resolution Foundation predicts a 600,000 increase in youth unemployment this year—this is just the beginning. The pandemic is destroying economies across the globe, and recovery will take time. Long-term unemployment destroys a person’s confidence and mental health, while employers are very reluctant to take on demotivated, depressed, unemployed people. The most at risk of unemployment are the least well qualified; this is fundamentally an issue of inequality.
At a time of mass unemployment, the punitive universal credit regime, providing minimal benefits within a fear-inducing sanctions framework, becomes immoral. Unreformed, it will create serious mental health problems, crime, and an even bigger drugs problem, funded by crime, than we have already.
A part of the solution will be active labour market policies and the job guarantee. In 2005 and 2007, the OECD published evidence of the effectiveness of such policies, which ensure that, after a specified period out of work, an unemployed person will be offered work in the public or charity sectors at the rate for the job, probably at the minimum wage. Denmark and the Netherlands were examples of countries which pursued such policies and had low unemployment against the trend. Had the UK adopted these policies, we would not have had 2.5 million out of work for about four years after the global financial crisis of 2008. Yes, there would be a net cost to the Exchequer, but the benefits would far outweigh those costs: the improved employability of those involved and higher tax revenue and lower benefit costs over time; and, at the personal level, less mental breakdown, crime and drug use. In essence, it would mean greater equality and sustainability and a healthier and happier society.
My Lords, first, I thank the most reverend Primate for tabling this debate today, as well as for a lifetime’s work of battling inequality. May we continue to benefit from his wisdom and prophetic voice. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby.
I wish to highlight the issue of those particularly at risk because they do not have the right to access public funds. Migrants are more likely to be self-employed, in temporary work, or working in industries which have been especially badly hit. They are less likely to own their own homes, risking homelessness if they lose their income. Concerns have been raised that migrants may be compelled to continue working even if they become ill as to stop would be to risk destitution, which puts their and others’ health at risk.
We rely on the contribution of migrants to our society and economy. Some 850,000 migrants work in our health and social care sector, while they make up 40% of our food manufacturing industry. These are essential industries. They are working on our farms so we can have food on the table. We owe them deep gratitude.
After the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Government confirmed that
“all victims, irrespective of their immigration status, can access the services they need, including healthcare and accommodation.”—[Official Report, Commons, 22/6/17; col. 167.]
Can the Government give a similar confirmation now, and suspend the NRPF condition to allow migrants to access public funds?
Many of those without access to public funds are supported by small charities, which themselves face existential threats due to the health emergency. Will the Government continue to offer more support to those charities before they are no longer able to function and pick up their normal operations?
Christ teaches us that every human is equal before God. I pray that, as we face these extraordinary times, we seek to enact policies that affirm the dignity and worth of all as we have seen it in their contribution to us.
My Lords, I am not in favour of a universal basic income. It does not add up arithmetically, it does not improve living standards and, where it has been tested, it has not been a great success. I ask my noble friend about food and feeding those on the lowest incomes—a subject one of the House’s committees is currently looking at. The statistics are that, in 2017, 90,000 people died prematurely due to ill health. Some 20% of the population suffered from obesity, and the cost to this country in that year was £54 billion. Much needs to be done by the Government and us, both corporately and individually, to reduce these numbers.
Food standards and quality are integral to this. Can my noble friend the Minister tell me, in taking back our sovereignty and tackling this problem, which is more important—maintaining our high food and welfare standards or agreeing a trade deal that allows cheap food imports farmed to less rigorous standards? I also ask my noble friend what plans the Government have to secure the supply of basic food to those who can least afford it, particularly in these troubled times.
My Lords, Covid has revealed the injustice of inequality in a savage way. It is a disease that has disproportionately hit the poorest. Lockdown has further exacerbated these inequalities, and remote working is mostly a luxury of white-collar professions. Those on low pay and in the gig economy have little financial option but to carry on working, with all the risks that that brings. Our children are now schooled remotely, but the Sutton Trust shows that huge inequalities exist in the provision of education. However, I believe that there is a Beveridge moment coming as the crisis unfolds—a chance to come together to shape the kind of country we want to rebuild. I make a plea for this Beveridge moment to have four key principles about equality at its heart.
First, we need to rectify what has become one of Britain’s largest comparative disadvantages: our long tail of low-skilled, low-wage workers. We have too many workers who revolve in and out of no work and bad work, with no protection or assets, who are told to take any job and climb an escalator of prospects that, frankly, does not exist. It has to stop.
Secondly, we need to redesign our public services to place prevention of life-chance inequalities at their heart. From health care to social care, education to housing and transport to culture, every service should have the goal of pre-empting deprivation at its core.
Thirdly, we must put equality and social justice at the heart of the tax choices we will have to face as we look to pay for our response to this crisis. Germany responded to reunification with a solidarity tax, a supplementary income tax for the wealthiest Germans. I believe it is time for us to contemplate a UK version of this and to grasp the nettle of taxing the sources of huge inequalities in wealth, in particular land and housing.
Lastly, the impact of Covid on the poorest countries is likely to be more catastrophic than in the developed world, but the architecture of international co-operation is now weaker than at any time since 1945. The UK should lead the effort to rectify that and make the assembly of an international coalition for greater global equality a foreign policy priority.
My Lords, there is a business phrase: “Never waste a crisis”. We must not waste this crisis. We must not accept a return to the status quo. Our two priorities have to be climate change and a fairer, more equal society.
I will talk for a moment about Wales, my home country, which for decades has been the poorest part of the UK. Some 730,000 people, a quarter of the population, live in poverty, and income in Wales is about 90% of the UK average. This is a product of different things. Wales is a heavily rural area, and rural incomes tend to be lower. Tourism is very important, but the hotels are shut and the festivals cancelled. Farming faces an uncertain future because of Brexit.
Wales has also never fully recovered from the collapse of the heavy industries and the closure of the mines, but there have been very bright spots of investment—Tata Steel and Airbus, for example. But in the last weeks, both those companies have warned of their perilous financial position. We now face the danger of well-paid, skilled jobs being lost. So poverty in Wales is highly likely to increase after the Covid crisis.
My call is for long-term investment as a priority, first of all in education, from nursery schools through to universities, and secondly in infrastructure, from 5G to rail electrification. These investments must serve to develop our priorities.
My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York for securing this important and timely debate and for his learned and compassionate contribution.
The Government instigated new fiscal policies in the light of Covid-19. These have been welcomed as they were designed in part to alleviate financial disruption to households and therefore promote health security within our borders. The population has adhered to these current restrictions, demonstrating the value to society of the significant investment, but it is not just low income that contributes to inequalities in our society; it is the very varied contracts that people have at the moment. This is the reality for carers who are employed, who may often work on zero-hour or minimum- hour contracts. I hope that, following this crisis, those carers do not have to resort to food banks, or face rent arrears or the difficulty of not being able to work.
I return to the issue of instability of income and low incomes generally. The Taylor review of modern working practices says that we must make flexible working the default in employment contracts. If we did this and moved towards the target rate of 66% of median earnings as a national living wage, we would begin to move towards greater equality in income levels and stability in the country.
I ask the Minister to inform the House about the likely timetable for the introduction of the expected employment Bill, which may well address some of the inequalities that I and other noble Lords will outline today.
Most of us are probably in favour of more equality in general. Some will remember that the Duke of Omnium, Trollope’s Liberal Prime Minister, was especially in favour of perfect equality—yet he was vastly rich and owned thousands of acres.
The best way of helping everyone materially in the long term is to increase the size of the overall cake. The capitalist system is by far the most successful ever devised for making a country richer—compare Cuba and Venezuela with the United States and Canada, or, better, South Korea with North Korea. But—and I accept that it is a substantial “but”—the distribution that results from naked capitalism is not regarded as fair, which is why we have progressive taxation, welfare, the NHS and the living wage, which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has of course pioneered. All these allow us to balance fairness with the needs of economics. Moreover, the best measure of equality in a society is generally agreed to be the Gini coefficient, and the fact is that, at least since the financial crisis of 2008, movements in the index have shown that UK society has become somewhat more equal.
As we all know, we have to find enough to pay for the NHS, schools and social care—£230 billion last year, comparable to the total raised from income tax and corporation tax—and, lest we forget, the main provider of taxes is business and the people that it pays and employs. This is why the lockdown must end soon, or we will not be able to afford so much that we value.
Finally, the crisis has shown us that people’s need is not for money alone. We need a society where people show care and respect for our fellow humans. Look how moved we have been by our army of volunteers. Kindness matters, and so do religious networks; one of the horrors of the current rules is that churches and mosques are shut.
I warmly welcome the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby; I have much enjoyed evensong in her beautiful and historic cathedral.
My Lords, Jesus said,
“seek first the Kingdom of God”,
and in your Lordships’ House, I have caught glimpses of that kingdom: in the warm welcome, in the kind advice of officers and staff, in the patient support of the Church of England Parliamentary Unit, and in the substance of the work noble Lords do, as today.
In January 2015, I became the first woman consecrated bishop in the Church of England. I take this opportunity to thank my friend, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York for his support and encouragement, and to pay tribute to his integrity and influence. It is true to his priorities that he uses this debate to champion the poor and continue the fight for justice. It was a particular gift to be “called home” a year ago, to serve as Bishop of Derby and I am proud of the ways in which diocesan staff, clergy, schools and congregations have stepped up in these difficult times. Derby and Derbyshire have responded generously to meet the needs of the most vulnerable: they have made known the kingdom of God.
There are common threads running throughout my ministry, including the fight for equal access, inclusion and opportunity; a passion for the arts, culture and sport; and a commitment to children and young people, with particular concern for the most vulnerable and at risk. It is an honour, therefore, to be vice-chair of the Church of England Children’s Society. At this time of national emergency, we know that there is much to be done: to respond to every child; to keep all our children and young people safe; to support the mental health and well-being of our children; and to protect children and families facing increased financial insecurity as a result of this crisis. The inequalities that affect the more than 4 million children in poverty in our country run deep and are systemic, so solutions need to be long-term and sustainable.
When asked about the kingdom of God, Jesus brought a child among them and said,
“of such is the kingdom of heaven”.
I thank noble Lords for their patience in hearing my plea that we put children at the heart of our work for a more just, equitable and sustainable society.
My Lords, we warmly welcome the speech of the right Reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and her presence now on the Bishops’ Benches. Above all, we thank the most reverend Primate for his contribution, not just in bringing us this debate but for a lifetime of service to the cause of social solidarity. He spoke, as he has throughout his career—throughout his service, from his time as a curate in Herne Hill, when I remember him well—of the importance of solidarity. He said that we are all in this together. Indeed, we are, but we have to make a reality of that, because the truth of the matter is that we are not a more equal society when, even before the coronavirus, UNICEF estimated that there were 2.5 million children living in food insecurity in our own country. Now it is even worse.
The Rainbow food centre, which I know well, has seen an increase of 42% in the number of children now having to turn to it for sustenance. We have to address this and give serious consideration, I argue, to a universal basic income. It is not true that it is not effective. The evidence is, as the LSE demonstrated only too recently with Compass, that a £20 billion scheme would lift one-third of people out of poverty. We know that it is being tried in Spain; we ought ourselves to examine it carefully. If we cannot do that, we can increase child benefit for all, and we ought to. We can and we should revisit the two-child rule. Will the Minister assure us that that is being done?
Social solidarity means “ubuntu”. The most reverend Primate knows that well. We are all in this together; let us demonstrate that with practical policies.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby on her excellent maiden speech, and thank the most reverend Primate for all his work in support of this House, but particularly for his tireless campaigning on issues of financial inequality, debt, poverty and homelessness over many years.
Recent data from the Office for National Statistics has shown that people living in more deprived areas have experienced Covid-19 mortality rates of more than double those for people living in less deprived areas. A postcode lottery of morbidity is unacceptable, and the Government simply must tackle the fundamental inequalities that have put some people at greater risk.
A briefing I received from Citizens Advice in Newcastle earlier this week made several proposals that I hope the Government will adopt to assist households as temporary financial interventions are reduced. It suggests that there should be no sudden cut off to the job retention scheme or the income support scheme, and that there should be long-term increases in the safety net provided by universal credit because many people will find it hard to get back to work when lockdown ends. There should also be a recognition that further extensions may be needed for existing mortgage and debt holidays, and it proposes a coronavirus financial hardship fund, which would be different from universal credit in that it would help people facing sudden essential costs, through a grant or a loan. These proposals seem wise. We should remember that furloughed workers on low pay have had a 20% cut to their incomes.
I was a signatory to the recent call to prevent disadvantaged children falling behind in their learning by means of extra tuition through a catch-up premium for their schools. I hope the Government will understand the vital importance of this, to reduce educational inequalities.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who has always been courageously committed to the subject of this debate. As he retires as Archbishop, I wish him well for the next stage of his very distinguished public ministry.
The coronavirus has revealed in the starkest terms that the world we have lived in until now is quite unacceptable. For example, it has long been known that life expectancy in the most deprived areas is about 10 years less than it is in the more affluent areas, so it is not surprising—though still deeply shocking—to see twice as many people dying of the virus in those deprived areas than in the wealthier parts of the country. We got too used to the old world, with its grotesque inequalities, too resigned to the notion that this is the way that things always must be. They do not always have to be like that.
At the same time, the virus has revealed that another world really is possible. The population have shown the most remarkable solidarity, the Government in their financial rescue plans have acted boldly in the interests of the whole, and the underpaid hospital workers, care workers and others at the front have rightly been recognised as vital key workers. Let us have a world where they are not only clapped, but also paid enough to live on. The average hourly pay for a care worker in the UK is £8.19 an hour. How many of us could live on that?
We cannot think only of those in our country. We must think of the most vulnerable groups across the world, on whom the global economy depends. For example, there are 64 million migrant workers in the world, and in so many countries, crowded into insanitary dormitories. They have been particularly at risk. People used to talk about cheap labour. Let us talk instead about precious human beings. It sometimes seems as though the world is divided between those who, broadly speaking, are beneficiaries of a capitalist economy, and those who are financial slaves because they have no option except to starve. The world that we have inherited is no longer acceptable. Let us find a new, more humane way to live together.
My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York for his service and wish him and his well-esteemed lady a retirement—not necessarily from campaigning, but from his office—as long and happy as it is well deserved.
After the French Revolution, equality became a very prominent issue. In a sermon, Reverend Robert Shirra, a minister in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, examined a number of groups and concluded that equality does not exist. Not necessarily for that conclusion, a street in Kirkcaldy is called after him to the present day. I accept the conclusion that most human groups have a hierarchy and that where the incomes of members of the group are concerned, that usually leads to hierarchy in levels of income. I believe that this terrible virus has taught us very clearly how much our well-being and our lives depend on one another. Those higher up the hierarchy need a strong interest in the well-being of those who are lower. This should also be a powerful factor in the relationship between different groups. Of course, this is not a new thought. The divine head of the faith that the most reverend Primate and I have professed for a long time required:
“Love your neighbour as yourself”.
My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate for choosing this topic and for his years of public service, especially for his care for those on the margins and the risks he has taken for justice—from cutting up his dog collar live on air to protest Mugabe, to being willing to be driven blindfolded to try to persuade gang members to identify those who killed Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare. Even more impressively, he has even cooked for Mary Berry. The House will miss him in retirement, but it was a delight to hear the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. I look forward to more from her.
Our country is in stasis, our economy in meltdown and our way of life in the spotlight. This crisis is a lens through which we see clearly the way we have chosen to order our society and our world. The disparity in our jobs, our homes and our wealth reveal massive inequality and injustice. Those in overcrowded flats, insecure jobs or freshly unemployed with few savings are having a very different crisis from those who are working at home, jobs and income secure, kids studying online, relishing the peace outside.
Will the Government talk directly to those hardest hit in this crisis before they shape the recovery? It does not have to be like this. We do not have to accept the poverty and inequality, the gig economy and the tax avoidance, the polluters not paying and the erosion of the welfare state. My noble friend Lord Wood is right: this can be a Beveridge moment. We can use this terrible crisis, like the post-war Government did, to say we want a country fit for heroes—in the NHS and social care, in supermarkets and schools, the drivers and refuse collectors, the stressed parents, the desperate carers, the anxious disabled people and the lonely older people. This is a moment of decision. We can make different choices for all of us. The future need not look like the past.
My Lords, I will talk in particular about self-employment. Of course I join others in condemning self-employment that is phoney or abusive, but most of the 5 million independent contract workers prior to Covid were neither phoney nor abused. They brought flexibility to our changing economy and they included many of our most innovative and creative individuals, from IT to industrial design to the arts—a workforce critical to the new economy of the 21st century. The creative industries alone, largely made up of independent contractors, contributed over £1 billion a year to GDP.
The Government finally recognised this in their very welcome Covid self-employment support scheme and to some extent in the bounce-back scheme, although I still think they should have done more, as I have said in previous speeches. But as we move into the next phase, self-employment becomes even more critical. First, many people who have been furloughed will find that they do not have jobs to go back to. Secondly, we need to move into a new economy, not recreate 2019. That means innovation and change.
Universal credit fails to support those seeking to start a self-employed business, whether window cleaning, IT consultancy or film production. This is crazy because it becomes a serious argument for universal basic income. I am personally in two minds about UBI because I can see its pitfalls, but universal credit has proved itself so inflexible and become so much a stick to beat people on benefits rather than a support that it is time to be open to alternatives.
In addition to other arguments for UBI, most of which concern boosting demand, the Government could use such a scheme to underpin a growth shift to self-employment, allowing independent contractors to take risks. It becomes a mechanism for starting businesses as well. No one wants a crisis like Covid, but our recovery should improve the future, not return us to the past.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and thank the most reverend Primate for introducing it. Since the crisis began and the lockdown was enforced, extraordinary hardship has been suffered by many, in particular in relation to their food supply. According to research published this week by the Food Foundation—I declare my interest—5 million people in the UK are living in households with children under 18 and have experienced food insecurity. Shockingly, more than 200,000 children have had to skip meals because their parents do not have enough money. On top of this, 31% of kids who are entitled to free school meals—that is, half a million of them—are not getting substitutes. It was a terrific government idea to supply a £15-a-week voucher to make up for free school meals, but the delivery company that was chosen, Edenred, has been overwhelmed by demand and basically unable to meet it. That has meant a huge number of parents having no access to food.
Once again, it feels as though the Government have not stepped up to the problem of our food supply and its distribution. It has been left in the hands of the supermarkets—which have done really well—and the charity sector, which has played a blinder. We have heard from many other noble Lords about community initiatives and the way in which people have behaved towards their neighbours, which is heartening to see.
I dread to think of the physical and emotional impact on children when they finally return to school. We already know that a lack of good nutrition in the summer holidays can affect the poorest in our society and their academic achievements, and these can go on for life.
The Welsh Government have committed to supporting children through the coming summer holidays. Will our Government do the same? Will they please consider increasing support through the child benefit system, which is the one system that ensures that money gets directly to mothers and children regardless of whatever else might be going on in the family?
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby on her moving maiden speech. I am grateful for all she does to champion the voices of children.
I want to thank Archbishop Sentamu for his leadership in consistently speaking up for racial and social justice. He champions work among young people, notably through the Archbishop of York Youth Trust. He inspires others to do the same.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a dividing experience through its unequal financial impact. The lowest-earning 10% are seven times more likely than high earners to work in a sector which has shut down. Archbishop Sentamu champions the real living wage. In-work poverty is compounded by irregular working hours. Such unpredictability means that families cannot easily save to safeguard themselves from unexpected life events. Eighteen per cent of the north-east’s working population experience insecure work. Turn2us found that people on zero-hours contracts expect a £193 drop in monthly income. These workers often provide essential services such as cleaning and delivery, yet face great financial instability. Will Her Majesty’s Government promote Living Hours accreditation?
Under-25s are two and a half times as likely as other age groups to work in a sector which has now shut down; youth unemployment could rise to 2 million. Long-term unemployed young people go on to earn less and are more likely to be unemployed in the future. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to protect young people in the labour market from the detrimental impact of the coronavirus crisis?
This crisis highlights the need for a fairer all-round taxation system in which those on middle and higher incomes, of all ages, contribute more to paying the long-term costs. I hope, too, that we will explore a universal basic income system and not simply dismiss it.
Will Her Majesty’s Government do everything possible to create increased, sustainable income equality and thus create a more just society that looks more like the kingdom of God?
My Lords, it is a privilege for me to serve on the Rural Affairs Group of the Church of England. I take this opportunity to pay a personal tribute to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who is both loved and revered in equal measure in York and North Yorkshire. He brings a very special, very vibrant presence and appears utterly humane at every opportunity. Two particular references come to mind: when he came to pray and preach for us at my invitation in Thirsk, Malton and Filey, and the comfort that he has shown to, among others, Joan, the mother of Claudia Lawrence, who has been missing from York for a number of years now.
The most reverend Primate is absolutely right to focus on inequalities at this time. Government does not usually employ people, except now, through the furlough scheme. I want to refer to the plight of small businesses and the self-employed—those who do employ people. Currently, the self-employed, especially tradesmen such as plumbers, electricians, hairdressers and cleaners, are really struggling. I would like to see them treated on the same basis as employed people at this time of emergency measures. Discrimination is also suffered by older workers, often volunteers, who are struggling for the hours and the recognition that they deserve, and some younger workers are finding it difficult at this time to get on to the employment ladder. Most of all, I make a plea for the Minister to look really closely at how zero-hour contracts can be justified; they must be addressed.
In conclusion, my plea to the Minister is that the length of the furlough scheme should match the length of the closure experienced by charities and businesses during the lockdown and that he will address, and perhaps terminate once and for all, the practice of zero-hour contracts. We all wish the most reverend Primate a long, happy and busy retirement.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the most reverend Primate for securing this debate and for the wonderful way in which he introduced it. This is such an important subject. Many of your Lordships will have seen the front-page lead in last Saturday’s Guardian with the headline “UK’s corona divide”, and,
“People living in poorest areas dying at twice the rate of those in richest areas”.
This is based on new data from the Office for National Statistics.
In my two minutes, I want to draw attention to the part played by tobacco in contributing to these shocking figures. Smoking rates among people in routine and manual jobs are more than twice the national average. Among people who are unemployed, smoking prevalence rises further. Nationally, half the difference in life expectancy between rich and poor is due to higher smoking rates among those on low incomes. Smoking caused around 78,000 deaths in England last year and over 400,000 hospital admissions. Data from the UK Covid symptom tracker app shows that smokers are more likely to report Covid-19 symptoms, and smokers with the virus who need hospital care are more likely to die than non-smokers.
This should be a wake-up call. We must do more to improve population health and reduce health inequalities, not just respond in times of crisis. Investing in tobacco control and stop-smoking services to achieve the Government’s ambition of a smoke-free England by 2030 would reduce health inequalities, save lives and lift over a million people out of poverty. While tobacco addiction pushes smokers into poverty, the tobacco industry makes over £900 million in profits in the UK each year. A polluter-pays charge on the tobacco industry, as advocated by the APPG on Smoking and Health—I declare an interest as one of its officers—could provide sustainable financing for the tobacco control measures needed to deliver the Government’s smoke-free ambition and support the majority of smokers who want to quit to do so.
My Lords, in the short time available, it is simply not possible to go into any detail about the measurement of income inequality, which is a complex and contested area. Suffice it to say that, according to the OECD, the UK has one of the highest levels of income inequality in Europe, albeit lower than in the USA.
Of particular relevance to today’s debate, the Resolution Foundation has pointed out that while everyone is feeling the effects of Covid-19, the impact is not equally distributed. Indeed, workers in shut-down sectors such as hospitality and non-food retail are among the lowest paid in the workforce, earning less than half than those able to work from home. There are strong links too with wider social inequalities. Private renters, who already face a great deal of insecurity, are also 40% more likely to work in shut-down sectors than their homeowning counterparts. Key workers, particularly those in health and social care, are more likely to be parents. Indeed, almost 40% of working mothers were key workers before Covid-19 and are much more exposed to health risks. Most starkly, earners in the bottom half of the earnings distribution are twice as likely to be key workers and 2.4 times as likely to work in those shut-down sectors. These are our fellow citizens, who are bearing the economic brunt of the crisis.
From a well-being perspective, those who are most likely to be back at work in a reopened economy—those who may not have the option to work from home—are also those more likely to be on a lower income, at risk and in need of assistance; for example, with childcare. I join others in calling on the Government to start framing policy responses to Covid-19 through the lens of well-being, which can help expose the complex multifaceted problems that it presents and the policy trade-offs that will be needed. Inequalities, be they in income distribution, health or well-being more broadly, are erosive of trust and social cohesion—things that we need now more than ever. Policies such as improving job security as well as proposals for a universal basic income must surely come to the fore.
My Lords, I thank my friend the most reverend Primate. We have a shared history as co-protagonists fighting racism in Tower Hamlets. He has been a vociferous advocate for all communities, particularly post 9/11, in addition to his seminal role in the Macpherson and Damilola Taylor inquiries.
The current health emergency is being felt hardest by families on low pay, people with disabilities, and women and children living with abuse; they are experiencing untold financial distress, often relying on community and charitable organisations for their daily sustenance. We are staggering through what is a bleak narrative by any decent standards, given that the geographical areas hardest hit by years of neglect, poverty and social injustice—namely, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney—are also now seeing disproportionate numbers of deaths compared with our cousin boroughs.
The inept political decision by decision-makers who cannot fathom the physical and mental impact of poverty has cast the shadow of universal credit and low pay on an entire generation of people already toiling with decades of structural inequalities, the most defenceless, and inflicted on them an unfair system leading to a fundamentally unequal divide. Yes, we have to balance the budget, but we must also strive for an equal and humane society.
The rainbow on the horizon, as many have said, is the Government’s rapid financial response to this emergency, which has proved that we can fund services in our uppermost priorities. We must ensure that the most vulnerable have their rightful place in contributing to a fairer and kinder society as we rethink the emerging economy post Covid-19.
Finally, I pay my respects to Colonel Tom Moore and Dabirul Islam Choudhury, both 100 years old—one raising millions of pounds; the other, inspired, raising tens of thousands for a better tomorrow. I wish the most reverend Primate and his wife, Margaret, a peaceful retirement, but one not too distant from the House.
My Lords, I too thank the most reverend Primate. This is the time to take bold action to tackle poverty and economic insecurity. A brutal light has been shone by the coronavirus on the underlying inequality in this country, where people in poor and deprived areas are twice as likely to die. Income insecurity, low pay, temporary work and poor housing have all taken their toll on health, as the recent Marmot report showed. A recovery of universal basic income must be the way forward as the country tries to emerge from this crisis. We need to begin to build a fairer, more resilient and good society and economy, as we did after the Second World War.
Welcome though the employment support schemes put in place by the Government are, they will soon come to an end without a further commitment to extend. With over 2 million people applying for universal credit in the last two months, delays in paying out cash mean that families have gone hungry. Now is the time to put in place a mechanism to distribute cash to everyone without delay, to provide an income floor that nobody falls below, and a springboard to recovery.
As the lockdown is eased, many sectors such as aviation and hospitality may never recover, and the jobs lost permanently will mean that people must be helped to retrain and reskill. Many are calling for temporary hardship schemes to cover the gaps that the self-employed must endure while they wait for funds, but a UBI would ensure no one had to rely on a food bank or face homelessness because of benefit sanctions or delays with universal credit. It would not replace wages but would instead help to boost them, especially for those front-line staff in the care sector, who have finally been recognised as key workers that society relies on to look after the most vulnerable.
My Lords, Covid has revealed further the underlying poverty in this country, as well as exacerbating the problem. There is no more obvious symptom of that poverty than food banks, demand for which was the greatest in 2019, before the health crisis started, so it is clear that when we look at current demand, it is considerably higher than it would have been without that base level.
Food banks are one of the biggest black marks against this country. It is self-evidently a social problem that a significant number of people cannot afford to put food on the table, because poverty itself is a social ill. It continues to surprise me how little food banks are raised as an urgent matter, perhaps because they have become too much an