House of Lords
Thursday 10 September 2020
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.
Introduction: Lord Vaizey of Didcot
The right honourable Edward Henry Butler Vaizey, having been created Baron Vaizey of Didcot, of Wantage in the County of Oxfordshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Fall and Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Wharton of Yarm
James Stephen Wharton, having been created Baron Wharton of Yarm, of Yarm in the County of North Yorkshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Pidding and Lord Callanan, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing; others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points. I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Covid-19: Military Operations and Support
My Lords, the Ministry of Defence has continued to deliver its essential outputs throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. While non-critical outputs were scaled back at the early stages of lockdown, these are now being restored. Social distancing and other safety measures, in line with Public Health England guidance, have also been implemented to further reduce the risk to the health of defence personnel.
My Lords, events such as the diagnosis of Covid-19 among the crew of HMS “Queen Elizabeth” hit the headlines. Can my noble friend reassure me that care is also taken to ensure continuity in service of less well-known craft such as auxiliary landing ship dock RFA “Mounts Bay” and HMS “Tyne”, the latter performing a valuable service protecting our fishing fleet?
I can reassure my noble friend that the safety and welfare of our people are paramount. Measures are in place to safeguard them and to reduce the risk to both them and their families. While workplaces have been adjusted to meet Covid-19 guidance, all personnel who have been eligible for testing if displaying symptoms have been tested, and we have followed public health guidance throughout. I can reassure my noble friend about the continuance of operations. There has been a steady drumbeat of activity on land, sea and air.
My Lords, have the Government, through the Ministry of Defence or the National Security Council, conducted any analysis of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on conflict and tension in the most important conflict spots around the world? Will that analysis, if it exists, be included in the integrated review on security, defence, development and foreign policy that the Government are due to publish in October?
Because of Covid-19, now more than ever we must be mindful of the long-term consequences of the decisions we take and of how the crisis could shift the context in which we operate domestically and internationally. The review will still be radical in its reassessment of the nation’s place in the world, and that will include accounting for the implications of Covid-19.
My Lords, at the height of the pandemic, the Armed Forces had 20,000 people at readiness to deal with Covid and up to 4,000 people deployed at any one time. If we are assuming a second peak and activity going through next winter, are the Armed Forces manned to deal with the crisis on an ongoing basis?
I reassure the noble Baroness that we are preparing for whatever scenarios unfold as we approach winter. We will use the Cabinet Office-endorsed reasonable worst-case scenario, produced by SAGE, to inform departmental planning activities for the winter months.
Will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to the pivotal role our Armed Forces have played domestically and internationally in responding to the pandemic? Is my noble friend familiar with and supportive of the recommendations in the Policy Exchange report Operation Covid-19, which encourages learning from our Armed Forces about analysis, planning and delivering in such crises?
I thank my noble friend for her tribute to the Armed Forces; it enables me to put on the record my absolutely unbounded admiration for all they have done in the most extraordinary circumstances, displaying the very best of our defence professionalism. We all owe them a huge vote of thanks. They displayed throughout the United Kingdom —not just in England but in the devolved nations—their skills of logistical planning and strategic advice. I am very grateful to my noble friend for bringing attention to the report to which she referred.
My Lords, in order to observe social distancing, were service personnel required to vacate their accommodation and expected to sleep elsewhere? What steps were taken to cancel accommodation costs and refund inevitable transport costs for those so instructed?
I will have to undertake to write to the noble and gallant Lord with a more specific response. I can say that, in general, arrangements were made for isolation and that these arrangements were flexible depending on what was best for the individual involved. Obviously, we adhered to the rules in the same way as we would for any other UK citizen, with appropriate modification to take account of the atypical accommodation often found in defence. I shall write to the noble and gallant Lord with further detail.
My Lords, our troops have rightly continued their duties overseas for the duration of this pandemic, keeping our citizens safe and helping to maintain international peace. Can the Minister say how many personnel are currently absent from operations due to testing positive for Covid or being in quarantine? How often personnel are tested when they are serving in high-risk parts of the world?
I am unable to give the noble Lord a specific answer on the number who are absent. I have data for the number of people who are tested and the proportion of these who prove positive, but we do not have centrally held data on the more detailed pattern of Covid-related absences.
My Lords, how will the United Kingdom continue to support operations and the NATO policy of deterrence by conventional means if we are to abandon land-based capabilities, such as tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, as is now widely reported?
I know the noble Lord is anxious to draw me on some specifics, but he will not be surprised to learn that I am not going there. The integrated review is under way, and it is a significant and important review. As I explained earlier to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, we are taking account of all changing circumstances. The objective is to be in a situation with the capability, robust and tested, to meet the challenges of the new age. We are living in a very different age to even 10 years ago with new threats and technologies. The integrated review will take all that into account.
My Lords, the Army said that it is ready to serve during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it could also support the NHS. Some 4,000 military personnel have been seconded to civil authorities. Can the Minister say whether the Navy or Air Force have also provided any support?
My Lords, I have been informed that at Army training establishments, such as Catterick and Sandhurst, all the trainees—who are young people, in least danger of catching or suffering from this virus—are confined to barracks for the entire period of training, not just the normal part of the course. However, the staff are, quite rightly, allowed to return to their families and the community. Can my noble friend confirm whether this is the case? If so, is it not contrary to a basic rule of leadership, namely leading by example? Should we not consider the morale and mental well-being of keen young volunteers joining the Army confined to barracks against all logic?
I say to my noble friend that what the Armed Forces have been doing has rightly drawn admiration, as has already been indicated in the Chamber. These activities require training, and it requires a level of training to continue, and to ensure that this happened, ongoing training has taken place. Stringent protective measures are in place after specific planning processes and full risk assessments have been conducted, all in accordance with government and health guidance. At the end of the day, the safety and welfare of our men and women is paramount.
Obviously, at specific times certain personnel have been affected, depending on their health situation. We have taken steps to enable safe training, including social distancing during roll calls and physical training, isolating at the beginning of courses and reconfiguring communal spaces such as canteens, sleeping quarters and classrooms. Therefore, a consistent pattern of training has continued.
My Lords, NATO has already felt the effects of the pandemic: Norway called off Cold Response 2020, Exercise Defender-Europe 20 was restructured and trimmed and Covid-19 entered the Latvian-based NATO battlegroup. Meanwhile, the US European Command has cancelled or postponed a lot of planned exercises. Against this background, what steps is NATO taking to ensure that it will be able to perform core tasks and missions, in the short term and in the longer term, in the absence of these exercises?
The noble Lord is quite correct that decisions were taken to pause certain exercises, and that was the correct decision with regard to the safety and well-being of those who otherwise would have participated. NATO and all member states are anxious to resume activity when circumstances permit that to happen. We must take account of situations in host countries, not just their health situation but what their particular requirements and restrictions may be. I am confident there is a resolve on the part of NATO and the member states to do whatever we can to continue activity, but we must always have at the forefront of that the health, well-being and safety of the personnel of all member states.
My Lords, the Government have committed to review the Gambling Act 2005 to make sure that it is fit for the digital age. We will announce further details in due course. However, we and the Gambling Commission are not waiting for the review to make gambling safer. Already this year, we have banned credit card gambling, tightened protections for online gambling in lockdown and consulted on further safeguards on product design.
I thank the Minister for that reply. However, given that we have a third of a million problem gamblers, including 55,000 children, and one gambling-related suicide every day, action is urgently needed. I am delighted that the Minister acknowledges that some action can be taken without needing to wait for a review, and, in fact, without needing primary legislation. For example, we have a fairly tough regime for games that take place in physical premises—a regime that includes limits on stakes and prizes—but, bizarrely, no such one for online gambling. As the online gambling companies cash in on the pandemic, make more profit and put more lives at risk, will the Government now take urgent action to address this particular problem, as recommended by your Lordships’ Gambling Industry Committee?
I thank the noble Lord and his colleagues on that committee for its excellent report, which we are considering. The noble Lord is right to point out that online gambling has a much higher risk of harm than land-based gambling, but I do not agree that we are being slow off the mark to move on this. Operators are already required to monitor the way that their customers play and to take action. As I mentioned, we have already banned the use of credit cards for gambling, and we have been monitoring very closely during Covid-19 and beyond the trends in online gambling.
My Lords, with the significant increase in gambling harms during lockdown, are Her Majesty’s Government satisfied that the Gambling Commission has adequate resources to do its work? Is the Minister content with the commission reducing its staffing to make savings at the very point when it needs to take additional action to regulate online gambling?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for his questions. Actually, there were fewer people using online slots and casinos in June than in March, so there are some counterintuitive trends in the gambling market. With regard to the Gambling Commission and its powers and resources, we are considering proposals for an uplift in the fees that it collects from industry. In relation to recent stories about redundancies at the commission, it is always reviewing ways to become more agile and responsive.
My Lords, the DCMS in its sport integrity review called for legislative action on the issue of match fixing. Will the Minister look to amend Section 42 on cheating in the now very much outdated Gambling Act 2005, so as to bring the UK in line with international best practice by introducing specific match-fixing legislation?
I know that my noble friend has worked very hard on this important issue. I cannot comment on the specifics, but I can reassure him that we are absolutely committed to ensuring that the review of the Act results in making it fit for purpose in a digital age.
My Lords, the Minister has said that the intention of the Government is to review the 2005 Act to see if it is up to date for dealing with the digital age. It is perfectly clear that it is not. Will the Government treat as a matter of urgency completing their review of this Act and introduce new legislation in the coming year?
My Lords, I want to raise the point that the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, introduced. We have the worrying situation of 55,000 10 to16 year-olds now gambling online. Action can be taken quickly on this; it could be taken in the context of the online harms Bill. Will the Minister say whether she is prepared to have something in that Bill that will bring this to an end and that the Government will place a duty of care on the gambling industry? If not, why not?
I can only repeat what I have said already: we are going to conduct the review very thoroughly. We found your Lordships’ report most helpful. We also consulted last year on whether to raise the minimum age for playing the lottery to 18, and we will publish our response to that consultation in due course.
Both gambling advertising and gambling sponsorship are subject to extremely strict rules, and must never target children or vulnerable people. The whistle-to-whistle ban has actually resulted in a reduction in the number of advertisements that children are seeing.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. There is evidence to link loot box spending and problem gambling among young adolescents. Does my noble friend the Minister agree with me that a relatively simple change in legislation could bring loot boxes into the classification of gambling and, as a result, they would become properly regulated and available only for those aged 18 years and older?
My Lords, is not one of the great problems the lack of statutory control of advertising, which largely lies in the hands of the industry? I am delighted to hear that the long-delayed DCMS review of gambling legislation is to be restarted. Can the Minister confirm that it will cover this important lacuna?
I cannot be specific on the scope of the review, but the evidence is not clear about the link between advertising and problem gambling, particularly among young people. The evidence points rather to the behaviour of parents and peers in influencing them.
I remain deeply concerned that the Government continue to postpone primary legislation to deal with the gambling crisis: there are growing levels of addiction and an acceleration of domestic violence and family break-ups. They are standing by when thousands of young people slide into avoidable habits; there is poverty, misery and daily suicides. Will the Minister give a clearer indication as to a date when we may expect legislation?
Does my noble friend agree that the new phenomenon of gambling companies using TV and radio advertising to apparently promote some restraint in gambling is actually having the reverse effect of further encouraging gambling, as well their own particular brands?
My Lords, when the Government banned tobacco advertising on television, at that point they were convinced of the efficacy of advertising in persuading people to undertake certain activities. Eighty per cent of gambling marketing spend is now online. In 2017, about £1.2 billion was spent, and it is probably more now. Given the harm that gambling can cause to health, as well as society, will the Government ban online gambling advertising in the same way as they so successfully banned tobacco advertising on television?
My Lords, the Government recognise the crucial role that the self-employed play in the music industry and that the pandemic presents a significant challenge to individuals in the sector. The Secretary of State announced a £1.57 billion support package for cultural organisations, providing targeted support for sectors including music. This fund will help preserve venues and festivals, which will ensure that musicians have a stage to perform on. We are committed to supporting the sector through this very challenging time.
My Lords, UK Music estimates that 72% of those who work in the music industry are self-employed. This means that thousands of people have not earned a penny since the lockdown began, and now thousands more are fearful about how they will pay their bills in the gap between the furlough scheme ending and the full reopening of venues. Will the Government finally accept that sector-specific support and extensions to the furlough scheme are needed for struggling industries, such as the music industry, to save them and the people who work in them from total collapse?
The Government absolutely recognise some of the issues that the noble Baroness raises. We do not have the data specifically for music, but across the cultural sector, about 75,000 people have already benefited from the Self-employment Income Support Scheme. We have aimed to structure the cultural recovery fund in a way that maximises employment opportunities for those working in this sector, but obviously we are keeping it under review and are in close conversation with sector bodies.
In normal times, many musicians and music enterprises make part of their money from live appearances and touring, particularly across Europe. I have yet to have a reply to my question to the noble Lord, Lord True, last week as to what post-Brexit provisions for free movement of musicians and free passage of their equipment, and that of support teams, the Government are looking for in this week's negotiations. I ask the Minister here today: what are the expectations of her department in that regard?
Obviously, my department is working very closely with those involved in the negotiations, and we aim to negotiate reciprocal arrangements which will facilitate businesses, including musicians and groups of musicians, to deliver their services within the EU.
I declare my interest as a director of Standon Calling Ltd, a music festival business. I understand that the funding available through the cultural recovery fund has separate allocations for small loans of between £50,000 and £250,000 and larger loans from £250,000 up to £3 million. Can my noble friend tell the House to what extent the smaller loans category has been subscribed? If it has been oversubscribed, will the Government direct funding from the larger loans allocation to the smaller loans category, where it is of greatest assistance to freelance artists and the self-employed, who have not been able to benefit from the furlough scheme?
Unfortunately, the data my noble friend seeks has not yet been published. We are expecting Arts Council England to provide that data shortly, and it will obviously be shared publicly. In terms of reallocation, an enormous amount of work went into deciding the proportions within the fund, and those reflect where we think funds are needed.
My Lords, at a minimum, the furlough and the SEIS scheme should be extended, but we need to go further. The Prime Minister in his Statement yesterday outlined plans to pilot mass testing in Salford for indoor venues. Will the Minister ensure that music venues in the local area are part of these pilots, and will the Government look into underwriting insurance to event promoters in the event of short-notice cancellation in any pilots?
Our cathedral choirs are one of the glories of our country, and they have been very badly affected by Covid restrictions, in that they could not perform, although some are just beginning to sing again. Cathedrals are large, airy spaces and rarely packed with people. I hope this will justify interpreting the Covid restrictions in a flexible way. Will my noble friend urge this on the churches, her colleagues and local authorities?
My noble friend makes a very persuasive case for cathedral choirs, and the Government share her enthusiasm and recognition of their important contribution. From 15 August, we reached stage 4 of our road map on the safe reopening of venues, which has allowed choirs, including cathedral choirs, to put on live indoor performances in front of a socially distanced audience. I am pleased to say that yesterday’s announcement about groups of six makes no change to that.
My Lords, newly self-employed musicians who started self-employment in the tax year 2019-20 have no financial support under the current measures. This is the younger generation, whom we need to nurture. Can the self-employed scheme be extended to include them?
There are no current plans that I am aware of to extend the self-employed scheme to that group, but the £95 million fund announced by Arts Council England is trying to maximise employment opportunities, including for those early in their careers.
My Lords, while the total funding made available by Her Majesty’s Government is welcome, the Minister will be aware—we have raised this with her before—of the problem facing freelancers who operate under a limited company and take dividends as a source of income. They are unable to claim through the current SEISS. This issue also affects high-tech start-up entrepreneurs. It is clearly a problem that has not been properly addressed. Can the Minister take this up with the Treasury and press for support to be extended to this group?
I am happy to raise this issue as the noble Lord suggests, but one issue that we have struggled with is separating out and identifying dividend income in the kind of examples that he has given us for those getting dividend income from their investments.
Since the end of the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, many people in the live arts industry are surviving off money that they set aside for tax. May I ask the Government to consider being flexible about the tax payment deadline on 31 January, so that people can pay their tax when they are able to earn money again?
My Lords, grass-roots music venues are a vital launch pad for emerging artists, and 93% of them are commercially owned. Emergency stop-gap funding to prevent imminent evictions is welcome, but does the Minister agree that a longer-term solution, such as a property management fund, is required so that this valuable network of venues is not lost?
The noble Baroness, as ever, makes a good point. Of course those venues are critical. We are trying to learn as we go along, and look forward to hearing about the impact of the cultural renewal fund, which aims to retain employment and allow some venues to reopen and others to partially open. We will keep the situation under close review.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned stage 4 of the road map. Is there still an intention to move to stage 5 this autumn? Is she considering a scheme, like the Chancellor’s for restaurants, of giving a financial incentive to the public to come out to such events, in a socially distanced way, and give a real fillip to those performing centres?
It was a little difficult to hear the second part of the noble Lord’s question, but I got the impression that it was something along the lines of “Sing out to help out”. In answer to the first part of his question, the Government still aim to reach stage 5—indoor and outdoor events with fuller audiences—as soon as it is safe to do so. We continue to work with the industry towards achieving that goal.
My Lords, the Government are investing £2.5 billion to support the market for electric vehicles. As part of our consultation on bringing forward the end of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans, we are considering what further measures are required to support the uptake of zero-emission vehicles.
I am grateful to the Minister. The environmental benefits of transition to electric vehicles are well understood, but I wonder whether she has seen the recent report of the Local Government Association, Decarbonising Transport - Accelerating the Uptake of Electric Vehicles, which powerfully sets out the benefits, in terms of economic recovery and job creation across the country, of investment in the infrastructure necessary for that transition. Can she assure me that substantial investment in the infrastructure needed to support the uptake of electric vehicles, and bringing forward the date for ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars, will be an urgent priority for the Government?
I thank the noble Baroness for pointing me in the direction of that report; I had not seen it. I certainly have now, but I shall study it in more detail. She is right that one of the key action areas that comes out of that report is charging infrastructure. I think that all noble Lords will recognise that as absolutely critical. The Government and industry have already supported the installation of more than 18,000 public chargers, including 3,200 rapid devices. The Government have also made available £20 million to local authorities under the on-street residential charge point scheme. So far, 60 local authorities have taken advantage of that, and 2,000 chargers have been put in place. I recognise that there is more to be done: we need to get more chargers on the streets, and that is what we intend to do.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I own a Tesla all-electric motor car, and I support the request of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, to encourage the Government to do more for owners of electric vehicles. The Minister mentioned 18,000 charge points. Does she not agree that we should be leading by example? I have written twice to the House authorities to ask them to put charge points for electric vehicles in the House of Lords car park, and have twice been rejected. Would she be so kind as to join my mini-campaign to show the country how we are leading by example? As I am allowed to make two points, may I also, on behalf of all vehicle drivers trying to carry out their business in London, ask the Minister to contact the Mayor of London to reduce the lane reductions that he has put in place—for example, on Park Lane northbound and Euston Road underpass eastbound—which are bringing London literally to a standstill?
I am grateful to my noble friend for raising two important issues, over both of which I have very limited power. Obviously, London roads come under the remit of TfL and the Mayor of London. However, as my noble friend will know, we are in deep discussions with TfL and the Mayor of London, given their financial situation at the moment, and I am sure the conversation will at some stage turn to roads and their closure. As for my noble friend’s first point, about installing a charging point in the House of Lords car park, I will indeed join his mini-campaign.
My Lords, I too have an electric car and have been unable to park in the House of Lords because of bureaucracy and expense that we need to sweep away. In general, as you travel around the country and you need to recharge, that requires uniformity. Everywhere one goes, there are different credit card-type of memberships. Imagine if every time you went to a petrol station you found different sized pumps and that different memberships of organisation were required. We need uniformity all over the country. Will the Minister encourage that?
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has raised an important issue. It is a fact that some cars cannot use certain chargers. However, the Government also recognise that a huge amount of innovation is taking place in this field at the moment. We are very clear that all charge points should accept debit and credit cards and be freely available to people. We want the data, on whether charge points are up and running and where they are, to be freely available. We will consult on the powers we have through the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 to mandate minimum standards for charge points which will include things like contactless provision, transparency in pricing and, as I have said, access to information.
My Lords, the Government’s record on providing funding for green transport and clean transport does not match up to that of France and Germany. The German Government have doubled subsidies for electric vehicles to €8 billion. Will the Government commit to similar support in the run-up to COP 26?
The noble Baroness will know that a spending review is forthcoming. However, I do not think that it is quite right to compare one country directly with another because the type and scale of our interventions are many and varied. We are looking at many different ways because it is not just about throwing money at the problem, although that is often the solution which comes from the other side of this House. What we can look at is encouraging people in the right way to enter the electric vehicle world, as many noble Lords have done. I will give a small example. The green number plates that are to be introduced later this year will help local authorities to design and put in place new policies that will specifically address electric vehicles.
My Lords, if the EU is not a dirty word to mention, the EU has brought about a great deal of standardisation in the field of mobile phones. Generally speaking, you can charge them up anywhere in Europe. Will the Government use every possible means in their power to make sure that we get standardisation of charging points so that people do not have to wander from place to place looking for a charging point which they can use?
Perhaps I may come back to that last point. I fully support what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has just said about complete compatibility in charging points, but I am getting the impression that there is a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Government to do anything on this, certainly in the short term. How long are the Government going to continue not seeking to insist on complete compatibility of charging points so that they can be used by all vehicles, and indeed also address the issue of greater compatibility in speed of charging? These are two issues which are off-putting to some potential owners of electric vehicles.
Of course we want greater compatibility in charging points, but what we are not going to do is set out in regulations right at this moment in time to define exactly what a charging point needs to look like. We need to let the market work together because, after all, it is in the interests of those supplying the charging points that the highest number of people can use them. We are working in a collaborative fashion in order to achieve the sort of compatibility that we want to see in the future.
My Lords, I refer the House to my interests as set out in the register. Does my noble friend agree that one of the principal reasons that people are hesitating to buy electric cars is because they have doubts about the performance of batteries? What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to encourage research into battery performance and to ensure that the technology and production of batteries is within the UK, not concentrated in China?
My noble friend is right that range anxiety is one of the key reasons cited by potential purchasers of electric vehicles and why they are not doing it. Between 2017 and 2021, the Government will have invested £274 million in the Faraday battery challenge which is looking at how to make batteries more safe, sustainable, high performance, low cost and long life. It is really important that people are doing that so that we can have better quality batteries in our vehicles. Another point to make is that at the end of a battery’s life, they usually have 70% of their storage left over which can be used in second-life applications. It is important that those are investigated as well.
My Lords, as the use of electric vehicles increases, and with more charging points drawing from the national grid, what preparations have been made to ensure that there are no outages of supply, as happened in August 2019? That resulted in chaos on the road and rail networks as well as affecting supplies to many homes and businesses.
The Government are very aware of the impact of electric vehicles on both overall and peak demand for electricity. We are looking at increasing the amount of smart charging in off-peak periods. For example, we have consulted on ensuring that all new private charge points have smart charging in order to help in flattening demand from peak periods. We will have legislation on that next year. I would also like to reassure the noble Lord that we have invested £30 million in looking at vehicle-to-grid technology, which is another way of using the battery in the car as an electricity storage mechanism. I thank the noble Lord for his question and assure him that energy generation is top of mind.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, others are participating virtually, but all Members are treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I am afraid that I will immediately have to adjourn the House.
Rule of Law
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the remarks made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 8 September confirming that certain provisions of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol would “break international law” (HC Deb, col 509), whether they are committed to the rule of law.
My Lords, the Government have not proposed any breach of UK law. On occasions, tensions can arise between our domestic obligations and our international commitments and we will always seek to resolve these, as we have in the past. The freedoms and protections that we all enjoy rely on the rule of law; it is an important constitutional principle and, as a responsible Government, we remain committed to it.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, the Advocate-General, for that Answer. Brandon Lewis’s acceptance that this Government are deliberately breaking international law will be thrown in the UK’s face for years. Expect dictators to justify murderous breaches of international law by relying on the Lewis mantra: “specific and limited”.
Demanding compliance with anti-Covid measures, yesterday the Prime Minister said:
“We expect everybody … to obey the law.”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/9/20; col. 608.]
The Home Secretary condemned Extinction Rebellion for law-breaking. The rule of law is not pick and mix, with acceptable laws chosen by the Home Secretary or an adviser in No. 10. This stinking hypocrisy chokes our country’s reputation and destroys our Government’s ability to lead at home and make agreements abroad.
In June 2018, the noble and learned Minister, a law officer, whom I am surprised to see in his place, lectured on the importance of law, describing the law officers as
“champions of the … law within government”,
and said that their
“duty … is to ensure that the Government acts lawfully at all times”.
Jonathan Jones agreed and left. Law officers and the Lord Chancellor must stand by their self-proclaimed duty or leave. Otherwise, they will be dismissed as long on self-importance and short on the backbone that their great offices require.
I have two questions. First, how is the admitted breach of international law consistent with the UK’s commitment to the rule of law? Secondly, on what basis does he, as a law officer, remain part of the Government?
I thank the noble and learned Lord.
My Lords, from time to time, as I indicated, tensions occur between our domestic legal obligations and our position with regard to international law. Indeed, in 1998, the then Labour Government passed the Human Rights Act, including Section 19 that required statements of compatibility to be made when Ministers introduced legislation. Interestingly enough, Section 19(1)(b) had an alternative statement, which required the Minister to say that
“he is unable to make a statement of compatibility”
with our international obligation but that
“the government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill.”
In 2002, the Labour Government introduced the Communications Bill with just such a certificate, because it was perceived that Clause 309 of that Bill could be considered to violate our international obligations under Article 10 of the convention. From time to time, we face these tensions.
Here, there is a very real tension between the direct effect of EU law pursuant to Article 4 and what would occur if we had no agreement at the end of the transition period and there was no determination by the Joint Committee as to the way forward under the Northern Ireland protocol. That is because there are other provisions apart from Article 4. There is Article 4 of the protocol itself, which determines that Northern Ireland is part of the UK’s customs area. There is Article 16 that deals with societal and economic pressures that could lead to us being in breach of the Belfast agreement. All these have to be considered.
Against that contingency, Ministers considered it appropriate to provide, or ask Parliament to provide, a means of addressing these issues. At the end of the day, it will be for the sovereign Parliament to determine whether Ministers should be able to deal with such a contingency. Indeed, it will be for this House to determine whether it considers it appropriate for Ministers to be able to deal with such a contingency.
In these circumstances, I continue in post and continue to advise, encourage and stipulate adherence to the rule of law—understanding that, from time to time, very real tensions can emerge between our position in domestic law and our position in international law. It is not unprecedented for legislation passed by this Parliament to cut across obligations taken at the level of international law. In those circumstances, domestic legislation prevails.
Has a certificate such as the noble and learned Lord referred to a moment ago been given in relation to this Bill, suggesting that it does not comply with international obligations?
The Prime Minister persuaded the Queen to prorogue Parliament unlawfully a year ago, his chief adviser Cummings unlawfully broke the law on his Barnard Castle jaunt, and now the Prime Minister will ask the Queen to give her Royal Assent to what is effectively an unlawful Bill that quite deliberately breaks international law. The Tory shadow Counsel General in Wales, the highly respected David Melding, resigned yesterday, and the head of the Government’s legal service resigned two days ago. Having regard to the oaths of office to uphold the rule of law, why are the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General still in office, even if the noble and learned Lord himself clings to it?
My Lords, first of all, the Minister presenting this Bill has given a certificate of compatibility pursuant to the Human Rights Act; that has been done.
As regards the further issues raised, it will be for Parliament to determine whether, at the end of the day, it decides to pass this legislation. That is a matter for Parliament, and the Ministers have presented the Bill to Parliament for those purposes.
My Lords, given that, by the Executive’s own assertion, they propose to break the law in a specific and limited way, are they to be exempted from the basic principle that the rule of law, which includes adherence to international treaty obligations, binds all of us? If so, where will this violation of constitutional principle end?
As I previously indicated, my Lords, there are exceptional circumstances that arise, from time to time, when we find ourselves with a tension between our domestic legal regime and our obligations at the level of international law. There are also occasions when we find some conflict between different international law obligations. We adhere to the rule of law, but we understand the need to try to resolve tensions that may emerge if, at the end of the day, we do not have a post-transition agreement and determinations from the Joint Committee.
My Lords, does my noble and learned friend simply not understand the damage done to our reputation for probity and respect for the rule of law by those five words uttered by his ministerial colleague, in another place, on Tuesday— words that I never thought I would hear from a British Minister, far less a Conservative Minister? How can we reproach Russia, China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?
My Lords, we are not showing scant regard for our treaty obligations. We are endeavouring to allow for a contingency that may arise very soon, which will require us to ensure that we can discharge our obligations to Northern Ireland. That creates difficulties, so far as the direct effect of EU law is concerned, if there is no post-transition agreement and no determinations by the Joint Committee.
As a non-lawyer, I ask a simple question. Alongside the breach of our international obligations, is this not a breach of respect for Parliament and democracy, given that the Prime Minister signed up to this agreement, forced it through as part of the Act and knows perfectly well that it is nothing to do with the negotiations towards the end of this year, but an admission of complete failure to understand what he was putting through Parliament?
I do not accept that. This is not a case of the Executive or Ministers seeking to act contrary to the will of Parliament. This is a case in which Ministers have brought legislation and laid it before Parliament for Parliament to determine whether provision should be made for the contingencies to which I have referred. This shows complete respect for Parliament and if, at the end of the day, Parliament and this House do not wish to confer the ability to deal with these contingencies on Ministers, they will not. It is a matter for Parliament.
My Lords, the Government have used terms such as “clarification” and “safety net” in describing the Bill. It is nothing of the sort; it is a direct abrogation of the withdrawal agreement. This is an issue about national integrity and the rule of law, as Sir Jonathan Jones recognised in resigning as Treasury Solicitor. I ask the noble and learned Lord how he would describe a barrister with whom he had negotiated a detailed written settlement agreement, who then explicitly reneged on that agreement by announcing an intention to act in direct contravention of both the agreement and the law.
The situation outlined by the noble Lord does not reflect that which exists in the context of a potential tension between our domestic legal obligations to Northern Ireland and the terms of the withdrawal agreement, in the event that we do not achieve the goals that all parties intended, including the ability to ensure the maintenance of the Belfast agreement.
My Lords, tanks on the lawn will not, in the UK at least, herald the end of democracy or of adherence to the rule of law. It is shocking that the following clause is set out in government-proposed legislation:
“Certain provisions to have effect notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law”.
Will the Government either withdraw this derogation or provide compelling justification for its inclusion?
While declaring my interests set out in the register and as chair of the Society of Conservative Lawyers, I ask my noble and learned friend the Minister whether we are rewriting or amending the withdrawal agreement or the Northern Ireland protocol.
My Lords, we absolutely are not. It would not be possible for us to unilaterally rewrite either the withdrawal agreement or the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol. We understand that. It is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was so candid in his remarks in the other place.
At the beginning of July, the Government allocated £25 million to help businesses in Northern Ireland manage the regulatory and customs consequences arising from the Northern Ireland protocol. By 29 August, this sum had risen to a staggering £355 million. Can my noble and learned friend explain how a unionist Government are allocating hundreds of millions of pounds to police a border, within the United Kingdom, which they claim does not exist legally?
I am not familiar with the precise sums that have been expended, as explained by the noble Lord. On paragraph 4 of the Northern Ireland protocol, it is expressly agreed by everyone that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom customs area. We as a Government are determined to ensure that that remains the case after the transition period.
My Lords, government spokesmen have said all this week that we need to disapply aspects of the withdrawal agreement, which we signed, in case of no deal. However, does the Minister agree with his Irish counterpart Simon Coveney, who said in his address to the Dáil last night that the Irish
“protocol agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement is designed and empowered to operate in all circumstances, including in the absence of an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK”?
If the Minister agrees, why are the Government risking their international reputation by setting aside the upholding of international law?
My Lords, that is because we will require consideration of not only the absence of a post-transition agreement, but the absence of clear determinations by the Joint Committee, which would render the Northern Ireland protocol potentially unworkable.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 8 September.
“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on coronavirus. As a country, we have made huge strides in our fight against this invisible killer. Today’s Office for National Statistics figures show that weekly coronavirus deaths have dropped to the lowest number since mid-March, and the latest daily number of recorded deaths is three. However, we have seen a concerning rise in the number of positive cases, particularly among younger people. These figures serve as a salutary reminder that this virus is still very much with us and remains a threat, so it is critical that we maintain our collective commitment to controlling this disease.
Social distancing is the first line of defence. While young people are less likely to die from this disease, be in no doubt that they are still at risk. The long-term effects can be terrible, and of course they can infect others. Six months on, many people are still suffering chronic fatigue, muscle pain and breathing difficulties. Previously fit and healthy people have been reduced to barely being able to function. A King’s College survey published today shows that 300,000 people in the UK have reported symptoms lasting for more than a month and that 60,000 people have been ill for more than three months.
I also want to address the point, which is of course good news, that the number of people who are sadly dying from coronavirus in this country is currently low. We have seen all across the world how a rise in cases, initially among younger people, then spreads, leading to hospitalisations and fatalities. In Spain, where the rise in cases started around two months ago, hospitalisations have risen 15 times since mid-July. The number of daily deaths there has reached 184. In France, hospitalisations have more than tripled in the same period.
This must be a moment of clarity for us all. This is not over. Just because we have come through one peak, it does not mean we cannot see another one coming towards our shores. But together we can tackle it, so long as we remember that, in a pandemic, our actions today have consequences tomorrow for the people we love, for our communities, and for our country. Each and every citizen has a responsibility to follow social distancing and help to stop a second peak.
After social distancing, the next line of defence is test and trace. Over the past six months we have built the biggest testing system of any major European country, and one of the biggest testing systems in the world. Today, I can tell the House that we have met our target to provide testing kits to all the care homes for older people and people with dementia that have registered to get tests.
But I will not rest. We are working flat out to expand our testing capacity even further. Using existing technology, we are expanding our capacity right now, and we are investing in new testing technology too. Last week, I was able to announce £500 million for next-generation tests such as saliva tests and rapid turnaround tests that can deliver results in just 20 minutes. The ability to get rapid, on-the-spot results will significantly increase the weapons in our armoury, in our fight both against coronavirus and for economic recovery. We are rolling out these tests right now, and plan to use them to relieve capacity constraints, to expand asymptomatic testing to find the virus and to give people the confidence that a negative test result brings.
Where it is necessary, we will not shy away from taking targeted local action. In June, I established the joint biosecurity centre, to provide the best possible data analytics, using information from all possible sources. Our local action is driven by the data. We now publish daily local data on cases, so that everyone can see the data on which these decisions are taken, and this shows that our approach is working. For instance, in both Leicester and Luton, the weekly case rate more than halved during August. I want to thank the people of Leicester, including the honourable Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), of Luton and of the other areas where we have taken local action, who have followed social distancing and helped to bring the virus under control.
Sometimes local action requires us to act fast and respond to changing circumstances. Unfortunately, after improving for several weeks, we have seen a very significant rise in cases in Bolton. Bolton is now up to 120 cases per 100,000 population—the highest case rate in the country—and I am publishing the data behind the decisions that we have taken. I must therefore tell the House that, working with the local council, we are taking further local action. The rise in cases in Bolton is partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s; we know that from contact tracing. Through our contact tracing system, we have identified a number of pubs at which the virus has spread significantly. We are therefore taking the following action in Bolton, starting immediately. We will restrict all hospitality to takeaway only, and we will introduce a late-night restriction of operating hours, which will mean that all venues will be required to close from 10 pm to 5 am. We will urgently introduce further measures that put the current guidance—that people cannot socialise outside their household—into law.
I want us to learn the lesson from Spain, America and France, not to have to learn the lesson all over again ourselves through more hospitalisations and more deaths, and take this local action in Bolton. Crucially, we all have a part to play. Young people do not just spread the virus to each other. They spread the virus to their parents and their grandparents. They spread it to those they come into contact with and others who they love. I know that social distancing can be hard and that it will be extra tough for students who are starting university, but I ask them please to stick with it and to play their part in getting this virus under control.
We are also putting in place extra measures, including visitor restrictions, to restrict the spread of the virus into care homes and hospitals in Bolton. I want to thank the leadership of Bolton Council, who are doing an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances, and colleagues who represent Bolton in this House, with whom I have discussed these measures. I want to say this directly to everyone living in Bolton: I know how anxious you will be, and I know the impact that these measures will have. We are asking you to take a step back, at a time when we all just want to get on with our lives and what we love and get back to normal, but we need to take this crucial step to keep the virus at bay, because as we have seen elsewhere, if we act early and control the virus, we can save lives.
As well as controlling the virus using the tools we have now, we will do everything in our power to bring to bear the technologies of the future. Over the past few months, we have seen the pivotal role that technology has played in our response, such as next-generation rapid testing, machine-learning tools to help the NHS predict where vital resources might be needed, and the discovery here in the UK of the only two treatments known to save lives from coronavirus. We want to keep that momentum going, so today, we are allocating £50 million from our artificial intelligence in health and care award. That fund aims to speed up the testing and evaluation of some of the most promising technologies, because through bringing new technologies to the front line, we can transform how we deliver critical care and services across the country.
Finally, the best way out of this coronavirus pandemic remains a vaccine. We have already announced that we will roll out the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in history this winter. We now have agreements with six separate vaccine developers for early access to 340 million doses of coronavirus vaccines, and we will use every method at our disposal to get as many people protected as possible.
This virus feeds on complacency, and although time has passed since the peak in the spring, the threat posed by the virus has not gone away. Now, with winter on the horizon, we must all redouble our efforts and get this virus on the back foot. I commend this Statement to the House.”
First, I place on record our thanks to the teachers, head teachers, school staff, university and FE college staff and others making it possible for our children and young people to return to their education. I hope this will remain a top priority for the Government as we move through and, we hope, out of this pandemic. It has been wonderful to see my great-nieces and nephews and granddaughter joyfully going back to school in the last week. As a non-executive director of one London’s hospitals, which is in my record, I can testify to the huge amount of work going on preparing for the winter stresses.
But here we go again. We need to start by reflecting on why we do not have before us the incredibly important new Covid restrictions announced yesterday by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, which aim to deal with the new surge in coronavirus infections. In fact, the Statement has been made in the Commons in the last hour or so, and I suspect we will see it in due course at the beginning of next week. I accept that the hybrid nature of the House means that we will not be able to take it today, which might have helped us all enormously. It is not the Minister’s fault; it is just one of the casualties of the situation we find ourselves in. Perhaps, the noble Lord could confirm when the new regulations will be laid.
Yesterday, Mr Speaker said quite rightly in the Commons:
“It is really not good enough for the Government to make decisions of this kind in a way that shows insufficient regard to the importance of major policy announcements being made first to this House and to Members of this House wherever possible.”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/9/20; col. 619.]
The Secretary of State made a Statement about current Covid-19 issues on Tuesday and failed to mention major policy proposals of which he must have had prior knowledge and which were already being discussed on social media. Thus, he did not allow a discussion of the current proposals, which the Prime Minister then announced in a Downing Street press conference and a letter which noble Lords will have received overnight. This suggests that the omission was deliberate and reveals yet again the disregard with which the Minister and his colleagues hold their duty to be accountable to Parliament, which is undermining our democracy. If Mr Speaker follows through on his threat to allow Covid-19 UQs at the beginning of every day to ensure that the Secretary of State can and will report new policy and be accountable to Parliament, I assure the House I will be arguing to take every single one in this House every day, so that the Minister can do his bit for accountability, too.
We have a Statement before us, press announcements made and a new law of six, but I need to return to the question I asked yesterday about what has gone wrong with the testing system. I would be grateful if the noble Lord would engage with what look like widespread problems some people are having accessing tests, rather than repeating the mantra about the high proportion of successful tests close to home, which is accurate, I am sure, but not the way to solve a clearly growing number of problems. I know the Minister will not shout at me, as his right honourable friend did to Keir Starmer yesterday, or accuse me of undermining the whole test and trace system when legitimate, evidenced problems are being articulated by many Members of Parliament and reasonable questions are being asked. The Minister needs to address the problem of the availability of tests.
Yesterday, I mentioned schools, where inevitably children will become ill. Parents are advised to keep them at home and get a test, and some are finding this impossible. Unsurprisingly, parents turn to teachers and head teachers for advice, placing even greater stress on our schools, which are working so hard to keep our children safe and educated. A reliable, rapid testing regime is vital, as we have said from the outset.
As for moonshot, which the Prime Minister mentioned in his letter, with his fondness for hyperbole, if the Government cannot even deliver testing for those ill with symptoms, how on earth are they going to deliver 10 million tests a day? I want to correct a statement the Secretary of State made in the Commons an hour or so ago, when he said to my honourable friend Jonathan Ashworth that the Labour Party was opposed to mass testing. That is absolutely not true. What we are against is incompetence. We are saying: how on earth will moonshots be delivered if basic testing is not working well?
The new regulations are meant to make it easier for people to understand. But does the noble Lord agree part of the confusion stems from the fact that some of these rules may be inconsistent with government messaging that people should return to work. Does he accept that, even where employers are taking necessary steps to facilitate social distancing, busy commuter trains, tubes and buses are not Covid-secure? On these Benches, we have said from the outset that one of the biggest barriers to self-quarantining would not be Covid fatigue but personal finances. Does the Minister accept that the Government need to go much further in helping people who need financial and housing support to self-isolate? Otherwise, how will we get on top of infections in areas characterised by low pay, child poverty and overcrowded housing?
Finally, to contact tracing: in Bolton, contacts were reached in only 57% of non-complex cases; in Oldham, 50%; in Blackburn 47%; and in Bradford, only 43%. Nationally, only 69.4% of contacts are reached and asked to self-isolate. These are Government’s latest statistics, and they make me wonder whether “world-beating” is yet another piece of hyperbole. On the effectiveness of testing, my colleague, the shadow Health Secretary, highlighted that only 69% of contacts were identified by the test and trace system, and I am afraid the noble Lord’s colleague Matt Hancock said he was wrong. He was right. I yet again have to ask the noble Lord—privately, if he wishes—to correct his boss’s record. More importantly, how can we improve on that record of testing and tracing?
My Lords, this is a Statement made two days ago in the other place, but it has been largely overshadowed by yesterday’s deluge of hyperbole and hokum. The Prime Minister said yesterday:
“We know, thanks to NHS Test and Trace, in granular detail, in a way that we did not earlier this year, about what is happening with this pandemic. We know the groups that are suffering, the extent of the infection rates, and we have been able, thanks to NHS Test and Trace, to do the local lockdowns that have been working.”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/9/20; col. 609.]
If that is true—and given the record of the Prime Minister and Health Secretary, one is always entitled to ask whether it is—how come local authorities and directors of public health are given only limited access to the test and trace case management system and not given full access to the contact system? Why are the Government sitting on data or passing it to companies run by their mates, instead of passing it to local authorities, which, for weeks, have been trying to predict and manage the inevitable spike in infections that follows people starting to travel and going to school and university. Why are they not getting that data in a timely manner?
From the start of this pandemic, experts advised the Secretary of State to invest in public health teams and NHS labs that are numerous and easily reached by many communities, including in rural areas. Instead, he gave the money to outsourcing firms such as Serco and G4S, which have no expertise and have not had to compete for the contracts. He could have invested in local public services; instead he has built a system on a foundation not fit for purpose. On Tuesday, in the Statement, the Secretary of State for Health said of care homes that
“we have met our target to provide testing kits to all the care homes for older people and people with dementia that have registered to get tests.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/9/20; col. 517.]
But on Monday, the Government were forced to apologise for continuing delays to Covid-19 testing for care home bosses and GPs, who are threatening that these will lead to more infections among vulnerable people.
The Secretary of State’s own department, the Department of Health, admitted to breaking its promise to provide test outcomes within 72 hours. Care managers have described the Government’s centralised testing service as “chaotic” and “not coping”, amid reports that whole batches of tests are coming back not only late but also void. Testing officials told care homes by email on Monday morning that
“immediate action has been taken at the highest levels of the programme to bring results times back”
within 24 hours.
“We apologise unreservedly to … you … and your staff.”
The ring of steel that the Secretary of State claimed to have put around care homes never was. With upwards of 40,000 deaths, when will the Government sit down with care home providers, local authorities and CCGs to develop a comprehensive system of testing and supply of PPE? It does not have to be world beating; it just has to work.
The Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday would have been risible were the consequences not so serious. Most ludicrous of all was the announcement of a team of Covid-secure marshals to enforce the new laws on public gatherings. The Government could have done any number of things. They could have announced resources to enable the rehiring of retired public and environmental health professionals, since there is a shortage. They could have given funding to local community and voluntary groups to communicate ongoing health risks and the law to communities. They could have given additional funding for trained police officers to work with health officials and businesses to improve adherence to infection control. But, no, instead we got another vacuous attempt to steal the headlines. Maybe these marshals, with no training, no resources, no local management and no authority could join up with the 750,000 volunteers for the NHS and the trackers, and like them they could sit and twiddle their thumbs, waiting for the phone to ring.
One thing we can be sure of is that this is another stunt which will be an utter waste of time, money and resources. Local authorities, police forces, health authorities and schools are using their professional expertise and local knowledge to plan effective public health interventions. They are not only following the science but also using it to actively protect people in their authorities. In stark contrast, this Government ignore advice, misrepresent the science and carry on winging it, but the data on infections and the lack of reliable testing are evidence that the Prime Minister’s bumbling bombast and the Health Secretary’s growing litany of half-truths are indicators of world-beating incompetence and, sadly, people in black and minority ethnic communities and poor communities will suffer the consequences. It is time for the Government to change.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the thoughtful and informed questions from the Front Bench, and I echo the comments about teachers made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. The return to school is a fundamental priority of the Government. It is a massive challenge for those involved, for governors, teachers, parents and school kids. I endorse the thanks the noble Baroness gave to teachers, who are performing incredibly well. The high return rates—percentages in the mid to high 90s—is remarkable and shows enormous confidence in the system among schoolchildren and their parents.
I also echo the noble Baroness’s thanks to NHS and social care staff who are preparing for winter. Enormous amounts of preparation are going into that. In response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I reassure the Chamber that engagement with social care, local charities and local councils is incredibly intense and we are working extremely hard with local partners in all areas.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked when the new regulations will be delivered. I am afraid that I cannot confirm the precise date, but I can reassure her that this Government are committed to being accountable to Parliament for those regulations and I look forward to that debate.
The noble Baroness also asked about the sequence of announcements. I reassure her that the Prime Minister brought his Statement to Parliament in good faith to update Parliament first. We cannot prevent leaks from happening, and leaks that get on to social media and then into the papers are something that we did not design or deliberately create. They are something that we regret. It would have been massively our preference for the Prime Minister to put Parliament first in his announcement.
The noble Baroness also asked about the testing system. The capacity of the testing system has never been higher: it has increased by 10,000 per day for the last two weeks and continues to increase dramatically. But demand has never been higher either, and there are good, laudable reasons why that demand is going up. The number of tests for supporting the vaccine programme has gone up. The number of tests to support our therapeutics programme has gone up. The surveillance of local prevalence has gone up, and the marketing around the use of tests by those who show symptoms has proved to be much more effective and the take-up among those who have Covid-19 symptoms has gone up. For those reasons we are extremely pleased by that effect.
However, there has also been a significant rise in the use of tests by asymptomatic individuals, largely tied to children returning to school. That is why we have been clarifying the guidance on the use of tests—that they should be used by those who have symptoms and not by those who are asymptomatic. One day, when the capacity is there and the system can bear it, I hope that we will move towards a system where anyone can have a test whenever they like, however they feel, but right now we must live within the system that we have. We are doing hundreds of thousands of tests per day and clarifying with teachers and parents that tests should be used by those who show symptoms and not by those who are seeking some other form of guidance.
Regarding the questions asked by the noble Baroness about the moonshot, I am a little confused. “If we cannot do millions of tests today, how can we expect to be able to do millions of tests tomorrow?” seems to be the question. I will answer it very clearly. The innovation around testing has moved much quicker than anyone could have expected in terms of scale, cost, accuracy and speed. The industry and the professionals in the NHS, academia and private business have come together in a triple helix to collaborate in a massive revolution in testing, which has changed considerably in this country from the days when we were struggling to do 2,000 or 3,000 tests per day to when we had the capacity to do 200,000 or 300,000 tests per day.
We have a clear view of how we can dramatically increase the tests. That clear view has two components: those tests that use existing technology that is purchasable in today’s world, and a clear idea of where innovation will take us in the very near future. This Government are committed to grabbing the opportunity of that innovation in order to dramatically increase the number of tests. There will be nay-sayers who will question whether that innovation will deliver, and undoubtedly there will be set-backs. Not everything will deliver as promised. However, I am extremely optimistic that we will be able to harness the power of science and innovation to invest in the backbone of our data and our delivery mechanisms, and to engage with the British public to deliver a testing system that enables us to return to the life that we love.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, questioned whether the testing system could be relied on to deliver results. Let me explain: the people of Luton and Leicester have used testing and contact tracing, and infection rates are dramatically lower—less than half what they were in late July. Those are two excellent case studies of how our system of testing and contact tracing has turned around difficult situations and pushed back the spread of Covid by breaking the chain of infection. The noble Baroness also asked what we will do to improve the system as it stands. There are three areas of improvement: first, technology; secondly, infrastructure, by which I mean the data and the presence on the ground; and thirdly, engagement with the public so that they understand how to engage and we understand better how to interact with the public.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about the contact system and gave some statistics. I reassure her that since 28 May we have rung 272,000 people who have been reached by the test and trace system. Where communication details have been provided, the service has reached 88.6% of close contacts, and 78.4% of people who have tested positive have been reached. Within the bounds of epidemiological effectiveness, these are extremely impressive statistics. Compared with those from other countries, they range among some of the highest. It is an incredibly impressive set of results for a system that was stood up in relatively recent history. Local public systems are complementing the central contact tracing hub, and I pay thanks to all those local authorities that either work with their full-time employees, or, as is often the case, have employed local businesses, to support it.
We have hit our target on care homes—the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, might like to take a moment to celebrate that. We are also trying to work with a degree of transparency in our operations. I do not regret for a moment the fact that the operational senior leadership in the track and trace team has been on the level about the present supply constraints, with social care and the general public. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that care homes absolutely remain top of our priorities. Many of the frustrations the public face, such as longer distances to travel, are exactly because we have put care homes first and have therefore had to dial down some of the availability of tests to the public. We sit down with care homes to discuss winter preparations. An indication of that is the 31 billion items of PPE that we have contracted to buy for this winter—an astonishing figure. That pays great tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, and the PPE team, who have built up a fantastic stock.
Finally, I would like to express a small amount of confusion about the remarks from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. On the one hand, she attacked the involvement of major private companies and central control of our track and trace system, but on the other hand, she attacked civic engagement, the volunteering of members of the public to support our track and trace system, and local initiatives whereby NHS trusts have brought back retired staff. The combination of these two themes is the heart of our success, and I celebrate both.
My Lords, the consistency of messaging over time is immensely important to secure public support and adherence. Over the last six months, we have consistently explained that indoor and outdoor gatherings are significantly different, and that the scientific evidence has clearly shown much greater risk for indoor gatherings. Can my noble friend the Minister explain to the House why the Government appear to have abandoned this important distinction in their current guidance?
My noble friend is right to point out this important change. The truth is this: from the feedback we had from the public, and from our own analysis of the facts, we see that our guidance was growing increasingly complicated and was confusing the public. While the science may suggest all sorts of clever differences between one situation and another, and between inside and outside, the guidance is effective only if it is clear, understood and obeyed. At the end of the day, what we have done is to clarify some of the more complex areas of our guidance to make it more effective.
My Lords, sadly, Professor Spiegelhalter has seriously questioned the Prime Minister’s rather splendid Moonshot mass testing proposal. I understand his concerns. Nevertheless, can the Minister assure the House that he will press for a significant investment in saliva home-testing kits, to enable families with a parent in the former shielded group and with children at school to live a reasonably normal life? Children need to be at school, but the lives of these parents are now in grave danger—I am sure the Minister appreciates this—with the R number above one and, as yet, no daily testing capacity. Can the Minister say when daily testing will be available for these families and other top-priority groups in the country?
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that saliva testing is a massive priority for the Government. I reassure her and Professor Spiegelhalter that the positive error rate in the saliva test trials in Southampton has been incredibly low—virtually zero. From that, we take great reassurance that this will be an effective vector for testing.
My Lords, will the Minister accept that the reason for scepticism about the Moonshot gimmick is that the Government have a consistent record of overpromising and underdelivering? The Minister will know that the latest test and trace stats are not good: they show that 69.2% of close contacts of people who have tested positive with Covid-19 in England were reached—that is the lowest percentage since the scheme was launched. What would he say to Bridget Phillipson, the MP for Houghton and Sunderland South? Because Sunderland has a rising number of cases, she checked online this morning the availability of tests: no home tests were available and no drive-through tests could be found. Later in the morning, the only test offered was a two-hour drive away in Scotland. Why should anyone believe the ideas that the Government float from week to week?
My Lords, I completely and utterly reject the noble Lord’s suggestions. I remember well the nay-sayers, the sofa epidemiologists and the sceptics who, when we had testing at the level of 5,000, poured cold water on the idea we would get to 100,000. We hit that target. We have made amazing progress since and we will continue to push for more testing.
My Lords, the Secretary of State has blamed the recent failure of laboratories to process tests in a timely way on members of the public who are not eligible—as he calls it—seeking to take a test. Is this not another example of Ministers blaming someone else for their failures? How do people know if they are not eligible? If they are concerned about something, what system is in place to enable testing centres to know who is eligible, so that they can refuse to test those who are not?
The noble Baroness is right, but it is sometimes difficult to know whether you have the symptoms of Covid, the flu or something else. That is why it is a complicated matter. What we have seen through our engagement with the public in the last few weeks is people who show no symptoms of anything but who seek a test to provide themselves with reassurance. It is not a question of blame, but rather of clarification: we simply do not have the national resources to support that kind of activity.
My Lords, as a Conservative, it grieves me that the Government are pursuing policies, such as the rule of six and Covid-secure marshals, which belong in a police state. The Government have chosen a highly risk-averse approach, driven by guesstimates of hospitalisation and mortality rates, and doubtless derived from mutant algorithms. In the meantime, the economy is tanking. Can the Minister say what evaluation the Government have made of the economic and societal impacts of different responses to the small spike we have seen in infection rates? Will they publish that evaluation?
My Lords, it is not a mutant algorithm that is sending people to hospital in France, Spain, Belgium and other countries up and down Europe, and it is not a desire to introduce a police state that is seeing prevalence leading to hospitalisation and death in many countries in Europe. It is our fear that Britain is going that way that leads us, regretfully, to put these measures in place; it is not any desire to exert state influence.
My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister keeps having a hard time, but that is partly because he is having to defend the indefensible. I had a completely different question to ask, but I have changed my mind and, instead, will follow on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and the Minister’s response to it. In terms of transmission of the disease indoors as opposed to outdoors, which bit of science is confusing?
My Lords, perhaps I may take the Minister back to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I was sorry to hear him say rather dismissively that people are clogging up the system because they seek some sort of reassurance, although they do not have symptoms. That seems to me a perfectly natural and human reaction. Can he confirm that basically government policy now is actively to discourage anybody without any symptoms in any situation seeking a test? If that is the case, what is his answer to the letter that he received from the directors of public health in the south-east, who are deeply worried that an area of low infection could easily become an area of high infection? What will he say to the universities that have introduced testing for all students, asymptomatic or not, because they want to protect their local communities, given what we know from America—from Chapel Hill, for example—about the absolutely devastating effect that university populations can have?
My Lords, it is not a question of blaming anyone or of in any way condemning people’s natural curiosity. However, the bottom line is that we have only so many resources, and people know full well whether they are showing symptoms of some sort. It is not appropriate that someone who shows no symptoms whatever uses valuable, scarce resources that could and should be used for more important priorities. We could not be more clear about that. Universities are using private testing facilities, and we applaud and support them on that. It is my sincere hope that one day we will have sufficient testing facilities to be able to offer everyone a test whenever they like. However, we do not live in that world today, and that is why I deliver the message that I do.
The Minister has just said that a significant plank of the policy is not the science but communications. I fear that the Moonshot programme falls into exactly that category. I do not believe that it can be delivered at the scale that the Prime Minister has talked of, but, if it could, it would throw up false results that would overwhelm track and testing and mislead people, throwing both education and the economy into further chaos. Is not the right policy to target the groups that we know are vulnerable to this disease with the protections that they need, starting with care homes, and to allow the rest of us, and the economy and education, to move forward?
The noble Lord is right to be concerned about false positive results. However, our experience, our piloting and the emerging technologies suggest that that will be the case in a relatively small proportion of the tests and is entirely manageable within a mass population testing system. With regard to the idea that we can somehow identify vulnerable groups and target them pre-emptively, I wish that that were true, but this disease constantly confounds expectations and turns up in places where we least expect it. If we could tell people that they were going to get the disease, we would not have this problem in the first place.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but those who were formerly shielding, those whom we had identified as being most at risk, will be watching the rise in cases and some of this debate with anxiety. There were a number of problems with the rollout of the shielding programme the first time round, and we have new evidence about who is most at risk from Covid. Has there been a reassessment of the criteria for those who might need to shield this winter? If so, what is the Minister doing to ensure that this is communicated early and much more clearly to both those who will not need to shield this winter and those who might need to, so that we can reduce anxiety among those groups and protect the most vulnerable?
I completely recognise the problem identified by my noble friend. I reassure her that the expert sub-group NERVTAG is developing a predictive risk model to enable a more sophisticated approach to clinical risk and to identify more clearly those who need to shield. The model incorporates known relevant risk factors, such as age, sex, BMI and ethnicity. We are working at pace and will continue to engage patients, those on the shielding list, healthcare professionals and the voluntary sector as we embed this important insight into what we do.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the difficulties faced by disabled and older people during the first major lockdown, such as insufficient social care support services. Will the government guidance to this group now change to address those difficulties, especially if the R rate keeps rising over the coming months? Will he now consider switching off the social care coronavirus easement powers, which were meant to be only a temporary measure, especially as local authorities are now telling us that they no longer use them? These easement powers are a major cause of anxiety among older and disabled people, and it would be an easy thing to do—just switch them off. They are no longer needed, yet they cause untold anxiety.
My Lords, I am not sure that I have a precise answer to the noble Baroness’s question on easement powers. It was my impression that they had not been used in the vast majority of areas—only in a few areas—and that, where they had been applied, their use had been of a mainly administrative rather than practical nature. However, I am happy to look into the question that she asks and to reply to her by letter.
My Lords, the noble Lord has responded rather testily to a number of your Lordships in providing answers. In particular, he failed to answer the substantive question from my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath about why people were being sent, or being told to go, such extraordinary distances when they wanted and needed a test. He says that he does not want to have the blame game, but that is blamed on people who did not need a test going for one. First, can he tell us what those figures are and, secondly, can he reassure us that the messages he is now giving out will not lead to people who should be tested feeling that they should not bother the system? That would be just as big a danger.
I shall be extremely careful about how I reply to that question because I would not want to come across as testy. The noble Lord is right: it is a challenge to strike the right balance between guiding towards testing those who truly need tests because they have symptoms and trying to get those with less of a priority away from testing. I reassure him that, even under current circumstances, 90% of those who apply for a test get one within 20 miles and the average distance to travel is six and a half miles. Therefore, even though some of the anecdotes about being recommended to travel long distances might seem extraordinary, the lived reality of most people who go for tests is that they are quick, near, accurate and effective.
My Lords, this country has been absolutely on the front foot on vaccines. We have negotiated agreements with six different vaccine providers for 340 million courses of vaccine. We are completely open to anything that is effective, and we have championed the cause of fair vaccine distribution on a global basis.
My Lords, I regret to say that this Government’s policy on Covid is contradictory, confusing, hugely damaging to the country and, frankly, nonsensical. Should I have the opportunity, I will vote against it. We were exhorted, from the very beginning of this public health crisis, to save lives. As noble Lords know, some 11,000 people die on average every week in the UK under normal circumstances, so can the Minister tell us how many people under the age of 65 have died of coronavirus in the last 26 weeks? Of those, how many did not have some serious underlying health condition such as diabetes, obesity, respiratory problems or the like? If he does not have those figures to hand, perhaps he might write to me and put them in the public domain by putting them in the Library.
My Lords, I entirely welcome the challenge from my noble friend but, respectfully, I completely disagree with his approach. I want to flag two issues. The first is the enormous public support for the Government’s response to Covid and their adherence to the measures we have introduced. The second is the recent King’s College survey, published today, showing that on top of the deaths, 300,000 people in the UK have reported symptoms that last more than a month and 60,000 have been ill for more than three months. The effects of this disease go far beyond the “simply recover the next day” effects of flu; it is a profound illness that we are right to try to suppress.
My Lords, how is new technology being brought to the front line to deliver critical care and services across the country? Is the Minister aware of the desperate shortage of doctors and nurses working on the front line of infections, and that they are exhausted? What can be done to solve this problem?
The noble Baroness absolutely speaks my language when she talks about the technology that is being brought into the front line. My sincere hope is that Covid will bring a benefit to the healthcare system by being an inflection point whereby we introduce new technologies in a whole host of fields to bring in much greater community-based treatment for people, digital technology and the more effective sharing of data, among a wide range of technical advances. Regarding the workforce, I completely sympathise with the noble Baroness’s comments. I pay tribute to those who work hard on the front line and am aware of the challenges and difficulties they face. This Government have committed to recruiting 50,000 more nurses. We are more than half way there already, and we will continue to recruit to ensure that we have the human resources needed to meet our commitments.
My Lords, what is the policy regarding the testing of domiciliary social care workers? What is being done to ensure that these people—who are at risk themselves and meet and support the very vulnerable, travelling around to different people every day—have full protective equipment and that they use it?
The noble Lord is entirely right to emphasise the challenge of itinerant domiciliary care. Such workers were always a vector for potential disease and are putting their own lives on the line. That is why we have radically changed the guidelines. We have put more resources in place to ensure greater support for domiciliary care, PPE is stocked for them to use and there is regular individual testing
My Lords, the new guidelines require political protests to be “organised in compliance with” government rules and
“subject to strict risk assessments”.
Who will undertake these assessments, when and how will they be undertaken—I presume they will have to be undertaken before any protest is mounted—and does this mean that the type of protest we saw the other day by Extinction Rebellion will by definition be unlawful?
My Lords, my understanding is that the risk assessment is done by the local police force in conjunction with Public Health England, but I am happy to check that and write to my noble friend. With regard to Extinction Rebellion, I found the protest last week particularly tedious but I am not sure if it will be outlawed quite yet.
My Lords, the Minister has taken great pains today to stress the need to ensure that our limited number of tests are well used. I want to revisit the issue I have raised with him before: the list of symptoms as a result of which people are encouraged to take a test. I am sure he is aware of the University of Belfast study of paediatric infection rates, which showed that among children with antibodies a cough was no more common than among those without, while gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal cramps were significantly associated with coronavirus infection. Given that many other countries, including the United States, and the World Health Organization list a greater range of symptoms, will the Government consider communicating clearly with the public when the tests are needed, based on the scientific evidence?
The noble Baroness raises a very difficult subject. A huge amount of work has gone on in this country and others to define the most effective possible list of symptoms. The honest truth is that this disease manifests itself in different people in a great many different ways, and we have done a huge amount to try to understand the list of symptoms to be described in a way that will capture the greatest number of people in the clearest way possible. We keep that under review, but the work that has gone into it could not have been more thorough.
My Lords, a programme of nationwide mass testing is exactly the ambition we will need to build confidence in the public and businesses before a vaccine becomes available. Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University says that the only safe way is mass testing. I agree with the Minister: look at where we were in March, with 2,000 tests a day, and now we have the capacity for well over 300,000 tests. Given that, why can we not get on with instant mass testing? The Abbott BinaxNOW test laboratory in America is producing antigen tests—10 million this month and 50 million next month—that give results within 20 minutes, and they are already FDA-approved. Why can we not do that at such speed? Can we get this into the market quickly? Likewise, Germany started testing at airports in June, and France did so in August. Why can we not start testing at airports quickly? Jobs, the economy and lives are at stake.
My Lords, we could not be moving more quickly to engage with the producers of tests in order to sign up the resources we need to put in mass testing. That cannot be switched on overnight, but we could not be moving more quickly. On airport testing, the CMO has been crystal clear: he is deeply concerned about day-zero testing and about any but the most thorough airport testing measures. We were caught out on this at the beginning of the epidemic and we remain extremely cautious.
My Lords, I want to follow up on the Minister’s answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, about airport testing. Apparently, we have this world-beating system and many millions of tests that we can do, but now we have limited resources. The number of people who have had to cancel their travel arrangements, lost money and not come back—for whatever reason—is enormous and it is affecting the air industry as well. If our testing system is so good, surely it can be done at airports, plus track and trace, which has worked quite well, even for one plane that came from Greece. I hope the Minister will take this away and try to move it forward a bit more quickly.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is entirely right that the impact of this on our economy is profound, affecting the tourism economy, business and the professions. It is not something that we undertake lightly. However, it is the science-based belief of the CMO that the challenge presented by global travel is so profound that this is a step we have to take. When there is a surfeit of testing—when there is a vast amount of it—we may be able to put in place much more extensive measures, but, even so, the CMO remains extremely cautious on this point. However, we are working with Heathrow, the airlines and the airports to keep the matter under review. We take into consideration pilots and are working closely with them to try to resolve the issue.
I do not want to add to my noble friend’s difficulties, but I have received some worrying reports that pregnant women are prevented having the father of the baby with them right through labour or when undergoing related treatments, such as scans. This can be devastating, especially if there is bad news, such as a miscarriage. Can my noble friend the Minister do his best to get the rules changed across the country, so that parents can support each other at this vital time?
I completely understand the point that my noble friend is making. The issue of scans is compounded by the problem that many scanning machines are in small, airless rooms, where the risk of contagion is high. None the less, I completely recognise the point she makes about the pastoral and psychological effect of splitting people up at this incredibly sensitive time in their lives. We are reviewing it and we very much hope to make some progress.
My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government will publish the science behind the decision not to test teachers and education staff—I congratulate them on being back at work—routinely and regularly, bearing in mind that there have already been school closures due to outbreaks? Is it a matter of science or of testing capacity?
My Lords, the regulations are not in place at the moment to test the millions of teachers and other important workers who are returning to the workplace on a regular basis. We have neither the science nor the capacity to do so, but we are reviewing this and looking at ways of using testing to restore confidence and enable a return to workplaces or other situations where social distancing is more challenging.
My Lords, I encourage the Government to be completely open with the data and research regarding this epidemic and to put it all on the GOV.UK website. When we opened up the data on BSE, the problem was solved within two weeks by researchers who were outside of government. When Ofqual refused to open up on its algorithm, it resulted in our recent troubles and disasters. Being open with data results in much more criticism, but that criticism is much better directed. And it makes it much easier for people like me to accurately defend government policy.
I completely agree with the sentiments shared by my noble friend. Transparency has the effect of sunlight, putting a spotlight on information. It helps those who wish to contribute to make their efforts felt. We have embraced transparency: I cite the example of SAGE, where the minutes of its meetings and the data it works on are routinely published. I completely endorse my noble friend’s comments.
My Lords, given that there have been hardly any tests available to Londoners for at least the last four days, and probably much longer, can the Minister say what belief we should have in the statistics for the prevalence of the virus in the country, and in particular in London? Furthermore, the Health Secretary—when he was not blaming the public for the shortage of available tests—did admit that there were problems with a couple of contracts. Could the Minister explain what those problems are and why, according to the Health Secretary, it will take a couple of weeks to sort them out?
My Lords, the statistics on prevalence are provided by the ONS. They were published yesterday and today—both the ONS and REACT figures. I would be happy to share links to those publications with my noble friend. Regarding the troubled contracts, I do not know the quotation to which she alludes but if she would like to correspond with me, I would be glad to try to figure it out.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid proceeding of the House will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing; others are participating virtually, but all Members are treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020
Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/632).
Special attention drawn to the instrument by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 21st Report.
My Lords, I move this Motion because these regulations contain important policy matters that make significant changes in planning law, as outlined in the report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member. These would otherwise not be discussed by this House. Admittedly, we had a debate under the affirmative procedure on the fees regime for these planning law changes, but as Members who participated will know, it was the substance of these regulations that was the principal concern of the House. Before addressing the policy changes themselves, I shall spend a few moments examining the parliamentary process which has led to this debate.
First, these regulations are being brought in under the “Coronavirus” heading: two completely separate matters are addressed by these regulations and only one is related to the coronavirus pandemic. The part of the legislation covering the building of additional storeys is both permanent and totally unrelated to the present pandemic, so it is quite legitimate to ask the Minister to explain why this planning law change is misrepresented as a response to the coronavirus health issue. Secondly, as our previous debate on the fees issue demonstrated, significant policy changes are being proposed through the weakest form of parliamentary scrutiny that exists. This is a perfect example of a major policy change being side-slipped through Parliament, first, under the cover of a response to the coronavirus crisis and, secondly, by the use of the negative procedure.
There are further changes coming down the line in the form of a suite of negative procedure regulations that also make big policy changes to planning law. I find this all the more surprising when the Government are proposing new primary legislation on planning law, which would be the ideal and wholly appropriate vehicle for consideration of these changes and would have had the value of full parliamentary scrutiny, undoubtedly leading to better legislation. As it is, the Government are giving the public a set of hand-me-downs one piece at a time, with no possibility of developing a cohesive policy. Why are the Government doing it this way? I look forward to a full explanation from the Minister.
I turn to the policy intent itself. The permanent change to planning law allows up to two additional storeys to be constructed on existing, purpose-built blocks of flats of three storeys or more built between 1 July 1948 and 5 March 2018, up to a total height of 30 metres. When the Government consulted on these proposals, the majority of responses were opposed. The opposition fell into a number of areas but, broadly, they were the lack of local accountability, the quality of the homes in the new storeys, access issues and the impact on residents and neighbours. Of course, upward development should be possible, but only with the essential proper protections for the existing community. These regulations introduce a new and permanent permitted development right that removes much of the protection for those communities.
The process of consultation proposed is a shadow of what currently exists. The expedited approval process may be suitable for considering home extensions, but the building upwards of new floors on domestic buildings are major schemes with large community impact. While prior approval notice is to be served on owners and tenants, within a very tight timetable, all comments received are to be considered only if they relate to the dual issues of amenity and external appearance. For example, will the council be able to consider the means of egress from the building? Is the lift core of sufficient size for the increased number of residents? What about negative effects on the service charges levied on owners? Then, of course, there is the quality of build issue—the materials to be used and the match to the existing homes. It seems to me that the number of new homes delivered by this mechanism will not be great, and certainly not the 800 a year anticipated by the legislation.
A three-storey property extended up to five would require a lift. If one is not present in the existing building, it would mean the construction of one external to the building. An existing lift in a building with five floors may not be a suitable lift for seven floors. Consider the protection provided for existing residents in these blocks. The developer will be required to produce a report on how they intend to minimise disruption; a report not subject to any checks will be produced by the developer. Anyone who knows this business will know that significant disruption is inevitable. The roof covering will need to be removed and the remaining roof area made temporarily waterproof before any construction can take place. It is difficult to see how this can be done without erecting scaffolding around the whole building for a considerable period, during which existing residents will suffer a major loss of amenity as a result.
Residents will turn to their council and their councillors to express their concerns, and they will find them powerless. Our planning system is constructed on a system of checks and balances, on local people and their councils providing the fair play our communities need. I would be very surprised if developers using this legislation did not meet substantial local opposition, meaning much more work for the local authority but without the power to provide any solutions. The light-touch planning requirements in these regulations offer very little succour to residents and neighbours, who will now find their ability to voice their interests and concerns severely limited.
These proposals indicate a Government making a dramatic shift away from strong and caring communities, with local councils as their facilitators, towards the aspirations of developers and a distant Government. It is through local councils’ transparent process of planning and regulations that the public can make their concerns heard. It is only through this process that elected councillors can make recommendations and insert conditions that ensure the protection of those affected and pay respect to the principle of community cohesion.
The Minister, in responding to the previous debate, called these regulations “gentle densification”. Well, the Government have got it wrong—they are anything but gentle. With the opportunity of the new planning regulations and the new planning law which the Government are providing, it would be wholly appropriate for the Government to take these regulations away, give them a comprehensive rethink and bring suggestions for any changes back in the primary legislation, where they could be properly debated.
My Lords, I have a Motion to Regret the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord German. The regulations before the House today are indicative of the Government’s approach to planning; indeed, they are indicative of the Government themselves. They are another example of incompetence after a summer littered with U-turns. I begin by reminding the House of when these proposals first emerged. It was Thursday 12 March, and the impending crisis of Covid-19 was unfolding. It was on that day that the Chief Medical Officer first raised the risk from “moderate” to “high”. Public Health England announced that it would stop performing contact tracing, as it could not cope with the number of infections. As a result, the FTSE 100 plunged by more than 10%, the biggest drop since 1987.
It was on that day, at a key point—coincidentally, I am sure—during the unfolding crisis that the Communities Secretary informed the Speaker that he would make a Statement in the Commons. Perhaps he would be updating the House on the important role of local government in what had now been declared a pandemic. Perhaps the ministry would support the most vulnerable, who would soon be subject to self-isolation. No, on both counts.
On that day, the Communities Secretary announced that blocks of flats could add an additional two storeys without planning permission. Fast-forward six months, and while the Government should have spent the summer preparing for autumn and winter, they have spent it lurching from crisis to crisis, with not a government resignation in sight. The Secretary of State’s pet project —to transform the skylines of suburbia—is still being pushed through. All the while, the High Court awaits a hearing for claim of judicial review to block the move and local communities and local councils across the country are livid at the prospect. Yet for reasons unknown, this House is today still being asked to consider the implementation of these regulations.
I need not go through every issue with allowing developers to build upwards without consent, as this House has already well illustrated the flaws. I am sure that grass-roots campaigners behind the legal challenge will also do so. However, I firmly believe that, at the very least, we should make two preconditions for all residential developments: first, they should afford the resident a fit and proper place to call home; and, secondly, they should respect both the natural and human environments that exist around them. It is abundantly clear that new upward developments will not ensure either of these.
We have already heard concerns that these new homes will be cramped, undersized and at times poorly built. Surely many, if not most, will be unaffordable, since there will be no screening of the new spaces and no requirement for homes to meet Section 106 duties. Both the Minister and I are former council leaders, and I am sure he will agree with me that Section 106 funding plays a vital role in providing important community facilities that councils could not otherwise afford—particularly after a decade of austerity and underfunding of local government. There can be no doubt that new developments will impact the quality of nearby homes and communities, either by poor design or by the blocking of light.
Of course, there is more to these regulations than a new right to build additional storeys. As a result of this instrument, permitted development rights are also extended to allow for markets and motorsport events to take place more frequently without permission. I have no qualms with the Government supporting outdoor events, and they are right to explore ways of doing so. However, will the Minister explain why this measure has been lumped into this instrument, rather than including it in the Business and Planning Act? Surely that would have been a more appropriate setting for the House to consider the merits of this provision. There are also further provisions which make minor changes to compensation liability, as well as to the length of time for which land can be used temporarily. I would be grateful for clarification as to if, and how, the Government worked with local authorities on the drafting of these provisions.
I hope I have made it clear that the provisions of these regulations in relation to upward developments and the omission of Section 106 contributions do not have the support of our party. We will not vote against them today but will instead await their consideration by the Commons and the judgment of the High Court. I urge the Government to look for ways of restraining developers’ profits, so that opportunist developers have less ability to make life worse for our communities. If we have learned anything from the past six months, surely those of us in public service should be striving to make things better for the people of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I support the instrument to create two new PDRs, which will help businesses reopen following the lifting of certain coronavirus restrictions.
As a former leader of a local authority with a busy planning department, I know how important it is for decisions to be made as quickly and transparently as possible in order to aid a vibrant commercial sector, to create new business opportunities, to deliver those much needed jobs, and to reduce bureaucracy and cost in the planning system.
In the context of the Government’s post-coronavirus economic renewal package, I welcome that the regulations will enable local authorities and developers to speed up agreements for functions to be held either on behalf of local authorities or developers for an unlimited number of days to allow development. The regulations are time limited until March 2021 and sit alongside measures to support businesses reopening quickly following the relaxation of previous restrictions. Permitted development rights also have an important role to play. They can provide developers with a greater level of certainty, within specific planning controls and limitation measures, which will incentivise and speed up housing delivery.
As we have heard, the permitted development rights allow for existing purpose-built detached blocks of flats of three storeys or more to extend upwards to create new two-storey self-contained homes, while respecting the nature of the area. In some instances, creating new homes from derelict properties in urban centres can bring multiple benefits. They can help kick-start affordable homes, breathe new life into those areas and enhance the reform of our high streets.
It is important to note that the right requires prior approval in respect of the provision of natural light in all habitable rooms. Local authorities can refuse prior approval applications where there is inadequate natural light.
It is critical that we build faster, making use of available brownfield sites and supporting all our communities—both urban and rural—across the UK. I support the instrument.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for initiating this debate. I am grateful to the Minister for his time on Monday, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I declare my property interests, as set out in the register.
As we have already heard, PDR is a complex subject which is not easily understood. It was conceived to bring back into use otherwise redundant office buildings, thereby reducing blight and increasing the housing stock. To do so quickly, it bypassed the planning process. As with many short cuts, it came at a price—a price which planning officers and their departments could do nothing about.
Reports written over the past two years or so by the RICS, by architects Levitt Bernstein, and by Shelter have illustrated a lot of the problems. In short, the provision of some of the worst housing seen in Britain for decades came through PDR mark 1—if that is the right way to describe it: crushingly small flats lacking adequate daylight, with windows out of position for suitable residential use, designed to squeeze the maximum number of bed-sits into a given floor area, cramming in as many rent payers as possible with little regard for the quality of life, mental health or general well-being of the people there. The image of a modern Rachman comes to mind. Let us avoid these well-documented mistakes; it is never too late. As we have heard, the forthcoming business and planning legislation is certainly the right place to deal with this.
The rights of leaseholders have also been touched on. I am not going to dwell on these, though I think others will. However, with additional floors added to occupied properties, there will be nuisance, breach of quiet enjoyment, issues of adequacy of lifts and services, and future service charge issues. Many landlords will negotiate with their tenants—they are the responsible ones. Others will not. It is likely to become a minefield of legislation and only a small percentage of tenants will be able to afford it. There is no regulation of landlords, no minimum standards and no best practice of building management. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, mentioned Section 106 agreements. Local authorities do not even get those, though they do have a greater involvement than with PDR mark 1. There is no contribution from developers, notwithstanding the super profits handed to them by government through this arrangement.
Finally, this PDR will lead to further abuses, if not checked now. It is important to learn the lessons from PDR mark 1. This proposal may add a few flats to the housing stock, but potentially at a great social cost.
My Lords, I very much support the two eloquent opening speeches from my noble friend Lord German and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, which set out why this proposal is what, in my vernacular way, I would call silly nonsense.
First, it will not have a major impact on the number of houses built or kick-start the economy; it will simply cause a lot of difficulty and nuisance in a few places. I declare my interest as a member of Pendle Borough Council and of a planning committee. I cannot think of a single property in the whole borough of Pendle to which this would apply, so I am not talking about problems in our area.
The Government do not understand just how much pressure local authorities and planning departments are under at the moment. Covid and the cuts in local government spending have reduced many planning departments to a skeleton of what they used to be. Frankly, the new complicated proposals being introduced, such as this, will in practice not be very different from an ordinary planning application.
The Government say that this is a quick way and will be quicker, but the actual work required to deal with one of these applications will require consultation with residents and with statutory bodies—notably, in the case of districts, the highways authority, which will be the county council—and consideration of design and amenity. Highways design and amenity are just about the most important things people get worked up about when there are medium and relatively small developments of this nature being proposed. That it will somehow be much easier and simpler for planning departments is simply not the case.
The other problem is that it is yet another example of the Government micromanaging planning at a national level when planning is really about local communities and places. It is different everywhere. The idea that you can simply impose national rules like this without consideration of the importance they will have in a particular locality is quite wrong.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for introducing this debate—and for the way he introduced it—and to the Minister for the time he gave some of us on Monday to express our concerns. He will therefore anticipate much of what I will say.
The Minister made it clear in that meeting that the purpose of this instrument is essentially to help the Government meet their housing targets. I completely appreciate that but, as he will know, I do not think this is the way to do it. In fact, I do not think it will help very much; it will make a marginal difference, as we have heard—possibly 800 homes a year, but probably far less. Of course, none of them will be affordable because it is permitted development.
This SI will guarantee uncontrolled profits for developers who are looking around at the scale of building in the centre of London, for example, thinking “I want some of the action” and taking opportunities to do just that. It will also damage the prospects and well- being of residents of existing residential blocks of flats who in different ways will be put at serious risk by this.
The impact statement reflects the imbalance in interests expressed. It reveals the scale of profit potential for developers, which has been estimated by the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership—which is very authoritative—to be between £20 billion and £40 billion. However, it is silent on the costs to the well-being and safety of residents, tenants and leaseholders from these massive interventions to existing buildings. It is also silent on the prospect of huge increases in the cost of enfranchisement, which will follow from the uplift in the value of a freehold. In this case, this policy absolutely cuts against what the Ministry of Justice wants, which is essentially a much simpler, more accessible and cheaper form of enfranchisement.
When launching the policy, the Secretary of State was, like other Ministers, silent on this point too. All he referred to was the opportunity for individual families and homes to add a storey. Yes, the policy is presented as one of gentle densification; there is nothing gentle about the impact on residents. I must declare an interest as a resident of a block of flats in London which is already threatened with such an upward extension. We have not been consulted; we do not want it; it is unpredictable and problematic in terms of buildability, safety and loss of amenity. We may well be faced with a choice between living in a building site—ceilings coming down and holes in the walls—or evacuating, and there is no compensation for the loss of peaceful enjoyment.
There will be resort to law, but only for people who can afford it. The Government knew from the start that this was an unpopular policy, as the noble Lord, Lord German, explained, and many of the issues raised were completely ignored. I suspect the Minister is discomforted by what he has inherited here; will he consider whether anything more can be done to protect residents by way of the planning Bill coming down the track, or can he commit to an early review of the policy rather than waiting the normal five years? Will he also seize the opportunity presented by the Law Commission to accelerate the reforms in leaseholding and look for ways to restrain the colossal prospects of developers? It is an unfair, unbalanced and inefficient policy, but we have a chance to do something about it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I have enormous sympathy with the comments made so excellently by the noble Lord, Lord German, and others. However, I also have sympathy with the Government’s position on this SI. It is a mixture of temporary and permanent measures, which is a shame if it is badged as a coronavirus measure, which should not cover the permanent angle. Affordable housing should be introduced and increased across the country, but that can be addressed separately.
I share some of the concerns expressed by the Delegated Powers Committee on how neighbourhood concerns will be taken into account, but I am reassured that this must be subject to successful prior approval applications. Those applications must have adequate provision for natural light; they will check to make sure that they are not on hazardous sites and that there is no extra flooding risk; it must be built within three years; it will pay the community infrastructure levy. There are controls on this via that route.
I understand that there is significant concern, but, like my noble friend Lady Redfern, I think the Government have a point here, particularly on the issue of developers. Big profits for developers are principally stoked by actions of monetary policy, which have deliberately inflated asset prices across the economy as a policy objective for economic growth. Without additional development, how can we address the housing shortage? Of course affordable housing is required, but that will be necessary in addition to any of this. I do not believe it is possible to build the scale of housing that we need to redress the shortfall between supply and demand without some disruption somewhere.
Therefore, I think that these measures deserve our support overall. However, I have one question for my noble friend. If the existing building has a prior planning condition limit on, for example, the number of units or how far it can be extended, could the owner of that building now make a new application to override that historic limitation for permission to extend it under this new SI?
I also thank the Minister for giving his time generously this week in the meeting that has already been mentioned. I certainly appreciated it. I give my wholehearted support to the two opening speeches, which said it all.
The ability to add two storeys to a block of flats is already happening. It is happening in urban centres, it is certainly possible, and it is certainly lucrative, as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, outlined. Planning guidance issued over recent years has promoted greater densities, and developers have certainly not missed that trick. The Government believe this might yield 800 new homes a year—a very small contribution to the housing total for such an unpopular policy.
If this is already happening under a full planning permission, what is the Government’s rationale for bringing it into the permitted development regime at all? It is a serious question because under this updated PDR, most of the responsibilities for the local authority remain the same, including site notices and the length of the consultation period. Planners must also take into account certain aspects set down by government. To residents and the untrained eye, this looks, feels and acts like a planning application, yet it is not. Residents will not appreciate the difference.
What are the differences and why have the Government made them so? There is a lower planning fee, there are no internal space standards and no contribution to affordable housing. However, the most significant difference is that for a prior approval, what councils can and cannot consider is very tightly defined in statute. Government decides it knows best. That is in contrast to planning applications, where councillors and communities have their input about their place, in that full planning applications are determined in accordance with the council’s own development plan and with its locally adopted policies.
In short, under this PDR, the council has the same responsibilities but cannot apply policies that take into account the specifics of its place. It is the difference between building beautiful and having little choice but to approve whatever developers think they can get away with—and, regrettably, that happens. From the developer’s point of view, they are being relieved of having to match the space standards of the flats below—that is, creating substandard housing—they do not need to contribute to much-needed affordable housing, they pay a lower fee, and face much less council “interference” in the shape of local policies.
When such schemes are already being permitted while ensuring that standards are maintained and community benefit captured, can the Minister say why and for what developers are now being let off the hook and residents short-changed?
My Lords, ever since I entered public life when I was chairman of the housing committee of the London Borough of Islington and its leader, I have taken a specialist interest in housing. I sat for a new town, Northampton, for 23 and a half years, which was a good experience for the wide spectrum of housing, whether affordable, council housing or unoccupied, and since I lost my seat in 1997, I have been a non-executive director of Mansell, which builds extensively in London and is now part of Balfour Beatty. I therefore claim a little of experience here.
My noble friend on the Front Bench should be proud of what the Government have achieved, particularly in 2019. You have to go beyond the Blair period to see the scale of change that has happened. It is all very well for noble Members opposite to talk about council housing, and so on—just look at the figures achieved under the Blair and Brown Governments, and even under the coalition Government. I therefore say to my noble friend on the Front Bench: keep going. This is a useful addition. It is not that revolutionary; it is not hugely incremental, with a target of 800 per annum. But it helps. It may not be achieved, certainly in the first few years, but I suspect that when we look back on it, 8,000 in 10 years probably will be achieved, and that will be a useful addition to the housing market.
Of course there are concerns, and I share some of them. The construction has to be appropriate and has to be safe, particularly from fire. We know why—we know what has happened in not so recent times. I am not sure there is a definition of adequate natural light, but that is clearly an important dimension, as are detailed floor plans. I am also not sure why this excludes the pre-war blocks, because if you look at London and some of our other major cities and towns, some developments were of a lower scale and could easily take a couple more storeys.
I am reassured. I believe there has been good consultation—I read the whole document right the way through—and I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench, even if the official review is in five years, it would be helpful to the House and to those who take a particular interest in this market to have a review after three.
Finally, it is all very well for the Opposition to state that seemingly all property developers are rogues. They are not—they do a good job. I look forward to seeing this thing on the statute book so that we can get the contractors and developers cracking.
My Lords, sitting in an office in London dreaming up flexibility to the planning laws to encourage more housing sounds a good use of time. I know; I have done it myself as Planning Minister. I just want to give a cautionary tale. It comes from my former constituency and concerns the Westminster Road area of west Handsworth in Birmingham.
Some 20 years ago, when I left the Commons, the private rented sector in Birmingham accounted for some 10% of households. By 2018, it was 33% and growing. An area that was saved in the 1970s and 1980s by the urban renewal programme of half a dozen streets in Handsworth, half a mile from the Commonwealth Games village has gone backwards to the 1960s, according to residents. The successor to the specially formed housing association in the 1970s, which did much to enhance and improve the housing, is pulling out. Midland Heart housing association has no heart in Handsworth. The door has been opened up for a new breed of landlords to buy up the larger properties, either for HMO use or the more lucrative supported housing.
Recently, a for sale notice by agents Bairstow Eves stated, “For sale: potential 17 bedrooms”—a clear signal for exploitation. Across the area, landlords are converting garages, outhouses and even sheds into what are cynically called bungalows. For example, signs appear on the front walls of houses stating “Bungalow 6A and 6B at rear”. At 61 Westminster Road, a house converted into an HMO some years ago, providing 11 units, the landlord recently converted four garages in the back yard into living accommodation, with a secure fence to hide what had happened. There is evidence that residents of these dwellings are told to dump their rubbish in black bags on the opposite side of the road.
No. 229 Church Hill Road was a large family house. Used as business premises, it is now applying to be an HMO by claiming it was a “hostel”. No. 22 Livingstone Road, a former family home, has been converted in three social rented flats. Midland Heart cleared the tenants out and sold it at auction in Liverpool for £260,000 on the basis that it would generate an income of £18,000 a year. The new owner maintains that it is still flats, but locals see it run as an HMO, and just two of the tenants are generating over £27,000 per annum.
The HMO Action Group in Handsworth describes it as a “community under siege”. This is a cautionary tale. It ought to be taken note of.
Since the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was unable to join us at the beginning of this debate, I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my property interests, as in the register. I understand the laudable reasoning behind the first of the regulations. The permitted development right to hold a market and temporary use of land seem eminently sensible, given that it is recognised that events held outside are less likely, if properly supervised, to allow spread of the virus. I also understand that this is time limited, which seems appropriate. I would welcome clarification that that is indeed the case.
However, I have some concerns about the permanent permitted development right to allow additional storeys to be constructed on existing blocks of flats to create new homes. Many of these have been expressed in earlier speeches. Of course, anything that can be done to increase the number of new homes available, especially affordable ones, is welcome—but not at any cost. There must, as has been mentioned, be appropriate safeguards. I ask the Minister whether there is going to be any control of the design and visual impact of those potential new storeys. Perhaps even more importantly, what control will there be to ensure proper safety and access?
Presumably there will be issues for any existing occupiers of flats where storeys are being added. I understand that there will be no opportunity for their comments to be taken into consideration, although I hope that I am incorrect on that point. I wonder whether there will be any assessment after a period—for example two years, rather than five—to judge whether this has been a success, and whether further tweaking of the regulations, or, indeed, their removal, will be required.
Having made these few comments, I hope that I will receive some comfort from my noble friend that my fears are unfounded. But I am sad to say that I have a bad feeling that this is all going to end in tears. I hope that I am wrong.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate, and I welcome the opening speeches by the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport. For me, this statutory instrument represents an infringement of the rights of communities to their natural environmental space. It is a major change in planning policy, which really belongs in primary legislation. In that respect, I have several questions for the Minister.
The noble Lord, Lord German, has already elaborated on his committee’s report. What consideration did the Government, and the Minister, give to the requirement for possible financial assistance for the provision of affordable housing, and the whole area of developer contributions? I recognise the need to uplift the economy, but why is there a need to underpin developers at the expense of communities and their housing needs? Why allow relaxed planning regulations in the guise of permitted development rights?
What consideration was given to other environmental matters, including landscape issues, and to the resilience of existing buildings in accommodating such top-floor extensions? How will the technical resilience of buildings be assessed and measured, particularly if the existing buildings are in low-lying areas? What consideration was given to the impact on the local environmental amenity and the needs of existing dwellers? Sometimes existing dwellers do not like this densification, or gentrification, as it is sometimes called. What consideration was given to prevailing public planning policy on development matters? Having had a cursory look at the measures, I would say, very little. I regret that the Government have not given that greater emphasis. Given the history of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, was any consideration given to the need to impose the requirement that materials in such extensions should put safety first, and be resistant to fire damage?
Finally, can the Minister outline why the Government have deviated, or want to deviate, from the developer contribution that has been central to affordable and social housing public policy for many years? As a former Minister for housing in Northern Ireland, I encouraged it, because it provided much-needed affordable housing and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, much-needed community development in local areas.
My Lords, there is an old saying, “Always plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark. A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow”. Housing has always been a barometer of a nation’s well-being. It is a practical sign of whether people are at the centre of a Government’s policies. Clearly, we need to stimulate regeneration of our towns and cities. The economy has to start moving again after months of lockdown in response to Covid. Furthermore, additional homes need to be provided more easily and with less delay.
I recall, when I was a barrister and district councillor, being involved in planning applications which were too often frustrated by red tape. Ironically, the original symbolic meaning of red ribbon and red tape in the Bible was that of faith and hope. In modern times we have turned that symbol on its head, to signify the opposite.
I have some practical questions about the PDR for the Minister. Would any utilities—for example electricity meters and water tanks—located at the top of buildings need to be moved? If so, how will this be achieved? How will complex building works be carried out with individuals remaining in residence on the lower floors? What evidence would need to be submitted to the local authority as part of the prior approval process? Is this likely to result in higher fees being levied for applications for prior approval?
The Government have admitted that more than half of respondents did not support that proposal. There were four main concerns. First, there was the lack of public consultation, then there was the potential poor quality of the homes. There were also problems with access and safety, and the potential negative impact on others nearby. In response, the Government have promised that they will
“continue to engage with interested parties on the technical details”.
What does that mean in practical terms?
In September last year there were 216,000 long-term empty homes in England, which is more than 72% of the Government’s annual new homes target. Meanwhile there are more than 1 million families stuck on local authority waiting lists for social housing. In January this year there were almost 25,000 houses in London alone left unoccupied, the highest number since 2012. I am not against PDR in principle, but what are the Government doing to address the wasted resource of thousands of empty flats and houses, which could provide accommodation for homeless families?
The initials PDR also stand for the management term “performance and development review”. That is an annual review of how well a project is doing. I hope that in one year’s time the initials PDR will also mean positive dynamic results.
My Lords, this instrument was laid before Parliament on 24 June 2020. It is already in force. It is subject to the negative procedure and will remain in law unless either House rejects it within 14 days, allowing for recess days, of its being laid. It is part of the Government’s economic renewal package in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The regulations apply to England only and have two purposes, one of which is a permanent PDR to allow two additional storeys to be constructed on existing blocks of flats, to create new homes. I spoke on this subject in this House on 29 July, and I reiterate that although the instrument is for building two additional storeys on existing blocks of flats, it must provide housing for low-income and first-time buyers.
Another issue has come to the forefront recently: the increasing number of homeless people—families who have been made homeless because of their inability to pay their rent. Can the Minister confirm that the instrument will give priority to homeless people and/or young first-time buyers?
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on moving his Motion and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on speaking to hers. It has been an extremely important debate.
The Minister is to be congratulated on the department doing much to ensure that housing is being brought forward. We have heard this week about £12 billion being brought forward for affordable housing, and that public land is being made available for more housing. This is a genuine need, and I do not want to stand in the way of necessary housing.
However, there is a process point here, which the noble Lord, Lord German, outlined: why is this legislation coupled with legislation relating to coronavirus measures? I certainly approve, as other noble Lords have indicated that they do, of the action on markets and outdoor events. That is quite appropriate; they relate to coronavirus. It is hard to see how this permanent measure—and it is permanent—relates to coronavirus. I look forward to hearing about that.
If, as I suspect, this should not have been coupled with coronavirus measures, the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, become very relevant. Should we look at an early review of this legislation or additional rights, for example, for leaseholders being brought forward in fresh legislation? I believe fresh legislation will be brought forward shortly. I look forward to hearing about that possibility, and I am sure the Minister will want to be constructive about what can be done there.
I wish to highlight some concerns, which I have mentioned before, about the rights of leaseholders and enfranchisement. There is a danger that they are being short-changed; they are not really considered in this legislation as they should be. This point was raised in the other place by the honourable Member Sir Peter Bottomley as well.
Moving from the rights of leaseholders to the housing itself, concerns have been raised about space standards and cramped space. This is particularly relevant post Covid. I also raise, in parenthesis, whether there will be a general move away from housing in flats to housing with gardens—there is already evidence of this happening—and away from and out of the large cities. The Minister may want to say something on this in general terms.
So I have some concerns. I am certainly not against permitted development rights, but I wonder: why this legislation? I think there are ways that these regulations could be ameliorated. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on those points.
My Lords, I had a great involvement with housing in London, particularly as a member of the Greater London Council. More recently, I spoke in favour of converting unused offices for residential use to reduce homelessness, particularly in London. Since then, assessments have indicated that some of these converted offices are too small to provide ideal accommodation because, although toilet facilities are usually available, there is often not enough space for a full bath or shower room. In view of the acute housing needs, can more suitable use be made of these potential home spaces? Will the Minister ensure that it should be a legal recommendation that any conversions or extensions under the regulations will meet, or exceed, appropriate living standards for the 21st century?
It is good that the Government are working on so many new assessments and improvements, and the quality of new homes, as stressed by the noble Lord, Lord German, is of importance, without any doubt. I support the continuing attendance to this question as one of the many that face us today.
My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register, as a councillor in Kirklees and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I thank both my noble friend Lord German and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for raising these issues today, and for making such powerful cases for this permitted development right to be withdrawn—though I am not holding my breath. They were not alone; their view has been supported by several noble Lords and this matter is the subject of a judicial review.
As a councillor, I know that issues about changes to the built environment are very much a concern of local residents. The current, locally based planning system enables residents and councillors to voice the immediate impacts and consequences of alterations to buildings. Of course, small additions or alterations that comply with current standards do not have to be considered publicly. The issue, and the subject of this debate, is where to draw that line.
I contend that extending permitted development rights permanently, via this back-door process, to allow two further storeys on blocks of flats that are already of three storeys or more, breaks that balance of development rights and resident and neighbourhood rights. This is what is at stake, with the gradual erosion, by this Government, of the rights of local people to have their voice heard.
One of the drivers for the original Town and Country Planning Act was to provide a process whereby standards for individual buildings and design that benefited whole neighbourhoods could be agreed and set. One of the purposes was to ensure decent, habitable standards in new houses following slum clearances. What is absolutely shocking to read in this SI are the regulations to ensure that new properties have
“adequate natural light in all habitable rooms”.
That should have been a given, and this demonstrates the need for planning oversight of new builds and conversions.
Many significant criticisms have been raised today. The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, made a strong case against what he called “PDR mark 1”, for constructing very poor-quality flats from office conversions, and hoped that PDR 2 would not replicate the failings. We need answers from the Minister: how are existing residents to be protected during construction? There is also the crucial challenge of learning lessons from the Grenfell tragedy—of the need to provide safe exits in case of fire or other major incidents. How will the recommendations from phase 1 of the inquiry be put into practice so that safety really does come first?
The impact assessment published with the SI states that the Government aim to make better use of land by building upwards—this is not an issue in itself. The only reason given for this permitted development right is that planning permission
“includes costs and can take time.”
Actually, so it should. Raising a block of flats by two storeys may have a very significant impact on residents and communities; they should be subject to proper, transparent and public decision-making. Unfortunately, some noble Lords believe that bypassing the planning process ensures more housebuilding. This is simply not the case. The LGA estimates that nearly 1 million homes have planning consent but have not been built.
As my noble friend Lord Greaves rightly said, this is an example of the Government trying to micromanage planning while ignoring local people—and all this to achieve perhaps 800 new properties a year. My noble friend Lady Thornhill pointed out that this PDR now looks just like a planning application, with the exception that space standards can be ignored, to the detriment of the residents. As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has said, there are major issues to consider about freehold and leasehold that have not been addressed.
An early review has been proposed, and I hope the Minister will agree to this: none of us wants to be associated with creating new slum dwellings. What this all points to is the Government making lucrative gestures to their developer friends, and not to the needs of those in desperate need of housing. That is no way to build better.
My Lords, we have had an interesting, in-depth and wide-ranging debate on the Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020. I thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for their contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for tabling the Motions and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its report drawing the regulations to the House’s attention. I would like to take the opportunity to provide some further detail on the points raised by noble Lords in this debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised consultation with local authorities. We undertook public consultation on building upwards, which included local authorities. Other temporary measures were brought forward at pace to give flexibility to local authorities to hold outdoor events. The noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, the noble Lord, Lord German, and my noble friend Lord Bourne asked why these planning measures were grouped with other coronavirus measures to kick-start the economy. This is to keep both sets of measures in one instrument; it is important to make the most efficient use of the instrument. It is possible to use an instrument to amend more than one order, which is why the compensation regulations were also amended. The noble Lord, Lord German, also queried the vehicle’s use in respect of permitted development orders. Negative procedure orders are the only way to amend the general permitted development order, as I understand it.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the issue of community engagement being affected by this approach to planning. The permitted development right for building upwards on existing blocks of flats is subject to prior approval by the local planning authority. This allows the consideration of key planning matters. Among other matters, they can consider the external appearance of the building and the development’s impact on the amenities of the existing building and neighbouring premises, which includes overlooking privacy and the loss of light. There is no deemed consent and these planning issues can be raised. The local authority is required to consult with adjoining owners or occupiers of the land adjoining the site.
The noble Lord, Lord German, and my noble friend Lord Randall both raised the issue of egress. New permitted development rights to extend existing buildings upwards allow engineering operations to construct the additional stories and safe access to, and egress from, the new homes. Both the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the issue of disruption to occupiers and neighbours. We are aware that development can have an impact on both occupiers and neighbours, and that might occur during the construction of additional homes by building upwards. To ensure that this is considered before work commences, a developer has to prepare a report setting out the proposed hours of operation and how they intend to minimise any adverse impact of noise, dust, vibration and traffic movements during the building works on occupiers of the building and neighbouring premises.
The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, and my noble friend Lady Gardner both made the point that this does not address the problem of homelessness. A number of noble Lords—including the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Wilcox—mentioned that this does not specifically contribute to the provision of affordable housing. It is true that the permitted developments do not require affordable housing provision and do not tackle homelessness. However, I point out that where additional floor space is created through the right, and the local authority has a charging schedule in place, a community infrastructure levy might be payable. In addition, registered providers or local authorities can use the right to extend their blocks to provide more affordable and social housing.
The quality of homes was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Redfern, and the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow. All homes built under permitted development rights are required to meet building regulations. In addition, such developments must conform with any conditions required by the prior approval. We have introduced a new requirement that homes delivered under this and other permitted development rights must have adequate natural lighting in all habitable rooms. This issue was raised by a number of noble Lords in the debate. We expect that the developers will want to bring forward homes that are of good quality and marketable.
My noble friend Lord Bourne raised the issue of space standards. It is a government priority to see new homes brought forward, and we think that developers are best placed to assess the type and size of homes best suited to the local market. We know that some well-designed new homes delivered through both planning applications and permitted development rights are smaller than the voluntary space standards. We do not wish to place stricter requirements on homes delivered through permitted development than through planning applications. I should also point out that smaller properties can be less expensive to buy, opening up home ownership to more people.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, raised the issue of HMOs. Homes delivered under these rights cannot be used as houses in multiple occupation. Local authorities have the power of enforcement if there is a breach of planning laws.
My noble friend Lord Bourne, the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, all mentioned the impact on leaseholders, potentially adding to enfranchisement costs. Freeholders will have to comply with the terms of any lease in taking forward proposals to extend the building upwards. The Law Commission’s report on enfranchisement valuation, recently published, includes an option for leaseholders to elect to take a restriction on future development of the property. This would have the effect of reducing the price otherwise payable when a leaseholder or group of leaseholders purchase the freehold. We are considering the detail of the Law Commission’s proposals and will make an announcement in due course.
My noble friend Lady Altmann raised the issue of prior limits on total units. You can apply to vary the conditions of a planning application. National permitted development rights do not remove existing conditions placed on a granted planning permission. My noble friend Lord Taylor raised the issue of utilities, among other issues. The right allows for the moving of existing plant—for example, the water tank or air conditioning units on the roofs of buildings.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the very important issue of building safety. As the building safety Minister, this is obviously something I consider to be of the utmost importance. Ensuring that buildings are safe remains a priority for this Government. Whether homes are brought forward through a planning application or through a permitted development right, they are required to meet fire and other building safety requirements. The new permitted development right to extend existing buildings upwards allows the engineering operations to construct the additional storeys and the safe access to, and egress from, the new homes. In the interests of time, I will write to my noble friend Lord Randall on some of the issues he raised, such as the time limitation and local authority markets.
The purpose of the regulations is to enable businesses to continue to operate safely during the coronavirus outbreak and to support housing delivery and economic recovery. Together with further statutory instruments laid in July, they form a package of measures to speed up and simplify the planning process to create new homes on existing blocks of flats and help businesses to continue to operate safely and to respond quickly to changes in how communities use their high streets.
The regulations we have considered today introduce a new permitted development right which allows the upward extension of detached purpose-built blocks of flats for the construction of new dwelling houses. This builds on national planning policy to boost density without the need to build on greenfield sites. Permitted development rights make an important contribution to housing delivery, helping us to meet our plans for 300,000 new homes per year. These rights have brought forward schemes that might not otherwise have come forward.
In conclusion, delivering new homes is a key priority for this Government. These regulations are an important tool to help drive up delivery by simplifying and speeding up the planning system. They also form part of our response to help businesses operate during the coronavirus outbreak. Having introduced a new category of permitted development right to construct new dwelling houses, we are keen to ensure that the rights are operating effectively, so I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, that we will be keeping their implementation under review and monitoring the impact. In the words of my noble friend Lord Naseby, this is a useful addition.
These permitted development rights make effective use of existing residential buildings and gently boost density. They avoid the need for sprawling greenfield development by focusing on existing residential locations and areas more likely to have access to public transport. The rights respect the appearance of the existing streetscape while ensuring that the amenity of neighbours is considered through prior approval considerations.